Of Advent, Christmas Trees & Rocky

December 5, 2015 § 2 Comments

Trees“The Advent tension is a way of learning again that God is God: that between even our deepest and holiest longing and the reality of God is a gap which only grace can cross; otherwise we are alone again, incommunicado, our signals and symbols bounced back to us off the glassy walls of the universe.”

Rowan Williams, A Ray of Darkness

The other night Katherine and I saw Creed, the latest installment of the forty-year Rocky series. Without spoiling the story, it turned out to be arguably one of the top three of the series (but it would take a huge for-Rocky-fans-only conversation to explain). As we watched, I found myself overwhelmed with emotion throughout, and it dawned on me that it was because Rocky (played by Sylvester Stallone) is getting old, and he has been part of my entire adult life. Don’t laugh. In 1976 four of us were on a double date. We ate at a local favorite called LUMS on US-1 in Miami. LUMS was where I had my first beer with high school friend, Chris, after turning 18 (I can’t speak for Chris). On this night we planned on seeing King Kong, but dinner took too long and we ended up going to an unknown film (Rocky). And thus began the shared journey with this very down-to-earth boxer – until last night.

Okay the Christmas Tree thing. Two weeks ago I posted a pic of this year’s
tree. Another lifelong friend, Cookie, posted a comment that it was the same as last year. I was puzzled until I looked, and amazingly she was right! We basically decorated the tree exactly as we had a year ago.

And then there is Advent. Advent is about arrival, and it is accompanied by waiting and longing. We celebrate that Jesus has come, while longing for Him to return. Because the world isn’t right – all one has to do is read the headlines. The world is in torment and the fall is reflected in every violent, tragic and broken expression. So while we celebrate that Jesus has inaugurated God’s Kingdom by coming and has conquered the curse of the fall with His death, resurrection and ascension, we also anticipate that one day all Creation will be healed and heaven and earth be one.

Which leads to putting the three together…

In some sense, Advent too is always the same thing. Just as with our tree, each Christmas season is adorned with the same longing and decorated with the same songs of hope. It is supposed to be this way. As our storylines unfold the big story remains the same – and we need this. I need this. I need something that I can look to and find that it has not changed or the deep, unchanging consistency of God in my life – we all do.

So back to Rocky. You have to know that in the story he is old. Some say Rockythat Stallone should get an Academy Award for his performance (I’ve been screaming this for 40 years!). In nuanced ways, Creed, though a very unique movie, is beautifully and hauntingly similar to the first Rocky movie. And I think this is why I was emotional. Rocky got old. But the story didn’t.

So in a few weeks the ornaments will come down and get packed away until next year, one day after Thanksgiving when they are unpacked and put on a fresh tree for the new season.

It will be beautiful.

All over again.

And the story we have been invited into, though accented with fresh twists and turns, will still be about Jesus, who came and who is coming.

And this is good news, friends…

peace.

PS Friends, check out the Chapelgate website for a daily Advent Blog: https://cpcadvent.wordpress.com

Happy Birthday Old Cutler! (aka It’s all local)

November 7, 2015 § 3 Comments

OCPC Outside

“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.

Fifty years!

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.

Through OCPC…

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.

peace.

(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)

OCPC Cross

A Place to Stand

October 17, 2015 § Leave a comment

World Relief“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” Jesus, Matthew 5:7

I recently had the privilege of visiting with the Senior Vice President of World Relief’s North American operation. World Relief is a global non-profit organization, based in Baltimore, and committed to caring for the weak and needy around the world, whether for orphans, for immigrants, for victims of natural disaster, or those lost in the horrors and brutality of human trafficking. Years ago, when our church in Miami planted a church in ‘Little Havana,’ the ‘landing place’ for many immigrants from Latin America, World Relief had an office where we started the work. That office remains today, and as you can imagine, has processed innumerable refugees through the years, offering legal advice, guidance for green cards, citizenship, etc.

At the heart of World Relief’s mission is the gospel’s call to the Church with the singular thrust that the strong have been made – by God – stewards of the weak. I am convinced that if the Church fails, all is lost. Every other system that attempts to care for the poor, the weak and the underprivileged has some underlining political agenda that eventually fails the very people they attempt to serve, and often lines the pockets and reputations of those who champion these causes.

World Relief’s Vision Statement is Stand/For The Vulnerable.

Last night Katherine and I shared a meal with a young couple that is committed to mentoring young people from Baltimore’s Inner City whose lives are racked with heartache, brokenness and poverty. They give what they can: safe harbor, school clothing and supplies – and love. They stand for the vulnerable.

This morning I ran into one of our Members (okay it was at Dunkin Donuts – what can I say?). He leads a team that regularly meets with folks at New Song Church in Sandtown, the neighborhood ravaged by fire and riots earlier this year. New Song drives the agenda, but together they are working through ideas to generate commerce in the neighborhood so that the dollar will remain there, and hopefully begin to break the pattern of violence, hopelessness and sorrow that most of us in the burbs can’t fathom possible. They stand for the vulnerable.

We have a friend in Miami who, when she and her family attended a downtown church, for years, drove an hour away from her home, to the slums of Little Haiti, to bring children to church and later that week to Youth Group. In between she and her husband kept in touch, provided for needs and loved well. They stood for the vulnerable.

‘Blessed are the Merciful,’ was Jesus version of, ‘Blessed are they who stand for the vulnerable.’ Every word, action and encounter exemplified this during His ministry, all the way to the Cross, where He died for us – the vulnerable.

Who more than Christians, know the relief of being forgiven a debt one could never repay?

We have been given much – in order to be to the world what Christ has been to us. It really is that simple. And when those we serve feel our touch, it will be as though they have encountered Jesus Himself.

What good, hopeful news…

peace.

a Trajectory for Flourishing

September 19, 2015 § 1 Comment

Shirts“To love, and to lose what we love, are equally things appointed for our nature. If we cannot bear the second well, that evil is ours.”

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 Baltimoreleft 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…

peace.

the Beautiful Priesthood

July 11, 2015 § 1 Comment

Cirque d Soleil“My father was a priest in our butcher shop, and I was with him, doing priestly work. Our butcher shop was a place of blessing.”

Eugene H. Peterson, Leap Over a Wall

Katherine and I were blown away by an unexpected gift from a college friend who sent us front row tickets to a Cirque du Soleil performance of Verekai in Baltimore this past week. The athleticism, strength, beauty and choreography were stunning. The music was mesmerizing and the set and costumes were beautiful. This particular production follows two people from birth to marriage, and ends with the wedding, replete with triumphant music, spectacular gymnastics and the falling of rose petals.

It was breathtaking.

I was reminded of Frederick Buechner’s description (in his book The Longing for Home of a visit to Sea World in Orlando, and a confluence of nature, beasts and mankind, leaving Buechner (whose birthday is today) with a glimpse of what God had always intended.

And this took me to Eugene Peterson’s description of his dad, a local butcher, whom he came to see as more than a guy who cut meat, but in this capacity, also a priest to their community.

In Christian circles we speak of ‘the priesthood of believers,’ which is another way of saying that every Christ-follower is called to be to the world and one another what Jesus has been to us, a healing presence that sacrificially loves and serves for the sake of others, out of a vision of flourishing that will one day accompany the new heavens and new earth.

John the disciple takes this further by saying that we are “a kingdom of priests to his [speaking of Jesus] God and Father…”

When you put it all together (because it is all intended to be so) we find that our vocations, along with our natural surroundings and abilities are all woven into a larger mosaic of beauty that not only displays hope before a broken world, but one that also reaches the Father who is every bit as invested (and more) as we are in the promise of new things.

Friends, as stunning as Cirque du Soleil was, this is even more so…

peace.

Broken Tiles

June 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

Mural
“…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…

peace.

Let’s Stop and Remember

May 23, 2015 § Leave a comment

Arlington“At the heart of the cross is Christ’s stance of not letting the other remain an enemy and of creating space in himself for the offender to come in.”

Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace

It is Memorial Day weekend. As a Christ-follower it is not uncommon for me to find myself involved in a conversation over the merits and sadnesses of war. No one I know would argue that every war the US has been involved in was what the Church father Augustine would call ‘just.’ But this weekend is not about that. It is to remember that many made the ‘ultimate sacrifice’ for their country in giving their lives.

Through years and generations our Nation has found itself embroiled in warfare, whether in world wars, regional conflicts, or even a Civil War. Everyone knows the sick, heartbreaking feeling of watching flag-draped caskets unloaded from transport planes. A simple history lesson of Gettysburg is enough to elicit the deepest of emotions over lives lost. Sacrifice is nobel, but death is brutal.

Each time a friend’s child or spouse goes overseas to fight, we hold our collective breath for fear that the worst news will one day find its way home to their families. I hate that. WreathsWe all do.

But this weekend, let’s put the debate aside. Let’s thank God for those who gave ‘their last full measure of devotion.’ Let’s honor their sacrifices and long together for the day when all wars will end.

Let’s not get lost in political madness and philosophical diversions. Let’s not argue the merits of war versus pacifism. Let’s not be ‘Hawks’ or ‘Doves,’ Liberals or Conservatives. Let’s just stop and acknowledge that many have died. To their parents, their siblings and their children, loss is loss.

If you have ever visited the Viet Nam wall, then you know that one can hardly do so without discovering elderly parents or aging spouses and children – in tears – revisiting their grief and loss over the sacrifice of their loved ones.

MonumentSo let’s reflect on the fact our daughters and sons have given themselves for others, and let’s acknowledge that we are the beneficiaries of their sacrifices, and be thankful.

Together let’s believe that it wasn’t political posturing, or bloodlust that drew these precious individuals, but the sincere belief that even if they died, their sacrifice would have counted for something towards a more peaceful world.

And in remembering what has been given by men and women through the years in war and conflict, here in this broken, and often war-torn world, let’s consider Jesus, who ensures that one day all wars will cease, and because in Him, our war with the Father has been settled.

In His Sacrifice…

This is our good news.

Happy Memorial Day.

peace.

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