August 16, 2014 § 38 Comments
“Robin Williams attended City Church in fall of 2006 when I was preaching through the Apostle’s Creed. He confessed the faith of the church and shuffled up for communion with everybody else needing grace. He was always kind to those around him. I know from other friends of his in the Bay Area what a generous, humble, and charitable man he was and his death saddens me greatly today. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.”
Fred Harrell, Sr. Pastor, City Church San Francisco
Robin Williams’ death has rocked me. Yes, I’m a Christ-follower and minister, and in God’s story, no one person is greater or better than the next. He was addicted to alcohol – I know this too. And I already know that suicide is not only an act of desperation, but also one of selfishness.
All this is true, and more. But for some reason, in the brilliant offerings and characters of this extraordinary comic and actor, it is as though Williams’ sorrows somehow connected with my own. Whether a magnificent iconoclastic English teacher, a distant Dad reminded of love and joy and family, a son who longed for the courage to face his own terrors – and father, or a caring Therapist, Williams drew me in like few have.
Through great writing, roles and directing – but also in his own pathos – Williams tapped into something deep within. When his heart broke over the suicide of one of his students in Dead Poets Society, it was real. When he finally refused to run from the hunter who chased him for years, in Jumanji, it was as though all of us finally grew up and stopped running. In Hook, when he told Jack, his son, that he was his ‘happy thought,’ my heart swelled for our own children.
I think it was more than acting, but a man who wanted to believe there is hope past one’s own sorrows and demons. I am sad for him and all who wrestle with the darkness of such depression that wrecks that hope.
Fortunately, as selfish, damaging or cowardly as it may be, for those who belong to Jesus, suicide holds no power over the gospel. It is a sin, but it isn’t unforgiveable, any more than my own cowardice, selfish ways and damaging actions. We believe that nothing can separate us from God’s love – not even us (Romans 8).
I am sure that when I was fresh out of seminary, and filled with self-righteous zeal, that I would have written some pietistic essay on why Williams could not have possibly entered the Kingdom, but I would have been wrong.
Instead, I am comforted by the words of his pastor, and my friend.
And though I didn’t know Robin Williams, I will miss him.
But better, and in spite of his flaws – and mine – I hope to one day see him – and you – at the Feast.
Wouldn’t that be sweet.
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…
July 26, 2014 § Leave a comment
“…I would advise you against defensiveness on principle. It precludes the best eventualities along with the worst. At the most basic level, it expresses a lack of faith… And often enough, when we think we are protecting ourselves, we are struggling against our rescuer.”
Marlilynne Robinson, Gilead
There is an ice-cream shop at the beach we visit each year that smells heavenly as one walks by. It emits a delicious aroma that undoubtedly draws many in. However, this year on one occasion, I turned the corner the shop is on, only to be hit with the foulest of smells. On the ground, puddling along the building was the nasty water that obviously drains from the shop – the county fair puddle kind of smell that one can barely endure in between nausea-inducing rides.
Reflecting on that odorous moment, I am reminded that we can be like that little shop. We have a beautiful side that we want everyone to notice and embrace. But we also have another side.
Dare I say, a stinky side…
All kinds of experiences, flaws and encounters contribute, and unfortunately our tendency is to not only hide this side, but to live, act and relate as though it doesn’t even exist.
Which is ludicrous.
I have found that the relationships that we hold most dear are those in which we have entrusted some glimpse into our ugliness. In fact, the reality of our flaws and blemishes is the only point of commonality we share.
Other than Jesus.
In other words, our stinky side, and the One who has delivered us from its lasting effects, are what unite us. They are what inform our spirits that we are not alone.
That we don’t have to hide.
That we are safe.
You would think this to be a no-brainer, yet the instinct to self-defend is powerful, and every chink in my armor serve as temptations to protect, pretend and hide, when all along the gospel screams that they are God’s invitations for me to enjoy the dance of intimacy with a world that shares my brokenness.
And hiding only diminishes me.
So back to the Ocean. It is not merely the surface and horizon, but the depths, and perilous realities, the mysteries and dangers, that make it magnificent. The depths shape its lovely colors. The creatures fill it with beautiful diversity. Its mysteries draw us into the wonder of God.
It can’t be what it is, without all that it is.
And neither can we.
But the Father already knows this. And by His grace, in Jesus He has embraced that most ugly, stinky part of us, in forming us into something lovely, flaws and all, until He comes and makes everything new.
Friends, this is our good news…
June 21, 2014 § 1 Comment
“The feeling was so strong that I actually turned on the light for a moment to make sure no one was there – of course, there wasn’t. But after a while, in the dark again, I knew beyond any doubt that it was Jesus.”
Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies
This past week we were in the vast city of Houston, in Texas. ‘Vast’ is an understatement. Houston is the fourth largest city in the US, and will likely soon be third behind New York and LA. It is huge. Taking pics of Houston from the top of our hotel reminded me that each of the thousands of lights (perhaps tens of thousands) represented people and stories. There are living spaces where individuals and families make their homes, hotels that are filled with visitors, and spaces where temptation, violence and loneliness often make hay with its victims. There are offices where money is won and lost and careers are launched and ruined, and streets on which the rich drive and the homeless wander.
Houston is also a hub for human trafficking in the US, where untold numbers of people are forced into the sex and drug trades, and cast into anonymity by the sheer power of evil. It isn’t only Houston. Our church is involved in an important ministry that fights this same horrid reality in Baltimore.
In some ways a large city is a microcosm of life. Our stories are always deeper and more layered than we show on the surface, and the ‘beautiful lights’ sometimes mask the hiding we enter into for fear of being exposed and seen at our worst. Our ‘worst’ is always there. It isn’t that the beautiful stuff sometimes replaces the ugly things. So my tendency is to hide just like the next person.
But all along, I want to be found. I want to be found because deep within I know that unless I am seen and accepted at my worst, I can’t truly be loved, and I can’t feel whole.
This is our terrifying tension. We hide, but we want to be discovered. We want to be safe, but we want safety in truth and acceptance. We want to be clean but we feel safer in our guilt. Deep down we want someone to see our brokenness and love us in spite of the wreckage.
In some way, this is why I rest in the Sovereignty of a God who actually pursues and finds us before we have any inclination to care about Him. We are far too insecure to risk exposure.
So God finds us, in the darkest places we hide, and in Jesus He assures us that with complete clarity, He sees us and loves us as we are and have been, and that he has ‘drawn us with unfailing kindness’ (Jeremiah 31:3).
Friends, this is good news…
May 3, 2014 § 2 Comments
Craig G. Bartholomew, Where Mortals Dwell
Each Saturday morning I spend a few hours in the Starbucks at our local mall. If you have followed this blog for any time then you know that I refer to it as ‘my Starbucks.’ It is an affectionate term for a ‘place’ that has become part of my own weekly rhythm, replete with familiar faces. There is the manager who only ever wears short pants, even on winter’s coldest days. He hid patrons and staff in the back room when gunshots rang throughout the mall earlier this year. An older English gentleman who teaches yoga in apartment communities is a regular, and sings along whenever old Rock & Roll plays. The other day he stumped me on a Donovan song (though he wasn’t entirely certain it was Donovan). There is an environmental engineer who is on a personal search for life and faith. We talk weekly, and can finally remember each other’s names. And then there is the young cop, a Member of our church, whose beat includes the Mall. He often meets with other officers at my Starbucks, and when he does, we embrace and catch up on his wife and little children.
Having spent our early years in Youth Ministry, Katherine and I learned that it was important to look out for young people who seemed ‘out of place.’ They were lonely and didn’t quite fit into the categories their fellow students had established for that ‘community.’ Forcing acceptance was the worst thing we could do for either party because finding one’s ‘place’ is more about coming to terms with who we are before Christ. That isn’t an easy thing to teach young people, much less to embrace for ourselves.
Jesus’ promise to be with us ‘always’ (Matthew 28:20) is more than a kind parting sentiment. It is the radical promise that ‘place’ was never intended to be a moving target dictated by social status, personal wealth or religious savvy, but in a relational reality that transcends time, space and circumstance. Because of Jesus, every location in which we find ourselves, whether a coffee shop, a sanctuary, a brewery, a prison or a home – is sacred… because He is there.
Jesus is our Place, and this means that regardless of where our journey takes us, we belong…
What good, sweet news.
April 19, 2014 § 1 Comment
Fred Harrell, Sr. Pastor, City Church San Francisco
In just a few hours our church grounds will be swarmed and traversed by hundreds of children in search of even more goodies that have been hidden in plain sight at our annual Easter Egg Hunt. It is one of the more delightful things we do during the Easter season at our church, and a sweet interlude in the reflective observance of Jesus’ death. It occurs on the day that commemorates Jesus’ last day in the tomb before the Resurrection, and I have to think that the joyful laughter of children is a fitting expression of our confidence that Jesus didn’t remain in the grave.
This past January our community was rocked by a senseless shooting at the mall from which I post this blog. Understandably the Zumiez store shut down. But I was glad to recently notice that they are undertaking whatever restoration work is needed to once again open their doors to the public.
Though I’m not quite certain what was going on in the grave on that day before the Resurrection, or the day before for that matter, I do know that it was good, and that there is something in the silence that is good for my soul.
In some way it is representative of our lives here on this still-injured planet as we await Jesus’ return. We are His, and we are redeemed, but we wait, trusting that His healing work continues, even when undetectable.
While the Cross insures that our sins have been paid for, and the Resurrection that our eternity is secure, it is the Grave that hits me where I am, every day in the struggle, and reminds me that I can hang in there.
I can hang in there through the adversity.
I can hang in there when I am weak.
I can hang in there when my sin drives me to fall before the Throne in sorrow.
I can hang in there when I am assaulted by doubt and unbelief.
I can hang in there even when I don’t want to hang in there.
“…he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us…” – Hosea 6:1a-2b
I can hang in there, that is, I can trust Him, because on that quiet day, Jesus lay in the Grave. But He didn’t stay there.
And this means that even God’s silence is saturated with healing properties that bear testimony to the fact that the Father delights in calling us His.
So I can hang in there. And so can you.
What good news…
April 18, 2014 § Leave a comment
“The ‘problem of evil’ is not simply or purely a ‘cosmic’ thing; it is also a problem about me. And God has dealt with that problem on the cross of his Son, the Messiah… The cross is the place where, and the means by which, God loved us to the uttermost.” N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God
We will soon gather for our Good Friday service. There will be readings, song, prayer, silence, even incense, and then one of our pastors will nourish our souls as he reflects on Jesus and His Cross. One of the things that strikes me in the gospel is that it never gets old. Last month Katherine and I saw the Eagles in concert. This summer we will hear Billy Joel and James Taylor. We love these guys, and others like them. But sometimes as we are making our way home, we wonder out loud how many times they must have had to sing the same songs over and again through the decades, in countless venues around the world. How old that must get.
But not the gospel. No, it is fresh with each telling because every time we reflect on Christ’s great work we are freshly drawn into both the great price He paid and the amazing love He displayed on our behalf. At the heart of of John’s vision in the book of Revelation, is Jesus and His Cross. He is ‘the Lamb who was slain’ (5:12).
It is all so personal. In the Cross my sin was placed entirely on Jesus, the precious Lamb of God, our great High Priest and undefiled Sacrifice at one and the same time. The Father’s wrath was satisfied in the death of His very own Son, and my redemption was secured. I am forgiven. And with every retelling I discover new contours of my unworthiness and Christ’s amazing act of love, as though hearing it for the first time.
How else can we respond other than with Isaac Watts’ 1707 hymn, “Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.”
Such good news…
The Cross is the hope of Christians
The Cross is the resurrection of the dead
The Cross is the way of the lost
The Cross is the savior of the lost
The Cross is the staff of the lame
The Cross is the guide of the blind
The Cross is the strength of the weak
The Cross is the doctor of the sick
The Cross is the aim of the priests
The Cross is the hope of the hopeless
The Cross is the freedom of the slaves
The Cross is the power of the kings
The Cross is the water of the seeds
The Cross is the consolation of the bondmen
The Cross is the source of those who seek water
The Cross is the cloth of the naked.
We thank you, Father, for the Cross.
— 10th Century African Hymn
April 5, 2014 § 1 Comment
With a wedding to perform and our own daughter’s forthcoming wedding, my plan was to let the blog go today (translation: a vacuum of good ideas), but then, sitting in the office, preparing for the wedding, a post presented itself.
When in my office, I listen to music – anything from classical to classic rock, to present-day rock, to mellow tunes, to country, to show tunes, and everything in between.
This morning, as the classic rock song list played, Elton John’s Someone Saved My Life Tonight, came on. It was a hit in the 70’s (not mine – still making my way there!) from his Captain Fantastic & the Brown Dirt Cowboy album. I am embarrassed to admit that I gave that album to a girl I was dating (I wonder if I could get that album back)…
Back then, you had two practical choices if you wanted to listen to music. Either you put an 8-Track tape in the player in your car, or you listened on vinyl, also known as an LP Record. An LP is a big flat, pizza-shaped piece of plastic with grooves in it. An amplified needle would move within the grooves to produce the sound. The thing with an LP is that if it became scratched, then the song would skip.
As I sang along this morning, when it came to the place in the song where John sings the words, ‘…in my darkest dreams…’, whereas he continues with the next written lyrics, I sang along as I had when I would play my scratched LP. Even though the MP3 didn’t skip, I did!
At first I laughed it off, and was amazed that I probably haven’t sung the song correctly since before my LP got scratched. Then it struck me that when I am honest, deep within, I am prone to believe the lie that I am a damaged tune rather than the new song that has been composed into my life in the gospel.
It isn’t an acceptance of my brokenness, but a rejection of it. Or more accurately, a rejection of God’s grace, that in Jesus the Father loves me, and sees me and accepts me – as whole, which means that the song we will one day sing when heaven and earth become one, is already playing on my behalf.
What good news…
March 29, 2014 § Leave a comment
“God’s work to release himself from his suffering is his work to deliver the world from its agony… When God’s cup of suffering is full, our world’s redemption is fulfilled.” Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son
I had no idea that the extraction of a wisdom tooth could be so painful, though I consider anything done in my mouth while in the dentist’s chair to be an act of violence. I thought the guy was going to rip my jaw off my face! It was like he was going to crawl inside my mouth. Sure, I’m an unapologetic anti-dentite (though I denied this to him – he had tools and drills and stuff at his disposal – you know, live to fight another day, and all that…).
And then there was the pain afterwards. A few hours following the extraction (the term alone is enough to elicit screams of panic and shrieks of terror!), I had a late afternoon meeting. All I could think of was my poor mouth. My pain. Me! It was freezing outside and I was sweating and daydreaming of romantic encounters with Extra Strength Tylenol, holding my jaw in my hand, in agony (proving that I’m no faith-healer).
It didn’t help for our Director of Worship to ask, ‘Is it safe?’ (you have to know the horrific scene in Marathon Man to grasp the depth of cruelty in this person that amazingly, I call ‘friend’).
So it is with pain. It demands our undivided attention, reminding us that all is not well with our bodies. When in pain, it is difficult to think of anything else.
And mine only lasted a day. But the world has been in pain ever since the fall.
Just yesterday a friend posted his sorrows on the birthday of a son that he and his wife lost – he would have turned seven years old. It was so painful I could barely read it.
Pain puts us on notice: in our homes, in our relationships, our minds – wherever it touches. We are cruelly reminded that the world isn’t what it was intended to be.
Amazingly, in the Lenten season we actually celebrate Christ’s pain, because His ‘via dolorosa,’ was not only a path of suffering, but also the passageway to a healed world. One day, what we see and know and experience and avoid and collide with every single day – will pass.
This is the narrative we sometimes miss in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, when we reaffirm that though pain occupies a place at the table in a broken world, it will not be seated at the Feast of Jesus when He makes all things new.
What good news…
March 1, 2014 § Leave a comment
One of the last things I did before leaving our Mom’s home was to cut a timeline away from the kitchen wall. One of our daughters didn’t want it to be lost on new occupants. It had survived hurricanes, feasts, friendships, even death. Through 47 years in that home we would line up, back against the wall, and Mom would mark our progress. As grandchildren were born and grew the timeline became crowded with names and memories. It told a story that continues to unfold.
And while it would seem natural to begin to recount those stories, what struck me as I reflected on this is that God has been faithful – through years and crises, heartbreaks and growth spurts, through weddings, births, geographical moves and funerals. All of our names appear multiple times somewhere on that timeline because through the years we change. But God never has. He has remained faithful.
I forget this – daily. And I think it is because I measure God’s faithfulness against my own unfaithfulness, expectations and inconsistencies. I cheat Him of something that defines His very character, that He is as true to us as He is to Himself. His faithfulness is great, His mercies are new every morning, and His compassions never fail (Lamentations 3).
The fact is that I could look at each of those names and recall something that was happening when the measurement was taken. Timelines do this for us. We can recall moments, good and bad. But they are snapshots, and it is the video that streams behind them that tells the real story – that in good and bad, in weak and strong, in comfortable and desperate, God was there all along, lovingly tending His children.
The truth is that in my darkest moments, I cling to the snapshots rather than the video stream, and I build story lines that never existed. Even worse, in doing so, I undercut the real narrative, that in Jesus we have a God who did more than protect our story from disaster. Instead, He redeemed it, and then invited us into His.
Friends, this is good news…
PS Please read this profound piece from our friend, Jennifer Pett, who has been published on mamalode.com – you will be glad you did – it is lovely: http://mamalode.com/story/detail/clawing-my-way-to-calm