the Sweet Song of Advent…

December 21, 2013 § 6 Comments

Mom's Room “We matter to God. Inexplicably. Undeservedly. Even we dedicated Christians tend to forget this truth – or doubt it or altogether reject it – when we encounter trouble. It is difficult to understand why we matter, but we do. God is watching, listening to us, speaking promises into the cacophony of our worries and the certainty of their fulfillment into our most deeply buried hopes.”

Patty Kirk, Confessions of an Amateur Believer

For years I have been sitting here – at ‘my’ Starbucks – writing, reflecting, observing and praying.

In observing, I see weariness, weirdness, craziness and determination, in fellow regulars who have become friends I will likely never see outside these walls. And strangers. Strangers who walk by, and strangers who stop by.

We talk. Antlers

Many are desperately trying to survive and navigate the details of their lives. Some are actively searching, looking for meaning and purpose. They are in touch with their longings and can hear the music, but haven’t yet discovered the source.

All of them matter. Each was created in God’s Image, shattered though that Image may be by the fall. Not all have discovered the beauty of Jesus, but with tears, I hope each will.

As I write, my Mom is dying. She is a Christ-follower and woman of God, and when she passes I’ll write more. But on this the day of my sister’s 50th Birthday, my sense of awe is with her. Venus works in home health care and for a year she has relentlessly pursued a dignified setting for Mom’s passing.

The picture at the head of this post is of the bedroom she and my brother-in-law prepared for Mom in anticipation of her arrival. It isn’t merely a room with a bed, but a suite, with classical Christmas music playing, lovely family pictures, homey furnishings – and massive doses of love.

Mom is barely ‘here,’ and she can only communicate with a nearly undetectable whisper and nuanced facial expressions that we kids recognize as being uniquely ‘hers,’ yet this dying woman is being treated like a beautiful queen who has everything before her – and she is and she does.

She matters. You matter. We matter. God’s Image. How sweet.

The Advent longing is not a hopeless cry, but the song of redemption, a beautifully hopeful melody, whose music emanates from the humbleness of the manger and the conquest of the Cross, sung into the messy reality of our fallenness, which is precisely the point of Jesus’ entrance into the world.

It isn’t enough to say that God loves the broken. Stopping there leaves incomplete the fullness of the gospel. God not only loves the broken and has entered into our mess with forgiving grace, but amazingly, He also sees us as though we are perfectly whole – because in Jesus, we are.

Ornament

What good news of great joy…

peace on earth and good will to all.

Shared Sorrow = Shared Joy

December 7, 2013 § 1 Comment

Create Wonder “The goal of human existence is that man should dwell in peace in all his relationships: with God, with himself, with his fellows, with nature, a peace which is not merely the absence of hostility, though certainly it is that, but a peace which at its highest is enjoyment. To dwell in shalom is to enjoy living before God, to enjoy living in nature, to enjoy living one’s fellows, to enjoy life with oneself.”

Nicholas Wolterstorff, Reason within the Bounds of Religion

Until a fellow pastor taught me that God draws us into the shared brokenness that is our fallen world, I lived under the sad and selfish delusion that if all was right with me and mine, then that was enough. But this couldn’t be further from the teaching of the gospel and I will always be indebted to this dear friend because of his patient guidance.

Just this week Nelson Mandela died, and the free world grieves. It mourns because in his work to end Apartheid in South Africa something resonated within us. We were created to be free, and every person instinctively knows this to be true.

It is evident in the offerings of the culture (even in the DC store window pictured!). The best movies are redemptive. The sweetest writings echo compassion. The most passionate causes aim at justice. Even at Christmas I am freshly reminded of this in Stevie Wonder’s song, Someday at Christmas

Someday at Christmas we’ll see a land
With no hungry children, no empty hand
One happy morning people will share
Our world where people care

This is the cry of the prophets, perhaps no more beautifully expressed than in Isaiah:

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

(Isaiah 58:6-7)

At Advent we freshly enter into the collective brokenness of our world with a longing for healing. Until Jesus makes everything new, even our joy is incomplete unless it is expressed through the embrace of a shared sorrow. After all, it was ‘the joy set before him,’ that is, it was the joy of a reconciled and redeemed new world, that sent Jesus to the Cross.

With this in mind, He captured our sorrows in His own, our sins upon Himself, and our future joy in His resolve.

What good news…

peace.

Truly He taught us to love one another
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name

Adolphe Adam, 1847

Emptiness, Longing & Advent

November 30, 2013 § Leave a comment

Empty Mall“Our longings remind us of the essential human fact that we are talked and touched into life, and that a human race struggling to do all its talking and touching for itself faces a paralyzing unhappiness and anxiety.”

Rowan Williams, A Ray of Darkness

It is difficult to imagine that in a few hours this mall will be utterly packed with shoppers. Yesterday (Black Friday) was so crazy that I never got out of my car. Having no reason to be here other than to witness the madness, I just circled the parking lot a few times, then went home.

But now, in this early hour, it is empty. Quiet.

There was a day when I couldn’t handle emptiness or sadness. It was worse than idealism. Something within me actually believed I deserved life to always go well. I know, it sounds ugly – and it is, and it gets uglier, because it was rooted in a practical rejection of my need for Jesus.

It is Advent, that sweet time of the year when we celebrate longing, of all things. We celebrate because we know that Jesus has come. And every December we rehearse this cry in anticipation that He will come again and make everything new.

The temptation is to translate these longings into sad things, and to be sure, there is a place for sorrow in a broken world, but I think they are more than that. God put these longings within us, not as cruel reminders of despair, but to serve as hints of something better.

I am convinced that Jesus was addressing this longing when He told His disciples of His ‘Father’s House’ (John 14:1-6). It is an emptiness we will feel, sometimes in huge gulps, and other times in small doses – until we are Home.

And in this hope we are liberated to live life to the fullest. To grieve unashamedly. To laugh unapologetically. To love boldly. To give generously. To forgive freely. To serve humbly. To embrace our longings, and live!

We celebrate a God who satisfies us with Himself and not from a distance – this is at the heart of the Incarnation – God has come, in the flesh, and until He returns nothing will satisfy completely. And this means we can embrace every sadness and longing as daily reminders that God has prepared something better. Because in Jesus… He has.

What good news.

peace.

Oh, come, Desire of nations,
bind 
In one the hearts of all mankind;
Oh, bid our sad divisions cease,

And be yourself our King of Peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel 
Shall come to you, O Israel!

Translated by John Mason Neale

Christmas Day

December 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

Tree Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is Christ the LordLuke 2:11

The snow has fallen (you know I had to say something about the snow!). The Christmas benediction (blessing) has been offered. Gifts have been exchanged. The traditional breakfast has been eaten. We await friends who will come and share a meal with us this afternoon. Later, as per our family tradition, we will see a movie together. This particular Christmas tradition has always been a bit of a risky adventure – though also always a memorable one.

I am struck by how fast it all happens. Not so much in the I’m-getting-old-and-time-goes-faster sense, but in the sense that life really does go on. We don’t get do-overs and there is no slow motion for the sweet things. Everything about life happens in real time and speed.

And then we move on. We are 364 days away from the next celebration of Christmas.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not complaining or grieving – just taking it all in.

What I love is that we have is Today – this moment. It should be that way. It is what the shepherds had when the angels visited them – Today. Today promises that whatever hope Jesus brings with His appearance, it is enough in spite of all my yesterdays. Today is fresh. It is now. It is a completely fresh set of a day’s worth of seconds, minutes and hours.

It is what C.S. Lewis calls ‘the moment of all moments.’

Whoever I was yesterday, and whatever I did, though real and unalterable, will now be reconstituted by who and what I am Today – because of Jesus. And in this I have hope.

Because Jesus has come.

Let the just rejoice, for their justifier is born.
Let the sick and infirm rejoice,
 For their saviour is born.
Let the captives rejoice,
 For their Redeemer is born.
Let slaves rejoice, for their Master is born.
Let free men rejoice, For their Liberator is born.
Let All Christians rejoice,
For Jesus Christ is born.

St. Augustine of Hippo

Friends, this is our good news of great joy. Rejoice!

peace.

The Captive Liberator

December 22, 2012 § 2 Comments

Jonny The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound… Isaiah 61:1

I nearly subtitled this, ‘the post I hoped to offer before Christmas.’ Yesterday, a young man – a Marine – who was unjustly imprisoned since August of this year, Jonny Hammar, was released from a Mexican jail. Words fail to express the relief and joy that fills our hearts, and the hearts of many who are counted among the Hammars’ family and friends. With Jon, Olivia, Katie, and of course, Jonny, we rejoice.

As we celebrated yesterday, following an early-morning text of the good news, and since, I have been taken afresh to that stable where Jesus was born. Amazing. God was born. Divinity wrapped in humanity.

Jesus came and laid aside His divine prerogative, subjecting Himself to human limitation. Restrained in flesh. The Eternal One bound in time and space. Confined and imprisoned by geography, seconds, minutes, hours, years – a human lifespan. Omnipotence reduced to complete dependence.

Who would have thought this – that a little newborn would be mankind’s Liberator? Who could have guessed that a vulnerable and needy baby would one day ‘deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery’ (Hebrews 2:15)?

With our joy over Jonny’s release comes a continuing sorrow over those parents in Newtown, CT, whose sons and daughters will not be home for Christmas, and with others who continue to suffer the effects of violence and natural disaster. This sobering reality will never leave us, and our joy is always tempered by the harsh realities of life in a fallen world.

But with Jesus tragedy isn’t the last word. Don’t let the vulnerability of this baby be confused with timidity. That tender one is the Creator and Sustainer of all things. He came to wreck the broken order of a fallen world. Be comforted by a reality that transcends tragedy, lifespans and sorrow.

Friends, in Jesus God has come to liberate unfinished and desperately bound-up prisoners from their enslavement to sin, fear and death. His resurrection insures that even the ugliest expressions of the fall are no match for Him. And He has done this in the most personal of ways – not as a distant, indifferent deity, nor as an imposing and terrifying brute, but as a newborn who was destined to willingly shed His own blood in the violent sacrifice of His life, to bring Redemption, even for our tears.

Such good news.

Welcome home, young man.

Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

peace.

Until Emmanuel Comes…

December 14, 2012 § 1 Comment

Sorrow Oh, come, our Dayspring from on high,
And cheer us by your drawing nigh,
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel 
Shall come to you, O Israel!

This morning Katherine and I left for Pensacola, Florida to attend our daughter Emily’s college graduation, to be held tomorrow. Within hours we will be reunited with all of our children, including our daughter-in-law, and Katherine’s sister and brother-in-law, so you can imagine the joy that filled our hearts in anticipation of the weekend together when our jet took off. However by the time it touched down, 27 people, including 20 children under the age of 10, had been senselessly and violently murdered by a gunman who then took his own life, in Newtown, Connecticut.

I have no answers, only anguish and devastation. My heart is heavy. Before I am a pastor I am a husband and dad, as well as an often-confused Christ-follower. This shouldn’t happen – but in a fallen world it does, and will again. Even as I write, our dear friends in Miami await their unjustly imprisoned son’s release from a Mexican jail. And this on the heels of a mall shooting in Happy Valley, Oregon that left two victims dead and one critically wounded, along with the shooter, earlier this week.

After the initial sense of horror, we were filled with profound thankfulness for our children’s wellbeing, but also an even deeper sorrow, realizing that we will celebrate something with our daughter that these parents never will with their babies. Throughout their entire lives we have prayed for our children and their safety. We prayed when they would fall asleep in their cribs, when they began to walk and put everything in their mouths, while baby sitters were watching them, when they first learned to drive, and every time they were on the road after and since. We prayed for them when working late, walking in parking lots, in classrooms, on flights, and while in college. All along knowing that ultimately we are not in control and have absolutely no way of protecting them – that their world is just as fallen as ours – that their lives are just as fragile.

And now young dads and moms will have to identify their precious ones who will not be able to respond to their expressions of love and tenderness, nor dry their tears. Somehow these dear folks will have to figure out how to make sense out of the rest of their lives.

It is Advent. We long. We wait for violence and death and rage and illness and sadness to be gone forever, when Jesus comes to heal our damaged world and make all things new, where everything that is wrong is transformed into what it was created to be.

Our consolation is Jesus. We don’t hold on to something – we cling to someone, and only a Father, whose Son died so violently and publicly – for us – can both comprehend our deep longing, and understand our profound sadness.

And while we wait, the One who entered into our brokenness, has given us one another – to celebrate, to love, and yes, to weep, comfort and be devastated – together. He has also put us in this world, and permits and desires for us to mourn with those we don’t know – To love those we haven’t met – And embrace those we can’t touch.

So today, and every day, no answers. Tomorrow, with great joy we will celebrate our precious Emily. When she walks across the stage and receives her diploma, we will look at her in the context of what transpired today. We will weep with a deep joy for every memory and this mixed with a profound sadness for others who may never know such gladness.

Until Jesus comes, I think this is the way it is supposed to be…

Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

peace.

Santa Spotting @ Home Depot…

December 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

SantaCurrently 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…

peace.

PS Here is a letter Steve put out last month, that describes all he is doing.

A Holy Disturbance

November 30, 2012 § 4 Comments

Those who believe in God can never in a way be sure of him again… there is no place where we can hide from God, no place where we are safe from his power to break in two and recreate the human heart because it is just where he seems most helpless that he is most strong, and just where we least expect him that he comes most fully.

Frederick BuechnerThe Hungering Dark

Inertia is defined as ‘a tendency to do nothing, or to remain unchanged.’ In physics it is descriptive of something that exists in a perpetual vacuum of progress in spite of continual motion. But when applied to people, it can simply mean to merely exist.

This past week I was in Miami for three days. My Mom is in the hospital and on a healing path from a fall. While she was in PT, or resting, I met with old friends and drove down familiar streets, freshly reminded that nothing remains the same. If you are anything like me, in spite of the fact that I know this to be true, it is surprising each time it freshly hits home.

It occurred to me twice in Miami, the first when walking through Dadeland Mall, the highest per-capita spending mall in the country, and well-positioned in the southern ‘hemisphere’ of Miami. One evening I noticed construction of a huge new parking garage, and remembered the last time it was redesigned, and the time before that, and before that. Oh, and the time before that too. In fact, I remember the grand opening, and when the big shop to us kids was Cozzoli’s Pizza (also gone), as well as the famous dragon fountain across from Ferris Groves, the Venetian ice stand Jeff Jones, a high school classmate, and I worked at (both gone – actually Jeff and I are too).

But then, while at an intersection of US-1 I noticed a closed-down stand-alone store (pictured above). For those of us who grew up in South Florida few quick-stops were more endearing and convenient, than Farm Stores, those drive-through dairy markets with fresh bread, milk, butter, donuts and ice cream. Gone. Okay, I can understand the 7-Eleven moving across the street. But our Farm Stores? No!

Everything changes. Rowan Williams says that, we must be surprised, ambushed, and carried off by God if we are to be kept from idols. I think he is right, because until I am ambushed, my ‘idols’ tend to maintain a superficial splendor in my mind and heart.

If nothing else, the Christmas story demonstrates that Jesus breaks through the mundane. In His birth, and frankly throughout His entire ministry, once He comes, nothing remains as it was. Everything changes. In fact, it would be fair to say that no one can ever again be the same once they have had a real encounter with Jesus – for the first time, or for the one-millionth time. He constantly challenges the status quo while exposing our idolatries.

Which brings me back to Inertia.

My problems usually aren’t due to mistakes I make moving forward (which are manifold!). More often they are the result of my resistance to the chaos Jesus brings with His constant reentry into my life.

Deep down I want to be a stand-alone store that is never threatened by extinction – It must be part of living in rebellion of my unfinished nature. Even deeper, it is a refusal to acknowledge and let go of my idols. But in this resolve, subtly and unwittingly I become incrementally distanced from Jesus, and my fresh faith is transformed into spiritual inertia.

The cool thing is that He just comes. He is born. He enters. And with each fresh realization of this reality, in spite of my resistance (translation: fear) to His beautifully disturbing presence, along with a simple admission of that fear, comes the reminder that it was worth trusting Him again, for the one-millionth-plus-one time, because Jesus never comes to make my life less – but more.

And this is Good News of Great Joy…

peace.

Still Thankful…

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.

Happy Thanksgiving.

peace.

PS I’ll begin posting again two weeks from today.

Is Jesus > Religion?

January 19, 2012 § 5 Comments

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