Jesus & Irma

September 9, 2017 § 2 Comments

Irma

By the time you read this post, millions of displaced Floridians will be less than 24-hours away from Hurricane Irma’s landfall on the state. If the damage is anything close to what has been predicted, and in any proportion to the magnitude in size and strength of the storm, then it will be months, and possibly years, before the city recovers. Folks in Houston have only begun the cleanup from Hurricane Harvey’s assault on the city.

Frankly, it would be more convenient to restart this dormant blog after these cities have cleaned up and the subject matter a bit more digestible than what appears to be a senseless display of meteorological power on a helpless city. However this is the reality we live in. In a broken world, nothing is neatly packaged.

So my aim in this post is not to explain ‘why.’ In fact this will never be my aim. We are so limited by time and space, and the confines of our own finite thinking that our answers are never sufficient, and often hurtful. Our tendency is to package pain into bite-sized proportions in order to ease our own discomfort with another’s sorrow. But pain is pain and loss is loss.

Some Thoughts for Consideration:

Jesus is King and Irma is not Queen – This is in no way to minimize pain. It is to state a fact we rarely ‘feel’ in the midst of tragedy: Jesus is King. Immediately after he calmed the storm on the sea, the disciples rightly asked, “Who is this, that he commands even winds and water, and they obey him?” (Luke 8:25) Let’s face it, we are relatively small. We are minuscule compared to the Grand Canyon. We are drops in the ocean. We are dots on the map. And when life is hard, whether because of the weather or in some personal crisis, we feel unbearably small. In some way the forces of nature remind us that we are not as big or grand or in control as we sometimes tell ourselves.

The answer isn’t to assume we can somehow get bigger and rise above the storm, but to look to our big God. Because to Jesus the King Irma is minuscule and a drop in the ocean. Just as Satan was not his equal, so a hurricane, even of this magnitude, is nothing compared to the ‘ruler of the kings of the earth’ (Revelation 1:5).

God will not Shy Away from the Wreckage – Nicholas Wolterstorff, in his beautiful book, Lament for a Son, writes, “…great mystery: to redeem our brokenness and lovelessness the God who suffers with us did not strike some mighty blow of power but sent his beloved son to suffer like us, through his suffering to redeem us from suffering and evil… Instead of explaining our suffering God shares it.”

The first verse those who grew up in the Church memorized begins, “For God so loved the world, that he sent his one and only Son…” (John 3:16). The essential message of the gospel is that God did not wait for the world to clean up its act before sending Jesus. God would have it no other way. Suffering is the currency of brokenness, but it cannot determine an absent God.

God Invites our Questions – Asaph, the Psalmist, went before God and poured out his heart because he saw how the ‘wicked prospered,’ as he struggled. It made no sense to him. Attempting to make sense of our pain often leads to bad conclusions. Jesus’ disciples asked whether it was the father’s or mother’s sins that caused a young man to be born blind (John 9). Jesus graciously taught that they were looking at it all wrong, and then healed the man who glorified God.

It wasn’t until Asaph entered into “the sanctuary of God” (Psalm73:11) that he could see beyond the moment to their ‘end.’ This moved him beyond his bitterness, to conclude, “…it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all your works.” God invites our questions because when made to him, they are expressions of faith, uncertain, short-sighted and imperfect as they are.

Our Tears are never Wasted on the Father – Solomon writes, “Sorrow is better than laughter, for by the sadness of the countenance [face], the heart is made better.” (Ecclesiastes 7:3) Those unaffected by the events others have suffered sometimes offer insensitive platitudes rather than the solace of one’s presence, but God is a Father who hears the cries of his people. He is not indifferent to our pain, nor is he uninvolved. The same Jesus who wept at the graveside of his friend Lazarus, is present in our pain and tears.

Within days Floridians, like Texans, will return to their homes. To varying degrees they will discover the fate that awaits them. Some will be devastated, and others relieved. Tears will be shed. The physics of their lives will be altered.

But other things will happen too. People will come together. Priorities will be reestablished. ‘Stuff’ will be grieved over and then let go. Survivors will embrace. Relief teams will descend. Communities will be rebuilt. Stories will be told. Lives will be changed.

And God will be glorified.

What good news.

grace & peace.

A Place to Stand

October 17, 2015 § Leave a comment

World Relief“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” Jesus, Matthew 5:7

I recently had the privilege of visiting with the Senior Vice President of World Relief’s North American operation. World Relief is a global non-profit organization, based in Baltimore, and committed to caring for the weak and needy around the world, whether for orphans, for immigrants, for victims of natural disaster, or those lost in the horrors and brutality of human trafficking. Years ago, when our church in Miami planted a church in ‘Little Havana,’ the ‘landing place’ for many immigrants from Latin America, World Relief had an office where we started the work. That office remains today, and as you can imagine, has processed innumerable refugees through the years, offering legal advice, guidance for green cards, citizenship, etc.

At the heart of World Relief’s mission is the gospel’s call to the Church with the singular thrust that the strong have been made – by God – stewards of the weak. I am convinced that if the Church fails, all is lost. Every other system that attempts to care for the poor, the weak and the underprivileged has some underlining political agenda that eventually fails the very people they attempt to serve, and often lines the pockets and reputations of those who champion these causes.

World Relief’s Vision Statement is Stand/For The Vulnerable.

Last night Katherine and I shared a meal with a young couple that is committed to mentoring young people from Baltimore’s Inner City whose lives are racked with heartache, brokenness and poverty. They give what they can: safe harbor, school clothing and supplies – and love. They stand for the vulnerable.

This morning I ran into one of our Members (okay it was at Dunkin Donuts – what can I say?). He leads a team that regularly meets with folks at New Song Church in Sandtown, the neighborhood ravaged by fire and riots earlier this year. New Song drives the agenda, but together they are working through ideas to generate commerce in the neighborhood so that the dollar will remain there, and hopefully begin to break the pattern of violence, hopelessness and sorrow that most of us in the burbs can’t fathom possible. They stand for the vulnerable.

We have a friend in Miami who, when she and her family attended a downtown church, for years, drove an hour away from her home, to the slums of Little Haiti, to bring children to church and later that week to Youth Group. In between she and her husband kept in touch, provided for needs and loved well. They stood for the vulnerable.

‘Blessed are the Merciful,’ was Jesus version of, ‘Blessed are they who stand for the vulnerable.’ Every word, action and encounter exemplified this during His ministry, all the way to the Cross, where He died for us – the vulnerable.

Who more than Christians, know the relief of being forgiven a debt one could never repay?

We have been given much – in order to be to the world what Christ has been to us. It really is that simple. And when those we serve feel our touch, it will be as though they have encountered Jesus Himself.

What good, hopeful news…

peace.

Baby Doe has a Name

October 10, 2015 § 3 Comments

Caretakers“Some group or some person will fill the vacuum. An elite will offer us arbitrary absolutes, and who will stand in its way?”

Francis A. Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live?, 1976

Last week Katherine and I were in Nashville for a pastor’s gathering. While there we visited her Dad, who lives in a long-term care facility. We also visited her Mother’s grave, which rests in a national cemetery in a lovely setting in the hills of the city.

Something happened when we went to pay our respects. The guys caring for the lawn all stopped until we were done. They stood there and watched respectfully as we remembered, wept and prayed.

This past year has been a brutal one for American society. Riots in St. Louis (Ferguson) and Baltimore, and unspeakable violence in South Carolina and last week in Oregon, have left a trail of violence, death and tears.

Just a few weeks ago, the body of a beautiful two-and-a-half year old girl, designated ‘Baby Doe,’ washed ashore in the BellaBoston area. Her body had been chopped up to fit into a garbage bag. The reason? Her mother’s boyfriend regularly beat her with his fists until one day she just died.

Political knee jerk reactions garnish coverage but don’t help because the presenting problem is never the issue. The issue is that we have become a culture that accommodates contempt for life whenever it intersects with our own comfort and convenience.

Millions of abortions every year, daily inner city bloodshed and violence, tacit support for veterans with PTSD, human trafficking, widespread drug abuse in the burbs and the exploitation of the poor and weak, along with the sins of corporate greed – all of these scream that we have become cold and indifferent, with no regard for our ‘neighbor.’

When will we wake up?

How many newborns need to be tossed into trash cans at proms?

How many elderly need to be neglected and mistreated in nursing homes?

How many babies need to be aborted and discarded, with bodies treated as commodities?

How many girls need to be sold into slavery?

How many war vets need to take their own lives?

How many people will we allow to mutilate themselves, and ease the tragedy by terming it ‘Gender Identity’?

How many massacres do we need to endure?

What will it take for it to finally sink in that we have become a society that settles for ‘arbitrary absolutes?’

Do we really believe God is fine with this?

Do we really believe that if we don’t see the baby, or name the child, or if we reduce PTSD victims to impersonal statistics, that we are any less culpable for this utter disregard for human life?

You see, I believe all these are interrelated. It isn’t many things. It is one thing. We have become so indifferent to life that we have ‘forgotten how to blush’ (Jeremiah 6:15).

And this makes me sad.

Listen, I know that the Church has largely failed. I know that politicians are self-serving. I know that extremes – to the left or right – are deadly to any semblance of a just society.

I’m not shouting. I’m weeping.

You should be too. Because at the same time we are accommodating our lifestyles and easing our consciences, we are killing ourselves and one another.

Oh, friends, I could go on and on, but I’ll close by taking you back to that cemetery in Nashville. Those workers could not have treated Katherine and me, and the memory of her Mom, with more respect and kindness – And this for someone who is no longer here! How sweet.

HenIt struck me as we drove off that if we could reject the voices (including our own) that fill ‘that vacuum’ with ‘arbitrary absolutes’ and that are intended to ease our guilt, quiet our shame and accommodate our indulgences, with uninterrupted ease, then perhaps the ‘Baby Does’ will have hope in this world.

And this is what Jesus did. He rejected the voice that offered Him rule and power, acclaim and immediate satisfaction (Matthew 4), at the expense of His own comfort – for us.

What good news…

It is never about just me.

Her name was Bella.

peace.

the Beautiful Priesthood

July 11, 2015 § 1 Comment

Cirque d Soleil“My father was a priest in our butcher shop, and I was with him, doing priestly work. Our butcher shop was a place of blessing.”

Eugene H. Peterson, Leap Over a Wall

Katherine and I were blown away by an unexpected gift from a college friend who sent us front row tickets to a Cirque du Soleil performance of Verekai in Baltimore this past week. The athleticism, strength, beauty and choreography were stunning. The music was mesmerizing and the set and costumes were beautiful. This particular production follows two people from birth to marriage, and ends with the wedding, replete with triumphant music, spectacular gymnastics and the falling of rose petals.

It was breathtaking.

I was reminded of Frederick Buechner’s description (in his book The Longing for Home of a visit to Sea World in Orlando, and a confluence of nature, beasts and mankind, leaving Buechner (whose birthday is today) with a glimpse of what God had always intended.

And this took me to Eugene Peterson’s description of his dad, a local butcher, whom he came to see as more than a guy who cut meat, but in this capacity, also a priest to their community.

In Christian circles we speak of ‘the priesthood of believers,’ which is another way of saying that every Christ-follower is called to be to the world and one another what Jesus has been to us, a healing presence that sacrificially loves and serves for the sake of others, out of a vision of flourishing that will one day accompany the new heavens and new earth.

John the disciple takes this further by saying that we are “a kingdom of priests to his [speaking of Jesus] God and Father…”

When you put it all together (because it is all intended to be so) we find that our vocations, along with our natural surroundings and abilities are all woven into a larger mosaic of beauty that not only displays hope before a broken world, but one that also reaches the Father who is every bit as invested (and more) as we are in the promise of new things.

Friends, as stunning as Cirque du Soleil was, this is even more so…

peace.

Broken Tiles

June 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

Mural
“…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…

peace.

Let’s Stop and Remember

May 23, 2015 § Leave a comment

Arlington“At the heart of the cross is Christ’s stance of not letting the other remain an enemy and of creating space in himself for the offender to come in.”

Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace

It is Memorial Day weekend. As a Christ-follower it is not uncommon for me to find myself involved in a conversation over the merits and sadnesses of war. No one I know would argue that every war the US has been involved in was what the Church father Augustine would call ‘just.’ But this weekend is not about that. It is to remember that many made the ‘ultimate sacrifice’ for their country in giving their lives.

Through years and generations our Nation has found itself embroiled in warfare, whether in world wars, regional conflicts, or even a Civil War. Everyone knows the sick, heartbreaking feeling of watching flag-draped caskets unloaded from transport planes. A simple history lesson of Gettysburg is enough to elicit the deepest of emotions over lives lost. Sacrifice is nobel, but death is brutal.

Each time a friend’s child or spouse goes overseas to fight, we hold our collective breath for fear that the worst news will one day find its way home to their families. I hate that. WreathsWe all do.

But this weekend, let’s put the debate aside. Let’s thank God for those who gave ‘their last full measure of devotion.’ Let’s honor their sacrifices and long together for the day when all wars will end.

Let’s not get lost in political madness and philosophical diversions. Let’s not argue the merits of war versus pacifism. Let’s not be ‘Hawks’ or ‘Doves,’ Liberals or Conservatives. Let’s just stop and acknowledge that many have died. To their parents, their siblings and their children, loss is loss.

If you have ever visited the Viet Nam wall, then you know that one can hardly do so without discovering elderly parents or aging spouses and children – in tears – revisiting their grief and loss over the sacrifice of their loved ones.

MonumentSo let’s reflect on the fact our daughters and sons have given themselves for others, and let’s acknowledge that we are the beneficiaries of their sacrifices, and be thankful.

Together let’s believe that it wasn’t political posturing, or bloodlust that drew these precious individuals, but the sincere belief that even if they died, their sacrifice would have counted for something towards a more peaceful world.

And in remembering what has been given by men and women through the years in war and conflict, here in this broken, and often war-torn world, let’s consider Jesus, who ensures that one day all wars will cease, and because in Him, our war with the Father has been settled.

In His Sacrifice…

This is our good news.

Happy Memorial Day.

peace.

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Together

May 2, 2015 § 1 Comment

Boots“I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Letter From Birmingham Jail

If you live in or around Baltimore then you know firsthand how painful this past week has been. One cannot have lived here and not be affected. My heart goes out to friends near and far who are from Baltimore – their sadness is palpable.

I offer these words as a white guy who has lived in relative safety all his life, and knowing that those I have loved and known these five decades may disagree, and possibly even be angry. I also offer this knowing that I bring my own prejudices, predispositions and fears to the table.

It would be tempting to opine on the dynamics of the inner city, injustice and the future, but we who live in relative safety, are better served to keep our mouths shut and listen. We don’t have the answers. Wonks, politicians, news organizations and bloggers think they have the answers, but unless they have lived in the City, they don’t. At night we go home to our safe neighborhoods. We sleep in the assurance that when we awaken, our world will be as ordered and secure as it was when we went to bed. We aren’t there on the ground. We don’t know how good it is or how bad. We don’t know the desperation and the vicious, endless and often violent cycle of poverty, firsthand. We make assumptions and most of those assumptions are wrong.

TogetherIt seems to me that answers from afar, criticism and finger pointing, are false versions of ‘care.’ They create within us the artificial self-assurance that we have connected, but that isn’t real at all. And we can postulate all we want on ‘fatherless America,’ and responsibility and the ‘American Way,’ but this helps nothing. It does exactly what those who spout these things want them to do – it keeps me away from you and ‘us’ from ‘them.’Precious

So it is better to listen and observe. This past week some of us had the privilege of spending time with old and new friends in Sandtown. Sandtown is ‘ground zero’ for last week’s riots. You have read about this neighborhood in this blog. It is among the poorest in the country, but also one of the most beautiful. In spite of what you may assume or have read online or heard in the news, the residents of Sandtown are among the proudest of any neighborhood I have ever met. They love their community, and no amount of national sorrow can match the sadness they feel collectively when it suffers.

The picture above was taken at lunch after a morning of clean up (most had been done by the Sandtown residents when we arrived the morning after the riots). It is of two guys, one black and the other white – no distinction – work boots and jeans – people who locked arms for the sake of a healed neighborhood. ‘A cord of three strands is not quickly broken’ (Ecclesiastes 4:12).

BrosYears ago I learned from a friend who led Miami’s rebuilding effort after Hurricane Andrew decimated it, that one can either sit around and point fingers and complain about problems and perpetrators, or they can see possibilities and the beauty of a healed City, and then work together towards that vision.

The scriptures are strewn with examples of people who lived in the hope of future joy. After all, isn’t this who we are? We are a people who live in the promise of what will one day be. And we serve a King who came and on our behalf saw that same future (Hebrews 12:1-2). He personally entered into places where weakness, oppression and sorrow prevailed, and by His care bore evidence of hope for a city of delight, and human flourishing.

Friends, beyond our advantages, fears and differences, it is not what we have, but whose we are and what will one day be ours…

Together.

This is our good news and the gospel’s sweet new song…

peace.

Sandtown

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