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.

Lamenting a Friend I Never Knew

August 16, 2014 § 38 Comments

good-morning-vietnam-robin-williams-693139754 “Robin Williams attended City Church in fall of 2006 when I was preaching through the Apostle’s Creed. He confessed the faith of the church and shuffled up for communion with everybody else needing grace. He was always kind to those around him. I know from other friends of his in the Bay Area what a generous, humble, and charitable man he was and his death saddens me greatly today. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.”

Fred Harrell, Sr. Pastor, City Church San Francisco

Robin Williams’ death has rocked me. Yes, I’m a Christ-follower and minister, and in God’s story, no one person is greater or better than the next. He was addicted to alcohol – I know this too. And I already know that suicide is not only an act of desperation, but also one of selfishness.

All this is true, and more. But for some reason, in the brilliant offerings and characters of this extraordinary comic and actor, it is as though Williams’ sorrows somehow connected with my own. Whether a magnificent iconoclastic English teacher, a distant Dad reminded of love and joy and family, a son who longed for the courage to face his own terrors – and father, or a caring Therapist, Williams drew me in like few have.

Through great writing, roles and directing – but also in his own pathos – Williams tapped into something deep within. When his heart broke over the suicide of one of his students in Dead Poets Society, it was real. When he finally refused to run from the hunter who chased him for years, in Jumanji, it was as though all of us finally grew up and stopped running. In Hook, when he told Jack, his son, that he was his ‘happy thought,’ my heart swelled for our own children.

I think it was more than acting, but a man who wanted to believe there is hope past one’s own sorrows and demons. I am sad for him and all who wrestle with the darkness of such depression that wrecks that hope.

robin_williams_01

Fortunately, as selfish, damaging or cowardly as it may be, for those who belong to Jesus, suicide holds no power over the gospel. It is a sin, but it isn’t unforgiveable, any more than my own cowardice, selfish ways and damaging actions. We believe that nothing can separate us from God’s love – not even us (Romans 8).

I am sure that when I was fresh out of seminary, and filled with self-righteous zeal, that I would have written some pietistic essay on why Williams could not have possibly entered the Kingdom, but I would have been wrong.

Instead, I am comforted by the words of his pastor, and my friend.

And though I didn’t know Robin Williams, I will miss him.

But better, and in spite of his flaws – and mine – I hope to one day see him – and you – at the Feast.

Wouldn’t that be sweet.

What good news…

peace.

Adored

August 2, 2014 § Leave a comment

Chris & Boys “The most vulnerable thing we could ever do, the thing that requires the most courage and faith, is the key to freedom. We bring our nothing – accepting who we are by accepting who God is, what he has done and what he promises to do.”

J.R. Briggs, Fail

It was a treat to be invited by one of our Elders to the Baltimore Ravens’ training facility in Owings Mills a few weeks ago, which is by invitation only (as opposed to the larger venue at M&T Bank Stadium). Through another friend who works with the team, we were also permitted to enter into the complex and view the team’s two Super Bowl trophies.

What a thrill to be at field level watching these athletes. They are stunningly fast and observably sleek. Their movement is precise and seemingly effortless. When they strike the blocking machines you can almost feel the force from the stands.

Following practice the team autographed footballs, jerseys, posters and hats for the children. But we adults were equally awed with the event. Having grown up a sports fan, any brush with professional athletes has always been the coolest thing. I still feel like a kid when watching them practice, even though I am twenty-five years older than the oldest player on the team!

Yet what reached me most deeply was in observing our Worship Director and his twin sons. The photo at the top of this post really says it all – a Dad and his boys. They were his joy and the stars of his photographs.

Amazingly we enjoy no less pleasure from the heavenly Father, even more.

What a sweet picture of God and His people – a Father and His children. We are unfinished, and His love for us is complete. We are weak and He is strong. We get lost and He finds us. We are immature, and He is eternally wise. We obey imperfectly and He delights over us with singing, His lens ever fixed on us because of Jesus.

I know the tyranny of unbelief, how it creeps into our hearts and thinking, wrecking joy and imposing it’s own version of a twisted righteousness that is neither righteous nor beautiful. More than anything, it obscures us from the Father – and this is sad.

However to our sometimes despairing spirits and fearful hearts the gospel freshly announces to us that we are not orphans! Nothing Jesus did – on the Cross and in His Resurrection – is wasted. In Christ, we are God’s daughters and sons (John 1:12).

What good news…

peace.

Ravens

Embracing our ‘Other’ Side

July 26, 2014 § Leave a comment

Bad Water “…I would advise you against defensiveness on principle. It precludes the best eventualities along with the worst. At the most basic level, it expresses a lack of faith… And often enough, when we think we are protecting ourselves, we are struggling against our rescuer.”

Marlilynne Robinson, Gilead

There is an ice-cream shop at the beach we visit each year that smells heavenly as one walks by. It emits a delicious aroma that undoubtedly draws many in. However, this year on one occasion, I turned the corner the shop is on, only to be hit with the foulest of smells. On the ground, puddling along the building was the nasty water that obviously drains from the shop – the county fair puddle kind of smell that one can barely endure in between nausea-inducing rides.

Reflecting on that odorous moment, I am reminded that we can be like that little shop. We have a beautiful side that we want everyone to notice and embrace. But we also have another side.

Dare I say, a stinky side…

All kinds of experiences, flaws and encounters contribute, and unfortunately our tendency is to not only hide this side, but to live, act and relate as though it doesn’t even exist.

Which is ludicrous.

I have found that the relationships that we hold most dear are those in which we have entrusted some glimpse into our ugliness. In fact, the reality of our flaws and blemishes is the only point of commonality we share.

Other than Jesus.

In other words, our stinky side, and the One who has delivered us from its lasting effects, are what unite us. They are what inform our spirits that we are not alone.

That we don’t have to hide.

That we are safe.

You would think this to be a no-brainer, yet the instinct to self-defend is powerful, and every chink in my armor serve as temptations to protect, pretend and hide, when all along the gospel screams that they are God’s invitations for me to enjoy the dance of intimacy with a world that shares my brokenness.

And hiding only diminishes me.

So back to the Ocean. It is not merely the surface and horizon, but the depths, and perilous realities, the mysteries and dangers, that make it magnificent. The depths shape its lovely colors. The creatures fill it with beautiful diversity. Its mysteries draw us into the wonder of God.

It can’t be what it is, without all that it is.

And neither can we.

But the Father already knows this. And by His grace, in Jesus He has embraced that most ugly, stinky part of us, in forming us into something lovely, flaws and all, until He comes and makes everything new.

Friends, this is our good news…

peace.

Ocean & Moon

Ocean Theology…

July 19, 2014 § 3 Comments

Dawn 2

“The ocean is a desert with its life underground and a perfect disguise above…”

America, A Horse with no Name

Nothing restores me like the ocean. The expanse of the waters, the sound of the waves, the warmth of the sun, the surf, the birds, the clouds, the ocean spray, the smell of the water, an occasional breach of the waters by dolphins, and just being there with Katherine – all do something good for my soul.

It is all so beautiful. You can stand in the same place every morning and get a completely different, and equally spectacular view.

But the sea is as treacherous as it is beautiful, filled with immeasurable depths, unlivable pressure levels, treacherous currents, pitch black darkness and terrifying creatures (especially sharks!). It separates people and countries, and throughout history it has swallowed ships and souls whole.

And it is in its beauty and terror that this magnificent expanse symbolizes God’s unfathomable mercy. The prophet Micah writes that God will one day ‘cast all our sins into the depths of the sea’ (Micah 7:19). He is using prophetic imagery to describe the extent to which God freely forgives.

But why the ocean? Why something so beautiful?

Why not hurl our sins into the depths of a chemical waste pit… or bury them at the bottom of a landfill? Why cast the ugliest of who we are into the loveliest of what God has created?

The answer is, because this is what God does. And this is what He has done – in Jesus.

We rebel and our sin is hideous. Yet in exchange, the Father gives us Jesus – not His creation, but His Son – the best of who He is, to take on the worst that we are.

In Jesus the Father has created for Himself a spectacular view that He delights in every day, in the way one would delight in the ocean as the sun rises and sparkles on the water, and as the gulls make their way across the canvas, and the waves gently invite us to drink in the beauty.

Don’t let the imagery be lost on you – it is far too wonderful. It isn’t that God blinds Himself of our brokenness, but that in Christ, our sin has been covered, engulfed as it were, under the deep waters of the Father’s compassion and the Son’s blood.

His Spirit testifies to ours that we are not only His children, but that we are the very thing He delights in, every day.

What good news…

peace.

Morning

The Value of Weeds

June 28, 2014 § Leave a comment

Rabbit “The Kingdom belongs to people who aren’t trying to look good or impress anybody, even themselves.”

Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel

Last week Katherine and I were surprised to find a visitor on the edge of our patio – a rabbit was feasting on some weeds that grew in the mulch.

Apparently there is no strategy for preventing these unwelcome growths that find their way onto our small property – they just come. The flowers, trees and mulched areas may be impeccably cared for, but one weed, strategically sprouted, can make it all look trashy. So I’m constantly on the lookout.

But because of our new friend, we decided to give clemency to this small growth. Besides, it would provide a diversion from the flowers and plants at the front of our home. I suspect our visitor instinctively knows what I’ll do if it hurts those flowers (see below)…

I digress…

Truth be told, I easily get consumed with the weeds in my own life, whether past mistakes or present struggles. That subtle but insidious perfectionism is always there, and it is a sick breeding ground for my soul.

At times the Church hasn’t helped. We have heard phrases like, ‘the overcoming life,’ and have been made to constantly feel spiritually inadequate, though the gospel teaches that it is God’s love that cannot be overcome.

In his fine book, Messy Spirituality, Mike Yaconelli writes, “…the truth is, we are a mess. None of us is who we appear to be. We all have secrets. We all have issues. We all struggle from time to time. No one is perfect. Not one…”

Interestingly, Paul taught that ingratitude was a vital component in the fall (Romans 1:21), and that for the Christ-follower, a sure cure for a self-consumed heart, is a thankful heart (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

I have to believe this to be part of the reason God allows weeds we can’t eradicate, because ultimately an obsession with perfection, when unmasked, is no less than an ungrateful rejection of one’s need for Christ’s sacrifice. The fact is that there are some weeds that need to remain. They’re ugly, and they won’t follow us into heaven. But amazingly, the flaws and struggles we carry have their own value that only God can determine.

Paul concluded that he would, “…boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)

The question is this: Will we trust the Father with our own imperfect selves and stories as they play out?

If your answer is that you want to but that you can’t, then you’re starting to get it.

And this, friends, is good news…

peace.

Our Terrifying Tension

June 21, 2014 § 1 Comment

skyline “The feeling was so strong that I actually turned on the light for a moment to make sure no one was there – of course, there wasn’t. But after a while, in the dark again, I knew beyond any doubt that it was Jesus.”

Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies

This past week we were in the vast city of Houston, in Texas. ‘Vast’ is an understatement. Houston is the fourth largest city in the US, and will likely soon be third behind New York and LA. It is huge. Taking pics of Houston from the top of our hotel reminded me that each of the thousands of lights (perhaps tens of thousands) represented people and stories. There are living spaces where individuals and families make their homes, hotels that are filled with visitors, and spaces where temptation, violence and loneliness often make hay with its victims. There are offices where money is won and lost and careers are launched and ruined, and streets on which the rich drive and the homeless wander.

Houston is also a hub for human trafficking in the US, where untold numbers of people are forced into the sex and drug trades, and cast into anonymity by the sheer power of evil. It isn’t only Houston. Our church is involved in an important ministry that fights this same horrid reality in Baltimore.

In some ways a large city is a microcosm of life. Our stories are always deeper and more layered than we show on the surface, and the ‘beautiful lights’ sometimes mask the hiding we enter into for fear of being exposed and seen at our worst. Our ‘worst’ is always there. It isn’t that the beautiful stuff sometimes replaces the ugly things. So my tendency is to hide just like the next person.

But all along, I want to be found. I want to be found because deep within I know that unless I am seen and accepted at my worst, I can’t truly be loved, and I can’t feel whole.

This is our terrifying tension. We hide, but we want to be discovered. We want to be safe, but we want safety in truth and acceptance. We want to be clean but we feel safer in our guilt. Deep down we want someone to see our brokenness and love us in spite of the wreckage.

In some way, this is why I rest in the Sovereignty of a God who actually pursues and finds us before we have any inclination to care about Him. We are far too insecure to risk exposure.

So God finds us, in the darkest places we hide, and in Jesus He assures us that with complete clarity, He sees us and loves us as we are and have been, and that he has ‘drawn us with unfailing kindness’ (Jeremiah 31:3).

Friends, this is good news…

peace.

Houston

Letters from Dad

June 14, 2014 § 2 Comments

Letters “I think there are a lot of religious trends that would have us controlling God, telling us that if we do this and that and another, God will jump through the hoops like a monkey. But this other God, this real God, is awesome and strong, all–encompassing and passionate, and for reasons I will never understand, He wants to father us.”

Donald Miller & John MacMurray, To Own a Dragon

It is Father’s Day weekend, and both the Fatherhood of God and the fact that my Dad is gone are colliding within my heart. Dad was strong, imposing, sweet and gentle all at the same time. He loved Christ. And he loved his family. I miss him.

Dad wasn’t the most communicative of people when it came to intimate space, a typical son of poor immigrants, who poured his passion into providing for and protecting his family. But when I left home for college, and then seminary, to my surprise, he began to write – a lot. Each month I would receive long letters, written on Dad’s Eastern Airlines stationary (they even smelled like his office) in which he poured out his love for the Lord and the family in great detail. I discovered that he had a lot in him, and the letters (all of which I still possess as treasures) offered safe passage for speaking his heart.

I was blessed with a good Father. And I always wished someone like my Dad for friends who had sadder stories with their own parents. Dad made believing that there is a Father in heaven who loves me more natural than if I had to fight through harsher experiences in accepting this to be true.

And I have come to believe that my greatest struggle with God isn’t the tenets of the Christian Faith, but in freshly believing the intimate realities that accompany it.

Tomorrow I begin a summer series on The Lord’s Prayer. Right out of the gate Jesus teaches that more than a theological tenet, God is a Father, ‘Our Father…’ And further, this foreboding God of the Old Testament, all along (you can hear the passion in the covenants, promises and sacrifices), had a lot in Him… for us.

And He sent all He had, in Jesus, for the very reason my Dad wrote those precious letters.

What good, sweet news…

peace.

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