October 17, 2015 § Leave a comment
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” Jesus, Matthew 5:7
I recently had the privilege of visiting with the Senior Vice President of World Relief’s North American operation. World Relief is a global non-profit organization, based in Baltimore, and committed to caring for the weak and needy around the world, whether for orphans, for immigrants, for victims of natural disaster, or those lost in the horrors and brutality of human trafficking. Years ago, when our church in Miami planted a church in ‘Little Havana,’ the ‘landing place’ for many immigrants from Latin America, World Relief had an office where we started the work. That office remains today, and as you can imagine, has processed innumerable refugees through the years, offering legal advice, guidance for green cards, citizenship, etc.
At the heart of World Relief’s mission is the gospel’s call to the Church with the singular thrust that the strong have been made – by God – stewards of the weak. I am convinced that if the Church fails, all is lost. Every other system that attempts to care for the poor, the weak and the underprivileged has some underlining political agenda that eventually fails the very people they attempt to serve, and often lines the pockets and reputations of those who champion these causes.
World Relief’s Vision Statement is Stand/For The Vulnerable.
Last night Katherine and I shared a meal with a young couple that is committed to mentoring young people from Baltimore’s Inner City whose lives are racked with heartache, brokenness and poverty. They give what they can: safe harbor, school clothing and supplies – and love. They stand for the vulnerable.
This morning I ran into one of our Members (okay it was at Dunkin Donuts – what can I say?). He leads a team that regularly meets with folks at New Song Church in Sandtown, the neighborhood ravaged by fire and riots earlier this year. New Song drives the agenda, but together they are working through ideas to generate commerce in the neighborhood so that the dollar will remain there, and hopefully begin to break the pattern of violence, hopelessness and sorrow that most of us in the burbs can’t fathom possible. They stand for the vulnerable.
We have a friend in Miami who, when she and her family attended a downtown church, for years, drove an hour away from her home, to the slums of Little Haiti, to bring children to church and later that week to Youth Group. In between she and her husband kept in touch, provided for needs and loved well. They stood for the vulnerable.
‘Blessed are the Merciful,’ was Jesus version of, ‘Blessed are they who stand for the vulnerable.’ Every word, action and encounter exemplified this during His ministry, all the way to the Cross, where He died for us – the vulnerable.
Who more than Christians, know the relief of being forgiven a debt one could never repay?
We have been given much – in order to be to the world what Christ has been to us. It really is that simple. And when those we serve feel our touch, it will be as though they have encountered Jesus Himself.
What good, hopeful news…
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…
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.
October 11, 2014 § 10 Comments
Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge
A friend died this week. The truth is that I can barely write these words without weeping. It isn’t merely that a friend passed away, but someone who was so convinced that God is a generous God, that he became one of the most generous people I’ve ever known.
While alive Lewis never wanted people to know the extent of his generosity. To look at him, he would be the last person you would assume this of. His daily garb was a white or light blue guayabara, slacks and a shirt pocket full of pens, notepad and a cell phone. He evoked a semblance more like that of John Madden than some polished mogul.
Yet Lewis was a pioneer in the cruise line industry, the owner and developer of one of the most successful food service companies in the business.
Somewhere in his journey, Lewis met Jesus and through the guidance of his pastor (and my mentor), he learned that the Kingdom of God is worthy of our lives, our hearts – and our resources. So he became someone who gave generously – to the Church – to Missions organizations – to Missionaries – to Christian schools – to Community Projects – to out-of-work strangers – to struggling single-parent families – to drug rehabs – to ministers – to widows – all the while believing that he could never out give God.
All of this, Lewis did, joyfully and secretly behind the scenes. Even when he and his wife lost their college-aged son to a rare heart condition, his faith was unwavering in the midst of his unspeakable grief.
As his pastor, each year I would be the recipient of an envelope stuffed with thousands of dollars that he wanted for me to anonymously distribute to people in need – no tax write-offs – no publicity – no recognition – just gifts. I’ll never forget knocking on the door of a single mom who was barely making it, to say, ‘Merry Christmas from someone who cares, and who loves the Lord,’ and the look of joyful amazement on her face. That indeed made my Christmas very merry.
This doesn’t even scratch the surface.
That was Lewis. He didn’t do it to be noticed or even thanked. In fact this may be the first public mention of his generosity. He quietly served on boards, embraced ministries, visited widows, ate with outcasts and befriended the lonely – just as Jesus did.
And I guess what I’m getting at is this: In his liberality Lewis discovered his life. He wasn’t generous to impress or to prove anything, and he would be the first to admit to being unfinished and broken. No, Lewis gave because he was free. He truly found himself in giving himself away.
I am going to miss Lewis – our annual phone conversations and predictions about the Hurricanes’ football program, and our deep talks about life and loss and faith and heaven. Because fortunately, in the mix of ministry and life, I was blessed to discover Lewis’ greatest value to be that of friend.
And now he is home, reunited with his son, and his generous Savior, Lord and Friend, Jesus.
What good, sweet news…
September 7, 2013 § Leave a comment
“When we die, we lose whatever grip we had on our unreconciled version of our lives. And when we rise at the last day, the only grip in which our lives will be held will be the reconciling grip of Jesus’ resurrection. He will hold our lives mended, cleaned, and pressed in his hand, and he will show them to his Father. And his Father, seeing the only real you or me there is to see, will say, ‘Wonderful! Just what I had in mind.’ He will say over the Word’s new creation of us at the last day exactly what he said over the Word’s first creation of us on the sixth day: ‘Very good!'”
Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment
The picture in this post was taken from the top outer deck at M&T Bank Stadium as a friend and I headed home from a Baltimore Ravens pre-season game. I love going to the games (hint, hint, not-so-subtle hint! H-I-N-T!!!).
As with my home City, Baltimore has a breathtaking skyline. To approach Baltimore from I-95 is a spectacular experience. It emerges from the water, with steeples, fly-overs, old and new buildings, constructed from brick, glass and concrete. Katherine and I still remember driving through Baltimore in 1984, because of the huge smoke stack that has the word, ‘BALTIMORE’ painted sideways, up and down the entire cylinder.
The other night, as we walked down that ramp, a train moved beside the stadium (something else I love), and spray painted on one car were the words, ‘No Hope.’ Baltimore has a lot of pain and pathos as well as beauty. And this is who we are. In some way, we are like cities with beautiful skylines. However within the beauty are things that aren’t so pretty: our sin, our wounds, our scars, our regrets, our shame – you name it, the list is a long one.
Our instinct is to not only hide this, but to generate the impression that it doesn’t even exist! But it does, and to hide only erodes us internally and diminishes God’s lovely work of grace within us. Friends, this isn’t what God wants – or likes. The gospel restores our native value and beauty (theologians call this the image of God) as we let go of the need to have it all together, in reality, and in appearances. And amazingly, it gives us permission to be concurrently restored while also a mess – until Jesus comes. In fact part of what makes our restored selves so beautiful to an observing world, is that we belong to a God that loves us on the skyline and deep into the pathos of the City.
What good news…
July 20, 2013 § 5 Comments
“I read somewhere that a thing that does not exist in relation to anything else cannot itself be said to exist.” Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
The trees pictured here are from my old neighborhood, in fact the home on the left corner is the one I grew up in. Forty years ago our dad, my brothers and I, along with other dads and their teenage children planted these trees as seedlings. The work was hard and dirty – and it cost us two weekends. But it was never intended to serve us alone. It was meant for generations that will follow long past our lifetimes.
Isaac’s journey came to mind as I prepared to reenter the blogosphere after a break and some redesign. He was Abraham’s son, and at some point in his life as an adult, Isaac found himself back in the land his dad once owned – it would one day become Israel. Upon arrival his first task was to dig wells in order to establish a usable water supply (Genesis 26). As he surveyed the land, he discovered old ones his father had dug years before, some working, and others not. Rather than build all new wells, he wisely recommissioned the ones that still functioned.
Such is the story of our lives as Christ-followers. Who we are now is in some way shaped by all who have gone before us, along with our every experience, which in turn somehow shapes those who will follow – like trees that line a neighborhood.
The video below is from the Paul McCartney concert Katherine and I attended the other night in DC. For me, a former Beatles freak, it was one of those bucket-list moments – what a thrill! The Long and Winding Road paints a beautiful picture of an entire lifetime.
Listen, our past helps to shape us, but because of Jesus it doesn’t have the power to fully define us – Isaac’s story reassures us that we don’t have to fix every broken well, and we can enjoy the ones that still work!
Here is my cheap advice: Don’t think so much in terms of any one given moment in your story, or you will either drive yourself crazy with things you can’t change, or drive everyone away with foolish self-promotion. Instead, think of yourself as being on a road – a long and winding road, one that will take you where you were always intended to be. This puts everything into perspective, good and bad.
Sorrow, regrets, shame, broken dreams and sins long ago committed, even successes, all have a way of distorting how we remember our lives, and this easily leaves us feeling disconnected from something larger… something better. But worse, they rob us of the big story – the story that extends past and before us – the story of Jesus the Redeemer who entered into the pain and brokenness of the fall, and into our unfinished lives, with a resolve to heal our broken world and make everything new. It becomes a story He retells through the prism of the Cross and the triumph of the Resurrection – and every time – every time, friends – the story ends well.
What good news.
grace & peace.
February 2, 2013 § Leave a comment
Ruth Tucker, Walking Away From Faith
With Super Bowl XLVII just days away, the excitement and anticipation have built to a fevered pitch in the Greater Baltimore region. So pardon the simple musings of lifelong sports fan. Along with family and friends, I have entered into the excitement – much to the surprise of those who have known me for many years to be an avid, make that rabid, Oakland Raiders fan.
A simple visit to my office will reveal various Raiders paraphernalia, including my treasured, framed poster of the 1969 Oakland Raiders, the season Daryl Lamonica threw 34 touchdown passes and won the AFL MVP. My Dad secured this particular picture by writing to Al Davis, the Raiders’ owner, on Eastern Airlines letterhead. I could probably list every significant play, win, loss, player (including number) and moment in Oakland Raiders history. And I’ll never believe that Franco Harris’ immaculate reception/touchdown was legitimate!
So why allegiance to the Ravens?
The answer is simple – Because we live in Baltimore. In nearly seven years I have grown to love what this city loves, including its teams, its Inner Harbor, its food (translation: crabs, crab cakes & Old Bay crab seasoning), and most importantly, its people. I’m from Miami and love that city, though friends will argue that I never loved the Dolphins, which is true. But in 7th Grade you go for the coolest uniform, and no team’s uni was cooler than the Raiders’. I digress…
Years ago I had the joy of working with Rev. Bruce Reynolds in youth ministry – He and his wife Jeanette hailed from Baltimore. They were Baltimore everything, from the Orioles to the Colts (long time ago!). Bruce is now involved in a ministry of humor, faith and encouragement for churches, clubs and corporations. Neither would have dreamed they would settle in Florida, and we in Maryland. Not to mention that lifelong friend in life and ministry, Ray Cortese (also a Miamian), was as passionate for the Baltimore Colts as I was the Raiders. His Johnny U poster hung in our college dorm room.
It is worth mentioning that several players for the Ravens played at the University of Miami (the U) while we lived in South Florida – players we watched compete in the old Orange Bowl. And amazingly, one player for the San Francisco 49ers played at Katherine’s and my alma mater, Belhaven College.
In my simple universe there has to be something to this.
I think it is that the contours, shifts and transitions we face and experience are about a story God weaves us into during the course of our entire lives. People, places, interests and affections are never static. Neither is faith. We are put into particular settings just when God wants us there. And for His own reasons, whether to grow our faith, to insert us into another’s life, or for purposes we may never know, He is knitting us into a sweet narrative that before we would not have imagined – a picture we would never have recognized – with all the sounds, sights, smells, encounters, faces – yes, even teams – that help complete His work on the canvass that is our lives.
The apostle Paul saw himself as ‘becoming all things to all men,’ believing that being situated in diverse contexts and cultures enabled him to ‘do all this for the sake of the gospel…’ (1 Corinthians 9:19-23) – The temptation is to see this is as something God does through us for others, and undoubtedly this is part of what Paul is saying. But I’m not so sure it is only that. Could it be that He is working the gospel into us as well? I’m certain He is. And my guess is that wherever Paul was, at any moment, he was completely at home.
So my encouragement is to stop fighting and enjoy. Figuring out God’s reasons is like counting the stars – it ain’t going to happen! We’re way too linear to understand God’s plans for our lives. And every attempt to do so robs us of the joy of the moment.
And I guess this is my point. Wherever you are, for whatever reasons, God put you there, and through you He intends to be someone else’s good news, and they yours…
Go Ravens! (and Oakland, please, PLEASE, deal with your offense!)…
December 22, 2012 § 2 Comments
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound… Isaiah 61:1
I nearly subtitled this, ‘the post I hoped to offer before Christmas.’ Yesterday, a young man – a Marine – who was unjustly imprisoned since August of this year, Jonny Hammar, was released from a Mexican jail. Words fail to express the relief and joy that fills our hearts, and the hearts of many who are counted among the Hammars’ family and friends. With Jon, Olivia, Katie, and of course, Jonny, we rejoice.
As we celebrated yesterday, following an early-morning text of the good news, and since, I have been taken afresh to that stable where Jesus was born. Amazing. God was born. Divinity wrapped in humanity.
Jesus came and laid aside His divine prerogative, subjecting Himself to human limitation. Restrained in flesh. The Eternal One bound in time and space. Confined and imprisoned by geography, seconds, minutes, hours, years – a human lifespan. Omnipotence reduced to complete dependence.
Who would have thought this – that a little newborn would be mankind’s Liberator? Who could have guessed that a vulnerable and needy baby would one day ‘deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery’ (Hebrews 2:15)?
With our joy over Jonny’s release comes a continuing sorrow over those parents in Newtown, CT, whose sons and daughters will not be home for Christmas, and with others who continue to suffer the effects of violence and natural disaster. This sobering reality will never leave us, and our joy is always tempered by the harsh realities of life in a fallen world.
But with Jesus tragedy isn’t the last word. Don’t let the vulnerability of this baby be confused with timidity. That tender one is the Creator and Sustainer of all things. He came to wreck the broken order of a fallen world. Be comforted by a reality that transcends tragedy, lifespans and sorrow.
Friends, in Jesus God has come to liberate unfinished and desperately bound-up prisoners from their enslavement to sin, fear and death. His resurrection insures that even the ugliest expressions of the fall are no match for Him. And He has done this in the most personal of ways – not as a distant, indifferent deity, nor as an imposing and terrifying brute, but as a newborn who was destined to willingly shed His own blood in the violent sacrifice of His life, to bring Redemption, even for our tears.
Such good news.
Welcome home, young man.
Come quickly, Lord Jesus.
December 14, 2012 § 1 Comment
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to you, O Israel!
This morning Katherine and I left for Pensacola, Florida to attend our daughter Emily’s college graduation, to be held tomorrow. Within hours we will be reunited with all of our children, including our daughter-in-law, and Katherine’s sister and brother-in-law, so you can imagine the joy that filled our hearts in anticipation of the weekend together when our jet took off. However by the time it touched down, 27 people, including 20 children under the age of 10, had been senselessly and violently murdered by a gunman who then took his own life, in Newtown, Connecticut.
I have no answers, only anguish and devastation. My heart is heavy. Before I am a pastor I am a husband and dad, as well as an often-confused Christ-follower. This shouldn’t happen – but in a fallen world it does, and will again. Even as I write, our dear friends in Miami await their unjustly imprisoned son’s release from a Mexican jail. And this on the heels of a mall shooting in Happy Valley, Oregon that left two victims dead and one critically wounded, along with the shooter, earlier this week.
After the initial sense of horror, we were filled with profound thankfulness for our children’s wellbeing, but also an even deeper sorrow, realizing that we will celebrate something with our daughter that these parents never will with their babies. Throughout their entire lives we have prayed for our children and their safety. We prayed when they would fall asleep in their cribs, when they began to walk and put everything in their mouths, while baby sitters were watching them, when they first learned to drive, and every time they were on the road after and since. We prayed for them when working late, walking in parking lots, in classrooms, on flights, and while in college. All along knowing that ultimately we are not in control and have absolutely no way of protecting them – that their world is just as fallen as ours – that their lives are just as fragile.
And now young dads and moms will have to identify their precious ones who will not be able to respond to their expressions of love and tenderness, nor dry their tears. Somehow these dear folks will have to figure out how to make sense out of the rest of their lives.
It is Advent. We long. We wait for violence and death and rage and illness and sadness to be gone forever, when Jesus comes to heal our damaged world and make all things new, where everything that is wrong is transformed into what it was created to be.
Our consolation is Jesus. We don’t hold on to something – we cling to someone, and only a Father, whose Son died so violently and publicly – for us – can both comprehend our deep longing, and understand our profound sadness.
And while we wait, the One who entered into our brokenness, has given us one another – to celebrate, to love, and yes, to weep, comfort and be devastated – together. He has also put us in this world, and permits and desires for us to mourn with those we don’t know – To love those we haven’t met – And embrace those we can’t touch.
So today, and every day, no answers. Tomorrow, with great joy we will celebrate our precious Emily. When she walks across the stage and receives her diploma, we will look at her in the context of what transpired today. We will weep with a deep joy for every memory and this mixed with a profound sadness for others who may never know such gladness.
Until Jesus comes, I think this is the way it is supposed to be…
Come quickly, Lord Jesus.
December 9, 2012 § Leave a comment
Currently there is a nationally televised Home Depot commercial that has caught my attention. It features people being helped, in every department – by Santa Claus, of all people! If you pay attention to the ad, you will see that at least one of the Santas is named ‘Noel.’ It is written in that black Sharpie kind of way on the apron that adorns every local Home Depot employee. (Chevrolet has a similar ad, but Santa’s nametag is ‘Nick’).
I love this TV spot, not only because of its creativity, though I am shallow enough for that to be sufficient, but also because one of the Santas is a personal friend. In fact, he is a fellow pastor and church planter in South Florida.
Steve Lantz is an amazing guy. He and Lynda, his wife of nearly two years, are expecting their first child in April. Because Lynda was the Campus Crusade for Christ Director for the West Chester University in the Greater Philadelphia area I had the privilege of meeting her soon before they married when she and Steve drove through Maryland. This past year they worshiped with us as well.
Steve has lived with the kind of longing that Advent focuses on. It is the hope of Jesus, and a vision for something that will one day be – something good – that in His coming, what has been empty will once again be to overflowing, and what has been broken will eventually be mended.
Part of how Steve raises funds is through acting. Early in his ministry he took classes in order to supplement his income while he mapped out his dream. For eight years he has served as the Chaplain for the Booker T. Washington High School Football team in Miami (and recently the State Champions), a job that pays little in spite of its own rewards. And he has worked as a short order cook in Downtown Miami.
He is driven by a vision for working among the poor and watching the gospel cause the Overtown neighborhood and community to flourish as a result of the justice, presence and power of Jesus in Miami.
I have found that it isn’t until I am willing to go ‘there,’ that is, to enter into the pain, whether in relationships, personal tragedies, or seasons of sorrow and doubt, that I really begin to connect as an agent of consolation and renewal.
There is something in all of us that is natively resistant to pain and suffering, but the gospel always draws us to enter into our world’s brokenness as Christ did in His Incarnation, so that we may be as tender with its pathos as Jesus is and has been to ours.
His willingness to do so is our Good News.
And that goes for Santa Claus too…
PS Here is a letter Steve put out last month, that describes all he is doing.