September 16, 2017 § 6 Comments
“The gospel says that because of what Christ has done, he sees you as completely righteous. You are clothed in the righteousness of Christ…”
Raymond F. Cannata & Joshua D. Reitano, Rooted
So about three-and-a-half months ago we became first-time grandparents. Since then Max has turned us into a pitifully mushy couple that delights in dry drool, baby talk, and the smell of diapers that – how do I put this – bear inglorious evidence to the functionality of new life. We are over the moon over the guy. Oh, and by the way, he has parents too! Our daughter and son-in-law are precious in their new role.
Earlier this week I had a couple of hours with Max. Our conversation was spiritual, obviously.
A typical exchange:
Me: ‘It’s okay, Max, it’s okay.’
Max: Diminishing cries.
Me: ‘That’s a fan, Max. Do you like it?’
Me: ‘That’s you in the mirror, Max!’
Me: (sung) “I love you, a bushel and a peck…”
Max: Silence (with possible wincing detected)
Don’t get me wrong – there were whimpers, a few tears, smiles, and even some conversation – All in response to funny faces, peek-a-boo, chants of, ‘I’m going to get somebody,’ along with lots of ‘I love you’s’ and ‘Who’s the best boy?’ What a delight.
Max was appreciative, I could tell, because he rewarded me with what seemed like a gallon of hot puke on my shirt! Hey, what can I say? The kid trusts me. I put water on his head (baptism), and he put warm regurgitated, sour milk on my chest (the water smelled better).
Again, it’s all spiritual.
So what do you see in the picture?
Okay, so you know that he did the deed, but what you see appears to be a grown man who has just blown chow all over himself. The baby certainly isn’t indicating any guilt!
Well, there you have the gospel in a nutshell. God the Father vomited the full cup of His wrath on His own Son Jesus at the Cross, for us. We deserved it – Jesus endured it.
The apostle Paul puts it this way: “God made him [Jesus] to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God [in him]. 2 Corinthians 5:21
As Cannata and Reitano point out in their fine book on the Apostles’ Creed (Rooted), this is known as ‘the great exchange.’ Jesus took on our sin, shame and guilt, and we have been given His righteousness. It really is that simple.
This is our everyday reality, because shame and guilt feast on us like vultures on a carcass. And our natural response will always be to offer some form of our own righteousness. We are constantly tempted to fix our brokenness with broken resources, rather than to trust in Christ’s finished work on our behalf.
Here’s what I’ve discovered about shame and guilt. When they assault me, the first thing they aim for is my ego. Once that defense is broken through, I’m done. Because it isn’t humility that drives me to work out of my own flawed righteousness – it is pride. Rather than repent, and confess my inability to please God, in an arrogant denial of His love, I fight harder to force His approval.
But here is the problem, the inner condemnation doesn’t go away. My prideful resistance to admissions of weakness only weakens me, and haunts me with what I know to be true: That apart from God’s grace, I am hopelessly lost. Resisting this only cheats me out of the Father’s delight.
In the picture Max looks fine – because he is. Resting peacefully in the arms of his papa, he has no reason to believe that he should receive any condemnation, regardless of what comes out of his mouth – or goes into his diaper.
He is safe.
Friends, if you belong to Jesus, there is only one way the Father will ever see you.
Isn’t this our good news?
grace & peace.
December 5, 2015 § 2 Comments
“The Advent tension is a way of learning again that God is God: that between even our deepest and holiest longing and the reality of God is a gap which only grace can cross; otherwise we are alone again, incommunicado, our signals and symbols bounced back to us off the glassy walls of the universe.”
Rowan Williams, A Ray of Darkness
The other night Katherine and I saw Creed, the latest installment of the forty-year Rocky series. Without spoiling the story, it turned out to be arguably one of the top three of the series (but it would take a huge for-Rocky-fans-only conversation to explain). As we watched, I found myself overwhelmed with emotion throughout, and it dawned on me that it was because Rocky (played by Sylvester Stallone) is getting old, and he has been part of my entire adult life. Don’t laugh. In 1976 four of us were on a double date. We ate at a local favorite called LUMS on US-1 in Miami. LUMS was where I had my first beer with high school friend, Chris, after turning 18 (I can’t speak for Chris). On this night we planned on seeing King Kong, but dinner took too long and we ended up going to an unknown film (Rocky). And thus began the shared journey with this very down-to-earth boxer – until last night.
Okay the Christmas Tree thing. Two weeks ago I posted a pic of this year’s
tree. Another lifelong friend, Cookie, posted a comment that it was the same as last year. I was puzzled until I looked, and amazingly she was right! We basically decorated the tree exactly as we had a year ago.
And then there is Advent. Advent is about arrival, and it is accompanied by waiting and longing. We celebrate that Jesus has come, while longing for Him to return. Because the world isn’t right – all one has to do is read the headlines. The world is in torment and the fall is reflected in every violent, tragic and broken expression. So while we celebrate that Jesus has inaugurated God’s Kingdom by coming and has conquered the curse of the fall with His death, resurrection and ascension, we also anticipate that one day all Creation will be healed and heaven and earth be one.
Which leads to putting the three together…
In some sense, Advent too is always the same thing. Just as with our tree, each Christmas season is adorned with the same longing and decorated with the same songs of hope. It is supposed to be this way. As our storylines unfold the big story remains the same – and we need this. I need this. I need something that I can look to and find that it has not changed or the deep, unchanging consistency of God in my life – we all do.
So back to Rocky. You have to know that in the story he is old. Some say that Stallone should get an Academy Award for his performance (I’ve been screaming this for 40 years!). In nuanced ways, Creed, though a very unique movie, is beautifully and hauntingly similar to the first Rocky movie. And I think this is why I was emotional. Rocky got old. But the story didn’t.
So in a few weeks the ornaments will come down and get packed away until next year, one day after Thanksgiving when they are unpacked and put on a fresh tree for the new season.
It will be beautiful.
All over again.
And the story we have been invited into, though accented with fresh twists and turns, will still be about Jesus, who came and who is coming.
And this is good news, friends…
PS Friends, check out the Chapelgate website for a daily Advent Blog: https://cpcadvent.wordpress.com
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)
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…
October 10, 2015 § 3 Comments
Francis A. Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live?, 1976
Last week Katherine and I were in Nashville for a pastor’s gathering. While there we visited her Dad, who lives in a long-term care facility. We also visited her Mother’s grave, which rests in a national cemetery in a lovely setting in the hills of the city.
Something happened when we went to pay our respects. The guys caring for the lawn all stopped until we were done. They stood there and watched respectfully as we remembered, wept and prayed.
This past year has been a brutal one for American society. Riots in St. Louis (Ferguson) and Baltimore, and unspeakable violence in South Carolina and last week in Oregon, have left a trail of violence, death and tears.
Just a few weeks ago, the body of a beautiful two-and-a-half year old girl, designated ‘Baby Doe,’ washed ashore in the Boston area. Her body had been chopped up to fit into a garbage bag. The reason? Her mother’s boyfriend regularly beat her with his fists until one day she just died.
Political knee jerk reactions garnish coverage but don’t help because the presenting problem is never the issue. The issue is that we have become a culture that accommodates contempt for life whenever it intersects with our own comfort and convenience.
Millions of abortions every year, daily inner city bloodshed and violence, tacit support for veterans with PTSD, human trafficking, widespread drug abuse in the burbs and the exploitation of the poor and weak, along with the sins of corporate greed – all of these scream that we have become cold and indifferent, with no regard for our ‘neighbor.’
When will we wake up?
How many newborns need to be tossed into trash cans at proms?
How many elderly need to be neglected and mistreated in nursing homes?
How many babies need to be aborted and discarded, with bodies treated as commodities?
How many girls need to be sold into slavery?
How many war vets need to take their own lives?
How many people will we allow to mutilate themselves, and ease the tragedy by terming it ‘Gender Identity’?
How many massacres do we need to endure?
What will it take for it to finally sink in that we have become a society that settles for ‘arbitrary absolutes?’
Do we really believe God is fine with this?
Do we really believe that if we don’t see the baby, or name the child, or if we reduce PTSD victims to impersonal statistics, that we are any less culpable for this utter disregard for human life?
You see, I believe all these are interrelated. It isn’t many things. It is one thing. We have become so indifferent to life that we have ‘forgotten how to blush’ (Jeremiah 6:15).
And this makes me sad.
Listen, I know that the Church has largely failed. I know that politicians are self-serving. I know that extremes – to the left or right – are deadly to any semblance of a just society.
I’m not shouting. I’m weeping.
You should be too. Because at the same time we are accommodating our lifestyles and easing our consciences, we are killing ourselves and one another.
Oh, friends, I could go on and on, but I’ll close by taking you back to that cemetery in Nashville. Those workers could not have treated Katherine and me, and the memory of her Mom, with more respect and kindness – And this for someone who is no longer here! How sweet.
It struck me as we drove off that if we could reject the voices (including our own) that fill ‘that vacuum’ with ‘arbitrary absolutes’ and that are intended to ease our guilt, quiet our shame and accommodate our indulgences, with uninterrupted ease, then perhaps the ‘Baby Does’ will have hope in this world.
And this is what Jesus did. He rejected the voice that offered Him rule and power, acclaim and immediate satisfaction (Matthew 4), at the expense of His own comfort – for us.
What good news…
It is never about just me.
Her name was Bella.
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…
July 11, 2015 § 1 Comment
Eugene H. Peterson, Leap Over a Wall
Katherine and I were blown away by an unexpected gift from a college friend who sent us front row tickets to a Cirque du Soleil performance of Verekai in Baltimore this past week. The athleticism, strength, beauty and choreography were stunning. The music was mesmerizing and the set and costumes were beautiful. This particular production follows two people from birth to marriage, and ends with the wedding, replete with triumphant music, spectacular gymnastics and the falling of rose petals.
It was breathtaking.
I was reminded of Frederick Buechner’s description (in his book The Longing for Home of a visit to Sea World in Orlando, and a confluence of nature, beasts and mankind, leaving Buechner (whose birthday is today) with a glimpse of what God had always intended.
And this took me to Eugene Peterson’s description of his dad, a local butcher, whom he came to see as more than a guy who cut meat, but in this capacity, also a priest to their community.
In Christian circles we speak of ‘the priesthood of believers,’ which is another way of saying that every Christ-follower is called to be to the world and one another what Jesus has been to us, a healing presence that sacrificially loves and serves for the sake of others, out of a vision of flourishing that will one day accompany the new heavens and new earth.
John the disciple takes this further by saying that we are “a kingdom of priests to his [speaking of Jesus] God and Father…”
When you put it all together (because it is all intended to be so) we find that our vocations, along with our natural surroundings and abilities are all woven into a larger mosaic of beauty that not only displays hope before a broken world, but one that also reaches the Father who is every bit as invested (and more) as we are in the promise of new things.
Friends, as stunning as Cirque du Soleil was, this is even more so…