October 17, 2015 § Leave a comment
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” Jesus, Matthew 5:7
I recently had the privilege of visiting with the Senior Vice President of World Relief’s North American operation. World Relief is a global non-profit organization, based in Baltimore, and committed to caring for the weak and needy around the world, whether for orphans, for immigrants, for victims of natural disaster, or those lost in the horrors and brutality of human trafficking. Years ago, when our church in Miami planted a church in ‘Little Havana,’ the ‘landing place’ for many immigrants from Latin America, World Relief had an office where we started the work. That office remains today, and as you can imagine, has processed innumerable refugees through the years, offering legal advice, guidance for green cards, citizenship, etc.
At the heart of World Relief’s mission is the gospel’s call to the Church with the singular thrust that the strong have been made – by God – stewards of the weak. I am convinced that if the Church fails, all is lost. Every other system that attempts to care for the poor, the weak and the underprivileged has some underlining political agenda that eventually fails the very people they attempt to serve, and often lines the pockets and reputations of those who champion these causes.
World Relief’s Vision Statement is Stand/For The Vulnerable.
Last night Katherine and I shared a meal with a young couple that is committed to mentoring young people from Baltimore’s Inner City whose lives are racked with heartache, brokenness and poverty. They give what they can: safe harbor, school clothing and supplies – and love. They stand for the vulnerable.
This morning I ran into one of our Members (okay it was at Dunkin Donuts – what can I say?). He leads a team that regularly meets with folks at New Song Church in Sandtown, the neighborhood ravaged by fire and riots earlier this year. New Song drives the agenda, but together they are working through ideas to generate commerce in the neighborhood so that the dollar will remain there, and hopefully begin to break the pattern of violence, hopelessness and sorrow that most of us in the burbs can’t fathom possible. They stand for the vulnerable.
We have a friend in Miami who, when she and her family attended a downtown church, for years, drove an hour away from her home, to the slums of Little Haiti, to bring children to church and later that week to Youth Group. In between she and her husband kept in touch, provided for needs and loved well. They stood for the vulnerable.
‘Blessed are the Merciful,’ was Jesus version of, ‘Blessed are they who stand for the vulnerable.’ Every word, action and encounter exemplified this during His ministry, all the way to the Cross, where He died for us – the vulnerable.
Who more than Christians, know the relief of being forgiven a debt one could never repay?
We have been given much – in order to be to the world what Christ has been to us. It really is that simple. And when those we serve feel our touch, it will be as though they have encountered Jesus Himself.
What good, hopeful news…
September 19, 2015 § 1 Comment
C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces
I thought it good to reenter into the blogosphere by way of confession, so pardon the meandering – there really is a point.
First the ridiculous. You need to know that I have this propensity to find what I like and then hold on to it – like forever, whether a pair of shoes, a style of pants, or a shirt (our Congregation will tell you that I only wear one shirt on Sunday mornings!). My guess is that it is born of tons of insecurity, control and pride, but it is the way it is. For instance, I have worn the same style of top siders for about ten years, and normally I have a backup pair – in the box for when the initial pair ‘dies.’ When that backup is gone and there is no other and the shoes are unattainable (because in a sane universe things go out of style), it unnerves me and sends me on a twisted journey to find its replacement (which I would prefer not to have to do – thus the backup!).
Hey, I warned you. Ridiculous, right?
When we moved to the Baltimore region nearly ten years ago I thought my life was over. It wasn’t because the people we left hated us or the people we came to were other than welcoming. It was because I held on to the idea of living in my hometown for life (yes, idolatry). But somewhere in that delusion, God stirred our hearts to move. How could He do this and still love me? It was the most disruptive, confusing and dislodging time of my life, and our lives. But the Father’s leading was unmistakable. He wanted us here. And we have since discovered that it was out of love that He did.
Baltimore has become home and we are blessed.
If you read Joseph’s story, you will find that ‘the Lord was with Him,’ and prospered him in Egypt, even when as slave, and later when imprisoned on false charges (chapter 39). He continued to thrive and care for people.
I have come to realize that most of us live out of unholy trajectories for how our lives should unfold. If we become slaves to these trajectories, then well, we are just that – slaves. In this pattern regret becomes torturous, forgiveness seems impossible, and the present, intolerably joyless.
But we were redeemed to flourish, and if we buy into the fact that we have a Father who loves us, who sent His only Son on the most dangerous, yet redemptive journey of all – for us – then we have discovered something. We have discovered that our true trajectory is heaven and everything between now and there – is good.
Friends, the gospel is an adventure to be embraced…
June 6, 2015 § Leave a comment
“…there is something beautiful and concrete and well-proportioned about tending that size of a garden.” David Brooks, The Small, Happy Life
Yesterday a mural mosaic was dedicated in a barely-conspicuous outdoor neighborhood service. The mural is visible to all who walk by the New Song Academy. It was constructed by the children of the Academy, under the guidance of a group called, Art with a Heart, a group that works in the City of Baltimore and teaches vulnerable children and adults through creativity. What makes the mosaic special is that the Academy resides in Sandtown, the neighborhood that was the flashpoint for the Baltimore riots in April. I have written about it here.
In a NYT OP-ED piece, David Brooks reported surprise at how many people responded to a survey, with the desire for what he termed, ‘the small, happy life,’ as opposed to what might seem to be more ambitious pursuits.
When I was in sixth grade, our teacher, Mrs. Hill, became weary with a group of us troublemakers. We happened to live in an area that was booming in development, and so she decided to take us around the community collecting tile for the purpose of making a mosaic for our elementary school, which we did. Over a period of months we stayed after school as she brilliantly channeled our energy into creativity. Eventually the completed project was erected at Coral Reef Elementary, like the one at New Song Academy.
One day, in response to His disciples’ request to increase their faith (because they were thinking big!), Jesus replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you” (Luke 17:6). Contrary to the claims of train wreck preachers who promise the moon and deliver disappointment, Jesus was simply saying, ‘Start small, because that is where we are.’ Put another way, ‘Start where you are, and offer what you have rather than what you don’t have.’
A cursory study of history will bear this out, whether with those who harbored Jews during the Holocaust, or others who have accomplished amazing feats of bravery, rescue, influence and impact. And there is always that ‘small step’ and ‘giant leap’ for mankind. Never do you hear braggadocio. Time and again we are introduced to humble people who merely did what they could in the moment. In the moment, the small was enormous.
Way back in 1960-something I learned that a mosaic is nothing more than a well-orchestrated outlay of broken tiles. It doesn’t take much for those seemingly worthless, jagged and often-dirty shards to become something wildly beautiful – like a scene from the coral reef, or a vision of a healed city. Every piece matters, and no tile is too damaged, in the same way that one simple mosaic on one part of one wall on one building in one neighborhood in a broken community can be that tiny piece that offers hope for something lovelier.
And it is for this reason that in Jesus God became small. Because we are small. Yet because we are adored by the Father, we are not insignificant.
What good news…
May 2, 2015 § 1 Comment
“I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Letter From Birmingham Jail
If you live in or around Baltimore then you know firsthand how painful this past week has been. One cannot have lived here and not be affected. My heart goes out to friends near and far who are from Baltimore – their sadness is palpable.
I offer these words as a white guy who has lived in relative safety all his life, and knowing that those I have loved and known these five decades may disagree, and possibly even be angry. I also offer this knowing that I bring my own prejudices, predispositions and fears to the table.
It would be tempting to opine on the dynamics of the inner city, injustice and the future, but we who live in relative safety, are better served to keep our mouths shut and listen. We don’t have the answers. Wonks, politicians, news organizations and bloggers think they have the answers, but unless they have lived in the City, they don’t. At night we go home to our safe neighborhoods. We sleep in the assurance that when we awaken, our world will be as ordered and secure as it was when we went to bed. We aren’t there on the ground. We don’t know how good it is or how bad. We don’t know the desperation and the vicious, endless and often violent cycle of poverty, firsthand. We make assumptions and most of those assumptions are wrong.
It seems to me that answers from afar, criticism and finger pointing, are false versions of ‘care.’ They create within us the artificial self-assurance that we have connected, but that isn’t real at all. And we can postulate all we want on ‘fatherless America,’ and responsibility and the ‘American Way,’ but this helps nothing. It does exactly what those who spout these things want them to do – it keeps me away from you and ‘us’ from ‘them.’
So it is better to listen and observe. This past week some of us had the privilege of spending time with old and new friends in Sandtown. Sandtown is ‘ground zero’ for last week’s riots. You have read about this neighborhood in this blog. It is among the poorest in the country, but also one of the most beautiful. In spite of what you may assume or have read online or heard in the news, the residents of Sandtown are among the proudest of any neighborhood I have ever met. They love their community, and no amount of national sorrow can match the sadness they feel collectively when it suffers.
The picture above was taken at lunch after a morning of clean up (most had been done by the Sandtown residents when we arrived the morning after the riots). It is of two guys, one black and the other white – no distinction – work boots and jeans – people who locked arms for the sake of a healed neighborhood. ‘A cord of three strands is not quickly broken’ (Ecclesiastes 4:12).
Years ago I learned from a friend who led Miami’s rebuilding effort after Hurricane Andrew decimated it, that one can either sit around and point fingers and complain about problems and perpetrators, or they can see possibilities and the beauty of a healed City, and then work together towards that vision.
The scriptures are strewn with examples of people who lived in the hope of future joy. After all, isn’t this who we are? We are a people who live in the promise of what will one day be. And we serve a King who came and on our behalf saw that same future (Hebrews 12:1-2). He personally entered into places where weakness, oppression and sorrow prevailed, and by His care bore evidence of hope for a city of delight, and human flourishing.
Friends, beyond our advantages, fears and differences, it is not what we have, but whose we are and what will one day be ours…
This is our good news and the gospel’s sweet new song…
January 24, 2015 § 1 Comment
Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be
So here I am, jumping on the bandwagon, capitalizing on the New England Patriots’ latest scandal (it isn’t their first). This one involves the National Football League’s standard for game ball inflation. It has been determined that in the first half of last week’s AFC Championship Game against the professional football team from Indianapolis (you have to live in Baltimore to understand this designation), the Patriots had the advantage of underinflated footballs (I’ve never been so careful with wording), thus giving their Quarterback, Tom Brady, an edge in gripping the ball under adverse conditions (rain and ice).
To the uninformed, that is, to those who don’t give a rip about football, this is cheating – it is a violation of the rules of fair play.
All of which begs the question: So why did they do it? The Patriots’ organization is one of the most successful in professional sports history. Their Head Coach is the best in the NFL and perhaps ever, and their Quarterback one of the greatest to play the game.
Added to the mix in all this is that it had no bearing whatsoever on the outcome of the football game. New England won 45-7. In fact they scored more points in the second half when the balls were at regulation compression. Far and away, New England was the better team.
So why cheat?
Actually it is for the same reason that we cut corners, flirt with moral disaster, find ways to bend the rules and give in to temptation. In fact, now that I think about it, it is the reason I take some kind of twisted delight in the Patriots’ current woes.
The short answer is sin, but more to the point, from the moment Adam and Eve played off script and ate the forbidden fruit, our hunger to be God has been insatiable. We don’t just want to win, we want to rule. It isn’t so much about cheating, as it is our repulsion with being restrained by rules, limits, and in the end – by God.
Yet before Adam and Eve transgressed, they already had everything the serpent promised them. How sad.
If the Patriots win the Super Bowl (the NFL’s championship game), they will always carry with them the blemish of this scandal – and they didn’t need to. How deflating (oh come on, I had to take at least one shot!).
Fortunately, even though we can’t fix our condition, God has remedied it in the death and resurrection of Christ. This means that our response is not to press that natural bent to rule through overtly religious channels (we Christians may be the most contrived species on the planet), but to come clean and acknowledge weakness.
This simple admission will never make us perfect. It is the posture of children who remember that they are always safest and most valued, when they rest in the presence, love and delight of their Father.
What good, sweet news…
January 10, 2015 § Leave a comment
Years ago Katherine responded to something I offered by saying that there was ‘a more excellent way,’ which was her gracious way of saying that though I might have been right about something, being right was not enough. I have carried that with me.
We are in the aftermath of a bloody, violent siege in Paris. Lives were lost and a manhunt ensues (I hope they catch her and execute her). Just yesterday it was confirmed that as many as 2,000 people have been massacred in Nigeria in a Boko Haram killing spree. Three days ago a man in Florida threw his own daughter off the Sunshine State Bridge in the Tampa-St. Pete area. She died. My heart is grieved.
What scares me in all this is that amid the revulsion and sorrow I am prone to forget what I believe. I want to respond in rage because this is in my heart, and it is my right to feel it.
It happens subtly. The horrid expressions of the fall have a way of jarring us, and hatred tunnels into our sensibilities to the extent that we get lost in understandable outrage. Politicians don’t help. They bend over backwards to deny the obvious and only stoke the flames of anger to those who are not blind.
I forget what I believe because the pain, suffering and injustices are all so real, and because there is nothing we can do to fix what is broken. We can’t bring back the victims. And lost lives are not shattered lightbulbs we sweep away and replace with new ones. We can’t stop the violence. We can’t change governments and we can’t realign a global moral compass, much less our own!
But we have Jesus – and He is the ‘more excellent way.’ What I mean is that on some level my perspective, though fairly rational, isn’t the issue. The issue is that until heaven and earth are one, the world will always be broken, and because of this, no expression of civility, though eminintly appreciated, will ever be the trajectory upon which humankind moves. Our brokenness always eventually manifests itself in damaged expressions.
We just celebrated God’s coming into the world in the flesh – Jesus. Don’t let this be lost on you. In the Incarnation we have a God who, rather than blame or ignore, entered into the rage, filth, hatred and violence of our world. He bore it in death and left it in the Grave. It was the more excellent way. He is the more excellent way. Even on the Cross He forgave His executioners when it was His right to condemn them, and He demands that we surrender our right to outrage – to the law of love.
Truthfully? I don’t want to do it. But closer inspection reveals that this is exactly what Jesus has done for me.
Friends, this is our good news.
September 20, 2014 § Leave a comment
“The goal of human existence is that man should dwell at peace in all his relationships: with God, with himself, with his fellows, with nature, a peace which is not merely the absence of hostility, though certainly it is that, but a peace which at its highest is enjoyment.”
Nicholas Wolterstorff, REASON [within the Bounds of Religion]
If you haven’t seen the moving video entitled, Made in New York, produced recently by Gatorade honoring Derek Jeter, the retiring New York Yankee shortstop, then sit back and enjoy – it is a worthy watch.
If anything has distinguished Jeter’s career it is that he is a team player. While he is unquestionably an exceptional athlete, it is his commitment to the wellbeing of the team that separates him and others like him.
Hey, I’m no Yankees fan! But those who play for the team – those who care primarily for people other than themselves, they are the ones that transcend the lines of demarcation that normally separate people. I think this is because they tap into what we were created to enjoy with one another, and all creation, before the fall cursed the world with isolation. They embody the selfless expression that community demands in order for it to flourish. In a year filled with painful sports scandals, both on the professional and collegiate athletic levels, it is refreshing to say farewell to a pro that ‘got it.’
This is partly why I believe the Baltimore Orioles’ season has been special (other than winning the AL East Division Title!). They have survived disappointment and injury – as a team. Last Tuesday evening in Camden Yards (picture below) was magic, because team and city converged in joy. It is always about the team, and the people/city the team plays for.
I often don’t get this. In a culture and society that is so individualized, it is easy to get lost in doing my job: preparing my sermon, writing my blog, paying my bills, fixing my house, etc, that I forget the grander, sweeter communal life of love, friendship, fellowship and faith I have been called into.
We weren’t created to live for ourselves. And we are miserable when we do. In spite of the fact that our selfish instincts often prevail against the messy, inconvenience of relationship and sacrifice and self-abandonment, it is when our darkest wishes come true, and everything is in its perfect order just as we wanted it, and we are left to ourselves, that we are at our most miserable.
So God gives us simple expressions of self-abandonment in order that we may catch fresh glimpses of Jesus, who exchanged glory for shame, and honor for love, that we may rediscover that the Father’s great delight is most beautifully enjoyed when shared together… with the team.
What good news…
June 7, 2014 § Leave a comment
Rufio, ‘Lost Boy’ to Peter Pan in Hook
If you have ever simultaneously known exactly where you were, and at the same time were completely lost, then you understand how I felt the other day in downtown Baltimore. After parking, I began to walk in the direction of a hospital where one of our Members was recovering from surgery. However in spite of the fact that I was headed on the right street towards the building I knew to be two blocks away, at some point I realized that I had no idea where I was!
The buildings were so tall that I couldn’t see anything other than structures immediately in front of me, and I got disoriented. Fortunately a nurse who was obviously headed to the same hospital, pointed to the building next to us when I inquired as to its location.
Yes, it was that close.
There are correlations with the Christian journey. I can know the direction, the rules, the promises, and everything else about a given situation, but then still find myself lost, missing the point. Strangely it often seems as though it is when I’m following the rules and walking rightly (according to my standards, of course) that I am most unnerved when things don’t add up, because everything inside of me says that God owes me for my presumed goodness.
Eventually this flawed thinking prevented Moses from entering the Promised Land (don’t worry, his story ended good!). God had used him in leading His people, but rather than see his own relative weakness, Moses presumed himself to be more than he was, and in doing so, he got lost – in plain sight.
I do too.
In other words, my self-righteousness is exposed, and I am utterly (and mercifully) derailed, until freshly reminded that the rules have never been the story…
…Living in His delight is.
Ironically, it is the admission of our inability to wrap our arms around life and faith and righteousness that we become unloosened from those terrible chains of perfectionism and self-consumption, and begin to understand the gospel’s beauty – that God is a Father who desires us more than we could ever keep up.
And that is very good news, friends…
January 25, 2014 § 1 Comment
Tragic news has struck our community here in the Baltimore burbs. A fatal shooting rocked the Columbia Mall, where I write my sermons and blog each Saturday morning. Were it not for the fact that Katherine and I are speaking at a Marriage Conference in Atlanta this weekend, I would have been there.
But today, on every news network and, exploding on the Internet, the story of a horrid tragedy in our own backyard predominates. I am sick to my stomach and overwhelmed with sadness. The shards of our world’s brokenness have struck ‘home.’
It was only last week that we returned from Miami, my hometown, where we had our Mom’s funeral service. There were all kinds of sentimental moments in the experience. We enjoyed dear friends, ate the familiar food, cleaned the home we grew up in, took in the tropics, and returned to the last church I was a member of (pastors don’t retain Membership in churches).
But ‘home,’ at least here on earth in this sweet season in our lives, has become for us, Greater Baltimore. This place, this region – this home that we have come to love – is hurting.
Sometimes home hurts.
As we enter into adulthood we do so with all kinds of expectations for our lives. Our hopes are only good ones, and our dreams presume the distinct possibility that they are entirely attainable. This is how we think – and it is a good thing. We should interweave our natural longings for heaven into the people and world we live in.
Only this could transform what would be a most understandable response of repulsion, into a deepened love for a ‘place’ and people that have entered into a shared sorrow. In fact, I find myself anxious to rejoin our wounded community, and to get back to the church we have grown to love, the ‘place’ we now call home – and ‘my’ Starbucks – to freshly embrace what is now part of the landscape of our shared world. This pain has drawn me in.
And I find it inexplicably beautiful that the closer He moved towards His betrayal and death, Jesus’ love for His disciples became more pronounced – rather than less. I have to believe that His ‘joy set before Him’ (Hebrews 12:1-2) served as His promise of a one-day sweeter and deeper intimacy with His beloved friends.
This was the good news Jesus embodied.
Written with deep sadness…