Grace for the Worst of Us

November 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

Message “Christianity encourages me to be faithful to the body that I am – a body that can be hurt, a body that is always living in the middle of limitations; it encourages me to accept unavoidable frustration in this material and accident-prone existence without anger.”

Rowan Williams, Where God Happens

I preached a lousy sermon last week. No, no, don’t worry, it’s okay. Seriously, please don’t write and tell me that it was great, or that God’s Spirit can use even the worst of messages (which I think we can all agree would not truly be complimentary, right?). And you don’t need to remind me that I’m merely a vessel. Oh, and by all means please don’t tell me that even Tim Keller preaches bad sermons!

Well, no wait… okay, tell me that.

Seriously, I know all this – and I’m thankful that every bit of it is true. It was just one of those messages.

Don’t let a preacher fool you into thinking that bad sermons roll off them like wet off a duck (a favorite phrase I learned in Tallahassee). We were all built with fragile egos that find residence in some part of our public expressions. It used to be that when I preached a ‘dog’ (as I like to call them), that I would be anxious for the next Sunday to arrive, with hopes that the memory of my bad offering would be lost in a better one (and don’t get me started on how I would wait from one Christmas Eve to the next after blowing it on that special night).

I can’t begin to tell you how diabolical this is!

Biblical concern? Uh… no. No, it’s Ego.

The point I am trying to make is that living in God’s grace means living with the worst and best parts of who we are, along with everything in between, while all along believing that the Father never measures our worth based on our performance. Be glad. Until we are Home we will always be unfinished, and this may be our greatest safeguard against thinking that we can make this journey apart from God’s friendship.

Besides, do we really want what we consider to be our ‘good’ points scrutinized by a holy God? Every time I reduce God’s favor to my imperfect offerings, along with Cain, I demonstrate disdain for Him as a gracious Father. It is an egocentric delusion that I’ll be fine without any help, thank you.

Read through John’s first letter. Count how many times the apostle uses the term, ‘children’ or ‘little children,’ in describing us. What does this tell you? And what would you really prefer for God to see you as? Worthy subjects or beloved children?

Friends, the Father doesn’t love us less when we fail, and He doesn’t love us more when we succeed.

He just loves us because we’re His.

Now that’ll preach.

What good news…

peace.

the Value of Unedited Lives

November 1, 2014 § 2 Comments

Road “…grace is not so poor a thing that it cannot present itself in any number of ways.” Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

Over the past several months a few of us have been studying the book of Genesis together. Within these magnificent opening pages of the unfolding story of God and His people is a narrative of events in which many decisions turned out quite differently from the presumed outcome at the time – like when Lot, rather than defer to Abraham (then Abram) opted to live in Sodom, leaving his uncle with second choice. That didn’t turn out so well for Lot.

Throughout my life I have made more decisions than I could ever have imagined possible – some good and others not-so-good (yes, horrible!). The crazy thing is that many of those bad decisions initially appeared to be the right ones, and some of the good ones began questionably.

We just don’t know, do we?

You have to love the new LeBron James video (Nike) about his decision go back to Cleveland (below).

Regret is a powerful emotion. It is also deceptive. It has a way of twisting the past into something it never was, and of shaping the present into less than it can be. At the end of the day, all of us bear the scars of our unfinished and imperfect pasts. Regret adds shame to the mix.

What is even more insidious is that it is born of the notion that we are somehow in control. I know this is true because every time regret works its way into my inner space, it comes with the diluted idea that I actually possess the power to shape my own history and write myself into a perfect story!

Can you hear how twisted this is?

Hey, this isn’t to say that our decisions don’t matter – they do. And we have every reason to learn from our past. We can’t grow at what we do, and how we relate without honest and sometimes brutal evaluation. Part of this involves the humble acceptance of owning and bearing our responsibility. But anything we do outside of the loving embrace of God will always warp itself into a cruel tyrant that owns us from within.

Here is the thing: In the gospel the storyline is never the savvy of unfinished Christ-followers. It is always the character of the Father who weaves all that we are, our bad and good decisions, our deep regrets, even the seasons we would just as soon edit out of our stories, into something far lovelier and better than we could ever have conceived on our own.

At the end of the day, regret is the enemy of grace, because it is a subtle and not-so-hidden refusal to believe that God can turn the wreckage of our pasts into something beautiful. Or that He wants to…

This may be why I love Peter the disciple. It is in hiding and shame over his deep failure and betrayal that the resurrected Jesus meets him at the height of his regret, and reaffirms to him that his life is far from over, and that he is His.

How sweet is that… such good news.

peace.

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

Generous (aka the secret to finding one’s life)

October 11, 2014 § 10 Comments

Lewis & Fam “No life worth living is possible without generosity.”

Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge

A friend died this week. The truth is that I can barely write these words without weeping. It isn’t merely that a friend passed away, but someone who was so convinced that God is a generous God, that he became one of the most generous people I’ve ever known.

While alive Lewis never wanted people to know the extent of his generosity. To look at him, he would be the last person you would assume this of. His daily garb was a white or light blue guayabara, slacks and a shirt pocket full of pens, notepad and a cell phone. He evoked a semblance more like that of John Madden than some polished mogul.

Yet Lewis was a pioneer in the cruise line industry, the owner and developer of one of the most successful food service companies in the business.

Somewhere in his journey, Lewis met Jesus and through the guidance of his pastor (and my mentor), he learned that the Kingdom of God is worthy of our lives, our hearts – and our resources. So he became someone who gave generously – to the Church – to Missions organizations – to Missionaries – to Christian schools – to Community Projects – to out-of-work strangers – to struggling single-parent families – to drug rehabs – to ministers – to widows – all the while believing that he could never out give God.

All of this, Lewis did, joyfully and secretly behind the scenes. Even when he and his wife lost their college-aged son to a rare heart condition, his faith was unwavering in the midst of his unspeakable grief.

As his pastor, each year I would be the recipient of an envelope stuffed with thousands of dollars that he wanted for me to anonymously distribute to people in need – no tax write-offs – no publicity – no recognition – just gifts. I’ll never forget knocking on the door of a single mom who was barely making it, to say, ‘Merry Christmas from someone who cares, and who loves the Lord,’ and the look of joyful amazement on her face. That indeed made my Christmas very merry.

This doesn’t even scratch the surface.

That was Lewis. He didn’t do it to be noticed or even thanked. In fact this may be the first public mention of his generosity. He quietly served on boards, embraced ministries, visited widows, ate with outcasts and befriended the lonely – just as Jesus did.

And I guess what I’m getting at is this: In his liberality Lewis discovered his life. He wasn’t generous to impress or to prove anything, and he would be the first to admit to being unfinished and broken. No, Lewis gave because he was free. He truly found himself in giving himself away.

I am going to miss Lewis – our annual phone conversations and predictions about the Hurricanes’ football program, and our deep talks about life and loss and faith and heaven. Because fortunately, in the mix of ministry and life, I was blessed to discover Lewis’ greatest value to be that of friend.

And now he is home, reunited with his son, and his generous Savior, Lord and Friend, Jesus.

What good, sweet news…

peace.

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.

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.

Team Photo

September 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

“The goal of human existence is that man should dwell at peace in all his relationships: with God, with himself, with his fellows, with nature, a peace which is not merely the absence of hostility, though certainly it is that, but a peace which at its highest is enjoyment.”

Nicholas Wolterstorff, REASON [within the Bounds of Religion]

If you haven’t seen the moving video entitled, Made in New York, produced recently by Gatorade honoring Derek Jeter, the retiring New York Yankee shortstop, then sit back and enjoy – it is a worthy watch.

If anything has distinguished Jeter’s career it is that he is a team player. While he is unquestionably an exceptional athlete, it is his commitment to the wellbeing of the team that separates him and others like him.

Hey, I’m no Yankees fan! But those who play for the team – those who care primarily for people other than themselves, they are the ones that transcend the lines of demarcation that normally separate people. I think this is because they tap into what we were created to enjoy with one another, and all creation, before the fall cursed the world with isolation. They embody the selfless expression that community demands in order for it to flourish. In a year filled with painful sports scandals, both on the professional and collegiate athletic levels, it is refreshing to say farewell to a pro that ‘got it.’

This is partly why I believe the Baltimore Orioles’ season has been special (other than winning the AL East Division Title!). They have survived disappointment and injury – as a team. Last Tuesday evening in Camden Yards (picture below) was magic, because team and city converged in joy. It is always about the team, and the people/city the team plays for.

I often don’t get this. In a culture and society that is so individualized, it is easy to get lost in doing my job: preparing my sermon, writing my blog, paying my bills, fixing my house, etc, that I forget the grander, sweeter communal life of love, friendship, fellowship and faith I have been called into.

We weren’t created to live for ourselves. And we are miserable when we do. In spite of the fact that our selfish instincts often prevail against the messy, inconvenience of relationship and sacrifice and self-abandonment, it is when our darkest wishes come true, and everything is in its perfect order just as we wanted it, and we are left to ourselves, that we are at our most miserable.

So God gives us simple expressions of self-abandonment in order that we may catch fresh glimpses of Jesus, who exchanged glory for shame, and honor for love, that we may rediscover that the Father’s great delight is most beautifully enjoyed when shared together… with the team.

What good news…

peace.

Stadium

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.

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.

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