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.
April 15, 2020 § Leave a comment
“If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
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.
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.
April 2, 2020 § 1 Comment
“Let Christians help one another in going this journey.”
Jonathan Edwards, The Christian Pilgrim
We were not created to live in isolation, but here we are! This isn’t in our DNA. Take it from an introvert. Even those of us who love their alone space, need human contact. Life without community is ultimately oppressively isolating.
God Himself lives in community. We have been designed to embody the in-person, relational interconnectedness of that mysterious union that theologians constantly attempt to explain, but never quite grasp, between Father, Son, and. Holy Spirit (how can one ever really contain the eternal with words and systems?).
But then, moments like this one come along, where we are all but cut off and forced to see the world from the perspective the loneliest of society. Malls, coffee shops, sports bars and other venues, all designed to provide escapes from isolation, are locked down.
Many churches, ours included, have devised online strategies to mitigate the alienation. Connecting programs such as Zoom facilitate meetings, studies, classes, and counsel. But these are temporary measures. However, high the quality, and vital as they are, ultimately they are stop-gaps intended to tide us over until we can once again gather in person, where fist bumps may replace handshakes, marginally flu-ish people will stay at home, and every cough will be suspect. But we will gather.
Because church is more than a place where worshippers attend, songs are sung and sermons are presented. It is a community that enables us to put into practice the kind of life-giving relational interdependence that we were created to experience in this journey – with God and one another. Regardless of how large or small the expression, when together, we rehearse God’s Kingdom, and model that “great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages…” (Revelation 7:9ff), when the redeemed will one day, and for all eternity, worship God in all His fullness and glory – together.
This Sunday we enter into the observance of Christ’s passion – the betrayals, arrest, torment, and the Cross. For the Church, it is a glorious week that leads to Resurrection Day. Within it, however, is a dark moment when Jesus, while dying on the Cross, was deprived of the life-giving union he enjoyed with his Father. For one brief and horrible moment, Jesus was alone – “forsaken,” in the most lonely place of the fallen human condition, as he endured the holy rage of God in payment of sin, to ‘reconcile the world to himself’ (Read 2 Corinthians 5:16-21!).
And now, resurrected and glorified, he awaits to gather us at the Feast. But until then, he has given us his Spirit – and, unfinished and flawed as we may be – one another.
Trust me, friends, awkward and annoying as we can sometimes be to one another…
this is good news.
grace & peace.
March 26, 2020 § 3 Comments
“For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”
Recently, I mentioned to Katherine that it was time to resume Unfinished1, and now am compelled all the more, given the current crisis we find ourselves in. Until the ban is lifted, I will offer these on Thursdays, but then after, on Saturdays.
The picture below is taken from the northwest corner of our home. On either side grow two different types of Magnolias. The white-flowered tree on the right is a Star Magnolia, and the purplish-pink (my favorite) is a Japanese Magnolia. Both majestically adorn our house each year, along with compliment of Daffodils that will soon be joined by Lillies.
Because the world is fallen, more than a virus taints what God created to be good. Natural disasters, human trafficking, oppressive governments, injustice, poverty, violence, and death, to name a few, are with us every day. And they will be until Jesus returns and makes everything new.
But just outside our door, beauty always awaits. Theologians refer to this as general or natural revelation. For all who observe, creation serves up hints of God’s existence, and of what will one day be. It is almost as though God adorns creation to be like a flower girl at a wedding, announcing that as beautiful as the setting is, something more spectacular awaits. And it does!
We live and breathe on the pallet of God’s creative resplendence. It is always right there. Even when at our ugliest, ‘the heavens declare His glory, and the sky proclaims his handiwork’ (Psalm 19:1). As Christ-followers, this does more than make us feel good about what we believe and who we believe in. It also is intended to help shape us into a hopeful people before a hurting world.
Don’t get me wrong. When a Christian is isolated and lonely, it is no more tolerable than when someone who doesn’t follow Jesus is. Our depression is every bit as debilitating as the next person’s. Human heartache visits every home, regardless of creed. As Christians, we get no corporate discounts in the human condition! Jesus himself was prophesied as a “a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3).
In the meantime, God offers glimpses – hints that one day the pain and suffering will end. Through his redeemed people, He gives the world a hopeful community. And in creation, it is as though, even in this strange state of isolated exile, all nature bids us to celebrate what will one day be.
Together we serve as signposts that no malady, whether human or by force of nature, has the power to permanently thwart the creative beauty of God from knifing into the world’s darkness – or into human hearts – with power to forgive, heal, and renew.
Take heart friends, in Jesus, He has already come, and is coming.
what good news.
grace & peace.
December 5, 2015 § 2 Comments
“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 that 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…
PS Friends, check out the Chapelgate website for a daily Advent Blog: https://cpcadvent.wordpress.com
July 11, 2015 § 1 Comment
Eugene H. Peterson, Leap Over a Wall
Katherine and I were blown away by an unexpected gift from a college friend who sent us front row tickets to a Cirque du Soleil performance of Verekai in Baltimore this past week. The athleticism, strength, beauty and choreography were stunning. The music was mesmerizing and the set and costumes were beautiful. This particular production follows two people from birth to marriage, and ends with the wedding, replete with triumphant music, spectacular gymnastics and the falling of rose petals.
It was breathtaking.
I was reminded of Frederick Buechner’s description (in his book The Longing for Home of a visit to Sea World in Orlando, and a confluence of nature, beasts and mankind, leaving Buechner (whose birthday is today) with a glimpse of what God had always intended.
And this took me to Eugene Peterson’s description of his dad, a local butcher, whom he came to see as more than a guy who cut meat, but in this capacity, also a priest to their community.
In Christian circles we speak of ‘the priesthood of believers,’ which is another way of saying that every Christ-follower is called to be to the world and one another what Jesus has been to us, a healing presence that sacrificially loves and serves for the sake of others, out of a vision of flourishing that will one day accompany the new heavens and new earth.
John the disciple takes this further by saying that we are “a kingdom of priests to his [speaking of Jesus] God and Father…”
When you put it all together (because it is all intended to be so) we find that our vocations, along with our natural surroundings and abilities are all woven into a larger mosaic of beauty that not only displays hope before a broken world, but one that also reaches the Father who is every bit as invested (and more) as we are in the promise of new things.
Friends, as stunning as Cirque du Soleil was, this is even more so…
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…