the least

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…”

Psalm 109:30b-31a

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.

Westlake Neighborhood, Cape Town, South Africa

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.

Westlake Elementary Missionaries

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.

Beauty Awaits

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.”

Isaiah 55:12

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.

Corner 1Because 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.

Proximity

April 3, 2015 § Leave a comment

Light Cross “Good Friday brings us to our senses. Our senses come to us as we sense that in this life and in this death is our life and our death. The truth about the crucified Lord is the truth about ourselves.”

Richard John Neuhaus, Death on a Friday Afternoon

We just finished our Good Friday service here at the church. In an attempt to hold the service as near to the time of Jesus’ crucifixion as possible, we meet in the afternoon – more for a sense of historic proximity, for lack of a better way of putting it.

I remember that feeling in Dallas once, when standing in sixth floor window of the Book Depository from which Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated President John F. Kennedy in 1963. In some way it brought the events of that fateful November day to the forefront. And I’ve always wanted to walk across Abbey Road in England, and reenact the Beatles’ album by that name for the same reason.

Good Friday is the celebration of the death of Jesus, plain and simple. However our true proximity is not to the time, but the Person and His Cross. Standing in the shadow of the Cross we gain a renewed sense of the enormity of our sin and immense sacrifice and depth of love demonstrated to us by Jesus, our Sin-Bearer.

The apostle Paul asserted the Cross to be the central event and essential reality of his life – “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).

To stand in proximity to the Cross is to be recentered and reminded that it is more than something beautiful (which it is), but that it is everything – because Jesus is.

It is our good news…

peace.

The Cross is the hope of Christians

The Cross is the resurrection of the dead

The Cross is the way of the lost

The Cross is the savior of the lost

The Cross is the staff of the lame

The Cross is the guide of the blind

The Cross is the strength of the weak

The Cross is the doctor of the sick

The Cross is the aim of the priests

The Cross is the hope of the hopeless

The Cross is the freedom of the slaves

The Cross is the power of the kings

The Cross is the water of the seeds

The Cross is the consolation of the bondmen

The Cross is the source of those who seek water

The Cross is the cloth of the naked.

We thank you, Father, for the Cross.

—10th Century African Hymn

Impression

March 14, 2015 § 1 Comment

License Plate “There is our hope – the infinite resource of God’s love, the relationship with his creatures that no sin can finally unmake. He cares what we do because he suffers what we do. He is forever wounded, but forever loving… We have a future because of this grace.”

Rowan Williams, A Ray of Darkness

As you can see from the picture above, I parked a little, how do I say it… forcefully, the other day. Hey you would too if you had as much snow as we’ve experienced the last month! Give me a break! I digress. Not only that, but apparently I parked in the wrong place and immediately had to move my car, only to reveal evidence that I had been there.

The good news is that by now the snow has melted, and with it, my offense.

With the coming celebration of the resurrection of Jesus from the grave, comes the beautiful rehearsal of the sufferings and death of Jesus.

One of the things we sometimes miss in the message of grace is that while our sins are forgiven, they are still part of our history. There is no make believe in the Christian gospel. There is no ‘Leave Wounds Outside’ sign on the Faith. We carry our imperfections, flaws, indiscretions and pasts with us when we enter into the Kingdom of God through Jesus. We are unfinished. Our pasts don’t melt away, their impressions lasting and sometimes haunting.

But here is where it gets really beautiful. Though we carry our scars, Jesus carries them too.

“Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands…” Isaiah 49:16

Though we are forgiven, at the same time that the pain and sorrow of past sins sometimes reemerge to remind us of our weakness and propensity to rebel, the scars Jesus bears serve as our reminders of the Father’s love. In some way we bear the same scars! Ours are painful reminders of our condition. His are powerful encouragements that we are loved. One cannot go without the other.

Amazing isn’t it. Every purchase demands a receipt – evidence that what we possess is ‘paid-in-full.’ There was a day when a receipt was the only acceptable proof for returning an item. To lose one would be calamitous if the pants didn’t quite fit, or the drill didn’t work when plugged in.

In Jesus, our forgiveness is sure. The receipt is engraved on His hands, never to be misplaced, and a perpetual reminder for us that the sacrifice has been made, once and for all.

What unspeakably good news…

peace.

What do you see? (aka Spock Theology)

February 28, 2015 § Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What good news…

Live Long and Prosper.

An Open Letter to Brian Williams

February 14, 2015 § 2 Comments

Williams Dear Brian,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because it is…

Hang in there.

peace.

Workplace Confessionals

January 31, 2015 § Leave a comment

Phone “…I have come to believe that by and large the human family all has the same secrets, which are both very telling and very important to tell. They are telling in the sense that they tell what is perhaps the central paradox of our condition – that what we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else.”

Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets

We had a great laugh in our Ministers & Directors meeting last week, and it involved our new office phones. A few months ago we replaced our 25-year old system, and in our meeting we took time to enjoy the obligatory shared gripe session. We complained about how the speaker functions, how the buttons press down – all that minor stuff. And then one of us said, ‘You think that’s bad… I have six messages on my phone and I don’t know how to get to them!’ At that point all started laughing, because secretly we (mostly the guys, I hate to admit) all had the same problem. Of course it is almost a waste of space for me to say that this particular malady wasn’t the system’s fault!

Either way it was worth the laugh.

I am convinced that the greatest damage sin does to the human soul is found in its isolating power. Through the agency of shame, it has a way of driving us underground into secrecy for fear that exposure would further alienate us from those we know and love. We are secret carriers. Temptation finds us when we are vulnerable and alone, and then imprisons us in isolating guilt.

The Church hasn’t been too good at this whole sin and acceptance ‘thing.’ Our message is grace, but our practice often comes across as perfectionism. In spite of Paul’s assurance that our struggle with temptation is a common one (1 Corinthians 10:13), we can be terrified at the prospect of admitting our struggles. And so it is no wonder that people often feel more comfortable confessing their sins in the workplace than with fellow believers. It isn’t that there are more sinners there. It is that no one denies the struggle.

But the gospel presents a Deliverer who suffered and died in isolation, from friends, even from His Father, when He bore punishment for the very guilt that we hide in. And this means that we don’t have to hide.

Hey, until Jesus comes and renews the world, we will bear secrets. We’ll never feel perfectly safe in our fallen frames, and there is an argument to be made for oversharing, but every time we take the Bread and the Cup, together we publicly acknowledge that perfection isn’t the point, and that the Father loves us in spite of the fact that once again we didn’t make it through the week unscathed. And this simple acknowledgement draws us out of the shadows.

Friends, this is good news…

peace.

PS Enjoy the Super Bowl (and take the poll)!

Six Encouragements for the New Year

January 3, 2015 § 2 Comments

Baltimore “Soon there would be more wonderful things happening.”
C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously – Trust me, you’ll enjoy yourself more, and more importantly, others will too! We can get so wrapped around ourselves that we fail to thrive and flourish as we were intended. I tell people that every swimming pool has a deep end and a shallow end, and you can’t enjoy the pool unless you use both. People who are always heavy and severe are difficult to take in large doses. Don’t be one of them, and the world will be better for that.

Don’t be consumed by Little Things – Unless your aim is to drive yourself crazy in 2015 (and everyone else for that matter!), don’t let politics and other such smallnesses (my word!) rule your life. Settle in your heart what you already know to be true: Christ is on the throne. He doesn’t share His rule with anyone. Can you trust Him with the universe? It’s not that he’s waiting on your vote of confidence, but if you can, life will be far more enjoyable for you and the people around you.

Live Generously – Okay, I know this must sound suspect coming from a pastor, but my observation is that the happiest people are the most generous – with their time, their money, their resources and their love. Taking, consuming and amassing are not what we were designed for, and stingy people always seem to be complaining about not having enough. But when we live generously, we are free, and we connect with our Creator, who designed us after His own image, and deep within we know this.

Serve More than You are Served – If you serve more than you are served, you will avoid living as though everyone owes you – because they don’t. Trust me, at times it will be inconvenient and thankless, but servanthood is like underground Disney for God’s people – it is where things really happen. Those who open their hearts and homes to others reflect what the Father has done for us. Servants change the world. Jesus proved this in His teachings and by His own example, and He isn’t doing too badly, is He.

Hold Those You Love Close – One of those beautiful countercultural commands Jesus gives to the Church is to love our enemies and to pray for them (Matthew 5:43-47). The Corleones got it wrong. Hold those you love closest, friends. Love them well. Throw pride aside! Practice forgiveness and be willing to own up when you’re wrong (and even a few times when you’re not wrong!). We only have a few moments on this planet, and this means that any relationship worth having is worth holding dear, and will bring immeasurable joy for the journey.

Embrace the Journey!John Calvin taught that knowing God and knowing ourselves go hand in hand, so this is also an encouragement to engage with Christ. Enjoy who God created you to be, and don’t apologize for it. Make decisions and live with them. Own up to mistakes, but don’t wallow in self-pity. Be who you are, but don’t let that be the end of the journey. As you engage with Jesus, the Father will reveal what you need to deal with and change, and God’s Spirit will enable this to come about, but in the mean time, live where you are!

Friends, it’s all there before you. what good news…

Happy New Year.

peace.

Horizon

Who We’ve Always Been

September 27, 2014 § Leave a comment

Andrew & Ray Life has a way of taking us back – all the way to who we’ve always been. Have you ever considered this, for instance, after speaking with a really old aunt that still talks to you like you are thirteen – and then you feel that way?

My youngest brother called the other day. Andrew lives in Hattiesburg, Mississippi with his family, where he contracts within the hospital system. Hattiesburg is home for the University of Southern Mississippi.

When I answered the phone his first words were, ‘You need to take this call,’ and then he handed the phone to someone who had been a lifelong hero (both pictured above).

Ray Guy is one of Southern’s all time great players. In a few weeks the University will celebrate his induction into the NFL Hall of Fame (the first punter to enter) after a career with the Oakland Raiders, from when I was in my teens.Ray Guy

It just so happens that he works at one of the hospitals that my brother services, and they interact regularly.

It would be an understatement to say that I was thrilled, and it didn’t take long for me to revert to fourteen years old, blathering into a near play-by-play of my favorite game of his pro career.

Dentist - ShadesThe other event is a much less pleasant one – the dentist (yes, that’s me). I was recently fitted for a new crown where an old one had worn out its welcome. I’ve already documented how traumatic it is to be a dentist-lifer.

Interestingly, it occurred to me that I still talk with the dentist exactly as I did with others when I was twelve years old. Maybe it is the chair. The guy is young enough to be one of my nephews, yet I feel like a kid when he’s working on me.

And that is the connection. We are always who we’ve always been.

I have found that it is never of God whenever I am tempted to reinvent myself.

Just track the saints and their stories. Though transformed by the gospel, they struggled with the same issues of weakness and sin that they had before they encountered God.

This is because Jesus doesn’t reinvent us. He redeems us. He redeems us into the recognizable children God always intended for us to be, before the fall marred us and drove us into hiding. In doing so, He casts a lifeline in us, to others who thought it had to be another way.

And so it will always be that the Father finds us most precious when we shed the exhausting pursuit of perfection, and simply live in the grace that will accompany us… until we are Home.

Friends, this is good news…

peace.

Reflecting on Life, Ferguson & the Gospel…

August 23, 2014 § 1 Comment

AP_FERGUSON_MARCH_140814_DG_16x9_992 “Pray for me, guys. The situation in Ferguson is bringing out the worst in me, and I don’t like what I’m seeing.”

A refreshingly honest friend

So some disclosure…

I’m a white guy who grew up in Miami in a mostly white world that was shaped by white tastes, white opinions and white culture. Everyone else had to fit in, and it never occurred to me that this could be wrong.

I can’t remember ever thinking that the streets, our neighborhood or my world, were anything other than perfectly safe. And because I was safe and happy, I just assumed everyone else was.

Injustice wasn’t even on my radar, until a friend in ministry opened my eyes. I’ve been catching up ever since, and am far from an authority.

When my studies floundered, I was still believed in and considered full of potential. Contrast this to Malcolm X, a bright-eyed, super-achieving high school student, whose joy was demolished when a teacher scoffed at the notion that he, an African-American, would aspire to a future that involved being anything other than a janitor.

Earlier this week a coworker and I conversed about issues unearthed by the events in Ferguson. He’s black and I’m white. It was good – we just talked. And we agreed on the need to take the conversation to another level.

Random Thoughts I Scratched throughout the Week…

I have to think that the symbolic, anecdotal, mass-media-driven vitriol takes us nowhere good – It has to be personal, because it is.

Sin is never excusable. Period. Figure out the rest, but if you put a color to your conclusions, you’re missing the point.

There are more civilly minded and community-loving people than not (don’t think color – think people).

There are more good cops than bad ones.

There are more bad politicians than good ones (hey, this is my blog – I can say what I want, but term limits would dramatically help).

Violence is almost never the answer, and victims abound when it occurs.

Not merely with words, but in communal life, will the Church make a difference…

There is no ‘Them’

Protest ≠ Destruction

Love > Fear

Right now I don’t like my world very much.

But God created it to be good. And the gospel informs me that everything that disturbs me is less about ‘it’ and ‘them,’ and more about what is in me.

The fact is that I have no idea what went down in Ferguson. But whatever it was, the images have excavated fears, preconceived notions, and prejudices that either I didn’t know existed – or worse, that I never before wanted to admit.

And I don’t know what to do with this other than to pray… and listen.

All the while holding on to the promise that Jesus, the One who entered into the mess that is our world, and actually loved it, is making everything new, until heaven and earth are one, and the nations gather at the throne, where lions and lambs and infants and cobras dwell safely together in peace.

It is the good news that sustains…

peace.

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