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.
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.
November 22, 2014 § Leave a comment
This past week Katherine and I were visited with the terrifying news of a shooting at our daughter’s college, the Florida State University (pictured). So let me begin by saying that our sweet Erin is fine. We praise God, not only for her safety, but also for the other young people who were spared.
It is both surreal and terrifying to be in the fog of waiting to hear good news, while deep down denying the idea that your child would be among the victims. Throughout the morning our family texted back and forth, only to experience relief over her wellbeing, though in muffled tones, knowing that some parent might not be celebrating, but grieving.
In retrospect I was struck by the fact that just six days before, we were intent on cheering on the University of Miami Hurricanes’ football team as they faced off with FSU, and then the subsequent and almost-mandatory belly aching, finger-pointing and excuse-making that accompanies a heartbreaking loss. Before the shooting, the most important thing was that our team beat their team (which we didn’t!). In fact it was heartwarming to read of how Florida State’s most hated rival, the University of Florida, put aside trivial rivalry with displays of intrastate support.
Suffering has a way of correcting our course, doesn’t it? It resets our priorities and quickly sheds away the unimportant. We so easily become scattered by life and love and work and schedules to the extent that focus withdraws from our daily diet.
In suffering there is clarity.
Now I know that there are some who have almost made a virtue out of suffering, almost as though it is a spiritual mountain to be scaled. But this is warped.
No, suffering is raw, and it is real, it is personal, and on any level it is horrid and hideous. It is the result of the fall, and part of the Curse. One day it will no longer be, but until then, there is nothing inherently good in suffering.
Except for one thing.
It is our common cup. In suffering, our differences fade into a shared struggle and inextricable bond with every other human in this broken world. It is our very real and flesh-and-blood protection from smug platitudes. It puts the pain and pathos of others into perspective and protects us from cold indifference. My pain, though horrible, is shared.
In a few weeks we will celebrate the birth of Christ, and at the heart of the Incarnation is a God who would meet us at the point of our greatest need and deepest sorrows, and then invite us into what the apostle Paul calls, ‘the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings’ (Philippians 3:10).
Paul’s summons is not for the sake of glorifying suffering, but to remind us that when we drink from the common cup of brokenness, the Risen Christ is at the table with us.
And this friends, is good news.