September 16, 2020 § Leave a comment
“God, then, does not speak through empty abstractions or endless circumlocutions. Rather, in every instance, God’s word was enacted and enacted in a particular place and time in history. In all, presence and place mattered decisively. Nowhere is this more evident than in the incarnation.”
James Davison Hunter, To Change the World
Some years ago, while living in Miami, Katherine and I created a small hideaway under a tree that lined the garden at the entryway of our home. Tiny white Christmas strings of lights rested in the tree that canopied a small bench we shared, alongside a peaceful water fountain I set up for her birthday one year. You could say that we hid in plain sight at the end of each day. That space was sacred. When it was cooler, we would sit with cups of hot chocolate, and watch cars drive by in the dark. Though we knew our neighbors, and in spite of the fact that church members lived nearby, no one ever stopped – because they couldn’t see us. We wanted it that way. Regardless of how difficult or anxious the day may have been, in the evening, we would be there to decompress, relax, unwind, talk and pray.
We have since created a similar space in the little courtyard of our home, between the garage and the house itself. Rather than rest in a tree, the lights now connect the structures, and the fountain is now a fire pit. But it is no less sacred, in fact, as much as we loved that space in Miami, we love this one even more. Through the muscle and know-how of friends, extra time during my sabbatical, and a lot of hard work, it has become our hideaway, our place. Only now, neighbors see us as they walk by – And we welcome them, whether to join us and talk, or to feel free to stop in when they smell the chicken barbecuing or the burgers sizzling.
Everyone needs a place.
In the book quoted above, James Davison Hunter argues that the internet has done a certain amount of damage to what he describes as the gravitational pull that once drew people together in order for them to be present with one another.
Everyone needs to belong.
I always loved the Motel 6 commercial that ended with the words, “We’ll leave the light on for you.”
Throughout history there have been moments, in the midst of horror, when Christians were the source of safe passage for the afflicted. In her book, Making Room, Christine Pohl writes of the village of Le Chambon, a “small community of French Protestants” who, during World War II saved thousands of Jews by hiding them from the Nazis, in houses and schools.
The purpose of this post is not to address the problems our Nation is facing now, but it will not be surprising to one day learn how substantially belonging, or lack thereof, fit into the narrative. We tend to reduce belonging to laws and historical moments, but society has a way of communicating the opposite when it wants to – and people feel it.
So, I take heart that in sympathizing with the weaknesses and limitations of a fallen human race, that Jesus chose to experience homelessness, the sensation of having nowhere to belong. He said, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man [his favorite self-designation] has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20).
And it is no wonder to me that his most reassuring words to his friends on the night of his arrest, involved the home he was preparing for them – in his Father’s house. They would deny, betray, and abandon him that evening, but after his resurrection, they would be restored to the friend in whom they found true belonging.
what good news…
grace & peace.
September 2, 2020 § Leave a comment
“And as he passed by…”
Have you ever noticed how some of Jesus’ most profound encounters happened along the way? His healings, teachings, confrontations, and encouragements occurred as he passed through towns and villages. Though not immune to exhaustion, he was remarkably accessible – along the way.
The picture in this post is from the summit at Waterrock Knob in the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina. I was amazed at how difficult the last half-mile of the climb was, and had to stop several times to catch my breath – and legs. However, as I ascended, this young couple bounded from behind, and whether out of pity, or just kindness, then made the rest of the climb with me. Atop the mountain, we learned one another’s stories, talked life, work, faith, God’s grace, and the beauty of our surroundings, then took pictures and exchanged information.
We were not put on the planet to live for ourselves. The most miserable people I know do. Unfortunately all of us fight this demon to some degree, and preachers are no exception! So, file this in the ‘take-it-from-one-who-knows’ category. We are naturally self-centered.
Six years ago I uploaded a video that within weeks was viewed nearly one-million times (made you look!). It was featured on the Jimmy Kimmel show! Hitting one million views became my not-so-secret obsession. I would text the YouTube address to close friends, knowing they would open it, and add to the much-coveted views. But YouTube added a demonic feature that enabled unwitting victims to get a sneak preview of what they received, and my self-serving scheme was dashed to pieces just 34,046 views short of one million (not that anyone was counting) – Curses!
Standing in contrast to a culture obsessed with clicks, self, and from-a-distance reality – is Jesus, who modeled the face-to-face, social construct-defying principle that we find our lives by giving them away in self-denial and servanthood, one person at a time.
Our ‘made-you-look’ society reflects our ugliest narcissistic tendencies, and in the process, robs us of life and love along the way.
But a world of opportunity is out there for those who escape themselves to enter the journey, and someone needs you along the way. Someone you likely haven’t yet met. Someone wondering if they should abandon the climb, walk away from it all, or just give up hope.
So, get moving. Trust me – you will get tired of you! And the world awaits!
After all, we live in the assurance of the gospel – that regardless of our own circumstances, it is not beyond the scope of a Savior who is constantly passing by, to enter, heal, and forgive, along the way. Jesus is no static concept. His cross and resurrection ensure that the possibility of his intervention in our lives is as real as it was when he bore flesh and walked the planet.
Friends, this is good news…
grace & peace.
August 19, 2020 § 2 Comments
“God’s design for human flourishing cannot be satisfied in isolation.”
James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom
Reunion has been on my mind lately. Our church returned to in-person worship last Sunday, after nearly half-a-year in isolation. It was more than we hoped for. We met outdoors and were greeted with beautiful weather. The music and the atmosphere were electric. But it was the people coming together, masked-face-to-masked-face – people who had not seen one another in months, that made the evening what it was.
Whenever I think of reunion, I am taken to the Allman Brothers Band’s song Revival. It was used one year in a Publix commercial as the backdrop for a family reunion because the song carries that sense of joy. The video is posted below – Don’t listen to the theology – just turn up the volume, sit back, and enjoy the music. Publix is a growing Florida-based grocery chain.
On Sunday evening I reminded our church community that isolation is a byproduct of the fall. Like our God who lives within the mysterious community that is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we were designed to live in relationship with one another. When Adam and Eve sinned, humankind was thrown into a world of isolation that societies, governments, nations, and individuals have never been able to break through with sustained success. The Cross is God’s answer to the world’s isolation, reconciling a fallen humanity to Himself, through the sacrifice of Jesus, who endured the isolation of hell’s torment in order to break the curse of Eden.
This busts open the doors to forgiveness, healing, and reconciled relationships, and represents the triumph of God’s grace, where everything we cannot reconcile in this life, will be healed and brought to closure in eternity, all the fruit of God’s unfailing love.
The fact is that as wonderful as last Sunday was for our church, it wasn’t all it could have been. Many among our church community could not attend due to the health risk. We are not whole until we are wholly reunited.
Through years, God seasons our lives with dear relationships that help shape us. These relationships are only separated by geography or death.
However great joy awaits all who belong to Jesus, when together we are Reunited with “a great multitude that no one could number” (Revelation 7:9), when heaven and earth are one in God’s new world.
How sweet that will be…
grace & peace.
August 12, 2020 § Leave a comment
“Who shapes the very nature of your being from day to day?”
Robert Webber, the Divine Embrace
We love certainty, and we hate pain. Both are undeniably human, and they shape us more than we may realize.
We want to be able to foresee outcomes and determine whether they will be good or bad, before making decisions. At the heart of this is our preoccupation with control.
This preoccupation drives myriad decisions, all intended to manage disappointment. But living out of this rubric enslaves us to outcomes. It also robs us of the learning curves that accompany failure. Every successful person will tell you that they learned more from their failures than their successes.
The scriptures are loaded with examples of God’s people being instructed to head in one direction. The results of doing otherwise are almost always disastrous, and they are rooted in fear and control – refusing to believe that God can – or has the right to – determine what is best for one’s life.
The delusion of control is universal. We can actually convince ourselves to believe that if we maintain our grip, we can manage life’s expectations, while limiting disappointment. Christian bookstores used to be loaded with spiritualized self-help books – all aimed at one objective: to avoid pain! They ranged from raising perfect children, to overcoming temptation, protecting against failure, and conquering depression. Sadly, that’s the short list.
The carnage has been extensive, littering the ecclesiastical landscape with devastated parents, disenfranchised believers, confused sinners, indifferent young people, and angry Christians who rightly believe they have been sold a bill of goods.
“…though the Lord give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself anymore, but your eyes shall see your Teacher. And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it,’ when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left.” – Isaiah 30:20-21
Do you hear the reality in these words?! God doesn’t promise smooth sailing. He offers Himself, to guide us through.
But getting there is more than a declaration. It begins with admitting our unholy determination to be in charge, and takes us through the winding process of repentance over self-rule, and then continues by demanding the daily offering of our constant determination to take over, anchored in the belief that we are unconditionally loved by the Father.
The fact is that failure and pain are hardwired to our deeper fear of abandonment – of being unloved. But on the Cross, Jesus experienced both unfathomable physical torment and unthinkable desertion, and in his resurrection he purchased a life of peace – which is found, not in the madness and delusion of control, but by trusting God, who opens for us the gates of wholeness and unspeakable joy – in everything.
Only the gospel is our good news…
grace & peace.
August 5, 2020 § 3 Comments
“Ah, but we want so much more–something the books on aesthetics take little notice of. But the poets and the mythologies know all about it. We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words–to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.”
C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
We don’t hear enough about beauty in Christian circles. For church people immersed in mission and budgets, ultimate things, and immediate needs, the idea of beauty is often seen as extravagant, though not necessary. I would argue that it drives the Church’s best expressions.
“Vast, Unmeasured, Boundless, Free…”
lyrics to Oh, the Deep Deep Love of Jesus
Mark Ladd & Samuel T. Francis
Where better than in a Mountain Sunset are the layers of God’s lavish and unbounded love more beautifully put on display?
“The Christian is the one whose imagination should fly beyond the stars.”
Francis A. Schaeffer, Art & the Bible
What greater pallet to stimulate the imagination than an entire horizon, where earth and tree, sun and clouds, sky and mountain, colors and textures meet in perfect alignment and beauty?
“I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.”
Where else can we find the slightest sense of God’s glory, and the majesty, and beauty of Jesus, than when darkness is pierced and overcome by sunrise?
“And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.”
“He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.”
In some way, beauty is God’s promise of future joy in the way the rainbow accompanied God’s covenant with Noah. God doesn’t deal in junk. He restores and transforms broken things and people, “to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit…” (Isaiah 61:3a).
Ironically, for those who follow Jesus, the most hideous display in history stands as the most beautiful. In his gruesome crucifixion, sin was atoned for, and forgiveness assured. In the resurrection, death was crushed forever, and in his return, one day, all things will be made new.
Thanks for joining me!
grace & peace.
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.
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.
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…”
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.
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.
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.
May 20, 2020 § Leave a comment
“Whatever the news, I wanted him to hear it from someone who cared about him.”
Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy
The above quote is part of Bryan Stevenson’s recollection of the execution of a Vietnam veteran whom he was called to defend, eleven years after he was incompetently represented by a court-appointed attorney, and only three weeks before his scheduled execution. By the time Stevenson came on the picture it was too late. His desperate last-minute attempts to secure a stay of execution failed, and this finds him awaiting word.
When he first contacted Stevenson, the man was desperate and frenzied, but in the moments before his execution, he was at peace, and to Stevenson’s surprise, he expressed gratitude to his last-second attorney, simply because he cared.
Has it ever occurred to you that more than anything else, God just wants you to be there? In the Christian universe it is easy to measure success by the wrong metrics. We think that our efforts are worth it, only if the payoff is a net gain: a conversion, an admission, a changed life. But in the currency of the gospel, it is the storyline of grace that wins the day.
For this reason, I love the Psalmist’s description of Moses, when God was breathing fire after Israel had once again forsaken Him.
“Therefore he said he would destroy them – had not Moses, his chosen one, stood in the breach before him, to turn away his wrath from destroying them.” (Psalm 106:23)
It is important to see that God’s relief was temporary. Israel would repeatedly rebel, until ultimately they became an exiled people. But was it all a waste?
The answer is no. Moses serves as a reminder that it is not temporary relief that the world needs, but Jesus, who not only stood in the breach (on the Cross), but died there, to do the very thing Moses could never secure for eternity – to turn the wrath of God from an otherwise hopelessly rebellious humanity.
The key is that Moses was God’s chosen one. He could stand in the breach, because he was safe, not from harm, but judgment. Only those who enjoy intimacy with the Almighty can brave the enormity of His holy presence, and live.
More often than not, to my shame, what I get so wrong, is that the intimacy I enjoy with God, through Jesus, is the testimony that those wrestling with the uncertainties, doubts, struggles, and sorrows of this world, most need – and long for.
They may not be able to articulate it, but they know it when they see it. And when it isn’t attached to some artificial agenda, it is deeply desirable.
Getting this wrong leads to all kinds of self-protection, self-righteousness, misguided guilt, and artificial pressure, and creates barriers in trust with those I have been called to love.
Because for those who know Jesus, the Christian testimony isn’t a strategy, but a transparent life of repentance and faith that accompanies any who enjoy intimacy with God.
Live the Faith, and the message will be heard!
We can’t change hearts, and only God is in the transformation business. But we have Jesus, and in his Name, we can stand in the breach, because he has stood once and for all – for us.
Friends, this is our good news.
grace & peace.
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
I 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).
Until 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.
June 6, 2015 § Leave a comment
“…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…