August 16, 2014 § 38 Comments
“Robin Williams attended City Church in fall of 2006 when I was preaching through the Apostle’s Creed. He confessed the faith of the church and shuffled up for communion with everybody else needing grace. He was always kind to those around him. I know from other friends of his in the Bay Area what a generous, humble, and charitable man he was and his death saddens me greatly today. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.”
Fred Harrell, Sr. Pastor, City Church San Francisco
Robin Williams’ death has rocked me. Yes, I’m a Christ-follower and minister, and in God’s story, no one person is greater or better than the next. He was addicted to alcohol – I know this too. And I already know that suicide is not only an act of desperation, but also one of selfishness.
All this is true, and more. But for some reason, in the brilliant offerings and characters of this extraordinary comic and actor, it is as though Williams’ sorrows somehow connected with my own. Whether a magnificent iconoclastic English teacher, a distant Dad reminded of love and joy and family, a son who longed for the courage to face his own terrors – and father, or a caring Therapist, Williams drew me in like few have.
Through great writing, roles and directing – but also in his own pathos – Williams tapped into something deep within. When his heart broke over the suicide of one of his students in Dead Poets Society, it was real. When he finally refused to run from the hunter who chased him for years, in Jumanji, it was as though all of us finally grew up and stopped running. In Hook, when he told Jack, his son, that he was his ‘happy thought,’ my heart swelled for our own children.
I think it was more than acting, but a man who wanted to believe there is hope past one’s own sorrows and demons. I am sad for him and all who wrestle with the darkness of such depression that wrecks that hope.
Fortunately, as selfish, damaging or cowardly as it may be, for those who belong to Jesus, suicide holds no power over the gospel. It is a sin, but it isn’t unforgiveable, any more than my own cowardice, selfish ways and damaging actions. We believe that nothing can separate us from God’s love – not even us (Romans 8).
I am sure that when I was fresh out of seminary, and filled with self-righteous zeal, that I would have written some pietistic essay on why Williams could not have possibly entered the Kingdom, but I would have been wrong.
Instead, I am comforted by the words of his pastor, and my friend.
And though I didn’t know Robin Williams, I will miss him.
But better, and in spite of his flaws – and mine – I hope to one day see him – and you – at the Feast.
Wouldn’t that be sweet.
What good news…
August 9, 2014 § 1 Comment
“… ‘the problem of evil’ is not something we will ‘solve’ in the present world, and… our primary task is not so much to give answers to impossible philosophical questions as to bring signs of God’s new world to birth on the basis of Jesus’ death and in the power of his Spirit, even in the midst of ‘the present evil age.’”
N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God
What do we do with the world’s brokenness?
The manifestation of evil in the news is particularly horrific at this moment: the fighting in Gaza, the unspeakably sad slaughter in Iraq, Christians and unbelievers alike being executed for sport, with reports of crucifixions and beheadings, even of children. The spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa, injustices, whether the exploitation of the poor, the scandal of abortion, or the violence and revulsion of human trafficking and sex trade – all are appalling and disheartening. It is beyond tragic.
Yet amazingly, the gospel assures me that no effort to live out of God’s faithfulness from my little corner of the universe will ever be wasted on a world that desperately hungers for meaning and a vision of something better.
In the death and resurrection of Jesus I am assured that one day everything marred and wrecked by the fall will one day be restored to its intended beauty and loveliness.
This means that…
Indifference to the world’s suffering is not an option for those who love Christ, “who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age” Galatians 1:4). And Ignorance to the world’s brokenness is no excuse for those who live in the gaze of the Father’s daily care.
Sharing in the world’s sorrows means freshly recognizing every evil that causes it merely by looking in the mirror – only to rediscover the grace of God in our own brokenness.
Friends, what you do matters, insignificant as it may seem. Don’t let the enormity of evil and the world’s suffering dampen your hope and paralyze your intentions. Every true expression of the Faith. Each kindness. Every stranger received and enemy loved. Every sacrifice made. Every sin repented of. Every tear shed and prayer uttered – all matter, even if no one else notices, and in the belief that God has His supernatural way of multiplying our efforts, as with fish and loaves (John 6).
Hey, we can’t fix the world, but that’s no excuse for inaction, and in our simple offerings, we bear testimony to the One who can and will renew it, and our efforts signposts of God’s good world.
Even if they amount to no more than one beautiful flower in a dying bunch.
Christ has done no less.
Friends, we bear this good news…
August 2, 2014 § Leave a comment
“The most vulnerable thing we could ever do, the thing that requires the most courage and faith, is the key to freedom. We bring our nothing – accepting who we are by accepting who God is, what he has done and what he promises to do.”
J.R. Briggs, Fail
It was a treat to be invited by one of our Elders to the Baltimore Ravens’ training facility in Owings Mills a few weeks ago, which is by invitation only (as opposed to the larger venue at M&T Bank Stadium). Through another friend who works with the team, we were also permitted to enter into the complex and view the team’s two Super Bowl trophies.
What a thrill to be at field level watching these athletes. They are stunningly fast and observably sleek. Their movement is precise and seemingly effortless. When they strike the blocking machines you can almost feel the force from the stands.
Following practice the team autographed footballs, jerseys, posters and hats for the children. But we adults were equally awed with the event. Having grown up a sports fan, any brush with professional athletes has always been the coolest thing. I still feel like a kid when watching them practice, even though I am twenty-five years older than the oldest player on the team!
Yet what reached me most deeply was in observing our Worship Director and his twin sons. The photo at the top of this post really says it all – a Dad and his boys. They were his joy and the stars of his photographs.
Amazingly we enjoy no less pleasure from the heavenly Father, even more.
What a sweet picture of God and His people – a Father and His children. We are unfinished, and His love for us is complete. We are weak and He is strong. We get lost and He finds us. We are immature, and He is eternally wise. We obey imperfectly and He delights over us with singing, His lens ever fixed on us because of Jesus.
I know the tyranny of unbelief, how it creeps into our hearts and thinking, wrecking joy and imposing it’s own version of a twisted righteousness that is neither righteous nor beautiful. More than anything, it obscures us from the Father – and this is sad.
However to our sometimes despairing spirits and fearful hearts the gospel freshly announces to us that we are not orphans! Nothing Jesus did – on the Cross and in His Resurrection – is wasted. In Christ, we are God’s daughters and sons (John 1:12).
What good news…
July 19, 2014 § 3 Comments
“The ocean is a desert with its life underground and a perfect disguise above…”
America, A Horse with no Name
Nothing restores me like the ocean. The expanse of the waters, the sound of the waves, the warmth of the sun, the surf, the birds, the clouds, the ocean spray, the smell of the water, an occasional breach of the waters by dolphins, and just being there with Katherine – all do something good for my soul.
It is all so beautiful. You can stand in the same place every morning and get a completely different, and equally spectacular view.
But the sea is as treacherous as it is beautiful, filled with immeasurable depths, unlivable pressure levels, treacherous currents, pitch black darkness and terrifying creatures (especially sharks!). It separates people and countries, and throughout history it has swallowed ships and souls whole.
And it is in its beauty and terror that this magnificent expanse symbolizes God’s unfathomable mercy. The prophet Micah writes that God will one day ‘cast all our sins into the depths of the sea’ (Micah 7:19). He is using prophetic imagery to describe the extent to which God freely forgives.
But why the ocean? Why something so beautiful?
Why not hurl our sins into the depths of a chemical waste pit… or bury them at the bottom of a landfill? Why cast the ugliest of who we are into the loveliest of what God has created?
The answer is, because this is what God does. And this is what He has done – in Jesus.
We rebel and our sin is hideous. Yet in exchange, the Father gives us Jesus – not His creation, but His Son – the best of who He is, to take on the worst that we are.
In Jesus the Father has created for Himself a spectacular view that He delights in every day, in the way one would delight in the ocean as the sun rises and sparkles on the water, and as the gulls make their way across the canvas, and the waves gently invite us to drink in the beauty.
Don’t let the imagery be lost on you – it is far too wonderful. It isn’t that God blinds Himself of our brokenness, but that in Christ, our sin has been covered, engulfed as it were, under the deep waters of the Father’s compassion and the Son’s blood.
His Spirit testifies to ours that we are not only His children, but that we are the very thing He delights in, every day.
What good news…
July 5, 2014 § 4 Comments
It’s the end of the world as we know it
It’s the end of the world as we know it
It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine
Last evening Katherine and I enjoyed friends and fireworks in a Baltimore bedroom community known as Catonsville. Throughout the year this community raises money for the dual purpose of a local charity and for the sake of the Independence Day (July 4th) celebration. The production is spectacular. However due to an off-shore hurricane, a cool, windy evening made for a different kind of experience this year.
Throughout the event, the heavy cardboard casings, often still on fire, fell where we were sitting. Twice I helped extinguish small fires, and at one point a burning ember settled on our blanket!
Actually, it resulted in one of the most exciting fireworks shows we have ever been to. As we drove home, Katherine and I laughed, saying that the scene looked like one of those ‘end-of-the-world’ movies where fire rained down from the sky.
Later I thought, what if it were the end of the world?
There is a line in the movie, As Good as it Gets, where the lead character, Marvin Udall (played by Jack Nicholson) walks into the waiting room of his psychiatrist, and asks his fellow patients, “What if this is as good as it gets?”
I have found it easy to get lost in fear whenever I divide the value of my life by a short lifespan, when all along Jesus asserts that He is making everything new (Revelation 21:5), promising that this life is no less than a leg in an indescribably beautiful eternal journey.
Fear can be so dehumanizing, and our only hope for enjoying this life is to be shaped by the promise of what Jesus has secured in the resurrection and in what He is doing until He returns.
One day the world will end, (though hopefully not tonight!), but on our best day, this isn’t as good as it gets, and in God’s good world, Love always trumps fear (1 John 4:18).
So for now, we share in the very thing Jesus is doing until that day arrives.
I want what N.T. Wright says in his little book, The Lord & His Prayer</em> to be my prayer:
“Make us a community of healed healers; make us a retuned orchestra to play the Kingdom-music until the world takes up the song. Make us, in turn, Servants of the Lord, the few with the message for the many.”
What good news…
June 28, 2014 § Leave a comment
Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel
Last week Katherine and I were surprised to find a visitor on the edge of our patio – a rabbit was feasting on some weeds that grew in the mulch.
Apparently there is no strategy for preventing these unwelcome growths that find their way onto our small property – they just come. The flowers, trees and mulched areas may be impeccably cared for, but one weed, strategically sprouted, can make it all look trashy. So I’m constantly on the lookout.
But because of our new friend, we decided to give clemency to this small growth. Besides, it would provide a diversion from the flowers and plants at the front of our home. I suspect our visitor instinctively knows what I’ll do if it hurts those flowers (see below)…
Truth be told, I easily get consumed with the weeds in my own life, whether past mistakes or present struggles. That subtle but insidious perfectionism is always there, and it is a sick breeding ground for my soul.
At times the Church hasn’t helped. We have heard phrases like, ‘the overcoming life,’ and have been made to constantly feel spiritually inadequate, though the gospel teaches that it is God’s love that cannot be overcome.
In his fine book, Messy Spirituality, Mike Yaconelli writes, “…the truth is, we are a mess. None of us is who we appear to be. We all have secrets. We all have issues. We all struggle from time to time. No one is perfect. Not one…”
Interestingly, Paul taught that ingratitude was a vital component in the fall (Romans 1:21), and that for the Christ-follower, a sure cure for a self-consumed heart, is a thankful heart (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
I have to believe this to be part of the reason God allows weeds we can’t eradicate, because ultimately an obsession with perfection, when unmasked, is no less than an ungrateful rejection of one’s need for Christ’s sacrifice. The fact is that there are some weeds that need to remain. They’re ugly, and they won’t follow us into heaven. But amazingly, the flaws and struggles we carry have their own value that only God can determine.
Paul concluded that he would, “…boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)
The question is this: Will we trust the Father with our own imperfect selves and stories as they play out?
If your answer is that you want to but that you can’t, then you’re starting to get it.
And this, friends, is good news…
June 7, 2014 § Leave a comment
Rufio, ‘Lost Boy’ to Peter Pan in Hook
If you have ever simultaneously known exactly where you were, and at the same time were completely lost, then you understand how I felt the other day in downtown Baltimore. After parking, I began to walk in the direction of a hospital where one of our Members was recovering from surgery. However in spite of the fact that I was headed on the right street towards the building I knew to be two blocks away, at some point I realized that I had no idea where I was!
The buildings were so tall that I couldn’t see anything other than structures immediately in front of me, and I got disoriented. Fortunately a nurse who was obviously headed to the same hospital, pointed to the building next to us when I inquired as to its location.
Yes, it was that close.
There are correlations with the Christian journey. I can know the direction, the rules, the promises, and everything else about a given situation, but then still find myself lost, missing the point. Strangely it often seems as though it is when I’m following the rules and walking rightly (according to my standards, of course) that I am most unnerved when things don’t add up, because everything inside of me says that God owes me for my presumed goodness.
Eventually this flawed thinking prevented Moses from entering the Promised Land (don’t worry, his story ended good!). God had used him in leading His people, but rather than see his own relative weakness, Moses presumed himself to be more than he was, and in doing so, he got lost – in plain sight.
I do too.
In other words, my self-righteousness is exposed, and I am utterly (and mercifully) derailed, until freshly reminded that the rules have never been the story…
…Living in His delight is.
Ironically, it is the admission of our inability to wrap our arms around life and faith and righteousness that we become unloosened from those terrible chains of perfectionism and self-consumption, and begin to understand the gospel’s beauty – that God is a Father who desires us more than we could ever keep up.
And that is very good news, friends…
May 10, 2014 § 2 Comments
Eugene Peterson, Leap Over A Wall
Earlier this week I flew in to Alabama to fish with old college buddies in the mountains on Lake Guntersville. The thing is, I don’t fish. Though we were raised in Florida, fish wasn’t in our diet, and fishing was not part of our routine. And then there is the whole matter of cricket (bait) guts…
Strangely, one needs a license to fish. To the uninitiated this seems unnecessary. Our whole lives we have been told that there are ‘plenty of other fish in the sea,’ but I guess that was just a parent’s ploy to ease a broken (dumped) heart… I digress.
Anyway, my friends fish, so I fished. And I’m glad (I even learned how to fly fish and can’t wait to try again).
But for me it was the sweet experience of being gathered into a community of friends who added a dimension to my life that would not otherwise exist.
To great measure this is the value of friends, because we are not only unfinished, but also incomplete, and God uses these sometimes awkward, always imperfect relationships to add valuable layers to our otherwise one-dimensional lives.
Jesus makes a profound statement to His disciples on the night of His arrest when He says, ‘I have called you friends’ (John 15:15). It hearkens to something we find in Exodus 33:11, ‘God spoke to Moses, face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.’
This verse has always blown me away, because regardless of how theologians will parse and explain (and sometimes ruin) these words, what they tell me is that God desires more than a Creator-creature relationship with the human race – but friendship.
Have you ever considered what the disciples may have brought to Jesus that He otherwise would not have had, had they not been in His life?
Listen, I’m not trying to be irreverent here but I’m saying that God created us to be relational beings, starting with our relationship with Him! He takes great delight in fellowship with His creation, and as it winds its way through the course of shared experiences, trials, learning moments and seasons of building up faith, in the scriptures it is ultimately distilled – to Friendship.
Let that sink in a bit (and if it doesn’t sink, I know how to put a weight on your line).
It really is good news.
May 3, 2014 § 2 Comments
Craig G. Bartholomew, Where Mortals Dwell
Each Saturday morning I spend a few hours in the Starbucks at our local mall. If you have followed this blog for any time then you know that I refer to it as ‘my Starbucks.’ It is an affectionate term for a ‘place’ that has become part of my own weekly rhythm, replete with familiar faces. There is the manager who only ever wears short pants, even on winter’s coldest days. He hid patrons and staff in the back room when gunshots rang throughout the mall earlier this year. An older English gentleman who teaches yoga in apartment communities is a regular, and sings along whenever old Rock & Roll plays. The other day he stumped me on a Donovan song (though he wasn’t entirely certain it was Donovan). There is an environmental engineer who is on a personal search for life and faith. We talk weekly, and can finally remember each other’s names. And then there is the young cop, a Member of our church, whose beat includes the Mall. He often meets with other officers at my Starbucks, and when he does, we embrace and catch up on his wife and little children.
Having spent our early years in Youth Ministry, Katherine and I learned that it was important to look out for young people who seemed ‘out of place.’ They were lonely and didn’t quite fit into the categories their fellow students had established for that ‘community.’ Forcing acceptance was the worst thing we could do for either party because finding one’s ‘place’ is more about coming to terms with who we are before Christ. That isn’t an easy thing to teach young people, much less to embrace for ourselves.
Jesus’ promise to be with us ‘always’ (Matthew 28:20) is more than a kind parting sentiment. It is the radical promise that ‘place’ was never intended to be a moving target dictated by social status, personal wealth or religious savvy, but in a relational reality that transcends time, space and circumstance. Because of Jesus, every location in which we find ourselves, whether a coffee shop, a sanctuary, a brewery, a prison or a home – is sacred… because He is there.
Jesus is our Place, and this means that regardless of where our journey takes us, we belong…
What good, sweet news.
April 26, 2014 § Leave a comment
Tim Keller, Every Good Endeavor
If you have seen the Corona TV ads over the past few years then you know that the most recent comes with the tag line, ‘Find Your Beach.’ The point of the ad is that regardless of where one lives, if they find their ‘groove,’ then they will have found their ‘beach,’ whether in a desert, a ski slope, or of course, on the coast.
The drive for significance runs deep in the human design. We were created with dignity, yet in a broken world this has been injured. Our natural inclination is to aim for greatness and recognition in order to recover our value. But of course this pursuit always leads to unending dissatisfaction, because dignity is a moving target when it is dependent on other fallen vessels.
In his fine book on work, entitled, Every Good Endeavor, Tim Keller reminds us that in the Old Testament God is seen as a gardener and in the New Testament, as a carpenter. What he wants us to understand is that our dignity is not wrapped up in relative greatness, but in participating ‘with God in his creativity and cultivation’ of a world that Keller calls the ‘forerunner of the new heavens and new earth’ wherever He has placed us.
While every instinct within us is to find value in comparison, wealth, fame and recognition, the gospel invites us look to Jesus. When we do, we discover a King and Creator who, in His mission to redeem us, was bestowed greatness, not by lunging for power, but by laying it aside and humbling Himself, taking on weakness in the form of servanthood (Philippians 2:5-11).
Being from South Florida, I used to think that you needed at least a half-acre of property to have a beautifully landscaped home. But since moving back to town home life (where Katherine and I began our journey), I have discovered, much to my delight, that all one needs is a corner.
Trust me when I say that everything you need for a significant life is found in Jesus, exactly where you live.
Friends, find your corner, and flourish…