April 2, 2020 § 1 Comment
“Let Christians help one another in going this journey.”
Jonathan Edwards, The Christian Pilgrim
We were not created to live in isolation, but here we are! This isn’t in our DNA. Take it from an introvert. Even those of us who love their alone space, need human contact. Life without community is ultimately oppressively isolating.
God Himself lives in community. We have been designed to embody the in-person, relational interconnectedness of that mysterious union that theologians constantly attempt to explain, but never quite grasp, between Father, Son, and. Holy Spirit (how can one ever really contain the eternal with words and systems?).
But then, moments like this one come along, where we are all but cut off and forced to see the world from the perspective the loneliest of society. Malls, coffee shops, sports bars and other venues, all designed to provide escapes from isolation, are locked down.
Many churches, ours included, have devised online strategies to mitigate the alienation. Connecting programs such as Zoom facilitate meetings, studies, classes, and counsel. But these are temporary measures. However, high the quality, and vital as they are, ultimately they are stop-gaps intended to tide us over until we can once again gather in person, where fist bumps may replace handshakes, marginally flu-ish people will stay at home, and every cough will be suspect. But we will gather.
Because church is more than a place where worshippers attend, songs are sung and sermons are presented. It is a community that enables us to put into practice the kind of life-giving relational interdependence that we were created to experience in this journey – with God and one another. Regardless of how large or small the expression, when together, we rehearse God’s Kingdom, and model that “great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages…” (Revelation 7:9ff), when the redeemed will one day, and for all eternity, worship God in all His fullness and glory – together.
This Sunday we enter into the observance of Christ’s passion – the betrayals, arrest, torment, and the Cross. For the Church, it is a glorious week that leads to Resurrection Day. Within it, however, is a dark moment when Jesus, while dying on the Cross, was deprived of the life-giving union he enjoyed with his Father. For one brief and horrible moment, Jesus was alone – “forsaken,” in the most lonely place of the fallen human condition, as he endured the holy rage of God in payment of sin, to ‘reconcile the world to himself’ (Read 2 Corinthians 5:16-21!).
And now, resurrected and glorified, he awaits to gather us at the Feast. But until then, he has given us his Spirit – and, unfinished and flawed as we may be – one another.
Trust me, friends, awkward and annoying as we can sometimes be to one another…
this is good news.
grace & peace.
March 26, 2020 § 3 Comments
“For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”
Recently, I mentioned to Katherine that it was time to resume Unfinished1, and now am compelled all the more, given the current crisis we find ourselves in. Until the ban is lifted, I will offer these on Thursdays, but then after, on Saturdays.
The picture below is taken from the northwest corner of our home. On either side grow two different types of Magnolias. The white-flowered tree on the right is a Star Magnolia, and the purplish-pink (my favorite) is a Japanese Magnolia. Both majestically adorn our house each year, along with compliment of Daffodils that will soon be joined by Lillies.
Because the world is fallen, more than a virus taints what God created to be good. Natural disasters, human trafficking, oppressive governments, injustice, poverty, violence, and death, to name a few, are with us every day. And they will be until Jesus returns and makes everything new.
But just outside our door, beauty always awaits. Theologians refer to this as general or natural revelation. For all who observe, creation serves up hints of God’s existence, and of what will one day be. It is almost as though God adorns creation to be like a flower girl at a wedding, announcing that as beautiful as the setting is, something more spectacular awaits. And it does!
We live and breathe on the pallet of God’s creative resplendence. It is always right there. Even when at our ugliest, ‘the heavens declare His glory, and the sky proclaims his handiwork’ (Psalm 19:1). As Christ-followers, this does more than make us feel good about what we believe and who we believe in. It also is intended to help shape us into a hopeful people before a hurting world.
Don’t get me wrong. When a Christian is isolated and lonely, it is no more tolerable than when someone who doesn’t follow Jesus is. Our depression is every bit as debilitating as the next person’s. Human heartache visits every home, regardless of creed. As Christians, we get no corporate discounts in the human condition! Jesus himself was prophesied as a “a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3).
In the meantime, God offers glimpses – hints that one day the pain and suffering will end. Through his redeemed people, He gives the world a hopeful community. And in creation, it is as though, even in this strange state of isolated exile, all nature bids us to celebrate what will one day be.
Together we serve as signposts that no malady, whether human or by force of nature, has the power to permanently thwart the creative beauty of God from knifing into the world’s darkness – or into human hearts – with power to forgive, heal, and renew.
Take heart friends, in Jesus, He has already come, and is coming.
what good news.
grace & peace.
September 16, 2017 § 6 Comments
“The gospel says that because of what Christ has done, he sees you as completely righteous. You are clothed in the righteousness of Christ…”
Raymond F. Cannata & Joshua D. Reitano, Rooted
So about three-and-a-half months ago we became first-time grandparents. Since then Max has turned us into a pitifully mushy couple that delights in dry drool, baby talk, and the smell of diapers that – how do I put this – bear inglorious evidence to the functionality of new life. We are over the moon over the guy. Oh, and by the way, he has parents too! Our daughter and son-in-law are precious in their new role.
Earlier this week I had a couple of hours with Max. Our conversation was spiritual, obviously.
A typical exchange:
Me: ‘It’s okay, Max, it’s okay.’
Max: Diminishing cries.
Me: ‘That’s a fan, Max. Do you like it?’
Me: ‘That’s you in the mirror, Max!’
Me: (sung) “I love you, a bushel and a peck…”
Max: Silence (with possible wincing detected)
Don’t get me wrong – there were whimpers, a few tears, smiles, and even some conversation – All in response to funny faces, peek-a-boo, chants of, ‘I’m going to get somebody,’ along with lots of ‘I love you’s’ and ‘Who’s the best boy?’ What a delight.
Max was appreciative, I could tell, because he rewarded me with what seemed like a gallon of hot puke on my shirt! Hey, what can I say? The kid trusts me. I put water on his head (baptism), and he put warm regurgitated, sour milk on my chest (the water smelled better).
Again, it’s all spiritual.
So what do you see in the picture?
Okay, so you know that he did the deed, but what you see appears to be a grown man who has just blown chow all over himself. The baby certainly isn’t indicating any guilt!
Well, there you have the gospel in a nutshell. God the Father vomited the full cup of His wrath on His own Son Jesus at the Cross, for us. We deserved it – Jesus endured it.
The apostle Paul puts it this way: “God made him [Jesus] to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God [in him]. 2 Corinthians 5:21
As Cannata and Reitano point out in their fine book on the Apostles’ Creed (Rooted), this is known as ‘the great exchange.’ Jesus took on our sin, shame and guilt, and we have been given His righteousness. It really is that simple.
This is our everyday reality, because shame and guilt feast on us like vultures on a carcass. And our natural response will always be to offer some form of our own righteousness. We are constantly tempted to fix our brokenness with broken resources, rather than to trust in Christ’s finished work on our behalf.
Here’s what I’ve discovered about shame and guilt. When they assault me, the first thing they aim for is my ego. Once that defense is broken through, I’m done. Because it isn’t humility that drives me to work out of my own flawed righteousness – it is pride. Rather than repent, and confess my inability to please God, in an arrogant denial of His love, I fight harder to force His approval.
But here is the problem, the inner condemnation doesn’t go away. My prideful resistance to admissions of weakness only weakens me, and haunts me with what I know to be true: That apart from God’s grace, I am hopelessly lost. Resisting this only cheats me out of the Father’s delight.
In the picture Max looks fine – because he is. Resting peacefully in the arms of his papa, he has no reason to believe that he should receive any condemnation, regardless of what comes out of his mouth – or goes into his diaper.
He is safe.
Friends, if you belong to Jesus, there is only one way the Father will ever see you.
Isn’t this our good news?
grace & peace.
September 9, 2017 § 2 Comments
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.
December 5, 2015 § 2 Comments
“The Advent tension is a way of learning again that God is God: that between even our deepest and holiest longing and the reality of God is a gap which only grace can cross; otherwise we are alone again, incommunicado, our signals and symbols bounced back to us off the glassy walls of the universe.”
Rowan Williams, A Ray of Darkness
The other night Katherine and I saw Creed, the latest installment of the forty-year Rocky series. Without spoiling the story, it turned out to be arguably one of the top three of the series (but it would take a huge for-Rocky-fans-only conversation to explain). As we watched, I found myself overwhelmed with emotion throughout, and it dawned on me that it was because Rocky (played by Sylvester Stallone) is getting old, and he has been part of my entire adult life. Don’t laugh. In 1976 four of us were on a double date. We ate at a local favorite called LUMS on US-1 in Miami. LUMS was where I had my first beer with high school friend, Chris, after turning 18 (I can’t speak for Chris). On this night we planned on seeing King Kong, but dinner took too long and we ended up going to an unknown film (Rocky). And thus began the shared journey with this very down-to-earth boxer – until last night.
Okay the Christmas Tree thing. Two weeks ago I posted a pic of this year’s
tree. Another lifelong friend, Cookie, posted a comment that it was the same as last year. I was puzzled until I looked, and amazingly she was right! We basically decorated the tree exactly as we had a year ago.
And then there is Advent. Advent is about arrival, and it is accompanied by waiting and longing. We celebrate that Jesus has come, while longing for Him to return. Because the world isn’t right – all one has to do is read the headlines. The world is in torment and the fall is reflected in every violent, tragic and broken expression. So while we celebrate that Jesus has inaugurated God’s Kingdom by coming and has conquered the curse of the fall with His death, resurrection and ascension, we also anticipate that one day all Creation will be healed and heaven and earth be one.
Which leads to putting the three together…
In some sense, Advent too is always the same thing. Just as with our tree, each Christmas season is adorned with the same longing and decorated with the same songs of hope. It is supposed to be this way. As our storylines unfold the big story remains the same – and we need this. I need this. I need something that I can look to and find that it has not changed or the deep, unchanging consistency of God in my life – we all do.
So back to Rocky. You have to know that in the story he is old. Some say that Stallone should get an Academy Award for his performance (I’ve been screaming this for 40 years!). In nuanced ways, Creed, though a very unique movie, is beautifully and hauntingly similar to the first Rocky movie. And I think this is why I was emotional. Rocky got old. But the story didn’t.
So in a few weeks the ornaments will come down and get packed away until next year, one day after Thanksgiving when they are unpacked and put on a fresh tree for the new season.
It will be beautiful.
All over again.
And the story we have been invited into, though accented with fresh twists and turns, will still be about Jesus, who came and who is coming.
And this is good news, friends…
PS Friends, check out the Chapelgate website for a daily Advent Blog: https://cpcadvent.wordpress.com
July 11, 2015 § 1 Comment
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…
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…