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.
November 8, 2014 § Leave a comment
“Christianity encourages me to be faithful to the body that I am – a body that can be hurt, a body that is always living in the middle of limitations; it encourages me to accept unavoidable frustration in this material and accident-prone existence without anger.”
Rowan Williams, Where God Happens
I preached a lousy sermon last week. No, no, don’t worry, it’s okay. Seriously, please don’t write and tell me that it was great, or that God’s Spirit can use even the worst of messages (which I think we can all agree would not truly be complimentary, right?). And you don’t need to remind me that I’m merely a vessel. Oh, and by all means please don’t tell me that even Tim Keller preaches bad sermons!
Well, no wait… okay, tell me that.
Seriously, I know all this – and I’m thankful that every bit of it is true. It was just one of those messages.
Don’t let a preacher fool you into thinking that bad sermons roll off them like wet off a duck (a favorite phrase I learned in Tallahassee). We were all built with fragile egos that find residence in some part of our public expressions. It used to be that when I preached a ‘dog’ (as I like to call them), that I would be anxious for the next Sunday to arrive, with hopes that the memory of my bad offering would be lost in a better one (and don’t get me started on how I would wait from one Christmas Eve to the next after blowing it on that special night).
I can’t begin to tell you how diabolical this is!
Biblical concern? Uh… no. No, it’s Ego.
The point I am trying to make is that living in God’s grace means living with the worst and best parts of who we are, along with everything in between, while all along believing that the Father never measures our worth based on our performance. Be glad. Until we are Home we will always be unfinished, and this may be our greatest safeguard against thinking that we can make this journey apart from God’s friendship.
Besides, do we really want what we consider to be our ‘good’ points scrutinized by a holy God? Every time I reduce God’s favor to my imperfect offerings, along with Cain, I demonstrate disdain for Him as a gracious Father. It is an egocentric delusion that I’ll be fine without any help, thank you.
Read through John’s first letter. Count how many times the apostle uses the term, ‘children’ or ‘little children,’ in describing us. What does this tell you? And what would you really prefer for God to see you as? Worthy subjects or beloved children?
Friends, the Father doesn’t love us less when we fail, and He doesn’t love us more when we succeed.
He just loves us because we’re His.
Now that’ll preach.
What good news…
September 27, 2014 § Leave a comment
Life has a way of taking us back – all the way to who we’ve always been. Have you ever considered this, for instance, after speaking with a really old aunt that still talks to you like you are thirteen – and then you feel that way?
My youngest brother called the other day. Andrew lives in Hattiesburg, Mississippi with his family, where he contracts within the hospital system. Hattiesburg is home for the University of Southern Mississippi.
When I answered the phone his first words were, ‘You need to take this call,’ and then he handed the phone to someone who had been a lifelong hero (both pictured above).
Ray Guy is one of Southern’s all time great players. In a few weeks the University will celebrate his induction into the NFL Hall of Fame (the first punter to enter) after a career with the Oakland Raiders, from when I was in my teens.
It just so happens that he works at one of the hospitals that my brother services, and they interact regularly.
It would be an understatement to say that I was thrilled, and it didn’t take long for me to revert to fourteen years old, blathering into a near play-by-play of my favorite game of his pro career.
The other event is a much less pleasant one – the dentist (yes, that’s me). I was recently fitted for a new crown where an old one had worn out its welcome. I’ve already documented how traumatic it is to be a dentist-lifer.
Interestingly, it occurred to me that I still talk with the dentist exactly as I did with others when I was twelve years old. Maybe it is the chair. The guy is young enough to be one of my nephews, yet I feel like a kid when he’s working on me.
And that is the connection. We are always who we’ve always been.
I have found that it is never of God whenever I am tempted to reinvent myself.
Just track the saints and their stories. Though transformed by the gospel, they struggled with the same issues of weakness and sin that they had before they encountered God.
This is because Jesus doesn’t reinvent us. He redeems us. He redeems us into the recognizable children God always intended for us to be, before the fall marred us and drove us into hiding. In doing so, He casts a lifeline in us, to others who thought it had to be another way.
And so it will always be that the Father finds us most precious when we shed the exhausting pursuit of perfection, and simply live in the grace that will accompany us… until we are Home.
Friends, this is good news…
September 20, 2014 § Leave a comment
“The goal of human existence is that man should dwell at 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.”
Nicholas Wolterstorff, REASON [within the Bounds of Religion]
If you haven’t seen the moving video entitled, Made in New York, produced recently by Gatorade honoring Derek Jeter, the retiring New York Yankee shortstop, then sit back and enjoy – it is a worthy watch.
If anything has distinguished Jeter’s career it is that he is a team player. While he is unquestionably an exceptional athlete, it is his commitment to the wellbeing of the team that separates him and others like him.
Hey, I’m no Yankees fan! But those who play for the team – those who care primarily for people other than themselves, they are the ones that transcend the lines of demarcation that normally separate people. I think this is because they tap into what we were created to enjoy with one another, and all creation, before the fall cursed the world with isolation. They embody the selfless expression that community demands in order for it to flourish. In a year filled with painful sports scandals, both on the professional and collegiate athletic levels, it is refreshing to say farewell to a pro that ‘got it.’
This is partly why I believe the Baltimore Orioles’ season has been special (other than winning the AL East Division Title!). They have survived disappointment and injury – as a team. Last Tuesday evening in Camden Yards (picture below) was magic, because team and city converged in joy. It is always about the team, and the people/city the team plays for.
I often don’t get this. In a culture and society that is so individualized, it is easy to get lost in doing my job: preparing my sermon, writing my blog, paying my bills, fixing my house, etc, that I forget the grander, sweeter communal life of love, friendship, fellowship and faith I have been called into.
We weren’t created to live for ourselves. And we are miserable when we do. In spite of the fact that our selfish instincts often prevail against the messy, inconvenience of relationship and sacrifice and self-abandonment, it is when our darkest wishes come true, and everything is in its perfect order just as we wanted it, and we are left to ourselves, that we are at our most miserable.
So God gives us simple expressions of self-abandonment in order that we may catch fresh glimpses of Jesus, who exchanged glory for shame, and honor for love, that we may rediscover that the Father’s great delight is most beautifully enjoyed when shared together… with the team.
What good news…
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…
July 26, 2014 § Leave a comment
“…I would advise you against defensiveness on principle. It precludes the best eventualities along with the worst. At the most basic level, it expresses a lack of faith… And often enough, when we think we are protecting ourselves, we are struggling against our rescuer.”
Marlilynne Robinson, Gilead
There is an ice-cream shop at the beach we visit each year that smells heavenly as one walks by. It emits a delicious aroma that undoubtedly draws many in. However, this year on one occasion, I turned the corner the shop is on, only to be hit with the foulest of smells. On the ground, puddling along the building was the nasty water that obviously drains from the shop – the county fair puddle kind of smell that one can barely endure in between nausea-inducing rides.
Reflecting on that odorous moment, I am reminded that we can be like that little shop. We have a beautiful side that we want everyone to notice and embrace. But we also have another side.
Dare I say, a stinky side…
All kinds of experiences, flaws and encounters contribute, and unfortunately our tendency is to not only hide this side, but to live, act and relate as though it doesn’t even exist.
Which is ludicrous.
I have found that the relationships that we hold most dear are those in which we have entrusted some glimpse into our ugliness. In fact, the reality of our flaws and blemishes is the only point of commonality we share.
Other than Jesus.
In other words, our stinky side, and the One who has delivered us from its lasting effects, are what unite us. They are what inform our spirits that we are not alone.
That we don’t have to hide.
That we are safe.
You would think this to be a no-brainer, yet the instinct to self-defend is powerful, and every chink in my armor serve as temptations to protect, pretend and hide, when all along the gospel screams that they are God’s invitations for me to enjoy the dance of intimacy with a world that shares my brokenness.
And hiding only diminishes me.
So back to the Ocean. It is not merely the surface and horizon, but the depths, and perilous realities, the mysteries and dangers, that make it magnificent. The depths shape its lovely colors. The creatures fill it with beautiful diversity. Its mysteries draw us into the wonder of God.
It can’t be what it is, without all that it is.
And neither can we.
But the Father already knows this. And by His grace, in Jesus He has embraced that most ugly, stinky part of us, in forming us into something lovely, flaws and all, until He comes and makes everything new.
Friends, this is our 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…