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

Our Winding Stories

April 25, 2015 § 6 Comments

Armenians TogetherLast week I posted about my Armenian heritage. Though my parents were Protestants and raised us in Christ, we ate the food, gathered with other olive-skinned Armenian-Americans, played the ‘Tavlou’ (backgammon), and shared that same peculiar ‘ian’ identifying suffix to our names. As I mentioned on Facebook, you don’t even want to know the names our grandparents, aunts and uncles had!

I love our people.Dad & Aunts

Our grandparents were born in what they referred to as ‘the old country.’ But in their teens they were ordered to leave home by the next day, or face death. It was part of the attempt by the Ottoman Turks to extinguish every Armenian from the region. To this day politicians and Turkish officials, in spite of the overwhelming body of evidence, avoid using the term ‘genocide’ – sad.

However as an Armenian-American, I have no bitterness towards our historical oppressors from that dark epoch. We are Christ-followers, we belong to a new community, a new race, and ‘better country’ (Hebrews 11:16). We too are a forgiven people.

Armenian Genocide

I do find it sad however, that our government refuses to acknowledge the genocide, when in fact nearly 1.6 Million Armenians were killed in an attempt at this human ‘cleansing.’ It isn’t that I want validation from a President (or Kim Kardashian!). My identity is found in Jesus, Lord and King of all that is. No, my sadness is that such a refusal reduces the value of human life to political advantage, rather than in the integrity of compassion for the ‘least of these,’ a foundational characteristic of true justice.

And yet, as a Christ-follower I can see that even this horrible moment in history was part of a larger narrative in which our Sovereign God loved, pursued and found my parents, and many other Armenians, through Jesus.

Dad & MomMy grandparents on Dad’s side emigrated through Egypt, where an uncle and two aunts were born, until they arrived years later in NYC, and settled in Brooklyn where Dad and his younger sister were born. Later Dad would meet Jesus in faith at a Billy Graham crusade in Madison Square Garden in 1957.

Mom’s parents came to the US via Iran, where they were detained for a time in an Iranian refugee camp before immigrating to Atlanta, Georgia, where Mom and her siblings would be born. But it was in that camp that they met a missionary named J. Christy Wilson, a man who would later become an influential Professor at Gordon-Conwell Seminary outside of Boston (I was privileged to meet him many years later). Wilson told my grandparents about Jesus, and there, in that Iranian refugee camp they met Christ in faith.

Grandmas and meSo while this will always be a sad epoch in history, the Father knows who we are, and in the gospel everything sad will one day be eclipsed by what Jesus has accomplished for us, and in what He will one day do when He makes heaven and earth one. Because in Jesus our winding stories, with their sadnesses, tragedies, celebrations, twists, turns and unexpected diversions, are all part of God’s hand in leading us Home, to ‘a better country.’

Friends, what good news…

Khanaghutyun (peace).

Grandma & Papa

Sibs & Cousins

Cousins

Fragile

April 11, 2015 § 1 Comment

Lauren HillFrail children of dust, and feeble as frail,
in you do we trust, nor find you to fail.
Your mercies, how tender, how firm to the end,
our Maker, Defender, Redeemer, and Friend!

Sir Robert Grant, 19th C.

Katherine and I sat in our family room, with tears in our eyes, and unable to talk through our tears, as we watched the news report of Lauren Hill’s death yesterday. In case you don’t know the story, last year this inspiring young woman contracted an inoperable tumor in her brain (DIPG). Early on it was known that it would eventually take her life, yet she was determined to live out her dream of playing and scoring a basket in a college basketball game for Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati, much to the delight of the home crowd and her opponents.

Through her efforts she raised nearly $1.5 Million towards Cancer Research. She was heroic in life and death, and on some level she became our Nation’s daughter, sister and cousin. Somewhere in her journey, she accepted her lot before boldly committing herself to those she would never meet, but care for, past her life here.

The storyline for me is that life is fragile. The Psalmist rightly says that we are like dust (Psalm 103), and from here it isn’t a leap to make the mistaken assumption that this makes our lives are meaningless and disposable.

The other day I took a pic (right) of the pickup truck in front of me at the county dump.
Big ScreenIn it was a huge, old school big screen TV that was literally coming apart at the seams. I could imagine it as the grand technological trophy in some basement ‘man cave’ before giving way to its sleeker, larger, lighter successor.

The gospel asserts that we are not throwaways! No life is irredeemable, and all are created in God’s Image, with value. The Psalmist refers to our days being like grass and our lives as flowers that fly away with the wind. However the centerpiece of the passage isn’t our frailty, but God’s love.

Here is how the Psalmist closes this particular thread: “…the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him…” (vs. 17). For the Christ-folllower, unfinished as we are, it isn’t our frailty but the Father’s love that is the true storyline.

Jesus loves me! This I know,
For the Bible tells me so;
Little ones to Him belong;
They are weak, but He is strong.

Anna B. Warner

Amazingly, Jesus became like us in securing our redemption by offering His very human body to be sacrificed in death. God made Himself fragile for the fragile, and breakable for the broken.

what good news, friends…

peace.

RIP Precious Lauren

What do you see? (aka Spock Theology)

February 28, 2015 § Leave a comment

Spock “…the great thing to remember is that, though our feelings come and go, His love for us does not.”
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Two conversations this past week dovetailed with some of my own thoughts of late. The first involved a treasured lifelong friend, and the second a younger friend (incidentally all three of us share the same birthday! What’s that all about?).

Each of us could point to a moment in our lives when everything seemed as we always thought it was supposed to become, but then we admitted that we grew (aged) through those moments into the present tense, as though we blinked and it was all different. Together we acknowledged that we we were not created to live in a state of inertia.

And then Mr. Spock died. Well, Leonard Nimoy passed away. But to those of us who grew up in the Star Trek era, he will always be that emotionless, pointy-eared, Vulcan who worked among humans in outer space, and helped ward off cheesy-costumed aliens ‘where no man has gone before.’ Exactly – he was a pastor.

Whenever someone like Nimoy dies, it rocks my world a little bit. It isn’t that my hope or trust are in these figures, not even remotely, but that they represent points along the continuum of my life story. When they are gone, something that sort of identifies me, disappears, almost like Marty McFly’s fading picture in Back to the Future. These ‘points’ are always accompanied with who I knew, my age at the time, how I dressed, where we lived, and who my friends were. It isn’t just a television show, but the entire context of my life at the time the show was on TV.

This is why I love Moses’ epitaph. On the last day of his life, God gave him a glimpse of Canaan. For decades Moses led Israel, but somewhere in the journey he played God, and as a result he was told he would never enter the Promised Land. But on the day he died, God showed him Israel from a distance. We read that ‘His eye was undimmed, and his vigor unabated’ (Deuteronomy 34:7).

But why a glimpse of a land he would never enter? I have to think that it was as though God rewarded his unwillingness to look back by showing him that his life, actions, mistakes, strengths and weaknesses were not wasted in God’s story – even up to the day he died.

One thing you will discover as you read through the gospels is that there is nothing sentimental about Jesus. There is much that is precious, and He was anything but Vulcan when it came to emotion – He wept, shouted, empathized, sympathized and pitied. His heart went out to friends and strangers alike. He was moved by injustice, brokenness and sadness. But He never looked back. His eyes were always on the Cross, because beyond the Cross was something better. Beyond the Cross was God’s new world, and the Feast prepared for His friends, not as they were, but as they would one day be, through Him.

What good news…

Live Long and Prosper.

Find Your Sanctuary

February 21, 2015 § 2 Comments

Prayer “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

If you know anything about my work habits, you know that my sermon prep is a crazy time of prayer, solitude, music, study, distraction, desperation, and more prayer. It begins in my office on Thursday, and ends there early Sunday morning, with hours at ‘my’ Starbucks in between. This is my groove.

And when it is interrupted my world tips off its axis.

All of which leads to early last Thursday morning, when our daughter Emily called. She had a flat tire on a major highway leading into and out of Baltimore. Long story short, I ended up spending most of Thursday in a Firestone with a manager who reminded me of Newman on Seinfeld, in a community known as Reisterstown, just beyond the city. The store was situated on a loud, busy road. So there I was – no books, no office, no playlists, no groove!

Instead I was confined to a crowded room with strangers – you know, the people types. One lady was a night guard who worked the night shift. Another loudly cursed into her phone, enraged with a family member, while simultaneously giving us the play-by-play. Another changed her baby’s diaper on the chairs in front of the television beside the coffee maker that smelled as though it had been brewing for weeks. Game shows gave way to talk shows, and finally soap operas.

Somewhere around Noon I was expected on a conference call, and for an hour I walked around the store, in and among people, tires and furniture, and sometimes outside, in 14-degree weather. At meeting’s end, the leader asked me to pray. So, there in the Firestone, I got into a corner (pictured above), and prayed.

And when I opened my eyes, I was in a sanctuary.

Eugene Peterson writes of God’s people and how simple elements like rocks and animals, water, fire and hills were employed in worship when gathering and temples were not options. I think of Jesus, who worshiped early in the Temple, on a mountain in the morning, at the banquet of His betrayal, in the garden, and even on the Cross. It was never about perfect circumstances, and always about the very present God.

It turned out that I needed that place and those people and our daughter’s crisis more than I needed my office. The Father was at Firestone and He wanted me there.

It was in that Sanctuary that retail chairs transformed into pews, garage workers served as priests, customers became fellow worshippers, the seating arrangement, our confessional, our stories the liturgy, and the smell of new rubber combined with burnt coffee, the incense of our shared need.

Free from the ordinary, the world appeared a little clearer, and my sermon a bit less daunting. A letter I intended for a friend took shape, and heart. Texts with my wife, sermon notes, and thoughts of God’s protection over our daughter, songs of thanksgiving and praise.

Friends, find your sanctuary.

And discover once again, that it is the Father who has found you.

What good news…

peace.

Store

An Open Letter to Brian Williams

February 14, 2015 § 2 Comments

Williams Dear Brian,

I wanted to take a moment to write and offer thoughts on the recent events in your very high profile and public life. One can’t imagine the constant scrutiny you must constantly live under in your position.

So first, we like you – a lot. We probably don’t share your politics, and our convictions may not fully align, but you possess a unique gift that transcends alignment. We watch NBC News, chiefly because of how personally and ‘humanly’ you deliver the day’s events. We love how you ‘enter’ into stories, and particularly the more heartwarming ones. Only this week we learned that you are younger than we are. For whatever reason I’ve always assumed that our news anchor would be older than I am, like Presidents and Sunday School Teachers (hey, I’m a pastor). We have written a letter to NBC on your behalf with hopes that you will be restored after your suspension.

We hope this because we live in a largely graceless world. David Brooks has written beautifully to this, and I echo his sentiments. And NBC now has a rare opportunity to do what many have failed or refused to do with past failures, and that is to say with their actions that redemption is better than perfection, and that along with justice; mercy and forgiveness are indispensible to human flourishing.

You have an opportunity as well, Brian. I have no idea what drove you to lie, but I hope you’ll deal with it – for you and those you love. I hope you will do the hard, brutal and agonizing work of facing your demons, acknowledging your failures and admitting whatever is true. I offer this as an insider to human failure, due to my own sin. If you do this, regardless of what comes of your life professionally, you will heal. Because whatever success we realize or heights we scale, we bring our brokenness with us – our stories follow us. We are always more than what others see from the outside.

You are more than the sum total of your public persona, and this transcends whether or not you are restored. To discover – or rediscover this – is to be free. Hey, Brian, what you have done is not remotely the end of the world, but hoping it will all go away without the hard and painful work of deep self-reflection and healing, sort of is.

So whether or not you are restored to your former position, we can’t wait to see how the broken pieces of your life come together in a narrative that is far more real and compelling than one that comes from hiding and fear.

And I would be remiss by failing to say that as Christ-followers, the God we worship is one who rather than avoid our brokenness, entered into it, into the dark places we hide – where we really live and where we are most wounded and insecure, in order to redeem and make us whole.

For this reason our message is called, ‘good news.’

Because it is…

Hang in there.

peace.

Up Close & Personal

February 7, 2015 § Leave a comment

Politics “Imagine… what it might be like if God were deeply feared by many Americans, not as a top-down government policy, but as a bottom-up grassroots reality.” Charles Drew, Body Broken

One of the more thoughtful pieces I have read in recent weeks comes from New York Times op-ed columnist, Nicholas Kristof. In this particular article he queries as to how we might increase empathy – in the world and in ourselves. After discussing the ‘science’ of how people and organizations successfully manipulate the public in gaining support, whether financial or otherwise, he rightly argues that the only way for our hearts to be drawn to those suffering comes when we enter into it – whether through some form of involvement (like short-term service trips), or by simply meditating or praying over the fact that there is pain in the world.

This is not a new concept to the gospel. At the heart of our Faith is a God who has entered into a broken world. In choosing not to sterilize the planet before coming, Jesus demonstrated that love is not a risk-free enterprise. In fact I am convinced that the greatest obstacle to belief for many is the repulsion that comes with associating a pure God with a messy human condition. Keeping God at a distance is like posting touched-up photos on Instagram – Everyone looks better from far away.

All of which leads to politics – our national obsession. Politics, when reduced to rhetoric is a convenient, ideological way of staying safely far from people and suffering. Rather than get our hands dirty we rattle our sabers, vote, and then pat ourselves on our backs, feeling as though we have done something good for the world.

Don’t get me wrong, I love political debate, and vote every election. And there is a place for political activism. Activism led to the abolition of slavery in England, gave women the right to vote here, and ended wrongful child labor practices. In these cases Christians, along with unbelievers, embraced justice – and one another. They worked through differences for higher callings.

Because the world changes when people get their hands dirty and serve, regardless of politics. But toxic partisan rhetoric changes nothing. It twists words, demonizes flawed humans, divides and polarizes.

From a distance.

Frankly, parsing the National Prayer Breakfast is a colossal waste of time in my opinion.

Maybe this is a good way of looking at it: Imagine with me a horrible event where one of your children or friends is moments away from death unless they are delivered from some catastrophic circumstance. And imagine with me that the only person who can rescue them shares none of your political, theological or ideological values. Will you restrain them from saving your loved one?

Friends, Love is up close. It gets so near that distinctives and differences give way to breath, sweat, smell and heat – humanness.

Jesus has modeled that we are called to something more personal than cheap politics, and He warned against frothing over ‘Caesar’ (Mark 12:13-17). Every generation bewails the political landscape, but I want to encourage you to find something deeper to care about, nobler to aspire to and much more human to fight for.

In doing so, politics will give way to living, breathing, human expressions of the gospel.

Our world can only receive this as good news…

peace.

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