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.
June 20, 2015 § Leave a comment
A fellow pastor died earlier this week. The Reverend Clementa Pinckney, of the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina was slain along with eight other innocent people who gathered to pray and study the scriptures. Obviously we didn’t know one another, but in the ministry, where the Faith is mutually embraced, there is a shared bond that cannot found in denominations or nuanced theological differences – but in calling.
As someone who has led and been part of countless Wednesday evening gatherings like this, I can tell you that people are rarely more vulnerable than when they open themselves and their lives up before others and God in a small setting. So for this violence to be perpetrated in such a context is beyond the pale. There are no words. Nine people are gone.
I am thankful for my fellow pastors, black and white, who are wrestling with all they have, in networks, on social media, with one another, and within their own hearts, as they lead congregations in the reality of racism’s unquestionable presence in our country.
We stand together.
It is important that you understand that we are every bit as human as anyone else. We are moved by pain, and sometimes filled with the temptation to hate and retaliate. We are often utterly clueless as to what to do in any given situation, and every bit as limited as any other human being. And sometimes we are blinded by our own prejudices, fears and emotions. We weren’t born ministers.
We get angry too.
We want revenge too.
We want blood too.
We want justice too.
We want to understand too.
We desperately need Jesus.
And by God’s grace, we have the gospel, from which His grace flows, and love has been demonstrated for this fallen human race, namely to us, not by some hero-wannabee, but by Jesus, the pure and spotless Lamb of God, who gave Himself in sacrifice for the very sins we grieve. And we understand that everything horrible and violent and vicious that manifests itself in this broken world, has found some measure of residence within each of us.
Jesus asks that we follow Him, even when the world is bleak and hope is scarce, even when we want to lay aside our ordination vows, and act out of our own pain and heartache. In His death and resurrection He has ensured that one day the grip of injustice and the violence and bloodshed of all sin will finally and eternally be broken. Jesus has overcome the world and its curse. We were called to announce, embody and cling to this unspeakably lovely hope.
Like I said, I didn’t know Pastor Pinckney and we won’t meet until we are both at the Feast – He has already made it Home. But we share the bond of a calling that begins with giving one’s life away. In some way Pastor Pinckney sacrificed himself many years before God called him Home.
And in this is our hope. In the violence and sorrow of this sin-torn and fallen world, we have the promise that a Feast awaits those who have fled to Jesus – who Himself died and made it Home – first. For us.
Our good news…
June 6, 2015 § Leave a comment
“…there is something beautiful and concrete and well-proportioned about tending that size of a garden.” David Brooks, The Small, Happy Life
Yesterday a mural mosaic was dedicated in a barely-conspicuous outdoor neighborhood service. The mural is visible to all who walk by the New Song Academy. It was constructed by the children of the Academy, under the guidance of a group called, Art with a Heart, a group that works in the City of Baltimore and teaches vulnerable children and adults through creativity. What makes the mosaic special is that the Academy resides in Sandtown, the neighborhood that was the flashpoint for the Baltimore riots in April. I have written about it here.
In a NYT OP-ED piece, David Brooks reported surprise at how many people responded to a survey, with the desire for what he termed, ‘the small, happy life,’ as opposed to what might seem to be more ambitious pursuits.
When I was in sixth grade, our teacher, Mrs. Hill, became weary with a group of us troublemakers. We happened to live in an area that was booming in development, and so she decided to take us around the community collecting tile for the purpose of making a mosaic for our elementary school, which we did. Over a period of months we stayed after school as she brilliantly channeled our energy into creativity. Eventually the completed project was erected at Coral Reef Elementary, like the one at New Song Academy.
One day, in response to His disciples’ request to increase their faith (because they were thinking big!), Jesus replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you” (Luke 17:6). Contrary to the claims of train wreck preachers who promise the moon and deliver disappointment, Jesus was simply saying, ‘Start small, because that is where we are.’ Put another way, ‘Start where you are, and offer what you have rather than what you don’t have.’
A cursory study of history will bear this out, whether with those who harbored Jews during the Holocaust, or others who have accomplished amazing feats of bravery, rescue, influence and impact. And there is always that ‘small step’ and ‘giant leap’ for mankind. Never do you hear braggadocio. Time and again we are introduced to humble people who merely did what they could in the moment. In the moment, the small was enormous.
Way back in 1960-something I learned that a mosaic is nothing more than a well-orchestrated outlay of broken tiles. It doesn’t take much for those seemingly worthless, jagged and often-dirty shards to become something wildly beautiful – like a scene from the coral reef, or a vision of a healed city. Every piece matters, and no tile is too damaged, in the same way that one simple mosaic on one part of one wall on one building in one neighborhood in a broken community can be that tiny piece that offers hope for something lovelier.
And it is for this reason that in Jesus God became small. Because we are small. Yet because we are adored by the Father, we are not insignificant.
What good news…
April 3, 2015 § Leave a comment
“Good Friday brings us to our senses. Our senses come to us as we sense that in this life and in this death is our life and our death. The truth about the crucified Lord is the truth about ourselves.”
Richard John Neuhaus, Death on a Friday Afternoon
We just finished our Good Friday service here at the church. In an attempt to hold the service as near to the time of Jesus’ crucifixion as possible, we meet in the afternoon – more for a sense of historic proximity, for lack of a better way of putting it.
I remember that feeling in Dallas once, when standing in sixth floor window of the Book Depository from which Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated President John F. Kennedy in 1963. In some way it brought the events of that fateful November day to the forefront. And I’ve always wanted to walk across Abbey Road in England, and reenact the Beatles’ album by that name for the same reason.
Good Friday is the celebration of the death of Jesus, plain and simple. However our true proximity is not to the time, but the Person and His Cross. Standing in the shadow of the Cross we gain a renewed sense of the enormity of our sin and immense sacrifice and depth of love demonstrated to us by Jesus, our Sin-Bearer.
The apostle Paul asserted the Cross to be the central event and essential reality of his life – “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).
To stand in proximity to the Cross is to be recentered and reminded that it is more than something beautiful (which it is), but that it is everything – because Jesus is.
It is our good news…
The Cross is the hope of Christians
The Cross is the resurrection of the dead
The Cross is the way of the lost
The Cross is the savior of the lost
The Cross is the staff of the lame
The Cross is the guide of the blind
The Cross is the strength of the weak
The Cross is the doctor of the sick
The Cross is the aim of the priests
The Cross is the hope of the hopeless
The Cross is the freedom of the slaves
The Cross is the power of the kings
The Cross is the water of the seeds
The Cross is the consolation of the bondmen
The Cross is the source of those who seek water
The Cross is the cloth of the naked.
We thank you, Father, for the Cross.
—10th Century African Hymn
March 14, 2015 § 1 Comment
“There is our hope – the infinite resource of God’s love, the relationship with his creatures that no sin can finally unmake. He cares what we do because he suffers what we do. He is forever wounded, but forever loving… We have a future because of this grace.”
Rowan Williams, A Ray of Darkness
As you can see from the picture above, I parked a little, how do I say it… forcefully, the other day. Hey you would too if you had as much snow as we’ve experienced the last month! Give me a break! I digress. Not only that, but apparently I parked in the wrong place and immediately had to move my car, only to reveal evidence that I had been there.
The good news is that by now the snow has melted, and with it, my offense.
With the coming celebration of the resurrection of Jesus from the grave, comes the beautiful rehearsal of the sufferings and death of Jesus.
One of the things we sometimes miss in the message of grace is that while our sins are forgiven, they are still part of our history. There is no make believe in the Christian gospel. There is no ‘Leave Wounds Outside’ sign on the Faith. We carry our imperfections, flaws, indiscretions and pasts with us when we enter into the Kingdom of God through Jesus. We are unfinished. Our pasts don’t melt away, their impressions lasting and sometimes haunting.
But here is where it gets really beautiful. Though we carry our scars, Jesus carries them too.
“Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands…” Isaiah 49:16
Though we are forgiven, at the same time that the pain and sorrow of past sins sometimes reemerge to remind us of our weakness and propensity to rebel, the scars Jesus bears serve as our reminders of the Father’s love. In some way we bear the same scars! Ours are painful reminders of our condition. His are powerful encouragements that we are loved. One cannot go without the other.
Amazing isn’t it. Every purchase demands a receipt – evidence that what we possess is ‘paid-in-full.’ There was a day when a receipt was the only acceptable proof for returning an item. To lose one would be calamitous if the pants didn’t quite fit, or the drill didn’t work when plugged in.
In Jesus, our forgiveness is sure. The receipt is engraved on His hands, never to be misplaced, and a perpetual reminder for us that the sacrifice has been made, once and for all.
What unspeakably good news…
March 7, 2015 § Leave a comment
C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
If you have ever lived in the north, then you know that snow is part of the seasonal rhythm of life. Having grown up in the tropics, I still find it to be magical. There is something about watching it fall, and then seeing an entire area that has been turned white by hours of God’s carefully placed flakes and flurries upon a landscape. Don’t get me wrong. I could do without the cold! Seasonal life has a way of bringing both anticipation of the next season, and weariness with the present.
But then there is the inevitable cleanup. Municipalities constantly attempt to get ahead of the snow, salting roads, positioning plows and alerting citizens.
Unless one can ‘dig out,’ they are stuck. The other night, after a lovely eight-inch snow, Katherine and I got out and shoveled our entryways, the back of our garage, and then the car we had parked outside. You have to dig out in order to get out.
At our church, a large facility on 62-acres, it is crucial for us to be plowed, cleared and salted, in order for people to enter. A team of unsung heroes, both from our Staff and contracted, work tirelessly, with heavy equipment, doing what is needed for our church to be ready for whatever activity or gathering is scheduled.
This hit me freshly yesterday as I watched our crew work, while at the same time fifty or sixty Middleschoolers sledded and snowboarded down a hill on the property. While the Young People played, the workers plowed. Or to put it another way, the workers plowed so that our Young People could play.
I so love that.
Sometimes our own sense of anonymity can be torturous if we have no greater context. We want to matter, right?
I know what happens – Our tendency is to narrow our influence to the small quarters we work or live in. It is hard to conceive of an influence beyond what we know. But you see, the gospel demonstrates the opposite.
Hey, I don’t know what you do in life, but I can tell you this: Whether you are high profile, or all but invisible, you matter, and what you do matters to God. Someone is affected by who you are and what you do. Can your ego enable you to accept this? If not, flee to the Throne! Just read through the scriptures and rediscover the attention God places on those who labored behind the scenes. An unnamed slave girl in Syria comes to mind (2 Kings 5).
What you do may never grab the headlines, but have you read the headlines lately? Besides, in the end, isn’t it the sweeter things that matter most when it comes to a meaningful life?
And isn’t it stunning that the most meaningful Person in history was born in anonymity, that in Him, what appeared to His contemporaries to be an act of meaningless sacrifice, turned out to be the only hope of the world.
In fact, this is our good news…
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.
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)!
December 13, 2014 § 1 Comment
Translated by John Neal (1818-1866)
Each Christmas season our church musicians perform in the community. For three consecutive evenings on a weekend they do Christmas Jazz in a local eating establishment that opens its doors to us. We are on our third venue in five years because of how the event has grown. It helps to have gifted musicians, for which I am thankful (a short clip is provided below).
While our hope is to spread Christmas cheer, our deeper desire is to love our community well and provide opportunities for people to connect.
Something special happened this year. Our Band decided to ask church members to bring voluntary donations in the form of gift cards to local vendors, for the only homeless shelter in the county. These gifts would enable the residents of the shelter to be able to make purchases that we sometimes take for granted. Our people responded generously.
The music was spectacular, and the venue was perfect as it enabled us to meet, dine, converse and enjoy one another. We could not have asked for more. Katherine and I spent Sunday evening getting to know people we had never before met.
Amazingly and unexpectedly however, patrons from the larger area were so moved by the expressions of music and welcome that they wrote checks and offered cash to the cause. We posted no signs and made no mention outside our church doors, yet people figured it out any way.
I have no way of knowing why, but I do know that for two hours, three nights in a row, in that room, people didn’t have to be alone.
Here’s what I sometimes miss in the celebration each year – I miss how incredibly lonely it must have been for Joseph and Mary. They were far from home, and she was pregnant. They arrived in Bethlehem too late to get a real room, and then were stuck in a stable. There would be no family to celebrate with, and no familiarity with which to introduce their precious newborn.
Then Jesus came, and everything changed.
Angels appeared and sang from the heavens to shepherds who day and night existed in isolation, in dark, lonely fields. Magi journeyed from far away with gifts. All converged in Bethlehem to the stable, and in doing so, they served as a makeshift family to make the moment a little less lonely for the young couple and their infant.
Jesus has come, and He makes us family – I like that (my friend, Debby Sutton wrote beautifully to this on our church Advent blog – a worthy read). And one day He will gather His community – His family – in the new heavens and new earth. No one will be alone. None will be without provision. All will celebrate in reunited joy.
What good news…
December 6, 2014 § 3 Comments
N.T. Wright, For All the Saints
Yesterday Katherine and I visited with her father where he is being cared for in a Nashville medical center. We are here because I am performing a wedding ceremony for friends who live in Baltimore (and I fly back late tonight!), and it gave us an opportunity to spend some time with ‘Opa,’ as our children call him. It was a sweet time.
At some point Katherine and her Dad, both gifted with beautiful singing voices, joined together in singing ‘Great is Thy Faithfulness.’ Lovely would be an understatement.
This Christmas is a first for us. For the first time we will celebrate without either of my parents in this world. Along with Katherine’s Mom, both have died and are no longer here. From time to time sadness overtakes us.
Regardless of how old we become, we can look all the way back to childhood in remembering Christmases past.
Recently some of us recalled growing up in Miami. When I was a young boy we lived in Carol City, which is almost as far north as one can go without leaving the city. Each year the streetlights on NW 27th Avenue were decorated with those colored frilly foil candy canes and Christmas bells. We would drive past them and throughout the neighborhoods as a family, listening to Christmas music on our car AM radio, looking at the lights as we embedded ourselves into the season.
One day our children will remember after we are gone.
The memories bring a kind of muted joy. Though sometimes I am brought to the point of tears in recalling them, I wouldn’t trade them for anything.
Advent is as much about embracing sadness as it is looking to a future joy. Herod plotted Jesus’ death as Mary and Joseph celebrated His birth. This is our world – joy and sorrow always intermingled. And until Jesus comes and makes everything new it will be this way. Even in blessing Jesus at his presentation at the temple, Simeon said to his mother, ‘and a sword will pierce through your own soul also…’ (Luke 2:35).
To insulate ourselves from the world’s sorrows is to live as though Jesus is merely an ornament rather than the Deliverer that He is, and it robs us of the joy of the expectation of His coming. It is in the sadness that we find a deep longing for the sweeter day when Jesus returns.
We celebrate that He has come, and that He is coming. We limp along with our world, longing for the day when it will forever reflect His good reign.
We look to the day we will see our parents again – at the Feast. Until then, we embrace the sorrow that in Jesus, leads to unending joy. Every now and then we are given opportunities to hear the sweet song of life, and maybe even to sing along.
What good news of great joy…
grace and peace.