September 14, 2013 § 4 Comments
“Every night, friends. You have done what you could. Let it go. “Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson (via Fred Harrell)
This has been a crazy week in the life of our church Staff. In addition to preparations for worship, tomorrow evening we will share some vision with our church community. We have been in a focused planning mode for weeks, writing, talking, sharing, editing, revising, videoing and praying. So it was good to sneak away with Katherine to a movie last night. The movie was okay, but the company was fantastic.
It would be fair to say that on a practical level I don’t believe Emerson. On any given day my desk is cluttered with books, scriptures, papers, notes, letters, cups, pens, markers, letter openers, pictures, and lots, that is, tons – we’re talking piles and piles of things to do. Maybe that desk is reflective of my head and life, kind of in the way we guys assume it is for women and their purses (but why go there?!).
This morning as I left my office for Starbucks, I reflected on this, and the conclusions were like those personality tests where you feel great when you see your good qualities, and then turn to despair over the negative results. While I have the capacity to get a lot done in a day, there are darker angels that shape my profile, and one of them has to do with an unwillingness to stop.
I don’t want to get too deep here, but there seems to be something terribly idolatrous about an unwillingness to let go of the day. In one sense, we are always unfinished, so to hold on is to galvanize a moment God intended to pass, in taking us to the next. The cost can be immense, and the joy we are intended to experience each new day – with those we love, and even within ourselves, is often squandered in restlessness.
The alternative is to flee to Jesus – to actually stop and believe that His invitation to come to Him with our weariness (Matthew 11:28-30) will relieve us of the impossible burden of finding our value in work, and the other unfinished realities of our lives.
Friends, this is good news we can rest in…
August 31, 2013 § Leave a comment
Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat
Field of Dreams, is one of my favorite movies because it taps into our deep yearning for wholeness. Ray (played by Kevin Costner) is compelled by a whisper-ish voice that inspires him to build a baseball stadium in a corn field in Iowa. The movie’s most enduring line is, If you build it, they will come. But the haunting refrain that pulses throughout it is, Ease his pain.
Much happens between Ray’s first encounter and movie’s end, but the most touching scene comes when he is brought face to face with his father who had died years before. Their reunion and exchange close the movie. However just before engaging his dad he realizes that the voice that inspired the construction of the field was his own, and only a journey of pain and uncertainty would bring him to that point.
So it is with us. The prospect of facing life uncensored and raw is terrifying because it is personal, but the gospel cuts through our layers of resistance to take us ‘there.’ Mysteriously, at one and the same time God enables us to face ourselves, and then live out of that reality without pretense, as He satisfies our God-given desire to be seen for who we are – and yet still be loved.
I am reminded of Joshua’s commissioning, where Moses says, The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged,” (Deuteronomy 31:8), asserting the promise and principle that there is no place God will ever lead us that He has not already been.
It is ‘there’ that God heals our pain with Christ’s pain, our sorrows with Christ’s sorrows and our brokenness with Christ’s own death, demonstrating that He has already been ‘there’ on our behalf, and has completed our broken stories with His own. In short, He eases our pain.
Such good news…
July 27, 2013 § Leave a comment
Each year Katherine and I (and whatever grown children can join us) make our way to New Smyrna Beach, Florida. It is our hideaway, an unspoiled shoreline between Daytona and Cocoa, two tourist-clogged beaches. We have been coming this way for 13 or so years, all the way back to when our children were, well… children.
The beach shop on wheels pictured above is where we rented our chairs. They dot the beach down the shoreline, not offensively, but in a way that they seem to belong there. They rent chairs, boards and floats, and they sell towels, hot dogs, lemonade, ice cream, soft drinks, candy and boiled peanuts (a personal favorite) – you name it. While engaging with the man who owned this particular shop (no one is safe) I learned that his grandmother makes the ice cream he sells – how cool. He is roughly 40 years old and is a third-generation New Smyrna Beach native. You don’t meet many.
It occurred to me that the Christian Faith is a little like that beach shop on wheels, and its owner, with his ice-cream making grandmother. It is like a family that has been around for a while – a long while, with its crazy uncles, strange family quirks, dark moments and endearing traditions. Suffice it to say that it isn’t new. We in ministry sometimes spend too much energy attempting to dress it in groovy new threads, but at the end of the day, it is something that has been handed down, just as it was for Timothy.
It isn’t handed down in the, ‘If it was good enough for your father it should be good enough for you!’ kind of way. It is more like a story that emanates from the voice of God in the scriptures, and one that is recited in creeds and confessions, conversions and church communities, retelling itself over and over again through generations, in the lives of people.
It isn’t new and yet mysteriously, it isn’t static either. It is a story that never changes, but one that continues to unfold – one we enter into through faith, only to discover that our place in the narrative was written for us and others long ago.
Here is the thing: Every one of us needs something greater, larger and more enduring than we are. We need a greater reality than the daily struggles and complexities of life because we so easily become consumed with fear, doubt, self and unbelief when we become lost in the uncertainty of any finite moment.
And the gospel, this hand-me-down religion, teaches that someone else has suffered before you. Someone else has despaired. Someone else has been filled with sorrow. Someone else has experienced fear. And someone else has endured. Men, women, girls and boys have lived in other eras and have experienced faith and unbelief just as you have. You aren’t the first and won’t be the last. You aren’t alone.
And if this were all to the story, it would be a darn good one, wouldn’t it. But it isn’t…
Jesus has been there too. And His experience is what makes sense of, and brings hope to, everyone else’s entanglements, because when Jesus made His entrance into the world it was to weave us into His big story. Not only has He suffered, despaired, experienced fear and faced sin, shame and sorrow – but He has overcome.
And His triumph ensures that while you imperfectly struggle to make it in this often heartbreaking, fallen world, with all its disappointments and snares, you will discover time and again, that in spite of your imperfect attempts to keep the Faith… it is the Faith, this beautiful hand-me-down religion, that is keeping you.
What good news…
grace & peace.
July 20, 2013 § 5 Comments
“I read somewhere that a thing that does not exist in relation to anything else cannot itself be said to exist.” Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
The trees pictured here are from my old neighborhood, in fact the home on the left corner is the one I grew up in. Forty years ago our dad, my brothers and I, along with other dads and their teenage children planted these trees as seedlings. The work was hard and dirty – and it cost us two weekends. But it was never intended to serve us alone. It was meant for generations that will follow long past our lifetimes.
Isaac’s journey came to mind as I prepared to reenter the blogosphere after a break and some redesign. He was Abraham’s son, and at some point in his life as an adult, Isaac found himself back in the land his dad once owned – it would one day become Israel. Upon arrival his first task was to dig wells in order to establish a usable water supply (Genesis 26). As he surveyed the land, he discovered old ones his father had dug years before, some working, and others not. Rather than build all new wells, he wisely recommissioned the ones that still functioned.
Such is the story of our lives as Christ-followers. Who we are now is in some way shaped by all who have gone before us, along with our every experience, which in turn somehow shapes those who will follow – like trees that line a neighborhood.
The video below is from the Paul McCartney concert Katherine and I attended the other night in DC. For me, a former Beatles freak, it was one of those bucket-list moments – what a thrill! The Long and Winding Road paints a beautiful picture of an entire lifetime.
Listen, our past helps to shape us, but because of Jesus it doesn’t have the power to fully define us – Isaac’s story reassures us that we don’t have to fix every broken well, and we can enjoy the ones that still work!
Here is my cheap advice: Don’t think so much in terms of any one given moment in your story, or you will either drive yourself crazy with things you can’t change, or drive everyone away with foolish self-promotion. Instead, think of yourself as being on a road – a long and winding road, one that will take you where you were always intended to be. This puts everything into perspective, good and bad.
Sorrow, regrets, shame, broken dreams and sins long ago committed, even successes, all have a way of distorting how we remember our lives, and this easily leaves us feeling disconnected from something larger… something better. But worse, they rob us of the big story – the story that extends past and before us – the story of Jesus the Redeemer who entered into the pain and brokenness of the fall, and into our unfinished lives, with a resolve to heal our broken world and make everything new. It becomes a story He retells through the prism of the Cross and the triumph of the Resurrection – and every time – every time, friends – the story ends well.
What good news.
grace & peace.
March 31, 2013 § Leave a comment
“Love is the victor. Death is not the end. The end is life. His life and our lives through him, in him. Existence has greater depths of beauty, mystery, and benediction than the wildest visionary has ever dared to dream. Christ our Lord has risen.”
Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat
My wife Katherine comes from the Moravian tradition. In my mind there is no more beautiful expression of the Resurrection than from the Moravian Church.
At 2 AM on Easter Morning the Moravian Church Band deploys throughout Old Salem (North Carolina), and begins to play hymns, preparing hearts for the celebration. After an early morning ‘watch’ in the dark, in which about 7,000 worshippers gather and sing, at dawn they pour out into the cemetery proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus with the traditional responsive acclamation, ‘He is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!’
Moravian gravestones are flat and each is exactly the same (children’s are smaller than adults), signifying equality in death. Each Moravian cemetery is called ‘God’s Acre,’ and in the rolling hills of Winston Salem there are few more lovely sights. What makes the tradition even more special is that on the Saturday before Easter, entire families scrub each gravestone and place flowers at them.
Throughout the rest of Easter morning, these thousands of worshippers are fed breakfast in groups. Everything about the tradition signals one truth: That Jesus, our Feast of Life, has conquered death, and He invites us to celebrate what He has inaugurated and what for us will one day be, in His good Kingdom.
And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on;
And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on.
And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing and joyful be;
And through eternity, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on;
And through eternity, I’ll sing on.
What good news.
He is Risen Indeed!
March 30, 2013 § 3 Comments
As I write, hundreds of children (and their parents) fill a small play area and a larger lacrosse field in search of thousands of brightly colored plastic eggs that contain all kinds of treats and candy. It is a lovely day and this adds to the spectacle of joy – Children with painted faces (yes, we’re a full-service church) – Parents – Volunteers – Staff – all together, enjoying, taking pics, pointing out eggs, and sharing the moment. I love it.
It caused me to think. This is the day we know so little of. What was Jesus doing in that grave that Saturday between His burial and His resurrection? We have hints in the scriptures, but suffice it to say that regardless of the actual details, even in the grave Jesus was no victim. We know that the Father had not abandoned Him (Acts 2:27), which is undoubtedly why, in his monumental sermon on Pentecost, Peter quoted David’s prophetic cry – “You have made known to me the paths of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence.” (Acts 2:28, Psalm 16:11)
To God and to the Lamb, I will sing, I will sing;
To God and to the Lamb, I will sing.
To God and to the Lamb who is the great I AM;
While millions join the theme, I will sing, I will sing:
While millions join the theme, I will sing.
I guess this is what those precious, loud, exuberant children bring to mind. By entering the grave, Jesus has begun to turn our cemeteries into playgrounds. The crazy thing is that if we had hidden the eggs among tombstones, the children would have been just as excited. Their world is that safe.
And because Jesus went to the grave, so is yours.
February 10, 2013 § Leave a comment
I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Letter From Birmingham City Jail
I celebrate Black History Month. Quietly, but joyfully. Each February I encourage our church members to do so as well, not only in heart, but also by taking in the culture, the food, the readings and the stories, often accompanied by a shameless plea to our African American brothers and sisters for a taste of the cuisine.
This year one of our families took this to heart and brought us to Darker Than Blue, a wonderful Soul Food restaurant in Baltimore, replete with live Jazz (pictured) and the lovely and peaceful atmosphere of a quaint dining establishment. And I was delighted when a member told me that she is reading through Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
I can tell you that we have been the beneficiaries of much more than good meals and evenings together. It is as though we have been welcomed into a trust forged out of pain and suffering.
A few years ago a friend asked why I do this, and why not other ethnicities that have experienced pain in their histories – a question worth considering. In answering, it may be worth starting with my own background.
In the early 20th Century the Ottoman Turks invaded Armenia and my grandparents (on both sides) were driven away by threat of death. One and a half million Armenians died in this attempted genocide, and the world’s relative indifference to their suffering became Hitler’s rationale for his ‘Final Solution’ (his plan for exterminating the Jews), to his skeptics.
My grandparents came to America by different routes, some via Iran and others through Egypt – all eventually came ashore at Ellis Island. America’s shores were open to them as with other people groups with dreams for living on our soil. They didn’t have to come – they chose to. And so Armenians celebrate being Armenians with Armenians!
We celebrate Black History as a nation because those who came from Africa didn’t have this luxury. They were forced to America by the slave trade. Men and women, boys and girls were treated like animals, considered property that could legally be beaten, raped, sold, even murdered. They were sold and auctioned publicly. Their ‘owners’ determined the limits of their rights as humans. The Slaves’ children were destined to the same oppressive existence.
Growing up in the sixties and seventies I remember the national and local tensions of the Civil Rights Movement, and then the Black Power Movement. The explanations from a white-leaning media. The rationalizations. The revisionist history. The images. The violence. The deplorable indifference to documented acts of injustice and cruelty. Jim Crow laws.
We’ve had the privilege of hearing stories from those who were ‘there,’ the stories behind the food and the stories of faith and resolve in the face of obvious national unrighteousness. A Vietnam Vet who, along with fellow black soldiers, constantly found themselves put on the most dangerous side of missions. A woman whose sister went to jail in Selma, and who herself rode the Freedom Buses. The stories are real, and the history is recent.
We deplore human trafficking today because we finally acknowledged the deep sin of our nation’s involvement in the slave trade, and then its nasty implications more than a century past Abolition.
But it wasn’t only a nation.
It was the Church too.
Many bought into the lie that said that one human being carried less value than another, simply based on the color of her skin – while teaching that ‘all ground is level at the foot of the Cross.’ From a Birmingham Jail Dr. Martin Luther King wrote, pleading local white pastors and churches to strong, persistent and determined action.
We celebrate courageous people like Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass, Dr. King and Harriet Tubman because they acted out of their conviction for justice when it was costly and they were quite alone.
But they shouldn’t have been.
So we celebrate. If we were not to celebrate then we would have no right to plead the cause of the unborn, or call the Church to care for the plight of the weak. We celebrate to not forget or grow cold and indifferent to the injustices we could otherwise so easily pretend to not notice. We celebrate because the gospel freshly informs us that there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).
And this is our good news…
January 26, 2013 § 1 Comment
This week marks the 40th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision to legalize abortion in the U.S. My friend and fellow blogger Tom wrote thoughtfully and passionately on the issue in his current post and it is well worth the read. I want to offer thoughts on the subject with hopes that an often-disregarded dimension might be considered.
First, I am pro-life. I offer this humbly and with deep conviction. In spite of the Church’s often insensitive and clumsy way of dealing with moral and cultural issues, I am convinced and bound by the undeniable biblical premise that God alone gives and takes life. And I believe that every abortion ends the life of a living baby. I know how thoughtless this must sound coming from a man, when in fact it is women who become pregnant – I get that. Really I do.
But for the Christ-follower, male or female, this isn’t a matter of choice beyond choices that have already been made by the time pregnancy occurs. It is about God’s prerogative to bring life into the world and the value we are called to treat life with – Life we see at birth and life we recognize even while still in the womb.
And what this means is that neither politics nor gender issues are the Church’s rationale for such conviction. Which makes it all the more difficult, because I am convinced that we are not a political organization and have wasted far too much credibility in our often-pitiful attempts to play with weapons of the flesh rather than those of the Spirit. But we are called to something.
There is a peculiar verse in Exodus 7 where God tells Moses, ‘…I have made you like God to Pharaoh…’ (vs. 1). He could simply have given Moses a plan to execute, but He adds this little statement, meaning that Moses would essentially be the divine presence of God on behalf of an oppressed people – to their oppressor. He would give them voice. This is the way God works. He always calls on the strong to champion the plight of the weak. Jesus never failed to notice, care for and serve the broken, and He would pass this principle down to the Church in His simple words, ‘In as much as you have done it to the least of these…’
In other words, the Church has been called to recognize and champion the weak, the broken and powerless as if it were God Himself doing the caring.
Because He is.
The scriptures call this justice.
But here is the thing – I know women who have had abortions – old and young women – women I hold dear – women who love Christ and His Church. Hurting women – women who carry sorrow with them – years of sorrow. Someone’s daughter – Someone’s mother – Someone’s sister. Women who feel they could never share their stories with the Church for fear of being driven more deeply into shame. And not only women who acted out of their own shortsightedness and selfishness, but women whose parents were more concerned for their own reputations, and pressured their confused and terrified daughters into abortions. Women whose husbands and boyfriends declared that love would be abandoned if they had their babies. Women whose pastors agreed it wise to quietly put their troubles behind. My blood boils as I think of these sweet women. This is what happens when it is personal – and it is. I see faces and names – and that is a good thing. And this means that I owe something to the women I don’t know as well.
You see, their lives matter too. And no amount of railing and accusation on my part, or on the part of the Church, can make them feel worse about themselves than they already do. And why would we any way? What they need is what everyone needs, what I need, and what we so passionately proclaim – that Jesus has the power and desire to heal our wounds and forgive our sins. That none of us is damaged goods to the One who makes all things new.
Here is the thing, friends: If the Church has ‘been made like God’ to the weak, then it has utterly failed in her mission for not recognizing the fragility of these dear and wounded ones.
In fact, I believe the Church has forgotten this many times over, and in her zeal to stand for truth she has often insensitively trampled the sorrows of many, and has violated the very principle of the value of life that she claims to champion in the first place, leaving many to feel as though they are damaged goods we are trying to sweep the world clean of. And this simply isn’t good enough.
And I guess this is where I want to land. Because the Church isn’t called to converge on Washington DC, though it should be unashamed in seeking justice for the unborn. It converges at the Cross. And whether in the womb, on the ground, or near the end of life, the Church is bound to love the weak, and to do so with such force of love, peace and grace, that any would feel safe to come out from hiding and rush to taste the sweet, healing waters of Jesus, the One who became sin and shame for us, that we may be made righteous – through no goodness of our own.
That would be such good news…
December 31, 2012 § 3 Comments
In a few hours the New Year will be reality. The Mayans have been proven wrong, and the world has survived. Though this is in no way an exhaustive list, take the encouragements offered as musings from the heart of a simple pastor and fellow sinner who remains unfinished to the core, but redeemed none the less.
An Encouragement to Remember Who You Are (ala Mufasa in James Earl Jones voice in The Lion King) – The fact is that life is a struggle between competing forces that constantly vie for our identity. Each offers plausible shortcuts to all kinds of good things such as respectability, success, fulfillment and peace. But they require energies and compromises that we weren’t created to bend our hearts around, and in the end they compromise us, and others. So find your identity in Jesus – Christ alone offers unconditional love without diminishing our dignity.
Be who you are! God likes you that way. And deep down, so do you. Sure, you will meet with some rejection – that is an unavoidable consequence of the fall, but the alternative is to live in a pretend world that fools everyone except God – Oh… and the person you see in the mirror each morning.
An Encouragement to Live for Something Greater than Yourself – Katherine and I saw Lincoln this past week. It is worth more than the price of admission – an amazingly well acted, scripted and directed movie. What struck me was that Abraham Lincoln lived only 56 years, just one year longer than I have been alive. They were hard years, particularly towards the end of his life. But what he was used for in those years! The fact is that God put you here for a good purpose. It may be as simple as being a good parent, as public as holding an elected office, or as undetected as providing some faithful service in a broken world. Just determine to not come to the end of your life and conclude that you set the bar too low. Every instinct will tell you that you can’t do this, and you’re right, but as our Director of College & High School Ministries said yesterday, (Patrick Allen), Because God is faithful we have the hope of what will one day be. – Rest in that faithfulness.
So Live! Look past your short lifetime believing that what you do and who you are count for something larger than yourself.
An Encouragement to Pursue Jesus – Let me challenge you to make this a year to deepen your roots with God. Enter the adventure that is redemption, only don’t rely primarily on secondary sources – With the Christian life Relationship is everything, and our relationship with God deepens in His Word. Facebook is great for social interaction, but quaint spiritual sayings on pink or light green backgrounds are no replacement for journeying into God’s story, and ours. A simple admission may help here: I do ‘personal devotions’ only three times a week (sermon prep doesn’t count). It’s true – My life is crazy, and spending time in God’s Word is not as simple as a New Year’s resolution. Sure, I reflect on what I read throughout the entire week, and I enjoy a constant life of prayer, but when it comes to the discipline of bible reading, I give more energy and passion to those three days than I would under some formulaic system borne of guilt. And don’t deny yourself thoughtful authors who stretch your faith and challenge you to grow. God has revealed Himself, and Jesus tells us that He can be found beyond our natural layers of self-protection, not only in His Word, but also His World, the broken and weak, the lovely and beautiful. Expect Him to make Himself known to you.
So discover Jesus freshly! And hey, sometimes all we can do is remain near until He shows up. I am confident that He will in some way you never expected, and when He does, you’ll realize that He was not only waiting, but also pursuing you all along – even in your doubts.
An Encouragement to Love – God has put people in your life – people you know and people you don’t know. Love them well. Don’t let those you know just assume that you care. Care. There is nothing sweeter than being loved beyond obligation. Whether your immediate family or your church community, in the end, you will be thankful that actively caring for loved ones is not among your regrets. Give strangers the gift of kindness, signaling to them that no one is invisible to God. Jesus even calls our enemies our neighbors, so love the ‘neighborhood’ God has placed you in, whether faces are recognizable or not, and discover that the world changes in small, kindness-shaped bytes. And you may never know what unexpected charity brings to the recipients.
Here’s where it gets tricky. Trust me, you’ll be disappointed time and again by putting yourself out there, even by those you most love, but an unloved and unloving, calloused heart is no match for one that is tender to the risks of love. And somewhere along the journey, you’ll remember that God didn’t wait for you to clean up before making you His.
For the New Year, this is good news…
I thank my God in all my remembrance of you… Philippians 1:3
December 25, 2012 § Leave a comment
The snow has fallen (you know I had to say something about the snow!). The Christmas benediction (blessing) has been offered. Gifts have been exchanged. The traditional breakfast has been eaten. We await friends who will come and share a meal with us this afternoon. Later, as per our family tradition, we will see a movie together. This particular Christmas tradition has always been a bit of a risky adventure – though also always a memorable one.
I am struck by how fast it all happens. Not so much in the I’m-getting-old-and-time-goes-faster sense, but in the sense that life really does go on. We don’t get do-overs and there is no slow motion for the sweet things. Everything about life happens in real time and speed.
And then we move on. We are 364 days away from the next celebration of Christmas.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not complaining or grieving – just taking it all in.
What I love is that we have is Today – this moment. It should be that way. It is what the shepherds had when the angels visited them – Today. Today promises that whatever hope Jesus brings with His appearance, it is enough in spite of all my yesterdays. Today is fresh. It is now. It is a completely fresh set of a day’s worth of seconds, minutes and hours.
It is what C.S. Lewis calls ‘the moment of all moments.’
Whoever I was yesterday, and whatever I did, though real and unalterable, will now be reconstituted by who and what I am Today – because of Jesus. And in this I have hope.
Because Jesus has come.
Let the just rejoice, for their justifier is born.
Let the sick and infirm rejoice, For their saviour is born.
Let the captives rejoice, For their Redeemer is born.
Let slaves rejoice, for their Master is born.
Let free men rejoice, For their Liberator is born.
Let All Christians rejoice,
For Jesus Christ is born.
St. Augustine of Hippo
Friends, this is our good news of great joy. Rejoice!