November 2, 2013 § 3 Comments
In ministry, one of the great privileges we have is to enter into the lives of people. The emotions range from elation to despair, and love is the currency that navigates each moment. You need to know that none of us became ordained hoping to engage in church politics and controversies.
Earlier this week Katherine and I found ourselves at the NICU (Neo-natal Intensive Care Unit) at Mercy Hospital in Baltimore, where we held our breath with an anxious young couple who had given birth to a precious infant son who arrived with respiratory distress. We embraced and offered our pleas to the Father, then waited. Time and the amazing care of the nurses and docs were the means by which God graced that little boy and led him out of danger. We rejoiced.
At some point the baby’s father asked me to pray over their son, and as I extended my finger to his little hand, that precious newborn grasp reflex kicked into gear, and this tiny person, barely awake, and connected to all kinds of tubes, held tight.
There is a spectacular refrain in Isaiah’s prophecy in which the prophet speaks of God, who is understandably offended by the continued rebellion of His people. The refrain is, ‘his hand is stretched out still,’ and it is offered four times in the same breath, literally the same sentence, where Isaiah relays God’s anger. Yet, in the midst of His displeasure, God reaches out to His children.
Interestingly the refrain immediately follows a passage we read each year at Advent (Isaiah 9:1-7). It is more than the gentle assurance of a stern, yet loving Father. It is the promise that God would one day do what we in ministry attempt so imperfectly – that He would personally enter into our madness and mess as our Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace.
While there is something in me that wants to believe that God is every bit as merciless as I sometimes feel when offended, the testimony of the gospel is of a Father that has the capacity to express perfect love even when He is rightly disappointed.
And while my instinct is to hide with Adam and every other unfinished sinner in the Redemption story, His invitation remains to simply grasp the hand that ‘is stretched out still.’
Such good news…
October 26, 2013 § 2 Comments
We have the privilege of living in perhaps the finest medical region on the planet. World-renowned physicians work in the Baltimore-DC corridor, and this means that when a life is in peril, it is the place to be. Last week one of our Members was in an accident and clinging to life in a small Pennsylvania town that did not have the facilities to treat the severity of his condition. So he was life-flighted to the University of Maryland Medical Center Shock Trauma Unit in the middle of the night, and there he was tended to by an expert team of docs, nurses, experts, diagnosticians and administrators.
The next morning we learned that most don’t make it into the unit. But by God’s grace he did, and he has, in no small way due to the people who have so relentlessly cared for him.
Those first 48 hours, as his life lay tenuously in the balance, he was heavily medicated and barely conscious. He likely had no idea what was going on. He was restless, in pain, and disoriented. He didn’t know the names, and could barely discern the faces of the people attending to him.
But ever-present with him was that crowd of people (pictured in this post) who knew exactly where he was and what he needed. At some point I counted roughly fifteen who attended to him at the same time, observing monitors and vital signs, listening to his heartbeat, prodding his body, and watching breathing patterns.
I’ve replayed that scene many times since witnessing it, and it occurred to me that we too are often oblivious to the hand of God through the people – and angels – He sends our way. In spite of his sedated state, our friend actually wasn’t alone at all.
Genesis 21 came to mind, where Hagar, Sarah’s handmaid, was in the wilderness of Beersheba, without sustenance, weeping and waiting to die along with her young son. Yet even there, God heard her sobs, and then opened her eyes to reveal a well that would sustain her son, and her.
I think the point isn’t that we have to know that God is there, but that we can actually not know – and He is nevertheless – in the wilderness and in the crowd.
Such good news…
October 20, 2013 § 1 Comment
Saturday Morning – Normally a different post would have appeared early Saturday morning (today). Perched at my spot in Starbucks some roughly 390-word offering would have been launched into the cyber universe. Instead, I am writing from a gathering room in Manchester, Maryland where I am leading a men’s retreat for a sister Baltimore church, completely cut off from the outside world and without internet access, while listening to a group of guys argue politics over coffee in a town I have never been.
Of course retreat is the whole point of a retreat, but my instincts, habits and sensibilities don’t know this, so with ears and mouth engaged in a meandering conversation that will likely solve all the problems of our Nation (let’s not go there), my brain and fingers are writing a post that won’t be read until, well… now, I guess.
Retreat is something you find throughout the scriptures, and interestingly, as with us, it occurs for many reasons. Jesus retreated to the mountains early in the morning. Elijah and David fled to the wilderness to save their skin. Peter retreated to his old profession of fishing to escape shame.
Regardless of the motivation, however, in each case God visited His people, and when He did, they experienced renewal. In fact, I remember reading in Eugene Peterson’s fine book, Leap Over a Wall, that for David, whenever he fled to the wilderness he was actually unsuspectingly running to God.
Back on the road I was reminded that following Jesus is a journey with travels that find us in familiar territories, and also some unexpected lands. Our struggles, sins, fears and sometimes wobbly faiths all seem the cause of these wanderings, but regardless of how lost we may feel, and disconnected we may be, we are never out of the the Father’s gaze, nor without Jesus, who went on His own journey – and made it Home.
Jesus always finds us home.
This is our good news…
September 7, 2013 § Leave a comment
“When we die, we lose whatever grip we had on our unreconciled version of our lives. And when we rise at the last day, the only grip in which our lives will be held will be the reconciling grip of Jesus’ resurrection. He will hold our lives mended, cleaned, and pressed in his hand, and he will show them to his Father. And his Father, seeing the only real you or me there is to see, will say, ‘Wonderful! Just what I had in mind.’ He will say over the Word’s new creation of us at the last day exactly what he said over the Word’s first creation of us on the sixth day: ‘Very good!'”
Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment
The picture in this post was taken from the top outer deck at M&T Bank Stadium as a friend and I headed home from a Baltimore Ravens pre-season game. I love going to the games (hint, hint, not-so-subtle hint! H-I-N-T!!!).
As with my home City, Baltimore has a breathtaking skyline. To approach Baltimore from I-95 is a spectacular experience. It emerges from the water, with steeples, fly-overs, old and new buildings, constructed from brick, glass and concrete. Katherine and I still remember driving through Baltimore in 1984, because of the huge smoke stack that has the word, ‘BALTIMORE’ painted sideways, up and down the entire cylinder.
The other night, as we walked down that ramp, a train moved beside the stadium (something else I love), and spray painted on one car were the words, ‘No Hope.’ Baltimore has a lot of pain and pathos as well as beauty. And this is who we are. In some way, we are like cities with beautiful skylines. However within the beauty are things that aren’t so pretty: our sin, our wounds, our scars, our regrets, our shame – you name it, the list is a long one.
Our instinct is to not only hide this, but to generate the impression that it doesn’t even exist! But it does, and to hide only erodes us internally and diminishes God’s lovely work of grace within us. Friends, this isn’t what God wants – or likes. The gospel restores our native value and beauty (theologians call this the image of God) as we let go of the need to have it all together, in reality, and in appearances. And amazingly, it gives us permission to be concurrently restored while also a mess – until Jesus comes. In fact part of what makes our restored selves so beautiful to an observing world, is that we belong to a God that loves us on the skyline and deep into the pathos of the City.
What good news…
July 20, 2013 § 5 Comments
“I read somewhere that a thing that does not exist in relation to anything else cannot itself be said to exist.” Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
The trees pictured here are from my old neighborhood, in fact the home on the left corner is the one I grew up in. Forty years ago our dad, my brothers and I, along with other dads and their teenage children planted these trees as seedlings. The work was hard and dirty – and it cost us two weekends. But it was never intended to serve us alone. It was meant for generations that will follow long past our lifetimes.
Isaac’s journey came to mind as I prepared to reenter the blogosphere after a break and some redesign. He was Abraham’s son, and at some point in his life as an adult, Isaac found himself back in the land his dad once owned – it would one day become Israel. Upon arrival his first task was to dig wells in order to establish a usable water supply (Genesis 26). As he surveyed the land, he discovered old ones his father had dug years before, some working, and others not. Rather than build all new wells, he wisely recommissioned the ones that still functioned.
Such is the story of our lives as Christ-followers. Who we are now is in some way shaped by all who have gone before us, along with our every experience, which in turn somehow shapes those who will follow – like trees that line a neighborhood.
The video below is from the Paul McCartney concert Katherine and I attended the other night in DC. For me, a former Beatles freak, it was one of those bucket-list moments – what a thrill! The Long and Winding Road paints a beautiful picture of an entire lifetime.
Listen, our past helps to shape us, but because of Jesus it doesn’t have the power to fully define us – Isaac’s story reassures us that we don’t have to fix every broken well, and we can enjoy the ones that still work!
Here is my cheap advice: Don’t think so much in terms of any one given moment in your story, or you will either drive yourself crazy with things you can’t change, or drive everyone away with foolish self-promotion. Instead, think of yourself as being on a road – a long and winding road, one that will take you where you were always intended to be. This puts everything into perspective, good and bad.
Sorrow, regrets, shame, broken dreams and sins long ago committed, even successes, all have a way of distorting how we remember our lives, and this easily leaves us feeling disconnected from something larger… something better. But worse, they rob us of the big story – the story that extends past and before us – the story of Jesus the Redeemer who entered into the pain and brokenness of the fall, and into our unfinished lives, with a resolve to heal our broken world and make everything new. It becomes a story He retells through the prism of the Cross and the triumph of the Resurrection – and every time – every time, friends – the story ends well.
What good news.
grace & peace.
February 2, 2013 § Leave a comment
Ruth Tucker, Walking Away From Faith
With Super Bowl XLVII just days away, the excitement and anticipation have built to a fevered pitch in the Greater Baltimore region. So pardon the simple musings of lifelong sports fan. Along with family and friends, I have entered into the excitement – much to the surprise of those who have known me for many years to be an avid, make that rabid, Oakland Raiders fan.
A simple visit to my office will reveal various Raiders paraphernalia, including my treasured, framed poster of the 1969 Oakland Raiders, the season Daryl Lamonica threw 34 touchdown passes and won the AFL MVP. My Dad secured this particular picture by writing to Al Davis, the Raiders’ owner, on Eastern Airlines letterhead. I could probably list every significant play, win, loss, player (including number) and moment in Oakland Raiders history. And I’ll never believe that Franco Harris’ immaculate reception/touchdown was legitimate!
So why allegiance to the Ravens?
The answer is simple – Because we live in Baltimore. In nearly seven years I have grown to love what this city loves, including its teams, its Inner Harbor, its food (translation: crabs, crab cakes & Old Bay crab seasoning), and most importantly, its people. I’m from Miami and love that city, though friends will argue that I never loved the Dolphins, which is true. But in 7th Grade you go for the coolest uniform, and no team’s uni was cooler than the Raiders’. I digress…
Years ago I had the joy of working with Rev. Bruce Reynolds in youth ministry – He and his wife Jeanette hailed from Baltimore. They were Baltimore everything, from the Orioles to the Colts (long time ago!). Bruce is now involved in a ministry of humor, faith and encouragement for churches, clubs and corporations. Neither would have dreamed they would settle in Florida, and we in Maryland. Not to mention that lifelong friend in life and ministry, Ray Cortese (also a Miamian), was as passionate for the Baltimore Colts as I was the Raiders. His Johnny U poster hung in our college dorm room.
It is worth mentioning that several players for the Ravens played at the University of Miami (the U) while we lived in South Florida – players we watched compete in the old Orange Bowl. And amazingly, one player for the San Francisco 49ers played at Katherine’s and my alma mater, Belhaven College.
In my simple universe there has to be something to this.
I think it is that the contours, shifts and transitions we face and experience are about a story God weaves us into during the course of our entire lives. People, places, interests and affections are never static. Neither is faith. We are put into particular settings just when God wants us there. And for His own reasons, whether to grow our faith, to insert us into another’s life, or for purposes we may never know, He is knitting us into a sweet narrative that before we would not have imagined – a picture we would never have recognized – with all the sounds, sights, smells, encounters, faces – yes, even teams – that help complete His work on the canvass that is our lives.
The apostle Paul saw himself as ‘becoming all things to all men,’ believing that being situated in diverse contexts and cultures enabled him to ‘do all this for the sake of the gospel…’ (1 Corinthians 9:19-23) – The temptation is to see this is as something God does through us for others, and undoubtedly this is part of what Paul is saying. But I’m not so sure it is only that. Could it be that He is working the gospel into us as well? I’m certain He is. And my guess is that wherever Paul was, at any moment, he was completely at home.
So my encouragement is to stop fighting and enjoy. Figuring out God’s reasons is like counting the stars – it ain’t going to happen! We’re way too linear to understand God’s plans for our lives. And every attempt to do so robs us of the joy of the moment.
And I guess this is my point. Wherever you are, for whatever reasons, God put you there, and through you He intends to be someone else’s good news, and they yours…
Go Ravens! (and Oakland, please, PLEASE, deal with your offense!)…
November 17, 2012 § Leave a comment
This morning at breakfast Katherine and I talked about what we were thankful for. It wasn’t our Thanksgiving pre-season exercise. It just flowed from a conversation that wound us around and through the world we’ve known together for over 30 years. Something Katherine said resonated – that it isn’t so much the details, but just the fact that God has filled us with thankfulness.
It set my mind into gear. So I wanted to pause and simply give thanks.
Somewhere last year it dawned on me that everything I had hoped for over 30 years ago, with Katherine and the future, God has brought about and much more. It is so cool that God has allowed for us to experience all this together. I could not be more grateful for this extraordinary woman. As the Beach Boys sang a million years ago, I don’t know where, but she takes me there, and I love going with her. But I am amazed at what we have been able to watch unfold through years, life and fulfilled, and yet-to-be realized dreams. How I thank you for Katherine, Father.
This Christmas all of our children will be home. On Thanksgiving our daughters will be with us. We are thrilled. In each of them is a story that testifies to the unfailing grace of God. We remember their infancies, their childhoods, their teen years, and their important moments. They live in the continuing narrative of God’s goodness, and we get the privilege and joy of praying for them daily, and then watching them grow, fall, get back up, and mature – we are amazed. Thank you, Lord for our precious ones.
Both of us are the products of parents who love Jesus. Two of our parents have made it home. All of them have helped to weave faith, hope and love into our fabric. None of them have been perfect, and even this has contributed to understanding the big story of God’s grace. The ones who are gone, we miss terribly, and the ones who remain we love deeply. Thank you God, for parents who gave us glimpses of you until we met you.
We are in ministry. It has always been challenging and sometimes exhausting – and He has rewarded us beyond the very real rigors of the pastorate and in spite of our even more real inadequacies. With each challenge He has poured out grace. And now He has set us in the midst of a beautiful congregation. He was more patient than my homesickness in the early years, and has brought more blessing than our imperfections. He has surrounded us with an amazing Staff, Leaders and Flock. I guess this is the right place to say that He has given me a Starbucks to write and reflect, because it is here (where I write even at this moment), that many from our church family, including our Young People, knock on the window, stop to say hello, and wave as they graciously pass their hermit pastor. This Sunday we ordain a young man who will start a new work in the City of Baltimore. How groovy! O God, thank you for the Chapelgate community (and my Starbucks!).
He has graced us with friendships – enduring friendships – amazing friendships – friendships that stretch all the way back to childhood, friendships from each congregation, old and new friends. It has occurred to us that many of the Young People who were in our youth group when we first entered into ministry have become dear friends in adulthood – how good is that. Our friends are treasures. Each has been placed in our lives by the Father who knows our needs. Through shared trials, love-shaping conflicts, love-affirming apologies, and in spite of time and distance, we have been the beneficiaries of a vast network of affection. Thank you Father for giving us these meaningful friends.
He has given us Jesus. A long time ago Jesus entered into our lives – our worlds. He has shaped, shaken, disrupted, comforted, convicted, confronted and contended with us. He has shown up in moments when we thought we were desperately alone – and without Him we were. He has been our life and for us, He gave His life. Thank you Father for giving us your Son.
The truth is that I could go on and on. God has been good to us and has blessed us with immeasurably more than we could ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20). I hope this and more for you.
All Thanks and Praise be to God, through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
PS I’ll begin posting again two weeks from today.
November 2, 2012 § Leave a comment
We may joyfully believe that there was, that there is, one to whom no human suffering and no human sin is strange, and who in the profoundest love has achieved our redemption. It is such joy in Christ, the Redeemer, that alone protects us from the dulling of our senses by the constant experience of human suffering and also from accepting as inevitable the suffering in the spirit of resignation.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letter to the Brethren at Finkenwalde, 1942
This week, sitting in Starbucks was more than about burrowing in my preferred writing spot. It was also due to the fact that our office was closed and without electricity since Monday, when Hurricane Sandy hit Maryland. Only late yesterday power restored. Fortunately our Staff found creative ways to meet, study and work in spite of the circumstances.
We got off easy. The devastating consequences of Sandy’s wrath in states like New Jersey and New York will yield decades of aftereffects and sorrow. Loss of life has been high, and is climbing. Homes were demolished and entire communities obliterated by water, wind and fire. The sorrow that comes through in news stories and interviews is almost too much for Katherine and I to bear.
Having lived through hurricanes, and having experienced two historic floods in Mississippi during college and grad-school years, I can tell you that there is nothing romantic about going through something like this. Jobs will be lost. Lives will be altered. Families will walk away from their homes, never to return. Relationships will be tested to the brink. Opportunists will exploit desperate people. The world many know will never be the same.
When Hurricane Andrew demolished much of the southern hemisphere of Miami in 1991, a friend (and one of my models for leadership), Ray Goode, the one-time City Manager, along with another city leader, decided to launch a campaign called, ‘We Will Rebuild.’ They rightly resolved that the city was worth restoring, and so as he dealt with the devastation on his own block, Ray led Miami in an effort that was nothing short of Herculean.
Relief is more than a physical dynamic. It is a resolve. And it is something that doesn’t happen effectively in a vacuum and without a larger community of people committed to something greater than themselves. The most enduring and effective relief efforts happen when broken people recognize their own condition in the lives and events of others, and then act on them – together.
A long time ago I discovered something about Jesus that I might not have guessed in my ‘neat’ and ‘responsible’ universe. As you follow Him, and observe how He is constantly confronted by the pathos of people who bear the effects of a fallen world, you discover that He only ever offers relief. What I mean is that He doesn’t ask how something happened, never ascribes blame, and makes no demands – He simply relieves burdens. His response to brokenness is never conditional.
Because the crazy thing is that Brokenness is Jesus’ point of connection with humanity – it is the singular reason for His entrance into our world.
And He wasn’t merely exhibiting His saving power, which would be enough. He was also demonstrating what the Church is called to, and how effective she could be by merely entering into and serving the very broken world Jesus came to save.
Here is the thing: We are connected. All of us. When one person is cut, we all bleed. When one suffers, we grieve together. When a city lies in ruins, we are reacquainted with the reality of our shared condition.
And when there is renewal, as one, we all have cause to celebrate. So we find connection in our shared brokenness. And in relief, together we taste of and share in the good mission of the One who is making all things new.
This is our good news.
If you are looking to help, you can do so directly. Here are two sister church communities that will bring relief where they serve:
1. Brooklyn Presbyterian Church (a community of several congregations):
Brooklyn Presbyterian Church – Mercy Team (make your check payable to this line as well)
174 Prospect Park West
#1L Brooklyn, NY 11215
2. Redeemer Presbyterian Church – Hope for New York
October 13, 2012 § 1 Comment
I promise this to be my last Orioles post of the season. As you may already know, the Baltimore Orioles lost game five to the New York Yankees in the best three-out-of-five American League Divisional Playoff Series. This means that while the Yankees advance in pursuit of a trip to the World Series, the Orioles’ season is officially over. And while it was sad to see them lose, it was a great season.
There is something profoundly contagious about good news though. It spreads. It is like a city that becomes infected with baseball fever, especially when its team has been in the divisional cellar for over a decade.
Unfortunately many in Christian circles haven’t yet gotten that memo. For some reason many enter into the Faith with great joy and relief, only to confuse spirituality with some sanctified form of misery.
I’m not sure why this is. It could be that we forget that initial sense of happy relief when we first knew that our sins had been forgiven. Maybe it is that realization that conversion doesn’t mean perfection, and when those old sins continue to press, we get discouraged. No doubt there are all kinds of reasons.
Hey, none of us are immune.
But the scriptures are unequivocal with the promise of the new heavens and the new earth. When all things are made new, Joy will be the song of the redeemed. And every encounter with Jesus in this life – even the excruciatingly painful ones where we are exposed for what we are and confronted with who we have been – is intended to extract hints of this very joy that already resides in the hearts of those in whom the Spirit of God dwells (Galatians 5:22).
I think this is what the prophet Isaiah (55:11-12) is speaking to when he says that God’s Word (not only the scriptures that testify to Jesus, but Jesus Himself), never returns to him void, followed by that magnificent epitaph, For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace…
Game two of the Orioles-Yankees series was played here in the city at Camden Yards. The Orioles won to tie the series up. The stadium was packed. The crowd was wild. The city was electric. After, the streets were filled with uncontained joy. Something good had happened in Baltimore, and all were drawn into the celebration.
I have come to believe that the people of God are intended to be a city of contagious, infectious joy in a fallen world. When joy has escaped me, it usually isn’t about the circumstances so much as it is about my heart.
But there is no greater testimony to the power of the Gospel (the Greek word for good news, incidentally) in a broken world than people who bear witness to the fact that though sin and sorrow and tragedy often visit our lives, even with great force, something more deeply beautiful has happened within – because of Jesus – and this is carries the day. We are unfinished, but we are His.
Friends! What could be better news?
September 22, 2012 § 1 Comment
James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom
This week I was struck by an unexpected dynamic that has swelled in our region. There is a thrill in the air in Baltimore. For the first time in 15 years, the Orioles, Baltimore’s Major League Baseball team is in the Pennant race. You need to know that this does something good to a city and region. The Orioles have captured the hearts and imaginations of the region. And let me tell you, there is nothing more fulfilling than hating the Yankees, as a community!
Last week we took our church staff to an Orioles game – a day game. Here we were, at the threshold of the city, a magnificent day, and in the most beautiful baseball stadium in country (Cambden Yards is unmatched in beauty, design and character), and tens of thousands came to share in the passion.
Following the game (a victorious fourteen-inning thriller) elated fans exited the park, slapping hands, shouting, ‘Go O’s!’ and feeling part of something greater than themselves.
The thing is that we were not designed to be alone. We are pack animals. Or put more tastefully, we were created to live in relationship. And we most thrive when we do. That was the core damage of the fall in the Garden. Relationships were severed. Two people designed to live in God’s presence chose to hide – from Him, and from one another.
It doesn’t have to be marriage, though that is a good thing. And we don’t have to be members of the same church (but if you’re looking, I know a great one you can consider). That isn’t the point.
The point is that to be alienated is to swim against the current of our intended state of being. To live outside of community is to short-circuit something within that makes us truly human. Remember? ‘It is not good for man to be alone’ – Genesis 2:18.
Yet ibeside us, then it only seems to follow that we have every reason to build impenetrable walls of protection around ourselves. Why risk further injury?
There’s no getting around it – We were created for relationship – with God and with other unfinished ones like ourselves – people who, like us, have been ‘damaged by the fall.’ And I suspect that in our most honest of moments, each would admit that, past the self-protective layers of rhetoric and isolation, we long to be loved and embraced. We long for someone who cares enough to break through. Because we know that our yearnings are deeper than our facades of resistance.
I love how the writer of Hebrews captures this relational need in the first two verses of his twelfth chapter. There is no ‘me’ in it. It is about ‘we’ being surrounded by that ‘great cloud of witnesses.’ It is about ‘us’ running ‘with perseverance.’ It is ‘a race marked out for us.’ And together we ‘fix our eyes on Jesus.’
Sometimes the Church can be so concerned with personal holiness that it breeds an oppressed community of terrified, isolated individuals who are made to feel like spiritual failures for saying, ‘I can’t do it on my own.’ Why wouldn’t people hide from that?
Well you need to know something: I can’t do it on my own.
And neither can you.
Let’s get over it. Together.
Because at the heart of our Faith is Jesus.
We need Him. Together.
That’s really good news.