The Morning Comes

September 23, 2020 § Leave a comment

“At times I am tempted to lose heart. But my good Shepherd is leading me toward life, not death…”

David Pawlison, Safe and Sound: Standing Firm in Spiritual Battles

Several of us were saddened the other day to learn that a pastor friend’s next-door neighbor had taken his own life. He didn’t know why, other than the fact that earlier this year his marriage ended in divorce. I can’t help but think that our current pandemic has figured into such narratives. Statistically, depression and anxiety are rising, as people have to process the uncertainty of work, isolation, family care, and daily life, in a time of COVID-19.

Dawn in Ellicott City, Maryland

As believers, we are not immune to human frailty. Jesus said that the rain falls on the just and unjust alike (Matthew 5:45). The world is broken, and whenever it suffers, we suffer with it. We are part of it.

What the scriptures teach is that we share a hope that takes us beyond the pathos of the moment – or even a lifetime.

It reveals that misplaced hopes will end in disappointment, even tragedy. And that making lesser things everything cheapens the undiminished hope of the gospel.

This is why, for me, and others in ministry, it is difficult to stomach health-and-wealth ministers that promise material abundance and miraculous healing, often as they exploit the weak, while padding their bank accounts.

Growing up, our neighbor contracted Leukemia. She went to a famous faith healer’s revival meeting, and came home convinced that she no longer had the disease. But she did, and eventually it took her life.

Did it ever occur to you that every person Jesus healed has since passed away? Obviously those healings were intended for a purpose other than lives that would never be interrupted by death or disappointment.

And they were – They served as snapshots of something far more visionary, beautiful, lasting, and hopeful than one’s lifespan.

The quote above is taken from the last chapter of a book that David Pawlison wrote as he was dying of pancreatic cancer. At the time, he was serving as the President of CCEF, the Counseling Center out of Glendale, PA, that has most imprinted our church’s Life Counseling Center.

In the chapter he writes…

“Now more than four decades later [since trusting Jesus], I am staring death in the face. Instead of my faith failing, the promise of a new heart holds true. God is still shining into the darkness of my heart to give me the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”

In the chapter he cites a passage in 2 Corinthians 4 that I memorized one summer during a personal crisis:

“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (vss. 16-18)

The promise of the gospel is not that we can escape this world’s troubles. That would be far too short-sighted of God for His people, and would only carry them until the next heartache or disappointment.

No. We have been promised that when all is said and done, and we close our eyes in death, through Jesus, and in the power of his resurrection, the morning comes, with unending joy.

this is our good news…

grace & peace.

Sanctuary

July 29, 2020 § Leave a comment

“A holy place is where we become aware that there’s more to life than meets the eye, and that the more is ‘other,’ Other. God, who is beyond us, is also at hand.”

Eugene H. Peterson, Leap Over A Wall

Not every sanctuary is built with human hands.

The photos in this post were taken from the Oconaluftee Islands Park in Cherokee, North Carolina. Once within its ‘walls’ the bamboo forest is transformed into a sanctuary of sorts. Curiously, this rapidly spreading growth is classified as grass. However, in maturity it manifests as a collective paneling of stalks that line paths and creates glorious corridors. Even more spectacular, this paneling allows light and splendor to infiltrate the enclosure it creates. And if that weren’t enough, the stalks of the bamboo are so tall that rather than grow endlessly in a straight line, at some point, they dovetail into one another, forming a magnificently arched ceiling – as though cognizant of Someone it was created to exalt.

Bamboo Forest, Cherokee, North Carolina

Whenever we consider Jesus’ retreat to the mountains (Mark 6:46), our inclination is to put emphasis on prayer, because that is what he did. But I think there is more – that Jesus used that space of time to recapture his own sense of awe at the beauty of the very creation he sustains (Colossians 1:15-17).

We think of the ‘good’ pronouncements in the creation narrative as declarations of perfection – and they are. Nothing could ever supersede the unblemished handiwork of God – it was good because He is perfect. But is it possible that God was also thrilled with the beauty that He sculpted out of nothing?

Normally, this is the time of year that Katherine and I return to the beach we have enjoyed with our family for 20 years – To soak in the sun and get lost in the sound of crashing waves, where cell phones cannot be heard. But this year, with COVID-19, and our home state a hot spot for all the wrong reasons, we decided to hide in the mountains. With few exceptions, we stayed to ourselves and were reminded of the grandeur of God.

The Bamboo Forest, Cherokee, North Carolina

Though not a substitute for the gathering of God’s people in worship, it is difficult to stand on top of the world, so to speak, and not be filled with wonder. A breathtaking view completely redirects one’s attention from the immediate to the eternal. It is a holy interruption of the noise and chaos of daily routines.

Sanctuary.

Whenever we enter into sanctuary, we are transported and dwarfed by the majesty of God, whether a physical church locale, a walk by the bay at sunrise, or a mountain vista that swallows us in its grandeur.

This is a good thing.

Entering into sanctuary makes us no larger, and no more capable of managing the universe. It rescues us from the delusion that we can. And lifts our gaze from the immediate to the eternal, transforming our fear of lesser things, into renewed faith, in the eternal God who came near, and became immediate in His Son Jesus – for us.

Friends, this is our good news.

grace & peace.

Running on Empty – aka a Post about ‘Something’

July 2, 2020 § Leave a comment

“What you thought mattered – what you thought was truest to the real you – often turns out to be empty and dishonest. You have to keep asking and keep looking; no wonder we hate it and find every excuse for not getting on with it.”

Rowan Williams, Where God Happens

A few years ago, as we returned to the Orlando airport with our rental car, we decided to play chicken. We had prepaid for a full-tank so we wouldn’t have to fill up at the last second, and we took full advantage of that prepayment. The only problem was that the car was running on fumes and threatened to stall within miles of our destination!

Strangely, we laughed with every passing mile, wondering how far I would eventually have to push the car should we run out of gas.

Early yesterday morning, after my walk and early coffee, I admitted to Katherine that I had nothing – no blog post and no ideas – zero! We are slated for some time off in the coming weeks and it seemed as though the tank hit ’empty’ just a few miles short of the rental facility.

Seinfeld – ‘A Show about Nothing’

On most weeks, the post is already largely written by Wednesday morning, awaiting refinement before being made public – but not yesterday. As Monday turned to Tuesday (when the idea normally crystalizes), nothing came. And since Seinfeld already used the idea of a “show about nothing,” even that was off the table!

I had all but surrendered to the idea of not posting, by the time that Wednesday (yesterday) came. But it turned out to be a ministry-intensive day, and, I was reminded that when it comes to people, brokenness has many faces, and that we in ministry have the privilege of speaking into hopelessness, because God intends for life to be something!

This is the marvel of Creation. In the beginning, God called everything into existence by His spoken word. The, “Let there be…” passages in the Genesis 1 narrative could not be more dramatic, because they represent what theologians refer to as ex nihilo“out of nothing.”

It is impossible for us to wrap our brains around this, because we have never truly seen the nothing-ness of nothing! Even an empty room has the substance of oxygen!

Hebrews 11:3 reveals that this cannot be arrived at by sheer intellect – “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.”

Those who follow Jesus find it hopeful that the universe is the handiwork of a personal Creator, and therefore meant for something. Every firefly and all the fish of the sea were handcrafted with intentionality, as were we.

For those who agonize over loved ones and friends that display not one ounce of interest in things of faith, they are encouraged by the fact that God can intervene and speak something into the nothingness of their spiritual appetites – even as He has done ours. And it relieves the arrogance of the notion that we can force-feed, guilt, or shame Jesus into hearts.

By contrast, every intersection with sin and sorrow is an attempt by the evil one to squeeze out the sense of meaning, joy, and value – the something-ness – we were created to embody.

Which brings us full-circle to my having nothing to offer yesterday. I could recite all kinds of reasons it didn’t happen (COVID-19 is always convenient!), but at the end of the day, whenever I am running on empty, it has less to do with workload and exhaustion, and more with how I mismanage the affairs of my heart and the priorities of my life before the Throne.

In fact, a bird’s eye view would probably reveal no difference in activity. But, deeper inspection would uncover the need for retreat into God’s grace, beyond the routine – having forgotten, on the most subtle and practical of levels – that this God is here.

And that’s not nothing!

What good news…

grace & peace.

the least

May 27, 2020 § Leave a comment

“…I will praise him in the midst of the throng. For he stands at the right hand of the needy one…”

Psalm 109:30b-31a

The two photographs below are from South Africa. In the foreground of the first is the most decrepit neighborhood Katherine and I have ever seen. In the distance is an elementary school designated for this neighborhood, where amazingly, among the ruins and disrepair, there is hope.

In one regard, the current COVID-19 pandemic has leveled the playing field. Neither those in plenty, or those in need are exempt from the reach of the virus. Rich and poor, and regardless of faith, skin-color, or ethnicity, all stand in the same line outside the same grocery store, waiting for the indoor count to allow entry.

Westlake Neighborhood, Cape Town, South Africa

Initially, the virus seems weighted towards the poor. A March 11 Time Magazine article relates that the Coronavirus may disproportionately hurt the poor (embedded in that article’s title). Among this segment are those with low-income jobs that, in many cases are not accompanied by medical benefits, including sick leave. Many in this category live in close quarters in greater populated areas. A cardiologist friend recently related to me that over-crowded homes, poor ventilation, and unfiltered water among the poor, contribute to the problem.

However, any who work high-trafficked areas of business put all at risk, because they can’t afford to take days off. This means that those who come into contact with them; co-workers, customers, clients, are all compromised.

In a way that could not have been anticipated, this pandemic has brought together the haves and have-nots.

If you want to find God, look for the needy. That is where He stands. Jesus referred to the least of these in describing the oft-neglected segments of society. He teaches that when we care for the least of these, we do so for him.

He doesn’t even qualify it with words like ‘as though you were doing it for me,’ but adamantly asserts that any effort to care for the weak is an expression of care for him, in the way he told Saul (later Paul) that his assault on Christians was actually a personal attack on him (Jesus).

It isn’t that God loves the poor, weak and needy more, but that society regards them as less, and often ignores them as though they don’t count. But to God, they do.

Westlake Elementary Missionaries

At Westlake Elementary, missionaries surprisingly gained permission from the state to train the children in life and faith, while a young couple ministers in the neighborhood, where the wife grew up in unspeakably abusive conditions.

At some point in the woman’s life, through the kindness of others, God changed her heart. Then he compelled her to forgive those who so violently treated her, and to return to her neighborhood. Then he sent her husband.

Then he sent them – to minister in Westlake, alongside their missionary friends at the elementary school.

In a time when everything affects everyone, the Church has an opportunity to enter in, and embody the heart of God, with the Christian message that reveals a Redeemer who left his comforts for our chaos, his riches for our poverty, his throne for our weakness, and then, to hang in payment for sins we should bear.

The news doesn’t get any better than that, friends…

grace & peace.

A Wrecked Rhythm

May 13, 2020 § Leave a comment

“[Sabbath] is resistance because it is a visible insistence that our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods.”

Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance

If this moment we find ourselves in has done anything, it has forced us to consider who we are in light of great uncertainty. Economic instability and job security are heavy on hearts and minds. High School and College Seniors wonder if the next level awaits them, and what it will look like when they get there. Their inability to walk the aisle is symbolic of how our world has come to a stop of sorts. Weddings have been put on hold. Funerals are limited to small graveside gatherings.

Set UpOne of the byproducts of this moment is work from home. For those of us who are accustomed to driving to the office, it is an adjustment. Our dining room table has become my office desk. Katherine is teaching elementary music at her keyboard in our basement. Zoom is family (who else wishes they had stock in this company?!)

With others who have observed the same, we have found that we are working more, not less.

For this, God has mandated Sabbath, or rest.

Since this isn’t an exhaustive theological treatise, suffice it to say that God has built rest into the ecosystem of human well-being. We cannot be fully human if we cannot stop and lay aside agendas that dominate our minds and emotions at the expense of our reliance on God, our true Source of all care.

I have to confess that this is perhaps the most difficult thing for me to do. The work is always there: deadlines, sermons, studies, teaching, meetings, conferences, counseling. The rhythm of work, rest and recreation has been wrecked in my universe. The temptation is to think that rest is optional, but Jesus says otherwise.

Interestingly, the New Testament reveals Sabbath as something we enter into, as much as what we do. And it begins with Jesus who invites us to himself: “Come unto me… and I will give you rest…” (Matthew 11:28-30).

Rest and worship are radical acts of faith, in which we acknowledge, as individuals and in community, that we are more than the sum total of our stuff, our failures, our ambitions, and our experiences, and that true value and care, are found in our Creator, who made all that is… and then rested, and then made us His.

Sabbath is the reminder of what fear constantly attempts to make me forget – and always at the expense of those I love most.

Throughout the narrative of God’s people, the seventh day, the seventh year, the Year of Jubilee – all are intended to aim towards understanding that in Jesus the ‘It is good’ of creation, and the ‘It is finished’ of the Cross converge in him.

In Jesus, the work is completed, the debt is paid, and true rest has begun, until fully realized when he makes all things new.

Rest assured friends, this is our good news…

grace & peace.

the Day of Small Things

May 6, 2020 § Leave a comment

“Little is large if God is in it.”

Leonard Sweet & Frank Viola, Jesus, A Theography

I was recently made aware of how on Sunday mornings, a woman in our church, a widow, phones her friend, also a widow, who does not have internet service, in order that they can worship together as our service streams, she on her computer, and her friend as she listens through her phone.

Such a small, but beautiful expression.

And the picture in this post was taken by a young woman in our church, a nurse on the frontline, who recently received this care package from a couple (members of our congregation) that quietly left it at her front door.

Small Things.

RileysSmallness and small beginnings comprise a theme that is woven throughout the gospel’s redemptive story. From the moment God created everything out of nothing, the big stories in the scriptures demonstrate God’s greatness with the obscure and unknown.

We can be glad for this. In spite of our own relative smallness, God invites us to collaborate with Him in the daily course of His grand care of the world, not by shows of strength or displays of greatness, but within the boundaries of our own limitations.

Zechariah prophesied that in time, “whoever despised the day of small things shall rejoice…” (4:10a). He foresaw when those who deemed the small things as meaningless, would be given a new perspective. Have you considered that the small things you offer might be received as life-giving in big, unexpected ways?

My guess is that when all is said and done with this current crisis, we will look back and remember that to some extent we were sustained by the power of seemingly tiny gestures, like a boy offering Jesus his lunch, who in turn fed thousands with it.

It is the simple kindnesses, the meager offerings, the encouraging phone calls, the anonymous prayers, the neighborly acts, the invisible sacrifices – people caring for others in quiet ways that will likely not be detailed on the evening news, but that are also not lost on the Father.

After all, isn’t this what endears us to the gospel? That in God we have a Father who wrapped His Son in obscurity, in the smallness of a newborn – for the sake of His spectacular design for making us His?

Isn’t this our good news?

grace & peace.

 

Story to Tell…

April 29, 2020 § Leave a comment

“indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable”

Matthew 13:34

Last Sunday I recounted a day my father lay unconscious on a gurney, awaiting examination, in an Emergency Room hallway. For roughly an hour he had been unresponsive – to our mom, to me, and then to the EMTs. While in that hallway, it occurred to me to sing to him, and somehow the words and notes made their way through whatever layers of resistance that held dad in unconsciousness – and he revived – first with faintly moving lips and no sound, but then, after a few moments, audibly, as we made discordantly beautiful music together.

ScroogeAfterwards, I was surprised and delighted to receive texts and e-mails from people who shared similar stories of situations where love pierced through the sadness of the moment.

Suffice it to say that your story matters.

During his public ministry Jesus was many things: teacher, leader, healer, and rabbi. But he was also a master storyteller. A redemptive theme runs throughout his parables (stories), with plots of forgiveness, restoration, love, even judgment. The characters are real, so real that we can see ourselves in their lives – which of course is the point.

Jesus understood that a good story draws one deep into the drama, before they recognize parts of their own lives they may not have otherwise had visited.

If the storyline of The Man Who Invented Christmas is true, then Charles Dickens could not complete A Christmas Carol until he was forced to revisit his painful childhood years. Only when he acknowledged that those years drove the Scrooge-like fear and anger that boiled deep within him, was he freed to envision – and then write – a redemptive conclusion to his book.

In John 5:39-40, Jesus said, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life, and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.”

All along, Jesus was telling his own story, one we have been invited into – through faith.

One day, we will tell the story of a time when the world stopped, as a virus spread round the globe. We will share what we learned, and remember who we lost. We will recount the good as well as the ugly things it revealed about our character and faith. It will serve as one chapter among many that we will look back on.

It will inspire elation and shame, repentance and rejoicing. And we will have grown. Most importantly, we will remember how Jesus relentlessly pursued us, and stepped into the dark places that threaten to deceive our hearts into losing hope, and forgetting the magnificent end of the story we have been written into because of him.

Which is why your story matters, unvarnished and unedited. In it, the Storyteller himself – Jesus, speaks the possibility of hopeful endings for all who hear.

what good news…

grace & peace.

A Time for Lament

April 22, 2020 § 1 Comment

“In his mercy, our God has given us a form of language that bends his ear and pulls his heart.”

Will Walker & Kendal Haug, Journey to the Cross

have always been compelled by Jesus’ words to his disciples at the Last Supper. As he blessed the bread he said, “I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God” (Luke 22:16), and then the cup, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves. For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes” (Luke 22:17-18).

SmileUntil now, I never associated lament with these statements. It had not occurred to me that Jesus was expressing a holy longing that he willingly bears until reunited with his friends. In this regard, this current crisis we find ourselves in has been instructive.

Jesus was no stranger to lament. He wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus (John 11:35), and then, as he approached Jerusalem for Passover (Luke 19:41-44), he lost it. He grieved with the grieving, and pitied the hurting.

Unfortunately, I always saw lament as an emotional speed bump to move beyond, and power through to happier, more productive things.

However, lament is a gift the Father has bestowed on his children. It is not self-pity, but a longing that enables us to enter into the world’s pain – as we feel our own – believing that God will one day redeem it.

So, go ahead! Accomplish much while secluded in the confinement of your home! Paint that wall, complete that puzzle, read that book, rearrange that room, clean out that closet, bathe that dog – all noble goals that life rarely offers time for.

But as you devise strategies to combat the insanity of isolation, and the uncertainties associated with constantly-changing timetables for our return to public life, take time for the sadness too.

Take the time to feel the moment. Feel the chaos of a world in disarray. Feel the displacement of communities, families and churches. Feel the loss of jobs and opportunities. Feel the heartache of those who are alone, and those who have lost loved ones in death.

I pray that God will allow this moment of frustrating isolation to challenge me to practice what I have spent an entire lifetime devising strategies to avoid. Because I never heard the holy longing in Jesus’ voice – until now.

He longs for us.

In the saddest, but sweetest of ways, this is our good news…

grace & peace.

A Rare Opportunity

April 15, 2020 § Leave a comment

“If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”

Romans 12:18

There is something in all of us that gravitates to the idea of sides: ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ – ‘good’ and ‘evil’ – Urban and Rural – Management vs. Union. You name it, there is an argument for any posture.

Virus Outbreak New York
Certain events throughout history reflect this tendency. World Wars. Ethnic struggles. Civil Rights. Moral/Ethical differences.

The competitive nature of athletics (which I love!) pits team against team, and fan versus fan. Election cycles ignite shameless mud-slinging, and endless offerings of political ads. Sibling tension led to the first murder. We even see it in churches. The list seems endless.

This is not to say that it is never good to take a side. When Hitler threatened Europe, the choices could not have been starker. However, in a fallen world we will strive.

For this reason, I find the moment we are in to be extraordinary. Right now, every human on planet earth is aware that they are equally, potentially exposed to the same virus. No one is immune, and all are at risk. Each feels his or her fragility, and relative smallness. For perhaps the first time in my life, and maybe in any of our lifetimes, the predominant narrative transcends surface divisions. We are all in this together.

The picture above is of tents that are erected in Central Park by Samaritan’s Purse, a non-profit led by Franklin Graham, who has been more political in his public statements than I am comfortable with. But to his credit, the tents are serving to provide hospital beds for New York City during the crisis. The action transcends politics and offers aid in a moment of need.

While as Christians, we are bound by the integrity of our Faith, Paul tells believers everywhere to “live peaceably with all.” I believe this is a call to model a healed world by how we live in that world – with and before others.

We don’t have to agree in order to lock arms. And we don’t have to sacrifice who we are in order to live at peace. In fact, I would argue that who we are as believers should reflect and facilitate the peacemaking passion of God in the life of the world.

After all, Jesus’ mission was to bring reconciliation where there once was alienation between God and humankind. While it is our nature to strive, it is God’s to heal.

We are called to live out of what our Savior has freely done for us with his own blood. When we do, the world notices, and lives change.

What good news…

grace & peace.

 

 

Clueless Wednesday

April 8, 2020 § 1 Comment

“the act of trust is an utterly ruthless act”

Brennan Manning

While sheltered in place, the Church worldwide celebrates Holy Week, when Jesus entered Jerusalem, was celebrated, betrayed, arrested, and crucified – and then resurrected.

Maundy Thursday is the night he met with the disciples and instituted the Lord’s Supper. It was in that Upper Room that Jesus gave his friends the new command, to love one another (John 13:34).

AcaciaOn Friday we are sobered – and blessed – by the crucifixion of Jesus. We call that day Good because it is. On the Cross, Jesus died in payment for the sins of the world. Our atonement was secured at Calvary. Jesus died as our Substitute.

Saturday is quiet. Along with Easter Egg hunts, the Church remembers it as the day Jesus lay in the grave. The grave would be where Jesus would leave our guilt, shame and sin.

And then, Sunday. Easter, when music and message are all aimed at the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus, and the hope we have in his conquest over sin and death. It is the celebration of celebrations.

Each day is dramatic and packed with meaning. But just 24-hours before events unfolded, the disciples moved through another day, oblivious to what was before them. I’m going to call it Clueless Wednesday, because that is what it was.

The fact is that we don’t know what God is doing with the world – with our worlds – in any given moment. We are clueless. I would argue that this is a good thing, because it is a childlike cluelessness. Even now, while we shelter in place, children delight in the moment, with danger as the furthest thing from their minds.

In hindsight we see events as they unfolded. Our past tense vision is 20/20, with the advantage of the whole picture. But until things happen, we have no idea what lies before. Like the disciples we move through the week, tending to responsibilities, enjoying friendships, caring for family, wrestling with life, temptation, weakness, and ambitions.

To know what lies before us in the immediate future is always tantalizing, but in reality, it would be disastrous, because the complexities of God’s unfolding redemptive plan would horrify us.

So, God never gives us more than what he is doing now. And, while for us we are clueless to the full meaning of the details of the immediate future, what matters is that Jesus knows what he is doing with the world – and with us.

What good news…

grace & peace.

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