April 2, 2020 § 1 Comment
“Let Christians help one another in going this journey.”
Jonathan Edwards, The Christian Pilgrim
We were not created to live in isolation, but here we are! This isn’t in our DNA. Take it from an introvert. Even those of us who love their alone space, need human contact. Life without community is ultimately oppressively isolating.
God Himself lives in community. We have been designed to embody the in-person, relational interconnectedness of that mysterious union that theologians constantly attempt to explain, but never quite grasp, between Father, Son, and. Holy Spirit (how can one ever really contain the eternal with words and systems?).
But then, moments like this one come along, where we are all but cut off and forced to see the world from the perspective the loneliest of society. Malls, coffee shops, sports bars and other venues, all designed to provide escapes from isolation, are locked down.
Many churches, ours included, have devised online strategies to mitigate the alienation. Connecting programs such as Zoom facilitate meetings, studies, classes, and counsel. But these are temporary measures. However, high the quality, and vital as they are, ultimately they are stop-gaps intended to tide us over until we can once again gather in person, where fist bumps may replace handshakes, marginally flu-ish people will stay at home, and every cough will be suspect. But we will gather.
Because church is more than a place where worshippers attend, songs are sung and sermons are presented. It is a community that enables us to put into practice the kind of life-giving relational interdependence that we were created to experience in this journey – with God and one another. Regardless of how large or small the expression, when together, we rehearse God’s Kingdom, and model that “great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages…” (Revelation 7:9ff), when the redeemed will one day, and for all eternity, worship God in all His fullness and glory – together.
This Sunday we enter into the observance of Christ’s passion – the betrayals, arrest, torment, and the Cross. For the Church, it is a glorious week that leads to Resurrection Day. Within it, however, is a dark moment when Jesus, while dying on the Cross, was deprived of the life-giving union he enjoyed with his Father. For one brief and horrible moment, Jesus was alone – “forsaken,” in the most lonely place of the fallen human condition, as he endured the holy rage of God in payment of sin, to ‘reconcile the world to himself’ (Read 2 Corinthians 5:16-21!).
And now, resurrected and glorified, he awaits to gather us at the Feast. But until then, he has given us his Spirit – and, unfinished and flawed as we may be – one another.
Trust me, friends, awkward and annoying as we can sometimes be to one another…
this is good news.
grace & peace.
March 26, 2020 § 3 Comments
“For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”
Recently, I mentioned to Katherine that it was time to resume Unfinished1, and now am compelled all the more, given the current crisis we find ourselves in. Until the ban is lifted, I will offer these on Thursdays, but then after, on Saturdays.
The picture below is taken from the northwest corner of our home. On either side grow two different types of Magnolias. The white-flowered tree on the right is a Star Magnolia, and the purplish-pink (my favorite) is a Japanese Magnolia. Both majestically adorn our house each year, along with compliment of Daffodils that will soon be joined by Lillies.
Because the world is fallen, more than a virus taints what God created to be good. Natural disasters, human trafficking, oppressive governments, injustice, poverty, violence, and death, to name a few, are with us every day. And they will be until Jesus returns and makes everything new.
But just outside our door, beauty always awaits. Theologians refer to this as general or natural revelation. For all who observe, creation serves up hints of God’s existence, and of what will one day be. It is almost as though God adorns creation to be like a flower girl at a wedding, announcing that as beautiful as the setting is, something more spectacular awaits. And it does!
We live and breathe on the pallet of God’s creative resplendence. It is always right there. Even when at our ugliest, ‘the heavens declare His glory, and the sky proclaims his handiwork’ (Psalm 19:1). As Christ-followers, this does more than make us feel good about what we believe and who we believe in. It also is intended to help shape us into a hopeful people before a hurting world.
Don’t get me wrong. When a Christian is isolated and lonely, it is no more tolerable than when someone who doesn’t follow Jesus is. Our depression is every bit as debilitating as the next person’s. Human heartache visits every home, regardless of creed. As Christians, we get no corporate discounts in the human condition! Jesus himself was prophesied as a “a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3).
In the meantime, God offers glimpses – hints that one day the pain and suffering will end. Through his redeemed people, He gives the world a hopeful community. And in creation, it is as though, even in this strange state of isolated exile, all nature bids us to celebrate what will one day be.
Together we serve as signposts that no malady, whether human or by force of nature, has the power to permanently thwart the creative beauty of God from knifing into the world’s darkness – or into human hearts – with power to forgive, heal, and renew.
Take heart friends, in Jesus, He has already come, and is coming.
what good news.
grace & peace.
November 7, 2015 § 3 Comments
“As the body of Christ, the church is called to live for the peace, love and joy of God’s reign.”
Mark Gornik, To Live in Peace
This weekend my home church, the Old Cutler Presbyterian Church, in Miami, Florida, celebrates her 50th birthday (they have appropriately named the weekend, ‘Jubilee’). Those of us who are familiar with this extraordinary church know that it has a rich history of blessing, growth, hardship and renewal.
I would say that’s a long time, but since I’m older than 50, we’ll keep it at, ‘What an accomplishment!’ And how sweet is it that in Bill and Carol Richards, Old Cutler still has two of its Charter Members, which means that they have been there since day one.
As with the church I am privileged to pastor today (Chapelgate Presbyterian Church), through the years OCPC has groomed pastors, sent countless people to the mission field, cared for thousands, ministered to Miami during hard times, loved the marginalized and broken, and served as a cultural center to the community.
Many of us had the privilege of sitting under the ministry of a pastor named Bob Davis. During his nearly-14 years in the pulpit, the church grew and flourished into the ministry it is today. Bob wasn’t a polished preacher, but he was an amazing pastor – my role model for ministry. He instilled in us that churches are meant to be local communities where Jesus is loved, lifted up and shared. On more than one occasion he said that when the church stops proclaiming Jesus, it should be razed and turned into a cornfield (he was a big old country boy).
Whenever a church grows to the size of an Old Cutler, it is often mischaracterized by the observing world. Those who look from the outside in sometimes assume it to be a cold impersonal corporate ‘machine.’ But to those who have experienced being part of the OCPC story, it is what it always has been – a holy community where babies are baptized, vows are exchanged, graduates receive their diplomas, loved ones are buried, tragedies are shared, hearts are broken, crises are endured, all at a crossroads where love and sorrow meet, as life is lived together, because of Jesus.
I can honestly say that God used Old Cutler shape my life and faith. And I could not be more thankful that He wove me into her story, and hers into mine.
God gave my family a church home for nearly all of those 50 years – Just within our family, weddings, funerals and baptisms all occurred – truly we have been ‘cradle to the grave.’
He gave me a pastor who treated me like a son and taught me the ministry (Through my college and seminary years he wrote fatherly, pastoral letters that I cherish to this day).
He gave Katherine and me friends for a lifetime, some still there.
He demonstrated the way He circuitously unfolds our stories into His magnificent plan – At OCPC I had the joy and privilege of serving as a volunteer, a summer Intern, a Youth Pastor, and then, amazingly for a decade, as the Sr. Pastor – Wowzer! (with this I can’t help but celebrate Mike Campbell, who once served as a Member who turned Elder, and then, as I was, was ordained into the ministry there, before returning as her new Sr. Pastor – how cool is that?).
I guess the storyline here is that at the end of the day, the lovelier and more meaningful things in life and faith – are local. The very dynamic that many attempt to eradicate when they ‘globalize’ the Faith out of some spiritualized dissatisfaction with flawed local expressions, is actually what robs them of the sweet joy that only comes through the very real, ‘on the ground’ human involvement in that imperfect, messy, often inconvenient, and never-having-arrived community called the local church.
For us, however, by God’s grace and in His goodness, in OCPC we have in our experiences and hearts, a church home that will always remind us that the Father loves and uses imperfect vessels, and that through His Son, He makes what is broken and eminently flawed, ravishingly beautiful.
what good news…
Happy Birthday, Old Cutler!
Happy Birthday, Family.
(Pictured below is one of two massive stained glass windows in the Sanctuary, constructed by a 5th Grade Math Teacher & OCPC Member, who has since made it ‘Home’, Roy Aldridge)
April 2, 2015 § Leave a comment
“…the Lord’s Supper is a feast of forgiveness and reconciliation… The Supper is a gracious communion with a forgiving God; but it is also a supper we eat with one another, and that too will require forgiveness. God’s design for human flourishing cannot be satisfied in isolation.”
James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom
Tonight our church community will gather for a soup dinner. Together we will sing, hear a short message, and then share the Lord’s Supper. It is a Maundy Thursday tradition that began some four years ago, and has become one of the sweetest of evenings. On some level it is a reenactment of the night Jesus met with His disciples in that Upper Room, when He told them that His time to die had come. It was the night Judas would betray Him, and the rest of His friends would scatter.
The term, ‘Maundy’ comes from the Latin, ‘mandatum,’ and it means command. The connection is found in John’s gospel where Jesus says to His disciples (in that Upper Room), “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” (John 13:34)
Whenever we gather at the Table of Christ, we not only reenact that dinner, but we also rehearse the Kingdom of God until Jesus returns and makes everything new. By gathering with people we may not see outside of worship, we retell the story of His reconciling love, of how He came and died and gave Himself. We remind ourselves that we are weak, broken and needy, but that our bond is a strong one because Jesus has come, and is coming.
And this is our good news…
November 8, 2014 § Leave a comment
“Christianity encourages me to be faithful to the body that I am – a body that can be hurt, a body that is always living in the middle of limitations; it encourages me to accept unavoidable frustration in this material and accident-prone existence without anger.”
Rowan Williams, Where God Happens
I preached a lousy sermon last week. No, no, don’t worry, it’s okay. Seriously, please don’t write and tell me that it was great, or that God’s Spirit can use even the worst of messages (which I think we can all agree would not truly be complimentary, right?). And you don’t need to remind me that I’m merely a vessel. Oh, and by all means please don’t tell me that even Tim Keller preaches bad sermons!
Well, no wait… okay, tell me that.
Seriously, I know all this – and I’m thankful that every bit of it is true. It was just one of those messages.
Don’t let a preacher fool you into thinking that bad sermons roll off them like wet off a duck (a favorite phrase I learned in Tallahassee). We were all built with fragile egos that find residence in some part of our public expressions. It used to be that when I preached a ‘dog’ (as I like to call them), that I would be anxious for the next Sunday to arrive, with hopes that the memory of my bad offering would be lost in a better one (and don’t get me started on how I would wait from one Christmas Eve to the next after blowing it on that special night).
I can’t begin to tell you how diabolical this is!
Biblical concern? Uh… no. No, it’s Ego.
The point I am trying to make is that living in God’s grace means living with the worst and best parts of who we are, along with everything in between, while all along believing that the Father never measures our worth based on our performance. Be glad. Until we are Home we will always be unfinished, and this may be our greatest safeguard against thinking that we can make this journey apart from God’s friendship.
Besides, do we really want what we consider to be our ‘good’ points scrutinized by a holy God? Every time I reduce God’s favor to my imperfect offerings, along with Cain, I demonstrate disdain for Him as a gracious Father. It is an egocentric delusion that I’ll be fine without any help, thank you.
Read through John’s first letter. Count how many times the apostle uses the term, ‘children’ or ‘little children,’ in describing us. What does this tell you? And what would you really prefer for God to see you as? Worthy subjects or beloved children?
Friends, the Father doesn’t love us less when we fail, and He doesn’t love us more when we succeed.
He just loves us because we’re His.
Now that’ll preach.
What good news…
August 2, 2014 § Leave a comment
“The most vulnerable thing we could ever do, the thing that requires the most courage and faith, is the key to freedom. We bring our nothing – accepting who we are by accepting who God is, what he has done and what he promises to do.”
J.R. Briggs, Fail
It was a treat to be invited by one of our Elders to the Baltimore Ravens’ training facility in Owings Mills a few weeks ago, which is by invitation only (as opposed to the larger venue at M&T Bank Stadium). Through another friend who works with the team, we were also permitted to enter into the complex and view the team’s two Super Bowl trophies.
What a thrill to be at field level watching these athletes. They are stunningly fast and observably sleek. Their movement is precise and seemingly effortless. When they strike the blocking machines you can almost feel the force from the stands.
Following practice the team autographed footballs, jerseys, posters and hats for the children. But we adults were equally awed with the event. Having grown up a sports fan, any brush with professional athletes has always been the coolest thing. I still feel like a kid when watching them practice, even though I am twenty-five years older than the oldest player on the team!
Yet what reached me most deeply was in observing our Worship Director and his twin sons. The photo at the top of this post really says it all – a Dad and his boys. They were his joy and the stars of his photographs.
Amazingly we enjoy no less pleasure from the heavenly Father, even more.
What a sweet picture of God and His people – a Father and His children. We are unfinished, and His love for us is complete. We are weak and He is strong. We get lost and He finds us. We are immature, and He is eternally wise. We obey imperfectly and He delights over us with singing, His lens ever fixed on us because of Jesus.
I know the tyranny of unbelief, how it creeps into our hearts and thinking, wrecking joy and imposing it’s own version of a twisted righteousness that is neither righteous nor beautiful. More than anything, it obscures us from the Father – and this is sad.
However to our sometimes despairing spirits and fearful hearts the gospel freshly announces to us that we are not orphans! Nothing Jesus did – on the Cross and in His Resurrection – is wasted. In Christ, we are God’s daughters and sons (John 1:12).
What good news…
March 30, 2013 § 3 Comments
As I write, hundreds of children (and their parents) fill a small play area and a larger lacrosse field in search of thousands of brightly colored plastic eggs that contain all kinds of treats and candy. It is a lovely day and this adds to the spectacle of joy – Children with painted faces (yes, we’re a full-service church) – Parents – Volunteers – Staff – all together, enjoying, taking pics, pointing out eggs, and sharing the moment. I love it.
It caused me to think. This is the day we know so little of. What was Jesus doing in that grave that Saturday between His burial and His resurrection? We have hints in the scriptures, but suffice it to say that regardless of the actual details, even in the grave Jesus was no victim. We know that the Father had not abandoned Him (Acts 2:27), which is undoubtedly why, in his monumental sermon on Pentecost, Peter quoted David’s prophetic cry – “You have made known to me the paths of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence.” (Acts 2:28, Psalm 16:11)
To God and to the Lamb, I will sing, I will sing;
To God and to the Lamb, I will sing.
To God and to the Lamb who is the great I AM;
While millions join the theme, I will sing, I will sing:
While millions join the theme, I will sing.
I guess this is what those precious, loud, exuberant children bring to mind. By entering the grave, Jesus has begun to turn our cemeteries into playgrounds. The crazy thing is that if we had hidden the eggs among tombstones, the children would have been just as excited. Their world is that safe.
And because Jesus went to the grave, so is yours.
December 9, 2012 § Leave a comment
Currently there is a nationally televised Home Depot commercial that has caught my attention. It features people being helped, in every department – by Santa Claus, of all people! If you pay attention to the ad, you will see that at least one of the Santas is named ‘Noel.’ It is written in that black Sharpie kind of way on the apron that adorns every local Home Depot employee. (Chevrolet has a similar ad, but Santa’s nametag is ‘Nick’).
I love this TV spot, not only because of its creativity, though I am shallow enough for that to be sufficient, but also because one of the Santas is a personal friend. In fact, he is a fellow pastor and church planter in South Florida.
Steve Lantz is an amazing guy. He and Lynda, his wife of nearly two years, are expecting their first child in April. Because Lynda was the Campus Crusade for Christ Director for the West Chester University in the Greater Philadelphia area I had the privilege of meeting her soon before they married when she and Steve drove through Maryland. This past year they worshiped with us as well.
Steve has lived with the kind of longing that Advent focuses on. It is the hope of Jesus, and a vision for something that will one day be – something good – that in His coming, what has been empty will once again be to overflowing, and what has been broken will eventually be mended.
Part of how Steve raises funds is through acting. Early in his ministry he took classes in order to supplement his income while he mapped out his dream. For eight years he has served as the Chaplain for the Booker T. Washington High School Football team in Miami (and recently the State Champions), a job that pays little in spite of its own rewards. And he has worked as a short order cook in Downtown Miami.
He is driven by a vision for working among the poor and watching the gospel cause the Overtown neighborhood and community to flourish as a result of the justice, presence and power of Jesus in Miami.
I have found that it isn’t until I am willing to go ‘there,’ that is, to enter into the pain, whether in relationships, personal tragedies, or seasons of sorrow and doubt, that I really begin to connect as an agent of consolation and renewal.
There is something in all of us that is natively resistant to pain and suffering, but the gospel always draws us to enter into our world’s brokenness as Christ did in His Incarnation, so that we may be as tender with its pathos as Jesus is and has been to ours.
His willingness to do so is our Good News.
And that goes for Santa Claus too…
PS Here is a letter Steve put out last month, that describes all he is doing.
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.