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)
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…
June 6, 2015 § Leave a comment
“…there is something beautiful and concrete and well-proportioned about tending that size of a garden.” David Brooks, The Small, Happy Life
Yesterday a mural mosaic was dedicated in a barely-conspicuous outdoor neighborhood service. The mural is visible to all who walk by the New Song Academy. It was constructed by the children of the Academy, under the guidance of a group called, Art with a Heart, a group that works in the City of Baltimore and teaches vulnerable children and adults through creativity. What makes the mosaic special is that the Academy resides in Sandtown, the neighborhood that was the flashpoint for the Baltimore riots in April. I have written about it here.
In a NYT OP-ED piece, David Brooks reported surprise at how many people responded to a survey, with the desire for what he termed, ‘the small, happy life,’ as opposed to what might seem to be more ambitious pursuits.
When I was in sixth grade, our teacher, Mrs. Hill, became weary with a group of us troublemakers. We happened to live in an area that was booming in development, and so she decided to take us around the community collecting tile for the purpose of making a mosaic for our elementary school, which we did. Over a period of months we stayed after school as she brilliantly channeled our energy into creativity. Eventually the completed project was erected at Coral Reef Elementary, like the one at New Song Academy.
One day, in response to His disciples’ request to increase their faith (because they were thinking big!), Jesus replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you” (Luke 17:6). Contrary to the claims of train wreck preachers who promise the moon and deliver disappointment, Jesus was simply saying, ‘Start small, because that is where we are.’ Put another way, ‘Start where you are, and offer what you have rather than what you don’t have.’
A cursory study of history will bear this out, whether with those who harbored Jews during the Holocaust, or others who have accomplished amazing feats of bravery, rescue, influence and impact. And there is always that ‘small step’ and ‘giant leap’ for mankind. Never do you hear braggadocio. Time and again we are introduced to humble people who merely did what they could in the moment. In the moment, the small was enormous.
Way back in 1960-something I learned that a mosaic is nothing more than a well-orchestrated outlay of broken tiles. It doesn’t take much for those seemingly worthless, jagged and often-dirty shards to become something wildly beautiful – like a scene from the coral reef, or a vision of a healed city. Every piece matters, and no tile is too damaged, in the same way that one simple mosaic on one part of one wall on one building in one neighborhood in a broken community can be that tiny piece that offers hope for something lovelier.
And it is for this reason that in Jesus God became small. Because we are small. Yet because we are adored by the Father, we are not insignificant.
What good news…
May 2, 2015 § 1 Comment
“I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Letter From Birmingham Jail
If you live in or around Baltimore then you know firsthand how painful this past week has been. One cannot have lived here and not be affected. My heart goes out to friends near and far who are from Baltimore – their sadness is palpable.
I offer these words as a white guy who has lived in relative safety all his life, and knowing that those I have loved and known these five decades may disagree, and possibly even be angry. I also offer this knowing that I bring my own prejudices, predispositions and fears to the table.
It would be tempting to opine on the dynamics of the inner city, injustice and the future, but we who live in relative safety, are better served to keep our mouths shut and listen. We don’t have the answers. Wonks, politicians, news organizations and bloggers think they have the answers, but unless they have lived in the City, they don’t. At night we go home to our safe neighborhoods. We sleep in the assurance that when we awaken, our world will be as ordered and secure as it was when we went to bed. We aren’t there on the ground. We don’t know how good it is or how bad. We don’t know the desperation and the vicious, endless and often violent cycle of poverty, firsthand. We make assumptions and most of those assumptions are wrong.
It seems to me that answers from afar, criticism and finger pointing, are false versions of ‘care.’ They create within us the artificial self-assurance that we have connected, but that isn’t real at all. And we can postulate all we want on ‘fatherless America,’ and responsibility and the ‘American Way,’ but this helps nothing. It does exactly what those who spout these things want them to do – it keeps me away from you and ‘us’ from ‘them.’
So it is better to listen and observe. This past week some of us had the privilege of spending time with old and new friends in Sandtown. Sandtown is ‘ground zero’ for last week’s riots. You have read about this neighborhood in this blog. It is among the poorest in the country, but also one of the most beautiful. In spite of what you may assume or have read online or heard in the news, the residents of Sandtown are among the proudest of any neighborhood I have ever met. They love their community, and no amount of national sorrow can match the sadness they feel collectively when it suffers.
The picture above was taken at lunch after a morning of clean up (most had been done by the Sandtown residents when we arrived the morning after the riots). It is of two guys, one black and the other white – no distinction – work boots and jeans – people who locked arms for the sake of a healed neighborhood. ‘A cord of three strands is not quickly broken’ (Ecclesiastes 4:12).
Years ago I learned from a friend who led Miami’s rebuilding effort after Hurricane Andrew decimated it, that one can either sit around and point fingers and complain about problems and perpetrators, or they can see possibilities and the beauty of a healed City, and then work together towards that vision.
The scriptures are strewn with examples of people who lived in the hope of future joy. After all, isn’t this who we are? We are a people who live in the promise of what will one day be. And we serve a King who came and on our behalf saw that same future (Hebrews 12:1-2). He personally entered into places where weakness, oppression and sorrow prevailed, and by His care bore evidence of hope for a city of delight, and human flourishing.
Friends, beyond our advantages, fears and differences, it is not what we have, but whose we are and what will one day be ours…
This is our good news and the gospel’s sweet new song…
April 25, 2015 § 6 Comments
Last week I posted about my Armenian heritage. Though my parents were Protestants and raised us in Christ, we ate the food, gathered with other olive-skinned Armenian-Americans, played the ‘Tavlou’ (backgammon), and shared that same peculiar ‘ian’ identifying suffix to our names. As I mentioned on Facebook, you don’t even want to know the names our grandparents, aunts and uncles had!
Our grandparents were born in what they referred to as ‘the old country.’ But in their teens they were ordered to leave home by the next day, or face death. It was part of the attempt by the Ottoman Turks to extinguish every Armenian from the region. To this day politicians and Turkish officials, in spite of the overwhelming body of evidence, avoid using the term ‘genocide’ – sad.
However as an Armenian-American, I have no bitterness towards our historical oppressors from that dark epoch. We are Christ-followers, we belong to a new community, a new race, and ‘better country’ (Hebrews 11:16). We too are a forgiven people.
I do find it sad however, that our government refuses to acknowledge the genocide, when in fact nearly 1.6 Million Armenians were killed in an attempt at this human ‘cleansing.’ It isn’t that I want validation from a President (or Kim Kardashian!). My identity is found in Jesus, Lord and King of all that is. No, my sadness is that such a refusal reduces the value of human life to political advantage, rather than in the integrity of compassion for the ‘least of these,’ a foundational characteristic of true justice.
And yet, as a Christ-follower I can see that even this horrible moment in history was part of a larger narrative in which our Sovereign God loved, pursued and found my parents, and many other Armenians, through Jesus.
My grandparents on Dad’s side emigrated through Egypt, where an uncle and two aunts were born, until they arrived years later in NYC, and settled in Brooklyn where Dad and his younger sister were born. Later Dad would meet Jesus in faith at a Billy Graham crusade in Madison Square Garden in 1957.
Mom’s parents came to the US via Iran, where they were detained for a time in an Iranian refugee camp before immigrating to Atlanta, Georgia, where Mom and her siblings would be born. But it was in that camp that they met a missionary named J. Christy Wilson, a man who would later become an influential Professor at Gordon-Conwell Seminary outside of Boston (I was privileged to meet him many years later). Wilson told my grandparents about Jesus, and there, in that Iranian refugee camp they met Christ in faith.
So while this will always be a sad epoch in history, the Father knows who we are, and in the gospel everything sad will one day be eclipsed by what Jesus has accomplished for us, and in what He will one day do when He makes heaven and earth one. Because in Jesus our winding stories, with their sadnesses, tragedies, celebrations, twists, turns and unexpected diversions, are all part of God’s hand in leading us Home, to ‘a better country.’
Friends, what good news…
February 21, 2015 § 2 Comments
Eugene H. Peterson, Leap Over A Wall
If you know anything about my work habits, you know that my sermon prep is a crazy time of prayer, solitude, music, study, distraction, desperation, and more prayer. It begins in my office on Thursday, and ends there early Sunday morning, with hours at ‘my’ Starbucks in between. This is my groove.
And when it is interrupted my world tips off its axis.
All of which leads to early last Thursday morning, when our daughter Emily called. She had a flat tire on a major highway leading into and out of Baltimore. Long story short, I ended up spending most of Thursday in a Firestone with a manager who reminded me of Newman on Seinfeld, in a community known as Reisterstown, just beyond the city. The store was situated on a loud, busy road. So there I was – no books, no office, no playlists, no groove!
Instead I was confined to a crowded room with strangers – you know, the people types. One lady was a night guard who worked the night shift. Another loudly cursed into her phone, enraged with a family member, while simultaneously giving us the play-by-play. Another changed her baby’s diaper on the chairs in front of the television beside the coffee maker that smelled as though it had been brewing for weeks. Game shows gave way to talk shows, and finally soap operas.
Somewhere around Noon I was expected on a conference call, and for an hour I walked around the store, in and among people, tires and furniture, and sometimes outside, in 14-degree weather. At meeting’s end, the leader asked me to pray. So, there in the Firestone, I got into a corner (pictured above), and prayed.
And when I opened my eyes, I was in a sanctuary.
Eugene Peterson writes of God’s people and how simple elements like rocks and animals, water, fire and hills were employed in worship when gathering and temples were not options. I think of Jesus, who worshiped early in the Temple, on a mountain in the morning, at the banquet of His betrayal, in the garden, and even on the Cross. It was never about perfect circumstances, and always about the very present God.
It turned out that I needed that place and those people and our daughter’s crisis more than I needed my office. The Father was at Firestone and He wanted me there.
It was in that Sanctuary that retail chairs transformed into pews, garage workers served as priests, customers became fellow worshippers, the seating arrangement, our confessional, our stories the liturgy, and the smell of new rubber combined with burnt coffee, the incense of our shared need.
Free from the ordinary, the world appeared a little clearer, and my sermon a bit less daunting. A letter I intended for a friend took shape, and heart. Texts with my wife, sermon notes, and thoughts of God’s protection over our daughter, songs of thanksgiving and praise.
Friends, find your sanctuary.
And discover once again, that it is the Father who has found you.
What good news…
January 17, 2015 § Leave a comment
Eugene H. Peterson, Leap Over A Wall
One thing that I’ve always loved in the scriptures is that God addresses people such as Moses and Abraham, as friends. And then Jesus does the same thing with His disciples (and us). In some way He gives us what every person can have in a fallen world where marriages sometimes fail and love often disappoints.
The fact is that we were not meant to walk through life alone. Even in the garden, when creation was perfect and he lacked for nothing, and before sin ever entered into the story, it still was ‘not good’ for Adam to be alone (Genesis 2:18). This relational piece was built into the human psyche. What we learn in the scriptures is that God Himself lives in community – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are relational beings, designed as such by our relational Creator.
The proliferation of online dating sites bears this out. The yearning to love and be loved, to touch and be touched is deeply embedded within every heart. Even when pain, past hurts and relational disappointments ice us over and leave us feeling cold to the idea of ever trusting anyone else, we still can’t expunge the desire to be loved. In fact, those who most stridently reject the need for love are often those most wounded by it, and secretly desirous that their defenses would be crashed through. The prospect of living and dying alone is more than any soul can bear.
The problem is never the longing – actually this is healthy and natural. But whenever the solutions begin with an idea of trust and intimacy that can only be satisfied by another person, then there will always be disappointment and heartbreak. I know you don’t need me to write this, but it is true that those we love are every bit as flawed as we are.
I’ll never forget when one of my dearest friends deeply wounded me. When I got honest, I realized that it had as much to do with my expectations as his actions. The actions weren’t the end of the world, but the expectations were ridiculous. Working through it brought real friendship. No relationship of any value can thrive in a vacuum. The ‘mess’ we bring to our relationships is like the needed bacteria we have in our own bodies – none of us are perfect, and if one of us were, love would be impossible.
Here is the thing, friends. Jesus is that ‘friend who sticks closer than a brother’ (Proverbs 18:24), the only one who will ever love completely.
Because He lived sinlessly and loves perfectly He is the first relationship, the watermark for all others. And this means that for all the times we fail those we love, and in every disappointment we experience, He will still be there, speaking the Father’s care into our lives, ‘face to face, as a man speaks with his friend’ (Exodus 33:11).
What good news…