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…
November 29, 2014 § 1 Comment
“Our longings remind us of the essential human fact that we are talked and touched into life, and that a human race struggling to do all its talking and touching for itself faces a paralyzing unhappiness and anxiety.”
Rowan Williams, A Ray of Darkness
Earlier this month Katherine and I, along with friends, saw Interstellar, a beautifully filmed thriller involving outer space. It did not disappoint. In it the earth is threatened with a fatal cosmic drought due to an atmosphere that can no longer produce water for crops, and therefore sustenance for life. The star, played by Matthew McConaughey, the world’s top astronaut, is commissioned to fly to three distant planets in order to find a new home for the future of mankind. Don’t worry, there is more to the story.
‘The people walking in darkness have seen a great light…’
We in the human race are obsessed with finding our way out of our brokenness. We launch movements. We produce films. We rally people and protests and attention and positions, but our vivid imaginations, though often spectacular, always fall short, because unless light shines into the darkness, our sight remains dimmed. We long for something we can’t obtain by our own resourcefulness.
Advent. Coming. Longing.
In light of the events surrounding Ferguson, Missouri – the shooting – the protests – the violence – the publicity – it seems to me that there is a deeper issue than the incident at hand, and even beyond the historical issues that may have contributed to shaping the incident.
Don’t hear me saying that these issues don’t matter – they do and I am still learning. What I am saying is that what we celebrate at Advent is the longing for something outside of ourselves – it is a longing for contact – light invading darkness, God taking the initiative to touch humanity, in flesh and blood, and then give us something to collaborate with Him in His work of renewal. We long for His coming.
Darkness. Life without light. Hopelessness. Despair. Isolation.
When Jesus was born the world was as messed up as it is today. Injustice and the inhumane treatment of people prevailed in an empire that made itself strong on the backs of oppressed people.
And when He left, it was just as wrecked, but those who encountered Him knew that they had been loved by God.
What we so easily miss in the exchange of ideas, the social debates, the explanations, the rationalizations, the protests, the violence, the social media, the commentary, the characterizations and the polarization of races, classes and politics… is Love.
Love enables us to make contact. It makes us touch rather than assume – it is human- and it obliterates all self-protective and superficial boundaries.
Friends, I believe that we were given these beautiful imaginations – they are a gift. But they don’t exist in order for us to find the fix or the cure, or the answer. They exist in order to inform our spirits and affirm the gospel story, that God has found us, and that we are loved… in Jesus.
This is our good news of great joy.
August 23, 2014 § 1 Comment
A refreshingly honest friend
So some disclosure…
I’m a white guy who grew up in Miami in a mostly white world that was shaped by white tastes, white opinions and white culture. Everyone else had to fit in, and it never occurred to me that this could be wrong.
I can’t remember ever thinking that the streets, our neighborhood or my world, were anything other than perfectly safe. And because I was safe and happy, I just assumed everyone else was.
Injustice wasn’t even on my radar, until a friend in ministry opened my eyes. I’ve been catching up ever since, and am far from an authority.
When my studies floundered, I was still believed in and considered full of potential. Contrast this to Malcolm X, a bright-eyed, super-achieving high school student, whose joy was demolished when a teacher scoffed at the notion that he, an African-American, would aspire to a future that involved being anything other than a janitor.
Earlier this week a coworker and I conversed about issues unearthed by the events in Ferguson. He’s black and I’m white. It was good – we just talked. And we agreed on the need to take the conversation to another level.
Random Thoughts I Scratched throughout the Week…
I have to think that the symbolic, anecdotal, mass-media-driven vitriol takes us nowhere good – It has to be personal, because it is.
Sin is never excusable. Period. Figure out the rest, but if you put a color to your conclusions, you’re missing the point.
There are more civilly minded and community-loving people than not (don’t think color – think people).
There are more good cops than bad ones.
There are more bad politicians than good ones (hey, this is my blog – I can say what I want, but term limits would dramatically help).
Violence is almost never the answer, and victims abound when it occurs.
Not merely with words, but in communal life, will the Church make a difference…
There is no ‘Them’
Protest ≠ Destruction
Love > Fear
Right now I don’t like my world very much.
But God created it to be good. And the gospel informs me that everything that disturbs me is less about ‘it’ and ‘them,’ and more about what is in me.
The fact is that I have no idea what went down in Ferguson. But whatever it was, the images have excavated fears, preconceived notions, and prejudices that either I didn’t know existed – or worse, that I never before wanted to admit.
And I don’t know what to do with this other than to pray… and listen.
All the while holding on to the promise that Jesus, the One who entered into the mess that is our world, and actually loved it, is making everything new, until heaven and earth are one, and the nations gather at the throne, where lions and lambs and infants and cobras dwell safely together in peace.
It is the good news that sustains…
June 21, 2014 § 1 Comment
“The feeling was so strong that I actually turned on the light for a moment to make sure no one was there – of course, there wasn’t. But after a while, in the dark again, I knew beyond any doubt that it was Jesus.”
Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies
This past week we were in the vast city of Houston, in Texas. ‘Vast’ is an understatement. Houston is the fourth largest city in the US, and will likely soon be third behind New York and LA. It is huge. Taking pics of Houston from the top of our hotel reminded me that each of the thousands of lights (perhaps tens of thousands) represented people and stories. There are living spaces where individuals and families make their homes, hotels that are filled with visitors, and spaces where temptation, violence and loneliness often make hay with its victims. There are offices where money is won and lost and careers are launched and ruined, and streets on which the rich drive and the homeless wander.
Houston is also a hub for human trafficking in the US, where untold numbers of people are forced into the sex and drug trades, and cast into anonymity by the sheer power of evil. It isn’t only Houston. Our church is involved in an important ministry that fights this same horrid reality in Baltimore.
In some ways a large city is a microcosm of life. Our stories are always deeper and more layered than we show on the surface, and the ‘beautiful lights’ sometimes mask the hiding we enter into for fear of being exposed and seen at our worst. Our ‘worst’ is always there. It isn’t that the beautiful stuff sometimes replaces the ugly things. So my tendency is to hide just like the next person.
But all along, I want to be found. I want to be found because deep within I know that unless I am seen and accepted at my worst, I can’t truly be loved, and I can’t feel whole.
This is our terrifying tension. We hide, but we want to be discovered. We want to be safe, but we want safety in truth and acceptance. We want to be clean but we feel safer in our guilt. Deep down we want someone to see our brokenness and love us in spite of the wreckage.
In some way, this is why I rest in the Sovereignty of a God who actually pursues and finds us before we have any inclination to care about Him. We are far too insecure to risk exposure.
So God finds us, in the darkest places we hide, and in Jesus He assures us that with complete clarity, He sees us and loves us as we are and have been, and that he has ‘drawn us with unfailing kindness’ (Jeremiah 31:3).
Friends, this is good news…
April 18, 2014 § Leave a comment
“The ‘problem of evil’ is not simply or purely a ‘cosmic’ thing; it is also a problem about me. And God has dealt with that problem on the cross of his Son, the Messiah… The cross is the place where, and the means by which, God loved us to the uttermost.” N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God
We will soon gather for our Good Friday service. There will be readings, song, prayer, silence, even incense, and then one of our pastors will nourish our souls as he reflects on Jesus and His Cross. One of the things that strikes me in the gospel is that it never gets old. Last month Katherine and I saw the Eagles in concert. This summer we will hear Billy Joel and James Taylor. We love these guys, and others like them. But sometimes as we are making our way home, we wonder out loud how many times they must have had to sing the same songs over and again through the decades, in countless venues around the world. How old that must get.
But not the gospel. No, it is fresh with each telling because every time we reflect on Christ’s great work we are freshly drawn into both the great price He paid and the amazing love He displayed on our behalf. At the heart of of John’s vision in the book of Revelation, is Jesus and His Cross. He is ‘the Lamb who was slain’ (5:12).
It is all so personal. In the Cross my sin was placed entirely on Jesus, the precious Lamb of God, our great High Priest and undefiled Sacrifice at one and the same time. The Father’s wrath was satisfied in the death of His very own Son, and my redemption was secured. I am forgiven. And with every retelling I discover new contours of my unworthiness and Christ’s amazing act of love, as though hearing it for the first time.
How else can we respond other than with Isaac Watts’ 1707 hymn, “Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.”
Such good news…
The Cross is the hope of Christians
The Cross is the resurrection of the dead
The Cross is the way of the lost
The Cross is the savior of the lost
The Cross is the staff of the lame
The Cross is the guide of the blind
The Cross is the strength of the weak
The Cross is the doctor of the sick
The Cross is the aim of the priests
The Cross is the hope of the hopeless
The Cross is the freedom of the slaves
The Cross is the power of the kings
The Cross is the water of the seeds
The Cross is the consolation of the bondmen
The Cross is the source of those who seek water
The Cross is the cloth of the naked.
We thank you, Father, for the Cross.
— 10th Century African Hymn
February 22, 2014 § Leave a comment
By now it should be obvious that some of my posts are last-second ideas that spring to life on the day of publication. Today is no exception. Sometimes this happens when I already have already written something else for Saturday, and others, well…
Each Saturday the goal is to arrive at my Starbucks somewhere between 8-9:00 AM following a few hours in the office. This is my writing groove, but today involved a hospital visit in between, and because of this the schedule was altered, which impacted parking more than anything else. Normally, to arrive at the mall by 10:15 AM is to be relegated to the second tier parking spots (translation: nothing close to the mall entrance), and for me that is like surrendering to the enemy.
So this morning, at 10:17 to be exact, I arrived at the mall, only to find the spot pictured in this post. It is not only near the mall entrance, but it is the best spot in the lot. If you notice in the photo, there is ice on the asphalt. Whenever we experience big snows, which we did two weeks ago, parking lots like this one are cleared, leaving huge piles of plowed snow-become-ice. Ironically the best spots disappear under the piles.
But today the sun is shining, and my guess is that when the ‘first-tier-parkers’ arrived early, it wasn’t available. However by the time I got there, it had melted away.
For me. Sweet.
You can’t follow Jesus for long before discovering, and then rediscovering that He turns every natural power grab on its head. One of them is our inclination to be first. Shockingly, the Creator of all that is, taught that in order to be first in His Kingdom, one has to be last (Matthew 20:16). It isn’t the only crazy twist Jesus put on life, but it is one of the biggies, and one He demonstrated with His atoning death on the Cross, and in what He modeled in His treatment of people every day. It is an invitation to entrust ourselves into the hands of a Father who loves us more than we could ever love ourselves. This can only free us give ourselves away and to love, without fear.
And it serves as an offer of hope to the weak, to the underprivileged, the poor, the disadvantaged, to those perpetually chosen last to be on the team, to the losers, the slow, the forgotten, the fragile, the marginalized, the broken, the discarded and to every man, woman and child who feels that life somehow got away from them.
What good news.
February 1, 2014 § 1 Comment
Ron Swanson, Parks and Recreation
This morning, upon entering the Mall at Columbia, the site of the unspeakable act of violence that resulted in the taking of three lives last Saturday, we were handed ribbons in order to join in unified sorrow, and to participate in a moment of silence at the time the shootings occurred.
Pain and sorrow exist in a broken world – and they always will until Jesus makes all things new, and everything is restored to what it was always intended to be. This is something we don’t naturally understand because pain is not written into our DNA. Deep within, we know that we were created to be whole, and pain threatens wholeness. It is a polluting element in a world that was intended to be filled with justice, flourishing and peace (this is captured in the Hebrew word ‘shalom’). We cry when we are sad, and ache when there is distress because pain, suffering and evil will never ‘fit’ our human impulses.
Unfortunately the Church’s response often comes in the form of judgment and isolation, although Jesus did just the opposite. Rather than condemn, He came to heal, and instead of insulating Himself in self-protective seclusion from pain and suffering – even sin – He embraced it to Himself.
So until He comes and makes everything new, sorrow, heartache and tragedy will always be part of the human experience, not because of sins, but because of the first sin, when the beauty, loveliness and glory of the Garden were violated by Adam’s rebellion.
But because Jesus (the scriptures call Him ‘the last Adam’) has come and has submitted Himself to the very rebellion and violence that brokered the fall, the curse has been broken forever. One day every remnant and memory of the fall will be eradicated from the human experience.
In the mean time the Church is called to something higher than self-righteous condemnation and self-preserving isolation. It is called to imitate Jesus, who entered into this world’s pain and sorrow, and to embrace the brokenness He embraced, when He came for us.
Can you think of any higher calling?
This is our good news.
December 7, 2013 § 1 Comment
“The goal of human existence is that man should dwell in peace in all his relationships: with God, with himself, with his fellows, with nature, a peace which is not merely the absence of hostility, though certainly it is that, but a peace which at its highest is enjoyment. To dwell in shalom is to enjoy living before God, to enjoy living in nature, to enjoy living one’s fellows, to enjoy life with oneself.”
Nicholas Wolterstorff, Reason within the Bounds of Religion
Until a fellow pastor taught me that God draws us into the shared brokenness that is our fallen world, I lived under the sad and selfish delusion that if all was right with me and mine, then that was enough. But this couldn’t be further from the teaching of the gospel and I will always be indebted to this dear friend because of his patient guidance.
Just this week Nelson Mandela died, and the free world grieves. It mourns because in his work to end Apartheid in South Africa something resonated within us. We were created to be free, and every person instinctively knows this to be true.
It is evident in the offerings of the culture (even in the DC store window pictured!). The best movies are redemptive. The sweetest writings echo compassion. The most passionate causes aim at justice. Even at Christmas I am freshly reminded of this in Stevie Wonder’s song, Someday at Christmas…
Someday at Christmas we’ll see a land
With no hungry children, no empty hand
One happy morning people will share
Our world where people care
This is the cry of the prophets, perhaps no more beautifully expressed than in Isaiah:
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
At Advent we freshly enter into the collective brokenness of our world with a longing for healing. Until Jesus makes everything new, even our joy is incomplete unless it is expressed through the embrace of a shared sorrow. After all, it was ‘the joy set before him,’ that is, it was the joy of a reconciled and redeemed new world, that sent Jesus to the Cross.
With this in mind, He captured our sorrows in His own, our sins upon Himself, and our future joy in His resolve.
What good news…
Truly He taught us to love one another
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name
Adolphe Adam, 1847
March 29, 2013 § 1 Comment
We call this day good – Good Friday. For Christ-followers it is the day we reflect on Jesus’ crucifixion. In a few hours we will have a simple Good Friday service, and together we will celebrate both the most terrible and the most beautiful of moments in human history.
“May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” – Galatians 6:14
Most terrible because it was a human injustice to put Jesus on the Cross. He committed no crime. He was sinless. He was God’s ‘spotless lamb.’ It was horrendous and humiliating for the Son of God to die a sinner’s death.
Most beautiful because it was for love.
“Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” John 15:13
Every image of deliverance and redemption in the scriptures were realized and fulfilled when Jesus died. God’s fierce rage towards sin was satisfied by the sacrifice of the Son He loves – for us. And in His death, we are forgiven.
This is our Feast.
How deep the Father’s love for us,
How vast beyond all measure
That He should give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure
How great the pain of searing loss,
The Father turns His face away
As wounds which mar the chosen One,
Bring many sons to glory
Behold the Man upon a cross,
My sin upon His shoulders
Ashamed I hear my mocking voice,
Call out among the scoffers
It was my sin that left Him there
Until it was accomplished
His dying breath has brought me life
I know that it is finished
I will not boast in anything
No gifts, no power, no wisdom
But I will boast in Jesus Christ
His death and resurrection
Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer
But this I know with all my heart
His wounds have paid my ransom
By Stuart Townend
March 4, 2013 § 1 Comment
N.T. Wright, For All The Saints
Forgive a belated post. I spent the last five days in Atlantic City, New Jersey, with a team of nine that did restoration work in a community ravaged by Hurricane Sandy. Three teams worked in three different homes, and one church. The before-and-after images of the homes two of the teams spackled, sanded and painted had to bring unexpected delight to the folks whose living spaces were invaded by the storm’s violence.
The team I served on laid a kitchen floor after stopping a radiator leak, first by constructing a sub-floor. The project involved a healthy chunk of time measuring and re-measuring every contour of the floor’s layout, then in cutting large blanks of thin plywood (sub-floor), gluing, driving screws, rolling, and then gluing again in order to situate the new floor into place.
For us novices, this installation was a two-and-a-half day project. Those who spackled, sanded and painted would say the same. Paid professionals would knock this stuff out in no time. We were doing our part.
It will be years before Jersey and other affected states are able to finally put the storm behind them. More remains to be done than has already been accomplished. This is the way of such devastation.
But it is also the way of healing.
As we debriefed one evening, it occurred to us that this is the way the Gospel enters, in the way Jesus would simply enter into a town or village, and brings flourishing into brokenness, at every level – a heart, a life, a home, even a community. You can break it down further: Injured marriages, failing cities, broken relationships and damaged memories all heal in the same way.
Even if one could point to a moment, it is rare that everything happened in a particular instance. No, it is normally after many dynamics converge into a quantifiable point in time. This after brokenness was unearthed, damage was acknowledged, and deep need and despair were felt. The sub-floor of brokenness.
And then, healing came.
When we enter into a broken community, or start a new church, or encourage a hurting neighbor, we do what the gospel does – we come to them, not to fix (because we can’t), but to enter into a greater narrative in God’s work of healing the whole world.
Last week, in the process we met friends we may never again see until the Feast. But for them, and for us, the gospel had come in a fresh and beautiful way – to all of us, just as it always does – with salvation and healing, hope and renewal.
It comes to a world that will remain unfinished, a world populated with people equally incomplete – until Jesus finishes what He has inaugurated – until He satisfies every yearning, heals every neighborhood and reconciles every broken part of His good creation.
And this just floors me…
It is the good news.