May 27, 2020 § Leave a comment
“…I will praise him in the midst of the throng. For he stands at the right hand of the needy one…”
The two photographs below are from South Africa. In the foreground of the first is the most decrepit neighborhood Katherine and I have ever seen. In the distance is an elementary school designated for this neighborhood, where amazingly, among the ruins and disrepair, there is hope.
In one regard, the current COVID-19 pandemic has leveled the playing field. Neither those in plenty, or those in need are exempt from the reach of the virus. Rich and poor, and regardless of faith, skin-color, or ethnicity, all stand in the same line outside the same grocery store, waiting for the indoor count to allow entry.
Initially, the virus seems weighted towards the poor. A March 11 Time Magazine article relates that the Coronavirus may disproportionately hurt the poor (embedded in that article’s title). Among this segment are those with low-income jobs that, in many cases are not accompanied by medical benefits, including sick leave. Many in this category live in close quarters in greater populated areas. A cardiologist friend recently related to me that over-crowded homes, poor ventilation, and unfiltered water among the poor, contribute to the problem.
However, any who work high-trafficked areas of business put all at risk, because they can’t afford to take days off. This means that those who come into contact with them; co-workers, customers, clients, are all compromised.
In a way that could not have been anticipated, this pandemic has brought together the haves and have-nots.
If you want to find God, look for the needy. That is where He stands. Jesus referred to the least of these in describing the oft-neglected segments of society. He teaches that when we care for the least of these, we do so for him.
He doesn’t even qualify it with words like ‘as though you were doing it for me,’ but adamantly asserts that any effort to care for the weak is an expression of care for him, in the way he told Saul (later Paul) that his assault on Christians was actually a personal attack on him (Jesus).
It isn’t that God loves the poor, weak and needy more, but that society regards them as less, and often ignores them as though they don’t count. But to God, they do.
At Westlake Elementary, missionaries surprisingly gained permission from the state to train the children in life and faith, while a young couple ministers in the neighborhood, where the wife grew up in unspeakably abusive conditions.
At some point in the woman’s life, through the kindness of others, God changed her heart. Then he compelled her to forgive those who so violently treated her, and to return to her neighborhood. Then he sent her husband.
Then he sent them – to minister in Westlake, alongside their missionary friends at the elementary school.
In a time when everything affects everyone, the Church has an opportunity to enter in, and embody the heart of God, with the Christian message that reveals a Redeemer who left his comforts for our chaos, his riches for our poverty, his throne for our weakness, and then, to hang in payment for sins we should bear.
The news doesn’t get any better than that, friends…
grace & peace.
February 28, 2015 § Leave a comment
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.
February 21, 2015 § 2 Comments
Eugene H. Peterson, Leap Over A Wall
If you know anything about my work habits, you know that my sermon prep is a crazy time of prayer, solitude, music, study, distraction, desperation, and more prayer. It begins in my office on Thursday, and ends there early Sunday morning, with hours at ‘my’ Starbucks in between. This is my groove.
And when it is interrupted my world tips off its axis.
All of which leads to early last Thursday morning, when our daughter Emily called. She had a flat tire on a major highway leading into and out of Baltimore. Long story short, I ended up spending most of Thursday in a Firestone with a manager who reminded me of Newman on Seinfeld, in a community known as Reisterstown, just beyond the city. The store was situated on a loud, busy road. So there I was – no books, no office, no playlists, no groove!
Instead I was confined to a crowded room with strangers – you know, the people types. One lady was a night guard who worked the night shift. Another loudly cursed into her phone, enraged with a family member, while simultaneously giving us the play-by-play. Another changed her baby’s diaper on the chairs in front of the television beside the coffee maker that smelled as though it had been brewing for weeks. Game shows gave way to talk shows, and finally soap operas.
Somewhere around Noon I was expected on a conference call, and for an hour I walked around the store, in and among people, tires and furniture, and sometimes outside, in 14-degree weather. At meeting’s end, the leader asked me to pray. So, there in the Firestone, I got into a corner (pictured above), and prayed.
And when I opened my eyes, I was in a sanctuary.
Eugene Peterson writes of God’s people and how simple elements like rocks and animals, water, fire and hills were employed in worship when gathering and temples were not options. I think of Jesus, who worshiped early in the Temple, on a mountain in the morning, at the banquet of His betrayal, in the garden, and even on the Cross. It was never about perfect circumstances, and always about the very present God.
It turned out that I needed that place and those people and our daughter’s crisis more than I needed my office. The Father was at Firestone and He wanted me there.
It was in that Sanctuary that retail chairs transformed into pews, garage workers served as priests, customers became fellow worshippers, the seating arrangement, our confessional, our stories the liturgy, and the smell of new rubber combined with burnt coffee, the incense of our shared need.
Free from the ordinary, the world appeared a little clearer, and my sermon a bit less daunting. A letter I intended for a friend took shape, and heart. Texts with my wife, sermon notes, and thoughts of God’s protection over our daughter, songs of thanksgiving and praise.
Friends, find your sanctuary.
And discover once again, that it is the Father who has found you.
What good news…
January 31, 2015 § Leave a comment
“…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…
PS Enjoy the Super Bowl (and take the poll)!
January 17, 2015 § Leave a comment
Eugene H. Peterson, Leap Over A Wall
One thing that I’ve always loved in the scriptures is that God addresses people such as Moses and Abraham, as friends. And then Jesus does the same thing with His disciples (and us). In some way He gives us what every person can have in a fallen world where marriages sometimes fail and love often disappoints.
The fact is that we were not meant to walk through life alone. Even in the garden, when creation was perfect and he lacked for nothing, and before sin ever entered into the story, it still was ‘not good’ for Adam to be alone (Genesis 2:18). This relational piece was built into the human psyche. What we learn in the scriptures is that God Himself lives in community – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are relational beings, designed as such by our relational Creator.
The proliferation of online dating sites bears this out. The yearning to love and be loved, to touch and be touched is deeply embedded within every heart. Even when pain, past hurts and relational disappointments ice us over and leave us feeling cold to the idea of ever trusting anyone else, we still can’t expunge the desire to be loved. In fact, those who most stridently reject the need for love are often those most wounded by it, and secretly desirous that their defenses would be crashed through. The prospect of living and dying alone is more than any soul can bear.
The problem is never the longing – actually this is healthy and natural. But whenever the solutions begin with an idea of trust and intimacy that can only be satisfied by another person, then there will always be disappointment and heartbreak. I know you don’t need me to write this, but it is true that those we love are every bit as flawed as we are.
I’ll never forget when one of my dearest friends deeply wounded me. When I got honest, I realized that it had as much to do with my expectations as his actions. The actions weren’t the end of the world, but the expectations were ridiculous. Working through it brought real friendship. No relationship of any value can thrive in a vacuum. The ‘mess’ we bring to our relationships is like the needed bacteria we have in our own bodies – none of us are perfect, and if one of us were, love would be impossible.
Here is the thing, friends. Jesus is that ‘friend who sticks closer than a brother’ (Proverbs 18:24), the only one who will ever love completely.
Because He lived sinlessly and loves perfectly He is the first relationship, the watermark for all others. And this means that for all the times we fail those we love, and in every disappointment we experience, He will still be there, speaking the Father’s care into our lives, ‘face to face, as a man speaks with his friend’ (Exodus 33:11).
What good news…
November 29, 2014 § 1 Comment
“Our longings remind us of the essential human fact that we are talked and touched into life, and that a human race struggling to do all its talking and touching for itself faces a paralyzing unhappiness and anxiety.”
Rowan Williams, A Ray of Darkness
Earlier this month Katherine and I, along with friends, saw Interstellar, a beautifully filmed thriller involving outer space. It did not disappoint. In it the earth is threatened with a fatal cosmic drought due to an atmosphere that can no longer produce water for crops, and therefore sustenance for life. The star, played by Matthew McConaughey, the world’s top astronaut, is commissioned to fly to three distant planets in order to find a new home for the future of mankind. Don’t worry, there is more to the story.
‘The people walking in darkness have seen a great light…’
We in the human race are obsessed with finding our way out of our brokenness. We launch movements. We produce films. We rally people and protests and attention and positions, but our vivid imaginations, though often spectacular, always fall short, because unless light shines into the darkness, our sight remains dimmed. We long for something we can’t obtain by our own resourcefulness.
Advent. Coming. Longing.
In light of the events surrounding Ferguson, Missouri – the shooting – the protests – the violence – the publicity – it seems to me that there is a deeper issue than the incident at hand, and even beyond the historical issues that may have contributed to shaping the incident.
Don’t hear me saying that these issues don’t matter – they do and I am still learning. What I am saying is that what we celebrate at Advent is the longing for something outside of ourselves – it is a longing for contact – light invading darkness, God taking the initiative to touch humanity, in flesh and blood, and then give us something to collaborate with Him in His work of renewal. We long for His coming.
Darkness. Life without light. Hopelessness. Despair. Isolation.
When Jesus was born the world was as messed up as it is today. Injustice and the inhumane treatment of people prevailed in an empire that made itself strong on the backs of oppressed people.
And when He left, it was just as wrecked, but those who encountered Him knew that they had been loved by God.
What we so easily miss in the exchange of ideas, the social debates, the explanations, the rationalizations, the protests, the violence, the social media, the commentary, the characterizations and the polarization of races, classes and politics… is Love.
Love enables us to make contact. It makes us touch rather than assume – it is human- and it obliterates all self-protective and superficial boundaries.
Friends, I believe that we were given these beautiful imaginations – they are a gift. But they don’t exist in order for us to find the fix or the cure, or the answer. They exist in order to inform our spirits and affirm the gospel story, that God has found us, and that we are loved… in Jesus.
This is our good news of great joy.
October 25, 2014 § Leave a comment
Mark Gornik, To Live in Peace
The picture at the top of this post was a promotional piece put out some 35 years ago or so by Eastern Airlines, the largest employer in the state of Florida at the time. I remember when it came out, and how my siblings and I looked through the faces to finally find our Dad, who was standing in the crowd. Recently it reemerged on an EAL site, and once again we are pouring through it, as though for the first time, looking for our father. Our sight has changed…
Even after we find Dad, it will only be him that interests us. We have no connection with the rest of those faces in the crowd.
Last week about 300 of us, representing the classes of the 1970’s, celebrated our high school reunion. I can’t begin to express how sweet the experience was. There were parties, photographs, a banquet, a football game, and more. On Saturday morning we gathered, fellow grads, old teachers, our former Principal, and the new Headmaster (from my graduating class), to remember those we have lost, during and since our high school years. Tears, laughter, embraces and memories flowed.
When we were in high school, with all that adolescent angst and self-esteem issues, the zits and horniness, and social awkwardness, on some level we lived inside of our own selves. Regardless of our popularity (or lack thereof), we had a school face, and hung with equally insecure teenage friends who were just as secretly attempting to fit in. We adorned ourselves with sports, clubs, gatherings and with our own circles. However on some level, each of us was a face in the crowd, because all of us went home to our lives as they were.
But those years shaped us. And somehow the experience, with all its joy and pain, the thrills, the insecurities, the competitiveness, the feelings of rejection and acceptance, even the high school social hierarchy – all of it, figured into the rest of our lives.
Now the reason I offer this is because for a few brief moments, at our reunion, all of this vanished. In other words, the reunion itself peeled away those layers of insecurity, along with the adolescent cruelties that accompany the drive for social acceptance, giving way to joyful recognition.
We were more than faces in the crowd.
And it struck me that it makes complete sense that in the gospel Reunion is the centerpiece and culmination to the Christian story. Of Jesus, John says, ...we shall see him as he is,’ meaning that isolation and anonymity will one day be engulfed by recognition and communion (1 John 3:2). We share in the promise that we will one day be reunited with Jesus and one another, and that our every insecurity and failure, our sense of not measuring up or bearing up, our sins and our shame, our fears and regrets, even our losses, will be finally and beautifully be swallowed under by the embrace of God’s gathered people.
All this to say, friend, that you are not invisible, and more than a face in the crowd.
What lovely good news…