A Face in the Crowd

October 25, 2014 § Leave a comment

EAL “When people know they are deeply loved, cared for, accepted, and wanted by a community, they are transformed by the experience.”

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. MemorialThere 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…

peace.

WCS Reunion

Outside the Window

October 4, 2014 § 2 Comments

Window “There is nothing less attractive than stingy Christians. We serve a generous, lavish God who delights in beauty and diversity, color and aromas.” Christopher L. Heuertz & Christine D. Pohl, Friendship at the Margins

Last evening, Katherine and I, along with our daughter and son-in-law, ate at a downtown restaurant for my birthday dinner. Baltimore has a beautiful skyline. At night it is spectacular. To eat on the main drag of the Inner Harbor with lights reflecting on the water, and boats at dock, as cars pass and people walk, is such a treat.

As we enjoyed the moment and one another I noticed the energy outside the window we sat beside. It always seems as though something is going on in the city, and on this night it was particularly exciting. The Orioles had just won the second of the best-of-five series with the Detroit Tigers for the American League Eastern Division Title, leaving only one victory to take the series. City buildings were lit up in Orioles orange and the air was filled with elation.

It occurred to me that there is always another layer of activity going on concurrently with that of our own lives. I sometimes miss this, and when I do, I become stingy, and the world shrinks to my own puny concerns and insecurities. Fortunately I am married to someone who won’t let me hide in the cocoon of my hermit-like instincts.

It isn’t that the details of my life aren’t important, but when reduced to being everything, my enclosed world becomes its own toxic little universe – and we weren’t meant to live this way. In fact we are never healthier than when we look and live outside of ourselves. I know this flies against every instinct, but it is true. And it is the whole point of the Beatitudes – Those who abandon self, find themselves. It is the magnificent counter-intuitive principle of the gospel.

Just think about when you have been happiest in your life, and you will recall moments spent in the company of others, and in an awareness of the world around you.

It is likely that pain, disappointment, our awkward peculiarities, and fear are the culprits behind our reticence to engage in the world around us. Bodies heal but inner wounds don’t, and our kneejerk response will always be to flee into our own skin. We are unfinished and something deep within doesn’t want others to recognize our discrepancies – I get that.

But take it from a borderline introvert – we come alive when we escape the tyranny of self, and enjoy the world outside our windows.

And each time we take the bread and share the cup, we rehearse Jesus and His vision of a healed universe, in celebration of His willingness to abandon the security of heaven, in order to enter into the hostility of a broken world that He created to be good…

…for us.

What good news…

peace.

We Need More

September 6, 2014 § 1 Comment

Religious “We’re never wholly ourselves until we’re open before God, attending to the reality of God, responding to the action of God in us, receiving the word of God for us.”

Eugene Peterson, Leap Over a Wall

I want to be careful with this post, because the intention is not to tap into the popular cry against ‘religion.’ Through brilliant and thoughtful friends in ministry I am learning that some of the symbols of the Faith are important for the experience of deepening faith. So you’ll have to go elsewhere to learn whether or not Jesus was religious.

If we are serious about the Faith, then somewhere in our experience we will be confronted with the reality that platitudes and convenient religious categories disintegrate in the face of human suffering and pain. Sorrow, loss, tragedy and crumbling relationships all have a way of breaking down the superficial ideas we have of God and faith. The categories we often insulate ourselves in, fail when they are most needed, because they never were intended to nurture intimacy, but to avoid it, along with the vulnerabilities that accompany it. As a result they inhibit intimacy with God, and relegate one’s faith to a superficial expression.

And frankly, they break down because Jesus didn’t come to rescue us from pain and suffering in a fallen world. Regardless of what we sometimes hear in pulpits and on TV, Christianity is not an alternative to suffering. (that’s right, Victoria Osteen, you’re missing the point).

Throughout the past few weeks I have received e-mails and messages from people who have written in response to my post on Robin Williams’ death, and the follow-up post. The stories they have shared are excruciatingly painful and indescribably beautiful at the same time, because in them, their authors abandon self-protection, and in doing so they tap into the heart of the gospel which finds its richest expression precisely at intersection of death and life – in Jesus.

Everything about formulaic Christianity is aimed at self-protection. There is nothing real or beautiful in it. In our attempts to avoid pain and doubt and sorrow (or to over-emphasize them!), and all those other very real human expressions and experiences in a damaged world, we cheat ourselves of the one thing we most long for and need – Intimacy with God. Let’s be honest, it isn’t about enjoying God so much as it is about avoiding pain.

In her book, Amateur Believer, Patty Kirk recounts how the Faith she grew up with became dead in her – the promises – the prayers – the liturgies – all of it. And it wasn’t until her mother was dying, and she observed her sister as she cared for her, that it all became real. She writes, “Somehow, in the interim, God pieced that memory of my sister comforting our dying mother together with a thousand other frayed remnants of my life to make himself gradually recognizable to me again.”

Friends, it will always be at the intersection of death and life (that is, in the whole breadth of the human experience) that Jesus is most real.

And because this is where we really live, it can’t help but be good news…

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.

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

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

License to Fish

May 10, 2014 § 2 Comments

License “The Christian life is never just my story; it’s a community of stories. I learn my story in company with others. Each story affects and is affected by each of the others.”

Eugene Peterson, Leap Over A Wall

Earlier this week I flew in to Alabama to fish with old college buddies in the mountains on Lake Guntersville. The thing is, I don’t fish. Though we were raised in Florida, fish wasn’t in our diet, and fishing was not part of our routine. And then there is the whole matter of cricket (bait) guts…

Strangely, one needs a license to fish. To the uninitiated this seems unnecessary. Our whole lives we have been told that there are ‘plenty of other fish in the sea,’ but I guess that was just a parent’s ploy to ease a broken (dumped) heart… I digress.

Anyway, my friends fish, so I fished. And I’m glad (I even learned how to fly fish and can’t wait to try again).

But for me it was the sweet experience of being gathered into a community of friends who added a dimension to my life that would not otherwise exist.

To great measure this is the value of friends, because we are not only unfinished, but also incomplete, and God uses these sometimes awkward, always imperfect relationships to add valuable layers to our otherwise one-dimensional lives.

Jesus makes a profound statement to His disciples on the night of His arrest when He says, ‘I have called you friends’ (John 15:15). It hearkens to something we find in Exodus 33:11, ‘God spoke to Moses, face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.’

This verse has always blown me away, because regardless of how theologians will parse and explain (and sometimes ruin) these words, what they tell me is that God desires more than a Creator-creature relationship with the human race – but friendship.

Have you ever considered what the disciples may have brought to Jesus that He otherwise would not have had, had they not been in His life?

Listen, I’m not trying to be irreverent here but I’m saying that God created us to be relational beings, starting with our relationship with Him! He takes great delight in fellowship with His creation, and as it winds its way through the course of shared experiences, trials, learning moments and seasons of building up faith, in the scriptures it is ultimately distilled – to Friendship.

Let that sink in a bit (and if it doesn’t sink, I know how to put a weight on your line).

It really is good news.

peace.

Lake

Find Your Starbucks

May 3, 2014 § 2 Comments

Starbucks “…place is a quintessentially human concept in that it is part of our creatureliness… God has ordered creation such that the whole earth is designed as a home for humankind.”

Craig G. Bartholomew, Where Mortals Dwell

Each Saturday morning I spend a few hours in the Starbucks at our local mall. If you have followed this blog for any time then you know that I refer to it as ‘my Starbucks.’ It is an affectionate term for a ‘place’ that has become part of my own weekly rhythm, replete with familiar faces. There is the manager who only ever wears short pants, even on winter’s coldest days. He hid patrons and staff in the back room when gunshots rang throughout the mall earlier this year. An older English gentleman who teaches yoga in apartment communities is a regular, and sings along whenever old Rock & Roll plays. The other day he stumped me on a Donovan song (though he wasn’t entirely certain it was Donovan). There is an environmental engineer who is on a personal search for life and faith. We talk weekly, and can finally remember each other’s names. And then there is the young cop, a Member of our church, whose beat includes the Mall. He often meets with other officers at my Starbucks, and when he does, we embrace and catch up on his wife and little children.

Having spent our early years in Youth Ministry, Katherine and I learned that it was important to look out for young people who seemed ‘out of place.’ They were lonely and didn’t quite fit into the categories their fellow students had established for that ‘community.’ Forcing acceptance was the worst thing we could do for either party because finding one’s ‘place’ is more about coming to terms with who we are before Christ. That isn’t an easy thing to teach young people, much less to embrace for ourselves.

Jesus’ promise to be with us ‘always’ (Matthew 28:20) is more than a kind parting sentiment. It is the radical promise that ‘place’ was never intended to be a moving target dictated by social status, personal wealth or religious savvy, but in a relational reality that transcends time, space and circumstance. Because of Jesus, every location in which we find ourselves, whether a coffee shop, a sanctuary, a brewery, a prison or a home – is sacred… because He is there.

Jesus is our Place, and this means that regardless of where our journey takes us, we belong…

What good, sweet news.

peace.

Brush with an Immortal

March 22, 2014 § 1 Comment

Jenni Now “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors… Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.” C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

This past week I was thrilled to meet up with an old friend and one of the most inspiring people I have ever known. When we first met, Jenni Gold was 10 years old and I was an 18 year-old volunteer church youth worker. Jenni has Muscular Dystrophy and was in a full body cast at the time, having had a steel rod surgically placed in her spine. Along with her parents, her two amazing sisters provided an environment of healing. The only thing they wouldn’t offer was sympathy, and this produced a will that far surpassed the strength of the rod in her back. We became fast friends, all of us. She fully entered into the life of our Youth Group. The word ‘limitation’ was not in her vocabulary. It still isn’t.

After graduating with a double major from the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Jenni, along with her husband jenni @ workJeff, moved to California, determined to produce movies. Today she is the co-founder of Gold Pictures in Universal City, CA. On Wednesday we reunited in DC to see a viewing of her Documentary, CinemAbility, a stunningly beautiful film about the history of the entertainment industry in relation to people with disabilities. She was also in DC to accept the 2014 American Association of Persons with Disabilities Image Award, presented by Danny Woodburn (‘Mickey’ on Seinfeld!).

In accepting the award, Jenni sited Paul’s words in Philippians 4:13, thanking Christ who gives her strength, and so revealed the source of her amazing will and character. Somewhere along the way, in all she has endured and overcome, as a little girl, and since, Jenni met Jesus. And He has provided everything she needs to be nothing short of amazing.

She mounts up with wings like eagles. She runs and doesn’t grow weary. She walks and doesn’t faint.

And she happens to have MD.

It is Lent. The world is broken. Suffering is part of the daily narrative.

But Jesus has come. And in entering into our brokenness by subjecting Himself to temptation, sorrow and pain, even death, by His resurrection He has assured that until He returns, and regardless of our circumstances, we may dance to the song of His redemption.

Friends, there is no greater news…

peace.

Jenni

Taken on Palm Sunday in 1977 when Jenni joined the church

My Mom

December 28, 2013 § 20 Comments

DSC00375 “All I ever wanted was to have a wonderful husband and children and take care of them. I had all that and God saved my soul, so I have Heaven thrown in, as well! Remember, I will be in Heaven praising the Lord. What a wonderful life I have had!”Mom, June 1, 2012

This past Thursday, the day after Christmas, my Mom, Marie Khandjian, passed away. I am speaking in the most personal of terms – the ‘she’s-my-mom’ kind of terms. Until your parents are gone you always feel the same, like the child one has been, throughout their entire lives to that point. Even as an adult, when you visit the house you grew up in, nothing feels different. There is your room, your den, your kitchen, etc. It’s all there as it had always been. But then, when they go, it is different. And now it is different. My Mom is gone. On her behalf we are relieved that she is Home and reunited to Dad, but it is different.

My Mom was an amazing woman. She loved life. She loved her family. And she loved Christ and His Church. Her story is of someone who started out with tons of pain and sadness, but ended in healing and joy. Somewhere in her adolescence, at a critical moment when she could easily have spiraled into a life of constant sorrow and trouble, she met Jesus, and her life was miraculously and radically transformed.

She had an incredibly positive outlook. One year, after I was dumped by a girl in college, she sent me the single (yes, a vinyl 45 rpm record!), I Will Survive by Gloria Gaynor. She was right. I did.

She wasn’t afraid of setbacks, nor impressed with greatness. She had no fear of confrontation, conflict or disagreement. Even if it was with a pastor that might also happen to be her son…

She was relentlessly committed to her family. Out of her painful childhood experiences she resolved to cook hot meals for her family every night – and did. She not only raised us, but loved us, spoke truth into our lives, forgave us much, taught us about Jesus, and blessed us by adoring our Dad, her husband, out loud.

She was tirelessly social – Being Armenian, she loved throwing parties – big parties to the tune of 50-100 people at a time. Armenian Pilaf, salad and veggies, along with London broil that Dad would grill, and of course, Baklava, were the staples. Family would gather. Women would cook and catch up. Men would play backgammon and talk loud. Children would run inside and out. Classmates, church members and neighbors (invited or not) were welcome and constantly stopped in for that famous food and energy.

All to say that my Mom gave to us what she didn’t receive in her hard upbringing, which makes her all the more amazing. God gave her a vision for something better and sweeter and lovelier than the hard life she was born into. He gave her what she most longed for, even when she didn’t have it or quite know what it would look like. And through her and Dad, He gave us Himself.

And now, everything she wanted for us, she has – She is Home, at the Feast, with her beloved husband, with the gathered family of God and in the presence of the One she has always been amazed by – for His rescue and forgiving grace. Jesus.

What good, sweet news.

My Mom was amazing. Right now, in between this moment and that service in a few weeks, I get to be her boy. And that is a good thing…

Marie P. Khandjian – November 1, 1929 – December 26, 2013 – RIP

“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.”Psalm 116:15

peace.

Christmas Dinner - 2005

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