a Christ-Sized Embrace

February 1, 2014 § 1 Comment

Mast “Come on. There has never been a sadness that can’t be cured by breakfast food.”

Ron Swanson, Parks and Recreation

This morning, upon entering the Mall at Columbia, the site of the unspeakable act of violence that resulted in the taking of three lives last Saturday, we were handed ribbons in order to join in unified sorrow, and to participate in a moment of silence at the time the shootings occurred.

Pain and sorrow exist in a broken world – and they always will until Jesus makes all things new, and everything is restored to what it was always intended to be. This is something we don’t naturally understand because pain is not written into our DNA. Deep within, we know that we were created to be whole, and pain threatens wholeness. It is a polluting element in a world that was intended to be filled with justice, flourishing and peace (this is captured in the Hebrew word ‘shalom’). We cry when we are sad, and ache when there is distress because pain, suffering and evil will never ‘fit’ our human impulses.Zumiez

Unfortunately the Church’s response often comes in the form of judgment and isolation, although Jesus did just the opposite. Rather than condemn, He came to heal, and instead of insulating Himself in self-protective seclusion from pain and suffering – even sin – He embraced it to Himself.

So until He comes and makes everything new, sorrow, heartache and tragedy will always be part of the human experience, not because of sins, but because of the first sin, when the beauty, loveliness and glory of the Garden were violated by Adam’s rebellion.

But because Jesus (the scriptures call Him ‘the last Adam’) has come and has submitted Himself to the very rebellion and violence that brokered the fall, the curse has been broken forever. One day every remnant and memory of the fall will be eradicated from the human experience.

In the mean time the Church is called to something higher than self-righteous condemnation and self-preserving isolation. It is called to imitate Jesus, who entered into this world’s pain and sorrow, and to embrace the brokenness He embraced, when He came for us.

Can you think of any higher calling?

This is our good news.

peace.

H3art

When Home Hurts

January 25, 2014 § 1 Comment

MSNBCTragic news has struck our community here in the Baltimore burbs. A fatal shooting rocked the Columbia Mall, where I write my sermons and blog each Saturday morning. Were it not for the fact that Katherine and I are speaking at a Marriage Conference in Atlanta this weekend, I would have been there.

But today, on every news network and, exploding on the Internet, the story of a horrid tragedy in our own backyard predominates. I am sick to my stomach and overwhelmed with sadness. The shards of our world’s brokenness have struck ‘home.’

It was only last week that we returned from Miami, my hometown, where we had our Mom’s funeral service. There were all kinds of sentimental moments in the experience. We enjoyed dear friends, ate the familiar food, cleaned the home we grew up in, took in the tropics, and returned to the last church I was a member of (pastors don’t retain Membership in churches).

But ‘home,’ at least here on earth in this sweet season in our lives, has become for us, Greater Baltimore. This place, this region – this home that we have come to love – is hurting.

Sometimes home hurts.

As we enter into adulthood we do so with all kinds of expectations for our lives. Our hopes are only good ones, and our dreams presume the distinct possibility that they are entirely attainable. This is how we think – and it is a good thing. We should interweave our natural longings for heaven into the people and world we live in.

Only this could transform what would be a most understandable response of repulsion, into a deepened love for a ‘place’ and people that have entered into a shared sorrow. In fact, I find myself anxious to rejoin our wounded community, and to get back to the church we have grown to love, the ‘place’ we now call home – and ‘my’ Starbucks – to freshly embrace what is now part of the landscape of our shared world. This pain has drawn me in.

And I find it inexplicably beautiful that the closer He moved towards His betrayal and death, Jesus’ love for His disciples became more pronounced – rather than less. I have to believe that His ‘joy set before Him’ (Hebrews 12:1-2) served as His promise of a one-day sweeter and deeper intimacy with His beloved friends.

This was the good news Jesus embodied.

Written with deep sadness…

peace.

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

Disconnected!

October 20, 2013 § 1 Comment

Morning

Saturday Morning – Normally a different post would have appeared early Saturday morning (today). Perched at my spot in Starbucks some roughly 390-word offering would have been launched into the cyber universe. Instead, I am writing from a gathering room in Manchester, Maryland where I am leading a men’s retreat for a sister Baltimore church, completely cut off from the outside world and without internet access, while listening to a group of guys argue politics over coffee in a town I have never been.

Of course retreat is the whole point of a retreat, but my instincts, habits and sensibilities don’t know this, so with ears and mouth engaged in a meandering conversation that will likely solve all the problems of our Nation (let’s not go there), my brain and fingers are writing a post that won’t be read until, well… now, I guess.

Sunday Morning – With the last of four talks delivered early this morning, I’m back on the road, just as clueless as to my location as I was two days ago. First up comes breakfast…Breakfast

Retreat is something you find throughout the scriptures, and interestingly, as with us, it occurs for many reasons. Jesus retreated to the mountains early in the morning. Elijah and David fled to the wilderness to save their skin. Peter retreated to his old profession of fishing to escape shame.

Regardless of the motivation, however, in each case God visited His people, and when He did, they experienced renewal. In fact, I remember reading in Eugene Peterson’s fine book, Leap Over a Wall, that for David, whenever he fled to the wilderness he was actually unsuspectingly running to God.

Todd After breakfast I worshiped with a friend in ministry in his relatively newly formed church (Do my hands do that?). The service was sweet and his message on target. God had found me… again.

Back on the road I was reminded that following Jesus is a journey with travels that find us in familiar territories, and also some unexpected lands. Our struggles, sins, fears and sometimes wobbly faiths all seem the cause of these wanderings, but regardless of how lost we may feel, and disconnected we may be, we are never out of the the Father’s gaze, nor without Jesus, who went on His own journey – and made it Home.

Jesus always finds us home.

Home

This is our good news…

peace.

The Encounter

August 24, 2013 § 8 Comments

Blind

The arms of the crucified are open – a sign of a space in God’s self and an invitation for the enemy to come in.
Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace

Last week, while in my Starbucks, where I write and think, the man in this picture entered into the mall. What distinguished him was that he was blind, which meant that his steps were deliberate as he navigated a complex he couldn’t see and only sensed with the aid of his cane, while walking among people and activity he could only hear. It all looked so tenuous. That is until the woman pictured here with him, greeted him, having entered from the opposite direction. It was obvious that each had highly anticipated the encounter, evidenced by their immediate delight and embrace. The joy was palpable.

Upon reflection I’ve concluded that at the end of the day this is what we want. We want a God who sees us even when we don’t see Him. We want a God who has space to take us in, a Father who delights at the sight of us (Luke 15:20), and who rushes to embrace us when He has every right and reason to be punitive. Yet my tendency every day is to ‘unbelieve’ the gospel, to journey back to the Egypt of my slavery to self, to buy once again into the notion that God could never love someone so damaged and unloveable. Don’t feel sorry for me – it is arrogance, not humility. Every day I want to be my own deliverer, and every day I fail.

That’s not how it works though. God is our Deliverer, and He did what the woman in this encounter did, in order to make His love credible – He came close. And His immediate proximity translated into the sacrifice of His Son.

It’s funny – initially I didn’t really know how to categorize this sweet moment, but I utterly enjoyed it, and maybe that is the point. It may be that there are experiences and encounters and glimpses and scenes that God simply wants us to witness and enter into for no other reason than to reflect in small part what He has done for us in Jesus, and continues to do with his children every day.

That in itself is good news…

peace.

The Feast of Hope

March 28, 2013 § 3 Comments

Last Supper This evening, along with many congregations around the world, our church community will celebrate the night that Jesus met with His disciples in the Upper Room for what is commonly known as, ‘The Last Supper.’ Borrowing from a friend who pastors a church in San Francisco, for the past three years we have celebrated with a soup dinner, worship and the Lord’s Supper. It is a sweet time.

On the most surface of levels that night could not have been more disastrous for Jesus. Not only did He disclose his impending death, but also He had to arbitrate His friends’ objections, internal arguments and despair. Additionally, it was in that room that He confronted His chief betrayer, Judas. Later that evening He would be arrested, and the next day, put to death.

And yet there could not be a more hopeful dinner party than that evening, because in the midst of the sad news, the disappointed friends and the torment to visit Jesus until He died, came a promise: “I tell you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matthew 26:29).

Though His friends could not see it, Jesus assured them – and us – that the end would not be the end, but the beginning that would find its greatest expression in God’s Kingdom. Interestingly this was the one and only feast that we know of Jesus inviting His friends to during His earthly ministry. This was His feast. I suspect that the food was incredible.

But it was only a taste. And by instituting the Lord’s Supper, He assured us that until the Kingdom comes and He once again sits with us, He will be our Feast.

Jesus will always be enough. What good news.

peace.

Floored by the Gospel

March 4, 2013 § 1 Comment

Van “It will be a fresh act of grace, of new creation, completing what was done in the cross, the resurrection and the ascension, but also going way beyond them in the remaking of the entire cosmos.”

N.T. Wright, For All The Saints

Forgive a belated post. I spent the last five days in Atlantic City, New Jersey, with a team of nine that did restoration work in a community ravaged by Hurricane Sandy. Three teams worked in three different homes, and one church. The before-and-after images of the homes two of the teams spackled, sanded and painted had to bring unexpected delight to the folks whose living spaces were invaded by the storm’s violence.

The team I served on laid a kitchen floor after stopping a radiator leak, first by constructing a sub-floor. The project involved a healthy chunk of time measuring and re-measuring every contour of the floor’s layout, then in cutting large blanks of thin plywood (sub-floor), gluing, driving screws, rolling, and then gluing again in order to situate the new floor into place.

For us novices, this installation was a two-and-a-half day project. Those who spackled, sanded and painted would say the same. Paid professionals would knock this stuff out in no time. We were doing our part.

Floor - 1 It will be years before Jersey and other affected states are able to finally put the storm behind them. More remains to be done than has already been accomplished. This is the way of such devastation.

But it is also the way of healing.

As we debriefed one evening, it occurred to us that this is the way the Gospel enters, in the way Jesus would simply enter into a town or village, and brings flourishing into brokenness, at every level – a heart, a life, a home, even a community. You can break it down further: Injured marriages, failing cities, broken relationships and damaged memories all heal in the same way.

Even if one could point to a moment, it is rare that everything happened in a particular instance. No, it is normally after many dynamics converge into a quantifiable point in time. This after brokenness was unearthed, damage was acknowledged, and deep need and despair were felt. The sub-floor of brokenness.

And then, healing came.

When we enter into a broken community, or start a new church, or encourage a hurting neighbor, we do what the gospel does – we come to them, not to fix (because we can’t), but to enter into a greater narrative in God’s work of healing the whole world.

Last week, in the process we met friends we may never again see until the Feast. But for them, and for us, the gospel had come in a fresh and beautiful way – to all of us, just as it always does – with salvation and healing, hope and renewal.

It comes to a world that will remain unfinished, a world populated with people equally incomplete – until Jesus finishes what He has inaugurated – until He satisfies every yearning, heals every neighborhood and reconciles every broken part of His good creation.

And this just floors me…

It is the good news.

Floor

Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Baltimore (AKA how the Super Bowl informs a simple Faith)

February 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

Raiders “…I stay in the shallow waters and skim the surface for insights and truths that are often passed over by the deep thinkers.”

Ruth Tucker, Walking Away From Faith

With Super Bowl XLVII just days away, the excitement and anticipation have built to a fevered pitch in the Greater Baltimore region. So pardon the simple musings of lifelong sports fan. Along with family and friends, I have entered into the excitement – much to the surprise of those who have known me for many years to be an avid, make that rabid, Oakland Raiders fan.

A simple visit to my office will reveal various Raiders paraphernalia, including my treasured, framed poster of the 1969 Oakland Raiders, the season Daryl Lamonica threw 34 touchdown passes and won the AFL MVP. My Dad secured this particular picture by writing to Al Davis, the Raiders’ owner, on Eastern Airlines letterhead. I could probably list every significant play, win, loss, player (including number) and moment in Oakland Raiders history. And I’ll never believe that Franco Harris’ immaculate reception/touchdown was legitimate!

So why allegiance to the Ravens?

The answer is simple – Because we live in Baltimore. In nearly seven years I have grown to love what this city loves, including its teams, its Inner Harbor, its food (translation: crabs, crab cakes & Old Bay crab seasoning), and most importantly, its people. I’m from Miami and love that city, though friends will argue that I never loved the Dolphins, which is true. But in 7th Grade you go for the coolest uniform, and no team’s uni was cooler than the Raiders’. I digress…

Years ago I had the joy of working with Rev. Bruce Reynolds in youth ministry – He and his wife Jeanette hailed from Baltimore. They were Baltimore everything, from the Orioles to the Colts (long time ago!). Bruce is now involved in a ministry of humor, faith and encouragement for churches, clubs and corporations. Neither would have dreamed they would settle in Florida, and we in Maryland. Not to mention that lifelong friend in life and ministry, Ray Cortese (also a Miamian), was as passionate for the Baltimore Colts as I was the Raiders. His Johnny U poster hung in our college dorm room.

It is worth mentioning that several players for the Ravens played at the University of Miami (the U) while we lived in South Florida – players we watched compete in the old Orange Bowl. And amazingly, one player for the San Francisco 49ers played at Katherine’s and my alma mater, Belhaven College.

In my simple universe there has to be something to this.

I think it is that the contours, shifts and transitions we face and experience are about a story God weaves us into during the course of our entire lives. People, places, interests and affections are never static. Neither is faith. We are put into particular settings just when God wants us there. And for His own reasons, whether to grow our faith, to insert us into another’s life, or for purposes we may never know, He is knitting us into a sweet narrative that before we would not have imagined – a picture we would never have recognized – with all the sounds, sights, smells, encounters, faces – yes, even teams – that help complete His work on the canvass that is our lives.

The apostle Paul saw himself as ‘becoming all things to all men,’ believing that being situated in diverse contexts and cultures enabled him to ‘do all this for the sake of the gospel…’ (1 Corinthians 9:19-23) – The temptation is to see this is as something God does through us for others, and undoubtedly this is part of what Paul is saying. But I’m not so sure it is only that. Could it be that He is working the gospel into us as well? I’m certain He is. And my guess is that wherever Paul was, at any moment, he was completely at home.

So my encouragement is to stop fighting and enjoy. Figuring out God’s reasons is like counting the stars – it ain’t going to happen! We’re way too linear to understand God’s plans for our lives. And every attempt to do so robs us of the joy of the moment.

And I guess this is my point. Wherever you are, for whatever reasons, God put you there, and through you He intends to be someone else’s good news, and they yours…

Go Ravens! (and Oakland, please, PLEASE, deal with your offense!)…

peace.

StaffRavensPhoto

More than Damaged Goods…

January 26, 2013 § 1 Comment

IMG_2619This week marks the 40th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision to legalize abortion in the U.S. My friend and fellow blogger Tom wrote thoughtfully and passionately on the issue in his current post and it is well worth the read. I want to offer thoughts on the subject with hopes that an often-disregarded dimension might be considered.

First, I am pro-life. I offer this humbly and with deep conviction. In spite of the Church’s often insensitive and clumsy way of dealing with moral and cultural issues, I am convinced and bound by the undeniable biblical premise that God alone gives and takes life. And I believe that every abortion ends the life of a living baby. I know how thoughtless this must sound coming from a man, when in fact it is women who become pregnant – I get that. Really I do.

But for the Christ-follower, male or female, this isn’t a matter of choice beyond choices that have already been made by the time pregnancy occurs. It is about God’s prerogative to bring life into the world and the value we are called to treat life with – Life we see at birth and life we recognize even while still in the womb.

And what this means is that neither politics nor gender issues are the Church’s rationale for such conviction. Which makes it all the more difficult, because I am convinced that we are not a political organization and have wasted far too much credibility in our often-pitiful attempts to play with weapons of the flesh rather than those of the Spirit. But we are called to something.

There is a peculiar verse in Exodus 7 where God tells Moses, ‘…I have made you like God to Pharaoh…’ (vs. 1). He could simply have given Moses a plan to execute, but He adds this little statement, meaning that Moses would essentially be the divine presence of God on behalf of an oppressed people – to their oppressor. He would give them voice. This is the way God works. He always calls on the strong to champion the plight of the weak. Jesus never failed to notice, care for and serve the broken, and He would pass this principle down to the Church in His simple words, ‘In as much as you have done it to the least of these…’

In other words, the Church has been called to recognize and champion the weak, the broken and powerless as if it were God Himself doing the caring.

Because He is.

The scriptures call this justice.

But here is the thing – I know women who have had abortions – old and young women – women I hold dear – women who love Christ and His Church. Hurting women – women who carry sorrow with them – years of sorrow. Someone’s daughter – Someone’s mother – Someone’s sister. Women who feel they could never share their stories with the Church for fear of being driven more deeply into shame. And not only women who acted out of their own shortsightedness and selfishness, but women whose parents were more concerned for their own reputations, and pressured their confused and terrified daughters into abortions. Women whose husbands and boyfriends declared that love would be abandoned if they had their babies. Women whose pastors agreed it wise to quietly put their troubles behind. My blood boils as I think of these sweet women. This is what happens when it is personal – and it is. I see faces and names – and that is a good thing. And this means that I owe something to the women I don’t know as well.

You see, their lives matter too. And no amount of railing and accusation on my part, or on the part of the Church, can make them feel worse about themselves than they already do. And why would we any way? What they need is what everyone needs, what I need, and what we so passionately proclaim – that Jesus has the power and desire to heal our wounds and forgive our sins. That none of us is damaged goods to the One who makes all things new.

Here is the thing, friends: If the Church has ‘been made like God’ to the weak, then it has utterly failed in her mission for not recognizing the fragility of these dear and wounded ones.

In fact, I believe the Church has forgotten this many times over, and in her zeal to stand for truth she has often insensitively trampled the sorrows of many, and has violated the very principle of the value of life that she claims to champion in the first place, leaving many to feel as though they are damaged goods we are trying to sweep the world clean of. And this simply isn’t good enough.

And I guess this is where I want to land. Because the Church isn’t called to converge on Washington DC, though it should be unashamed in seeking justice for the unborn. It converges at the Cross. And whether in the womb, on the ground, or near the end of life, the Church is bound to love the weak, and to do so with such force of love, peace and grace, that any would feel safe to come out from hiding and rush to taste the sweet, healing waters of Jesus, the One who became sin and shame for us, that we may be made righteous – through no goodness of our own.

That would be such good news…

peace.

Four Encouragements for the New Year

December 31, 2012 § 3 Comments

SunriseIn a few hours the New Year will be reality. The Mayans have been proven wrong, and the world has survived. Though this is in no way an exhaustive list, take the encouragements offered as musings from the heart of a simple pastor and fellow sinner who remains unfinished to the core, but redeemed none the less.

An Encouragement to Remember Who You Are (ala Mufasa in James Earl Jones voice in The Lion King) – The fact is that life is a struggle between competing forces that constantly vie for our identity. Each offers plausible shortcuts to all kinds of good things such as respectability, success, fulfillment and peace. But they require energies and compromises that we weren’t created to bend our hearts around, and in the end they compromise us, and others. So find your identity in Jesus – Christ alone offers unconditional love without diminishing our dignity.

Be who you are! God likes you that way. And deep down, so do you. Sure, you will meet with some rejection – that is an unavoidable consequence of the fall, but the alternative is to live in a pretend world that fools everyone except God – Oh… and the person you see in the mirror each morning.

An Encouragement to Live for Something Greater than Yourself – Katherine and I saw Lincoln this past week. It is worth more than the price of admission – an amazingly well acted, scripted and directed movie. What struck me was that Abraham Lincoln lived only 56 years, just one year longer than I have been alive. They were hard years, particularly towards the end of his life. But what he was used for in those years! The fact is that God put you here for a good purpose. It may be as simple as being a good parent, as public as holding an elected office, or as undetected as providing some faithful service in a broken world. Just determine to not come to the end of your life and conclude that you set the bar too low. Every instinct will tell you that you can’t do this, and you’re right, but as our Director of College & High School Ministries said yesterday, (Patrick Allen), Because God is faithful we have the hope of what will one day be. – Rest in that faithfulness.

So Live! Look past your short lifetime believing that what you do and who you are count for something larger than yourself.

An Encouragement to Pursue Jesus – Let me challenge you to make this a year to deepen your roots with God. Enter the adventure that is redemption, only don’t rely primarily on secondary sources – With the Christian life Relationship is everything, and our relationship with God deepens in His Word. Facebook is great for social interaction, but quaint spiritual sayings on pink or light green backgrounds are no replacement for journeying into God’s story, and ours. A simple admission may help here: I do ‘personal devotions’ only three times a week (sermon prep doesn’t count). It’s true – My life is crazy, and spending time in God’s Word is not as simple as a New Year’s resolution. Sure, I reflect on what I read throughout the entire week, and I enjoy a constant life of prayer, but when it comes to the discipline of bible reading, I give more energy and passion to those three days than I would under some formulaic system borne of guilt. And don’t deny yourself thoughtful authors who stretch your faith and challenge you to grow. God has revealed Himself, and Jesus tells us that He can be found beyond our natural layers of self-protection, not only in His Word, but also His World, the broken and weak, the lovely and beautiful. Expect Him to make Himself known to you.

So discover Jesus freshly! And hey, sometimes all we can do is remain near until He shows up. I am confident that He will in some way you never expected, and when He does, you’ll realize that He was not only waiting, but also pursuing you all along – even in your doubts.

An Encouragement to Love – God has put people in your life – people you know and people you don’t know. Love them well. Don’t let those you know just assume that you care. Care. There is nothing sweeter than being loved beyond obligation. Whether your immediate family or your church community, in the end, you will be thankful that actively caring for loved ones is not among your regrets. Give strangers the gift of kindness, signaling to them that no one is invisible to God. Jesus even calls our enemies our neighbors, so love the ‘neighborhood’ God has placed you in, whether faces are recognizable or not, and discover that the world changes in small, kindness-shaped bytes. And you may never know what unexpected charity brings to the recipients.

Here’s where it gets tricky. Trust me, you’ll be disappointed time and again by putting yourself out there, even by those you most love, but an unloved and unloving, calloused heart is no match for one that is tender to the risks of love. And somewhere along the journey, you’ll remember that God didn’t wait for you to clean up before making you His.

For the New Year, this is good news…

peace.

I thank my God in all my remembrance of you… Philippians 1:3

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