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…
May 23, 2015 § Leave a comment
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.
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.
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.
April 25, 2015 § 6 Comments
Last 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!
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.
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.
My 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.
So 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…
April 18, 2015 § 2 Comments
“…every human being has been hardwired by God to live in daily awe of him. This means the deepest, most life-shaping, practical daily motivation of every human being was designed to be the awe of God. This is the calling of every person… the only alternative is to live for yourself.”
Paul Tripp, Dangerous Calling
For someone looking from the outside-in to the Christian Faith, it could appear that God is some narcissistic deity that created a race of inferior beings in order to enjoy the pleasure of being worshiped and adored. Of course, if He is who we believe Him to be, then the last thing He would need is our worship. It is inferior and because we are a fallen race, it would never measure up to the excellency of the Almighty.
Yet the scriptures are drenched in expressions of worship, in prayer and song, in unison and responsively, both planned and extemporaneous. All David had to do was look to the sky in order to exclaim, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1).
In John’s vision of the renewed world, all creation joins in songs of adoration before the throne of God. “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created” (Revelation 5:8b, 11).
And Paul cannot contain himself, but breaks into worship, after laying out perhaps the clearest doctrinal explanation of Redemption, before diving into some practical implications of the Faith. “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways… For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:33, 36).
By why? What is the purpose of insufficient expressions to a perfect and Almighty God who needs none of our offerings? The answer is not that God needs our worship but that we need Him! We need something greater than ourselves. A life of worship is the one expression that reminds and rehearses to our hearts that in spite of the whispers (and sometimes shouts!) of our egos to the contrary, that we are in fact very small and dependent beings. Worship informs our troubled spirits in the enormity of our problems, our struggles, our weakness and our limitations, that in God we have a Father who is not intimidated or overwhelmed by anything that threatens to swallow us whole. We are mere creatures…
but He is our Creator.
He is Greater.
He is Awesome.
He is Able.
He is God.
He is Worthy.
We will always be small, and He will always be great.
Yet amazingly, in Jesus He too became small, not to make us great, but to make us His.
What good news…
To God be the Glory!
April 11, 2015 § 1 Comment
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.
In 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…
RIP Precious Lauren
April 4, 2015 § Leave a comment
Rowan Williams, A Ray of Hope
Earlier this morning, as I watched with delight as hundreds of precious children made their way to the not-so-hidden Easter Eggs, I could not help but also think with sadness of Kenya, where 147 equally precious Christian university students were mercilessly and savagely executed because of their Faith.
For all the times I have hoped that I would be able to die for my Faith, they did. And I will feel privileged to one day meet them in God’s new world.
Today we remember, even celebrate that Jesus not only died but was also buried. The grave has as much a role in the redemptive drama of God and His people as every other aspect of the narrative. To the grave Jesus took our sin. In the grave He experienced the isolating silence and darkness of death.
Separation and finality accompany a grave. Each time I conduct a funeral, the most painful moment comes when the casket is lowered into the ground. Within days families in Kenya will bury their dead. It is at the grave that we say our farewells.
Today we reflect on the solemnity, sorrow and indignity of death’s sting. Most can’t relate to the Crucifixion, but all understand that the grave awaits us.
Were you there when they laid him in the tomb
Were you there when they laid him in the tomb
O, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble
Were you there when they laid him in the tomb
John Wesley Work, Jr. Frederick J. Work
Whenever unspeakably horrible things happen, like what occurred in Kenya, the worst in me comes out, because the very sin that drove such acts of violence finds residence in my heart in the form of hatred and revenge – I too bear the markings of the curse.
And it is for this reason, that the gospel teaches that our only comfort can only ever be found in Jesus. In Jesus, in spite of the violence and sorrow of the fall, in and outside of us, because He ‘died and was buried,’ even the grave is not a place the Father is unwilling to go to care for us, His beloved children.
Friends, this is our good news…
“O Father, Giver and Sustainer of Life,
We praise you for the promise of a renewed world,
when Heaven and Earth will one day become one,
and suffering and sorrow, tears and illness are gone,
and justice and peace embrace in your Kingdom.
Our hearts are broken for brothers and sisters we will not see,
until we are Home at the Feast.
Be with their families and friends.
Bring comfort that only Jesus, who suffered for us, can give.
Redeem their tears and meet them in their terror and sorrow.
Bless them, for they have been persecuted for your sake.
And cause the Easter hope to somehow find residence
in their broken hearts and devastated communities.
Through Jesus. Amen.”