August 19, 2020 § 2 Comments
“God’s design for human flourishing cannot be satisfied in isolation.”
James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom
Reunion has been on my mind lately. Our church returned to in-person worship last Sunday, after nearly half-a-year in isolation. It was more than we hoped for. We met outdoors and were greeted with beautiful weather. The music and the atmosphere were electric. But it was the people coming together, masked-face-to-masked-face – people who had not seen one another in months, that made the evening what it was.
Whenever I think of reunion, I am taken to the Allman Brothers Band’s song Revival. It was used one year in a Publix commercial as the backdrop for a family reunion because the song carries that sense of joy. The video is posted below – Don’t listen to the theology – just turn up the volume, sit back, and enjoy the music. Publix is a growing Florida-based grocery chain.
On Sunday evening I reminded our church community that isolation is a byproduct of the fall. Like our God who lives within the mysterious community that is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we were designed to live in relationship with one another. When Adam and Eve sinned, humankind was thrown into a world of isolation that societies, governments, nations, and individuals have never been able to break through with sustained success. The Cross is God’s answer to the world’s isolation, reconciling a fallen humanity to Himself, through the sacrifice of Jesus, who endured the isolation of hell’s torment in order to break the curse of Eden.
This busts open the doors to forgiveness, healing, and reconciled relationships, and represents the triumph of God’s grace, where everything we cannot reconcile in this life, will be healed and brought to closure in eternity, all the fruit of God’s unfailing love.
The fact is that as wonderful as last Sunday was for our church, it wasn’t all it could have been. Many among our church community could not attend due to the health risk. We are not whole until we are wholly reunited.
Through years, God seasons our lives with dear relationships that help shape us. These relationships are only separated by geography or death.
However great joy awaits all who belong to Jesus, when together we are Reunited with “a great multitude that no one could number” (Revelation 7:9), when heaven and earth are one in God’s new world.
How sweet that will be…
grace & peace.
August 12, 2020 § Leave a comment
“Who shapes the very nature of your being from day to day?”
Robert Webber, the Divine Embrace
We love certainty, and we hate pain. Both are undeniably human, and they shape us more than we may realize.
We want to be able to foresee outcomes and determine whether they will be good or bad, before making decisions. At the heart of this is our preoccupation with control.
This preoccupation drives myriad decisions, all intended to manage disappointment. But living out of this rubric enslaves us to outcomes. It also robs us of the learning curves that accompany failure. Every successful person will tell you that they learned more from their failures than their successes.
The scriptures are loaded with examples of God’s people being instructed to head in one direction. The results of doing otherwise are almost always disastrous, and they are rooted in fear and control – refusing to believe that God can – or has the right to – determine what is best for one’s life.
The delusion of control is universal. We can actually convince ourselves to believe that if we maintain our grip, we can manage life’s expectations, while limiting disappointment. Christian bookstores used to be loaded with spiritualized self-help books – all aimed at one objective: to avoid pain! They ranged from raising perfect children, to overcoming temptation, protecting against failure, and conquering depression. Sadly, that’s the short list.
The carnage has been extensive, littering the ecclesiastical landscape with devastated parents, disenfranchised believers, confused sinners, indifferent young people, and angry Christians who rightly believe they have been sold a bill of goods.
“…though the Lord give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself anymore, but your eyes shall see your Teacher. And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it,’ when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left.” – Isaiah 30:20-21
Do you hear the reality in these words?! God doesn’t promise smooth sailing. He offers Himself, to guide us through.
But getting there is more than a declaration. It begins with admitting our unholy determination to be in charge, and takes us through the winding process of repentance over self-rule, and then continues by demanding the daily offering of our constant determination to take over, anchored in the belief that we are unconditionally loved by the Father.
The fact is that failure and pain are hardwired to our deeper fear of abandonment – of being unloved. But on the Cross, Jesus experienced both unfathomable physical torment and unthinkable desertion, and in his resurrection he purchased a life of peace – which is found, not in the madness and delusion of control, but by trusting God, who opens for us the gates of wholeness and unspeakable joy – in everything.
Only the gospel is our good news…
grace & peace.
August 5, 2020 § 3 Comments
“Ah, but we want so much more–something the books on aesthetics take little notice of. But the poets and the mythologies know all about it. We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words–to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.”
C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
We don’t hear enough about beauty in Christian circles. For church people immersed in mission and budgets, ultimate things, and immediate needs, the idea of beauty is often seen as extravagant, though not necessary. I would argue that it drives the Church’s best expressions.
“Vast, Unmeasured, Boundless, Free…”
lyrics to Oh, the Deep Deep Love of Jesus
Mark Ladd & Samuel T. Francis
Where better than in a Mountain Sunset are the layers of God’s lavish and unbounded love more beautifully put on display?
“The Christian is the one whose imagination should fly beyond the stars.”
Francis A. Schaeffer, Art & the Bible
What greater pallet to stimulate the imagination than an entire horizon, where earth and tree, sun and clouds, sky and mountain, colors and textures meet in perfect alignment and beauty?
“I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.”
Where else can we find the slightest sense of God’s glory, and the majesty, and beauty of Jesus, than when darkness is pierced and overcome by sunrise?
“And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.”
“He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.”
In some way, beauty is God’s promise of future joy in the way the rainbow accompanied God’s covenant with Noah. God doesn’t deal in junk. He restores and transforms broken things and people, “to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit…” (Isaiah 61:3a).
Ironically, for those who follow Jesus, the most hideous display in history stands as the most beautiful. In his gruesome crucifixion, sin was atoned for, and forgiveness assured. In the resurrection, death was crushed forever, and in his return, one day, all things will be made new.
Thanks for joining me!
grace & peace.
July 2, 2020 § Leave a comment
“What you thought mattered – what you thought was truest to the real you – often turns out to be empty and dishonest. You have to keep asking and keep looking; no wonder we hate it and find every excuse for not getting on with it.”
Rowan Williams, Where God Happens
A few years ago, as we returned to the Orlando airport with our rental car, we decided to play chicken. We had prepaid for a full-tank so we wouldn’t have to fill up at the last second, and we took full advantage of that prepayment. The only problem was that the car was running on fumes and threatened to stall within miles of our destination!
Strangely, we laughed with every passing mile, wondering how far I would eventually have to push the car should we run out of gas.
Early yesterday morning, after my walk and early coffee, I admitted to Katherine that I had nothing – no blog post and no ideas – zero! We are slated for some time off in the coming weeks and it seemed as though the tank hit ’empty’ just a few miles short of the rental facility.
On most weeks, the post is already largely written by Wednesday morning, awaiting refinement before being made public – but not yesterday. As Monday turned to Tuesday (when the idea normally crystalizes), nothing came. And since Seinfeld already used the idea of a “show about nothing,” even that was off the table!
I had all but surrendered to the idea of not posting, by the time that Wednesday (yesterday) came. But it turned out to be a ministry-intensive day, and, I was reminded that when it comes to people, brokenness has many faces, and that we in ministry have the privilege of speaking into hopelessness, because God intends for life to be something!
This is the marvel of Creation. In the beginning, God called everything into existence by His spoken word. The, “Let there be…” passages in the Genesis 1 narrative could not be more dramatic, because they represent what theologians refer to as ex nihilo – “out of nothing.”
It is impossible for us to wrap our brains around this, because we have never truly seen the nothing-ness of nothing! Even an empty room has the substance of oxygen!
Hebrews 11:3 reveals that this cannot be arrived at by sheer intellect – “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.”
Those who follow Jesus find it hopeful that the universe is the handiwork of a personal Creator, and therefore meant for something. Every firefly and all the fish of the sea were handcrafted with intentionality, as were we.
For those who agonize over loved ones and friends that display not one ounce of interest in things of faith, they are encouraged by the fact that God can intervene and speak something into the nothingness of their spiritual appetites – even as He has done ours. And it relieves the arrogance of the notion that we can force-feed, guilt, or shame Jesus into hearts.
By contrast, every intersection with sin and sorrow is an attempt by the evil one to squeeze out the sense of meaning, joy, and value – the something-ness – we were created to embody.
Which brings us full-circle to my having nothing to offer yesterday. I could recite all kinds of reasons it didn’t happen (COVID-19 is always convenient!), but at the end of the day, whenever I am running on empty, it has less to do with workload and exhaustion, and more with how I mismanage the affairs of my heart and the priorities of my life before the Throne.
In fact, a bird’s eye view would probably reveal no difference in activity. But, deeper inspection would uncover the need for retreat into God’s grace, beyond the routine – having forgotten, on the most subtle and practical of levels – that this God is here.
And that’s not nothing!
What good news…
grace & peace.
April 8, 2020 § 1 Comment
“the act of trust is an utterly ruthless act”
While sheltered in place, the Church worldwide celebrates Holy Week, when Jesus entered Jerusalem, was celebrated, betrayed, arrested, and crucified – and then resurrected.
Maundy Thursday is the night he met with the disciples and instituted the Lord’s Supper. It was in that Upper Room that Jesus gave his friends the new command, to love one another (John 13:34).
On Friday we are sobered – and blessed – by the crucifixion of Jesus. We call that day Good because it is. On the Cross, Jesus died in payment for the sins of the world. Our atonement was secured at Calvary. Jesus died as our Substitute.
Saturday is quiet. Along with Easter Egg hunts, the Church remembers it as the day Jesus lay in the grave. The grave would be where Jesus would leave our guilt, shame and sin.
And then, Sunday. Easter, when music and message are all aimed at the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus, and the hope we have in his conquest over sin and death. It is the celebration of celebrations.
Each day is dramatic and packed with meaning. But just 24-hours before events unfolded, the disciples moved through another day, oblivious to what was before them. I’m going to call it Clueless Wednesday, because that is what it was.
The fact is that we don’t know what God is doing with the world – with our worlds – in any given moment. We are clueless. I would argue that this is a good thing, because it is a childlike cluelessness. Even now, while we shelter in place, children delight in the moment, with danger as the furthest thing from their minds.
In hindsight we see events as they unfolded. Our past tense vision is 20/20, with the advantage of the whole picture. But until things happen, we have no idea what lies before. Like the disciples we move through the week, tending to responsibilities, enjoying friendships, caring for family, wrestling with life, temptation, weakness, and ambitions.
To know what lies before us in the immediate future is always tantalizing, but in reality, it would be disastrous, because the complexities of God’s unfolding redemptive plan would horrify us.
So, God never gives us more than what he is doing now. And, while for us we are clueless to the full meaning of the details of the immediate future, what matters is that Jesus knows what he is doing with the world – and with us.
What good news…
grace & peace.
April 25, 2015 § 6 Comments
Last week I posted about my Armenian heritage. Though my parents were Protestants and raised us in Christ, we ate the food, gathered with other olive-skinned Armenian-Americans, played the ‘Tavlou’ (backgammon), and shared that same peculiar ‘ian’ identifying suffix to our names. As I mentioned on Facebook, you don’t even want to know the names our grandparents, aunts and uncles had!
Our grandparents were born in what they referred to as ‘the old country.’ But in their teens they were ordered to leave home by the next day, or face death. It was part of the attempt by the Ottoman Turks to extinguish every Armenian from the region. To this day politicians and Turkish officials, in spite of the overwhelming body of evidence, avoid using the term ‘genocide’ – sad.
However as an Armenian-American, I have no bitterness towards our historical oppressors from that dark epoch. We are Christ-followers, we belong to a new community, a new race, and ‘better country’ (Hebrews 11:16). We too are a forgiven people.
I do find it sad however, that our government refuses to acknowledge the genocide, when in fact nearly 1.6 Million Armenians were killed in an attempt at this human ‘cleansing.’ It isn’t that I want validation from a President (or Kim Kardashian!). My identity is found in Jesus, Lord and King of all that is. No, my sadness is that such a refusal reduces the value of human life to political advantage, rather than in the integrity of compassion for the ‘least of these,’ a foundational characteristic of true justice.
And yet, as a Christ-follower I can see that even this horrible moment in history was part of a larger narrative in which our Sovereign God loved, pursued and found my parents, and many other Armenians, through Jesus.
My grandparents on Dad’s side emigrated through Egypt, where an uncle and two aunts were born, until they arrived years later in NYC, and settled in Brooklyn where Dad and his younger sister were born. Later Dad would meet Jesus in faith at a Billy Graham crusade in Madison Square Garden in 1957.
Mom’s parents came to the US via Iran, where they were detained for a time in an Iranian refugee camp before immigrating to Atlanta, Georgia, where Mom and her siblings would be born. But it was in that camp that they met a missionary named J. Christy Wilson, a man who would later become an influential Professor at Gordon-Conwell Seminary outside of Boston (I was privileged to meet him many years later). Wilson told my grandparents about Jesus, and there, in that Iranian refugee camp they met Christ in faith.
So while this will always be a sad epoch in history, the Father knows who we are, and in the gospel everything sad will one day be eclipsed by what Jesus has accomplished for us, and in what He will one day do when He makes heaven and earth one. Because in Jesus our winding stories, with their sadnesses, tragedies, celebrations, twists, turns and unexpected diversions, are all part of God’s hand in leading us Home, to ‘a better country.’
Friends, what good news…
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…
February 21, 2015 § 2 Comments
Eugene H. Peterson, Leap Over A Wall
If you know anything about my work habits, you know that my sermon prep is a crazy time of prayer, solitude, music, study, distraction, desperation, and more prayer. It begins in my office on Thursday, and ends there early Sunday morning, with hours at ‘my’ Starbucks in between. This is my groove.
And when it is interrupted my world tips off its axis.
All of which leads to early last Thursday morning, when our daughter Emily called. She had a flat tire on a major highway leading into and out of Baltimore. Long story short, I ended up spending most of Thursday in a Firestone with a manager who reminded me of Newman on Seinfeld, in a community known as Reisterstown, just beyond the city. The store was situated on a loud, busy road. So there I was – no books, no office, no playlists, no groove!
Instead I was confined to a crowded room with strangers – you know, the people types. One lady was a night guard who worked the night shift. Another loudly cursed into her phone, enraged with a family member, while simultaneously giving us the play-by-play. Another changed her baby’s diaper on the chairs in front of the television beside the coffee maker that smelled as though it had been brewing for weeks. Game shows gave way to talk shows, and finally soap operas.
Somewhere around Noon I was expected on a conference call, and for an hour I walked around the store, in and among people, tires and furniture, and sometimes outside, in 14-degree weather. At meeting’s end, the leader asked me to pray. So, there in the Firestone, I got into a corner (pictured above), and prayed.
And when I opened my eyes, I was in a sanctuary.
Eugene Peterson writes of God’s people and how simple elements like rocks and animals, water, fire and hills were employed in worship when gathering and temples were not options. I think of Jesus, who worshiped early in the Temple, on a mountain in the morning, at the banquet of His betrayal, in the garden, and even on the Cross. It was never about perfect circumstances, and always about the very present God.
It turned out that I needed that place and those people and our daughter’s crisis more than I needed my office. The Father was at Firestone and He wanted me there.
It was in that Sanctuary that retail chairs transformed into pews, garage workers served as priests, customers became fellow worshippers, the seating arrangement, our confessional, our stories the liturgy, and the smell of new rubber combined with burnt coffee, the incense of our shared need.
Free from the ordinary, the world appeared a little clearer, and my sermon a bit less daunting. A letter I intended for a friend took shape, and heart. Texts with my wife, sermon notes, and thoughts of God’s protection over our daughter, songs of thanksgiving and praise.
Friends, find your sanctuary.
And discover once again, that it is the Father who has found you.
What good news…
December 25, 2014 § 1 Comment
When blossoms flower e’er ‘mid the snows,
Upon a winter night,
Was born the child, the christmas rose,
The king of love and light.
The angels sang, the shepherds sang,
The grateful earth rejoiced;
And at his blessed birth the stars
Their exultation voiced.
O come let us adore him
O come let us adore him
O come let us adore him
Christ the lord.
Gesu Bambino, Pietro Yon, 1917
It is Christmas Morning. The coffee is brewed and the tree lights on. Katherine is making her Christmas breakfast casserole. Within a few hours gifts will be opened, and some time today we will go to our traditional Christmas movie. By tomorrow the entire family will be gathered. We are blessed. Each Christmas brings its own joy.
I am not deluded to think that everyone is experiencing joy, and in spite of my utterly latent immature perspective, I know that the point of Christmas isn’t my own happiness, or anyone else’s for that matter.
But Jesus has come. His humble entrance and sacrificial life bear evidence to the fact that He is doing much more with the world He created to be good, than to ‘fix’ the moment.
So come to Jesus, friends. The rhythms of life are crazy, aren’t they? Our hope is in who Pietro Yon refers to as, ‘the King of Love and Light’ – Jesus. Tears fill my eyes as I type these words. It is that beautiful and He is that precious.
What good, sweet news of great joy…
“Adeste fidelis. Come and behold him, born the king of angels. Speak to him or be silent before him. In whatever way seems right to you and at whatever time, come to him with your empty hands. The great promise is that to come to him who was born at Bethlehem is to find coming to birth within ourselves something stronger and braver, gladder and kinder and holier, than ever we knew before or than ever we could have known without him.”
Frederick Buechner, The Hungering Dark
(with thanks to Steve Dallwig for this photo from our Candlelight Service last evening)
December 20, 2014 § 1 Comment
“He was checked in his transports by the churches ringing out the lustiest peals he had ever heard. Clash, clang, hammer, ding, dong, bell. Bell, dong, ding, hammer, clang, clash! Oh, glorious, glorious!
Running to the window, he opened it, and put out his stirring, cold cold, piping for the blood to dance to; Golden sunlight; Heavenly sky; sweet fresh air; merry bells. Oh, glorious. Glorious!”
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
The picture in this post is from a mall in Nashville, taken earlier this month. While Katherine browsed the shops, I stood above and listened as the children sang to their proud parents and other gatherers. The music was lovely.
It is impossible to navigate the Christmas story without hearing the music that runs through its narrative. Elizabeth sings God’s glory when she learns that she will bear a son that would prepare the way for the Christ. Mary sang the goodness of God to the angel who revealed that she would give birth to Jesus. The Angels fill the skies with song and worship before the shepherds in fields to announce Jesus’ arrival.
Music is obviously high on God’s list. Early in the scriptures we learn of Jubal, who was the ‘father’ of all who played the harp and flute (Genesis 4). In music God has given us something lovely, something that weaves itself between the logical checkpoints of reason, and the confining precision of time and space.
John Calvin said something to the effect of how even the unbelieving ‘unwittingly express the beauty of God in their music.’
I’ll never forget the comment a friend made when his world fell apart. He was a good pastor who lost his way, and when it all came crashing in, it was too late. Later he would tell a gathering of friends, ‘I have lost my song.’ So sad.
How sweet that when Jesus was born, the silence of God’s voice in Israel of nearly 400 years, was broken, not with a fresh command, or display of strength, but with song.
I am blessed with a wife who is also a musician. Not only does she sing, but she teaches, plays, hums, and sometimes even verbalizes entire thoughts – in Song. Our running exchange when the latter happens goes like this: ‘Did you have to sing that?’ ‘Yes, I did.’
One day I’ll get it.
Advent tells us that one day we will sing the new song of the redeemed. One day our hearts will no longer be burdened by deadlines and pressures, by thoughts of past failures and present worries. One day we will no longer be at a loss for words in expressing ourselves. One day, those who have lost their song, will once again find it.
We won’t have to any longer understand or process or parse or worry about accurately expressing the Faith. In God’s new world, we will be before Jesus, and all the hints and tastes and glimpses of the beauty that have dotted our lives in anticipation of that day, will converge in full measure before the majesty and loveliness and beauty of the Father, who in His Son has made us His.
And we will Sing.
What beautiful, good news of great joy…
peace on earth.