Star Spangled Stories

September 13, 2014 § 1 Comment

Lyrics “A man tells his stories so many times that he becomes the stories. They live on after him.”

Will, Big Fish

This morning Katherine and I are at the Inner Harbor in downtown Baltimore. Our goal is to make our way to Fort McHenry, where 200 years ago Francis Scott Key wrote the Star Spangled Banner, our National Anthem, and the city is celebrating. The Anthem was penned in 1814 during the War of 1812 in the Battle of Baltimore, a conflict that is arguably believed to have saved the Republic from Great Britain’s attempt to retake the country it had lost forty years before during the Revolutionary War.

The original manuscript will be on display. A massive presence of war ships, past and present, will be in the Harbor. The Blue Angels will fly overhead. The University of Maryland Football team will sport uniforms that bear the words of the Anthem. TerpsMcHenry3

It is part of our story.

As Christ-followers we celebrate that in Jesus we have been woven into the story God, one He has told throughout the ages, and a story whose nuanced details unfold with every crease and turn of history – our histories and all of history. It is a redemptive story, and it finds its greatest expression in Jesus, who not only entered into the narrative, but through whom our own broken and imperfect stories are retold through the prism of His death and resurrection.

In many years of ministry I’ve learned that it is overly simplistic to reduce facts and occurrences to neat packages when trying to decipher the meaning of events in people’s lives. We are unfinished, and this means that there will always be things we can’t explain or understand during our short time on the earth. In some way we are like the people of faith commemorated in Hebrews 11, who never touched foot on Canaan, the Promised Land, only to find their destination was in fact, always intended to be ‘a better country… a heavenly one… a city God had prepared for them’ (Hebrews 11:13-16).

For me, keeping this in mind is how I maintain perspective. Living in a fallen world (and within my own fallenness) has a way of making the temporary, eternal, and the eternal, imaginary. And it is easy to become a slave to the moment.

But the story we have been written into transcends time, events (good and bad), success and failure. It is not so fragile that a tragedy can make it untrue, nor is it dependent on good things for it to remain good.

It is God’s story. We don’t write it, but we share in it – and that makes it ours too.

And this, friends, is good news…

peace.

Flag

Lost in Plain Sight

June 7, 2014 § Leave a comment

Lost ‘Do you know what I wish? I wish I had a dad… like you.’

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…

peace.

When Home Hurts

January 25, 2014 § 1 Comment

MSNBCTragic 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…

peace.

Grasp

November 2, 2013 § 3 Comments

FragileIn 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…

peace.

Somewhere in the Crowd

October 26, 2013 § 2 Comments

CrowdWe 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…

peace.

Disconnected!

October 20, 2013 § 1 Comment

Morning

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.

Sunday Morning – With the last of four talks delivered early this morning, I’m back on the road, just as clueless as to my location as I was two days ago. First up comes breakfast…Breakfast

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.

Todd After breakfast I worshiped with a friend in ministry in his relatively newly formed church (Do my hands do that?). The service was sweet and his message on target. God had found me… again.

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.

Home

This is our good news…

peace.

Messy… and Restored

September 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

Baltimore “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…

peace.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing the Baltimore category at unfinished1.