September 23, 2020 § Leave a comment
“At times I am tempted to lose heart. But my good Shepherd is leading me toward life, not death…”
David Pawlison, Safe and Sound: Standing Firm in Spiritual Battles
Several of us were saddened the other day to learn that a pastor friend’s next-door neighbor had taken his own life. He didn’t know why, other than the fact that earlier this year his marriage ended in divorce. I can’t help but think that our current pandemic has figured into such narratives. Statistically, depression and anxiety are rising, as people have to process the uncertainty of work, isolation, family care, and daily life, in a time of COVID-19.
As believers, we are not immune to human frailty. Jesus said that the rain falls on the just and unjust alike (Matthew 5:45). The world is broken, and whenever it suffers, we suffer with it. We are part of it.
What the scriptures teach is that we share a hope that takes us beyond the pathos of the moment – or even a lifetime.
It reveals that misplaced hopes will end in disappointment, even tragedy. And that making lesser things everything cheapens the undiminished hope of the gospel.
This is why, for me, and others in ministry, it is difficult to stomach health-and-wealth ministers that promise material abundance and miraculous healing, often as they exploit the weak, while padding their bank accounts.
Growing up, our neighbor contracted Leukemia. She went to a famous faith healer’s revival meeting, and came home convinced that she no longer had the disease. But she did, and eventually it took her life.
Did it ever occur to you that every person Jesus healed has since passed away? Obviously those healings were intended for a purpose other than lives that would never be interrupted by death or disappointment.
And they were – They served as snapshots of something far more visionary, beautiful, lasting, and hopeful than one’s lifespan.
The quote above is taken from the last chapter of a book that David Pawlison wrote as he was dying of pancreatic cancer. At the time, he was serving as the President of CCEF, the Counseling Center out of Glendale, PA, that has most imprinted our church’s Life Counseling Center.
In the chapter he writes…
“Now more than four decades later [since trusting Jesus], I am staring death in the face. Instead of my faith failing, the promise of a new heart holds true. God is still shining into the darkness of my heart to give me the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”
In the chapter he cites a passage in 2 Corinthians 4 that I memorized one summer during a personal crisis:
“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (vss. 16-18)
The promise of the gospel is not that we can escape this world’s troubles. That would be far too short-sighted of God for His people, and would only carry them until the next heartache or disappointment.
No. We have been promised that when all is said and done, and we close our eyes in death, through Jesus, and in the power of his resurrection, the morning comes, with unending joy.
this is our good news…
grace & peace.
August 26, 2020 § 1 Comment
“It is important to note that our resources are spiritual… When I say that the church’s resources are spiritual, I mean that her resources have to do with the power and work of the Spirit of God.”
Irwyn L. Ince Jr, The Beautiful Community
Normally my Wednesday post goes out some time before 9AM, but not today. Adding final touches felt wrong, and when a Staff reminded us to pray for all that is going on in Wisconsin, it was obvious that I needed to enter in – though I will do so in more general terms, because I’m no expert and frankly I am wearied by all of the ‘solutions’ out there.
As you probably know by now, there was another shooting of a black man, Jacob Blake, by police officers, this time in Kenosha. It appears that Blake was attempting to help decelerate a domestic dispute he was not involved in, when the officers came on the scene. I deliberately say, ‘it appears,’ because there is always more data out there.
So it seems to me that it is time for some things to take place…
It is time to banish Characterizations to Hell – Whether you believe it or not, you have been shaped by a lifetime of characterizations – we all have. These characterizations are based on whatever shaped those who raised us and whoever else we have intersected with throughout our lives. They turn young people into racists, who have never had a bad experience with a person of another race. These characterizations make the police the bad guys, even if they have never so much as written an individual a speeding ticket. I’m not saying that people haven’t done horrible things, or that cops haven’t acted unjustly, but that we will always see ‘everything’ through the wrong lens, and respond wrongly when we fail to recognize the assumptions we carry into every situation we are in.
It is time to stop allowing the Mainline News Outlets to shape the Narrative – The truth is that we don’t know everything – or even most of everything that happens in most situations. And sadly, the mainline news outlets have political biases, along with the desperate need to sell advertising. Whether Conservative or Liberal, if your source of information is a news outlet, or some online blogger who embraces a political philosophy, then your information is second hand at best. We have become so connected electronically, that we assume that what we learn online must be true, but it probably isn’t.
It is time to Neutralize Politicians in the Issue – It is impossible to completely eliminate politics from the moment, but I would argue that politicians have been the single-most damaging element in our current situation, regardless of what side of the aisle your politics falls on. If we, as individual citizens, continue to leave our social well-being in the hands of political spin-doctors and party lines, then we deserve what we have in this Nation. It is time to demand that people in DC – in Congress – in the White House, along with our Governors and Mayors – grow up, put their big-boy pants on, stop hiding behind their desperation for re-election, and do their jobs, to accomplish something constructive for once!
It is time to ask if Modern-day Police forces are Over-Militarized – From what I understand, the war on drugs from the 80s was a turning point when we shifted from traditional Law Enforcement – When equipment, training, tactics, and orientation changed with Police forces across the country. This, not to mention laws that allowed for previously unsanctioned home entries in the name of drug prevention. Here’s the problem that is nagging at me: When I speak with individual Cops, they agree on the same things. They didn’t change the rules, and try to faithfully abide by what is put before them. And the best cops I know love the communities they settle into for extended periods of time. They want to know the people they care for, and they want to serve them in the traditional sense.
It is time to demand a Full Accounting of all Parties behind these City Riots – I believe in the power of protest. Nearly everyone I know does. However, the testimony of any people I have encountered that live in communities where there have been over-the-top, destructive riots has with one voice been condemned, along with the repeated affirmation that it was outsiders doing the damage. I have never met someone who wants their own neighborhoods and businesses to be destroyed! I was struck by what Julia Jackson, mother of Jacob Blake, the shooting victim in Kenosha, said: “If Jacob knew what was going on as far as that goes, the violence and the destruction, he would be very unpleased.” If you don’t care about the individuals and businesses that are hurt in this, then your concern isn’t justice, and violence will only escalate, as it has in Kenosha.
It is time for People to Come Together – I don’t even know what this would look like but I have never experienced resolution of a problem from polarized positions. And so, I have to believe that this isn’t going away until we get people together to listen, talk, shout, cuss, weep, and strive until there is some understanding for the way forward. Cops, People of Color, White People, Community Leaders, Pastors – You name it! Call me optimistic, but I don’t see any other solutions out there! Do you? We spend so much time speaking out of our own social and political bullet points that we don’t hear one another. It isn’t that every Black person is right and every White person is wrong, or vice versa. And eliminating the Police force is as ludicrous as it is terrifying. Come on!
It is time for the Church to be the Church – For the Church to be the Church, it has to live out of its calling as salt and light – to season the world with the embodied message of God’s grace, and to be a beacon to His mercy, ready to love, and armed with the weapons of the Spirit. The over-politicization of the church is scandalous! We serve a Savior who loves Liberals and Conservatives, and to whom we sing, “Every color, every size, they are precious in his eyes…” It is our job to love this broken world, and enter into its brokenness, with hearts of justice and peace, and as servants in Christ’s name. This means that we will make enemies from all sides. I would argue that we are not very effective unless we do. Conservatives will accuse us of being soft, and Liberals of being narrow. Entering in is apolitical, and exemplified in the life and ministry of Jesus, who has left his Spirit to empower us towards this end.
I don’t know about you, but I’m weary right now. The strife in our Nation is beating me down. It is hard to know who and what to believe. The noise is deafening. The violence, both in these shootings, and on city streets, is discouraging.
And I can’t see a solution apart from Jesus. He alone gives me hope…
grace & peace.
August 12, 2020 § Leave a comment
“Who shapes the very nature of your being from day to day?”
Robert Webber, the Divine Embrace
We love certainty, and we hate pain. Both are undeniably human, and they shape us more than we may realize.
We want to be able to foresee outcomes and determine whether they will be good or bad, before making decisions. At the heart of this is our preoccupation with control.
This preoccupation drives myriad decisions, all intended to manage disappointment. But living out of this rubric enslaves us to outcomes. It also robs us of the learning curves that accompany failure. Every successful person will tell you that they learned more from their failures than their successes.
The scriptures are loaded with examples of God’s people being instructed to head in one direction. The results of doing otherwise are almost always disastrous, and they are rooted in fear and control – refusing to believe that God can – or has the right to – determine what is best for one’s life.
The delusion of control is universal. We can actually convince ourselves to believe that if we maintain our grip, we can manage life’s expectations, while limiting disappointment. Christian bookstores used to be loaded with spiritualized self-help books – all aimed at one objective: to avoid pain! They ranged from raising perfect children, to overcoming temptation, protecting against failure, and conquering depression. Sadly, that’s the short list.
The carnage has been extensive, littering the ecclesiastical landscape with devastated parents, disenfranchised believers, confused sinners, indifferent young people, and angry Christians who rightly believe they have been sold a bill of goods.
“…though the Lord give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself anymore, but your eyes shall see your Teacher. And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it,’ when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left.” – Isaiah 30:20-21
Do you hear the reality in these words?! God doesn’t promise smooth sailing. He offers Himself, to guide us through.
But getting there is more than a declaration. It begins with admitting our unholy determination to be in charge, and takes us through the winding process of repentance over self-rule, and then continues by demanding the daily offering of our constant determination to take over, anchored in the belief that we are unconditionally loved by the Father.
The fact is that failure and pain are hardwired to our deeper fear of abandonment – of being unloved. But on the Cross, Jesus experienced both unfathomable physical torment and unthinkable desertion, and in his resurrection he purchased a life of peace – which is found, not in the madness and delusion of control, but by trusting God, who opens for us the gates of wholeness and unspeakable joy – in everything.
Only the gospel is our good news…
grace & peace.
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…
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.
September 6, 2014 § 1 Comment
Eugene Peterson, Leap Over a Wall
I want to be careful with this post, because the intention is not to tap into the popular cry against ‘religion.’ Through brilliant and thoughtful friends in ministry I am learning that some of the symbols of the Faith are important for the experience of deepening faith. So you’ll have to go elsewhere to learn whether or not Jesus was religious.
If we are serious about the Faith, then somewhere in our experience we will be confronted with the reality that platitudes and convenient religious categories disintegrate in the face of human suffering and pain. Sorrow, loss, tragedy and crumbling relationships all have a way of breaking down the superficial ideas we have of God and faith. The categories we often insulate ourselves in, fail when they are most needed, because they never were intended to nurture intimacy, but to avoid it, along with the vulnerabilities that accompany it. As a result they inhibit intimacy with God, and relegate one’s faith to a superficial expression.
And frankly, they break down because Jesus didn’t come to rescue us from pain and suffering in a fallen world. Regardless of what we sometimes hear in pulpits and on TV, Christianity is not an alternative to suffering. (that’s right, Victoria Osteen, you’re missing the point).
Throughout the past few weeks I have received e-mails and messages from people who have written in response to my post on Robin Williams’ death, and the follow-up post. The stories they have shared are excruciatingly painful and indescribably beautiful at the same time, because in them, their authors abandon self-protection, and in doing so they tap into the heart of the gospel which finds its richest expression precisely at intersection of death and life – in Jesus.
Everything about formulaic Christianity is aimed at self-protection. There is nothing real or beautiful in it. In our attempts to avoid pain and doubt and sorrow (or to over-emphasize them!), and all those other very real human expressions and experiences in a damaged world, we cheat ourselves of the one thing we most long for and need – Intimacy with God. Let’s be honest, it isn’t about enjoying God so much as it is about avoiding pain.
In her book, Amateur Believer, Patty Kirk recounts how the Faith she grew up with became dead in her – the promises – the prayers – the liturgies – all of it. And it wasn’t until her mother was dying, and she observed her sister as she cared for her, that it all became real. She writes, “Somehow, in the interim, God pieced that memory of my sister comforting our dying mother together with a thousand other frayed remnants of my life to make himself gradually recognizable to me again.”
Friends, it will always be at the intersection of death and life (that is, in the whole breadth of the human experience) that Jesus is most real.
And because this is where we really live, it can’t help but be good news…
March 29, 2014 § Leave a comment
“God’s work to release himself from his suffering is his work to deliver the world from its agony… When God’s cup of suffering is full, our world’s redemption is fulfilled.” Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son
I had no idea that the extraction of a wisdom tooth could be so painful, though I consider anything done in my mouth while in the dentist’s chair to be an act of violence. I thought the guy was going to rip my jaw off my face! It was like he was going to crawl inside my mouth. Sure, I’m an unapologetic anti-dentite (though I denied this to him – he had tools and drills and stuff at his disposal – you know, live to fight another day, and all that…).
And then there was the pain afterwards. A few hours following the extraction (the term alone is enough to elicit screams of panic and shrieks of terror!), I had a late afternoon meeting. All I could think of was my poor mouth. My pain. Me! It was freezing outside and I was sweating and daydreaming of romantic encounters with Extra Strength Tylenol, holding my jaw in my hand, in agony (proving that I’m no faith-healer).
It didn’t help for our Director of Worship to ask, ‘Is it safe?’ (you have to know the horrific scene in Marathon Man to grasp the depth of cruelty in this person that amazingly, I call ‘friend’).
So it is with pain. It demands our undivided attention, reminding us that all is not well with our bodies. When in pain, it is difficult to think of anything else.
And mine only lasted a day. But the world has been in pain ever since the fall.
Just yesterday a friend posted his sorrows on the birthday of a son that he and his wife lost – he would have turned seven years old. It was so painful I could barely read it.
Pain puts us on notice: in our homes, in our relationships, our minds – wherever it touches. We are cruelly reminded that the world isn’t what it was intended to be.
Amazingly, in the Lenten season we actually celebrate Christ’s pain, because His ‘via dolorosa,’ was not only a path of suffering, but also the passageway to a healed world. One day, what we see and know and experience and avoid and collide with every single day – will pass.
This is the narrative we sometimes miss in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, when we reaffirm that though pain occupies a place at the table in a broken world, it will not be seated at the Feast of Jesus when He makes all things new.
What good news…