Ocean Theology…

July 19, 2014 § 3 Comments

Dawn 2

“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…

peace.

Morning

The Value of Weeds

June 28, 2014 § Leave a comment

Rabbit “The Kingdom belongs to people who aren’t trying to look good or impress anybody, even themselves.”

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)…

I digress…

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…

peace.

Our Terrifying Tension

June 21, 2014 § 1 Comment

skyline “The feeling was so strong that I actually turned on the light for a moment to make sure no one was there – of course, there wasn’t. But after a while, in the dark again, I knew beyond any doubt that it was Jesus.”

Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies

This past week we were in the vast city of Houston, in Texas. ‘Vast’ is an understatement. Houston is the fourth largest city in the US, and will likely soon be third behind New York and LA. It is huge. Taking pics of Houston from the top of our hotel reminded me that each of the thousands of lights (perhaps tens of thousands) represented people and stories. There are living spaces where individuals and families make their homes, hotels that are filled with visitors, and spaces where temptation, violence and loneliness often make hay with its victims. There are offices where money is won and lost and careers are launched and ruined, and streets on which the rich drive and the homeless wander.

Houston is also a hub for human trafficking in the US, where untold numbers of people are forced into the sex and drug trades, and cast into anonymity by the sheer power of evil. It isn’t only Houston. Our church is involved in an important ministry that fights this same horrid reality in Baltimore.

In some ways a large city is a microcosm of life. Our stories are always deeper and more layered than we show on the surface, and the ‘beautiful lights’ sometimes mask the hiding we enter into for fear of being exposed and seen at our worst. Our ‘worst’ is always there. It isn’t that the beautiful stuff sometimes replaces the ugly things. So my tendency is to hide just like the next person.

But all along, I want to be found. I want to be found because deep within I know that unless I am seen and accepted at my worst, I can’t truly be loved, and I can’t feel whole.

This is our terrifying tension. We hide, but we want to be discovered. We want to be safe, but we want safety in truth and acceptance. We want to be clean but we feel safer in our guilt. Deep down we want someone to see our brokenness and love us in spite of the wreckage.

In some way, this is why I rest in the Sovereignty of a God who actually pursues and finds us before we have any inclination to care about Him. We are far too insecure to risk exposure.

So God finds us, in the darkest places we hide, and in Jesus He assures us that with complete clarity, He sees us and loves us as we are and have been, and that he has ‘drawn us with unfailing kindness’ (Jeremiah 31:3).

Friends, this is good news…

peace.

Houston

Find Your Corner

April 26, 2014 § Leave a comment

Corner “God put human beings into a garden.”

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…

peace.

He will Bind Us Up…

April 19, 2014 § 1 Comment

Repair “Each Sunday we say “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again!” Today we slow things down. We say ‘Christ has died’ and wait.”

Fred Harrell, Sr. Pastor, City Church San Francisco

In just a few hours our church grounds will be swarmed and traversed by hundreds of children in search of even more goodies that have been hidden in plain sight at our annual Easter Egg Hunt. It is one of the more delightful things we do during the Easter season at our church, and a sweet interlude in the reflective observance of Jesus’ death. It occurs on the day that commemorates Jesus’ last day in the tomb before the Resurrection, and I have to think that the joyful laughter of children is a fitting expression of our confidence that Jesus didn’t remain in the grave.

This past January our community was rocked by a senseless shooting at the mall from which I post this blog. Understandably the Zumiez store shut down. But I was glad to recently notice that they are undertaking whatever restoration work is needed to once again open their doors to the public.

Though I’m not quite certain what was going on in the grave on that day before the Resurrection, or the day before for that matter, I do know that it was good, and that there is something in the silence that is good for my soul.

In some way it is representative of our lives here on this still-injured planet as we await Jesus’ return. We are His, and we are redeemed, but we wait, trusting that His healing work continues, even when undetectable.

While the Cross insures that our sins have been paid for, and the Resurrection that our eternity is secure, it is the Grave that hits me where I am, every day in the struggle, and reminds me that I can hang in there.

I can hang in there through the adversity.
I can hang in there when I am weak.
I can hang in there when my sin drives me to fall before the Throne in sorrow.
I can hang in there when I am assaulted by doubt and unbelief.
I can hang in there even when I don’t want to hang in there.

“…he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us…”Hosea 6:1a-2b

I can hang in there, that is, I can trust Him, because on that quiet day, Jesus lay in the Grave. But He didn’t stay there.

And this means that even God’s silence is saturated with healing properties that bear testimony to the fact that the Father delights in calling us His.

So I can hang in there. And so can you.

What good news…

peace.

the Good Friday

April 18, 2014 § Leave a comment

the Cross “The ‘problem of evil’ is not simply or purely a ‘cosmic’ thing; it is also a problem about me. And God has dealt with that problem on the cross of his Son, the Messiah… The cross is the place where, and the means by which, God loved us to the uttermost.” N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God

We will soon gather for our Good Friday service. There will be readings, song, prayer, silence, even incense, and then one of our pastors will nourish our souls as he reflects on Jesus and His Cross. One of the things that strikes me in the gospel is that it never gets old. Last month Katherine and I saw the Eagles in concert. This summer we will hear Billy Joel and James Taylor. We love these guys, and others like them. But sometimes as we are making our way home, we wonder out loud how many times they must have had to sing the same songs over and again through the decades, in countless venues around the world. How old that must get.

But not the gospel. No, it is fresh with each telling because every time we reflect on Christ’s great work we are freshly drawn into both the great price He paid and the amazing love He displayed on our behalf. At the heart of of John’s vision in the book of Revelation, is Jesus and His Cross. He is ‘the Lamb who was slain’ (5:12).

It is all so personal. In the Cross my sin was placed entirely on Jesus, the precious Lamb of God, our great High Priest and undefiled Sacrifice at one and the same time. The Father’s wrath was satisfied in the death of His very own Son, and my redemption was secured. I am forgiven. And with every retelling I discover new contours of my unworthiness and Christ’s amazing act of love, as though hearing it for the first time.

How else can we respond other than with Isaac Watts’ 1707 hymn, “Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.”

Such good news…

peace.

The Cross is the hope of Christians
The Cross is the resurrection of the dead
The Cross is the way of the lost
The Cross is the savior of the lost
The Cross is the staff of the lame
The Cross is the guide of the blind
The Cross is the strength of the weak
The Cross is the doctor of the sick
The Cross is the aim of the priests
The Cross is the hope of the hopeless
The Cross is the freedom of the slaves
The Cross is the power of the kings
The Cross is the water of the seeds
The Cross is the consolation of the bondmen
The Cross is the source of those who seek water
The Cross is the cloth of the naked.
We thank you, Father, for the Cross.

— 10th Century African Hymn

Brush with an Immortal

March 22, 2014 § 1 Comment

Jenni Now “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors… Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.” C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

This past week I was thrilled to meet up with an old friend and one of the most inspiring people I have ever known. When we first met, Jenni Gold was 10 years old and I was an 18 year-old volunteer church youth worker. Jenni has Muscular Dystrophy and was in a full body cast at the time, having had a steel rod surgically placed in her spine. Along with her parents, her two amazing sisters provided an environment of healing. The only thing they wouldn’t offer was sympathy, and this produced a will that far surpassed the strength of the rod in her back. We became fast friends, all of us. She fully entered into the life of our Youth Group. The word ‘limitation’ was not in her vocabulary. It still isn’t.

After graduating with a double major from the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Jenni, along with her husband jenni @ workJeff, moved to California, determined to produce movies. Today she is the co-founder of Gold Pictures in Universal City, CA. On Wednesday we reunited in DC to see a viewing of her Documentary, CinemAbility, a stunningly beautiful film about the history of the entertainment industry in relation to people with disabilities. She was also in DC to accept the 2014 American Association of Persons with Disabilities Image Award, presented by Danny Woodburn (‘Mickey’ on Seinfeld!).

In accepting the award, Jenni sited Paul’s words in Philippians 4:13, thanking Christ who gives her strength, and so revealed the source of her amazing will and character. Somewhere along the way, in all she has endured and overcome, as a little girl, and since, Jenni met Jesus. And He has provided everything she needs to be nothing short of amazing.

She mounts up with wings like eagles. She runs and doesn’t grow weary. She walks and doesn’t faint.

And she happens to have MD.

It is Lent. The world is broken. Suffering is part of the daily narrative.

But Jesus has come. And in entering into our brokenness by subjecting Himself to temptation, sorrow and pain, even death, by His resurrection He has assured that until He returns, and regardless of our circumstances, we may dance to the song of His redemption.

Friends, there is no greater news…

peace.

Jenni

Taken on Palm Sunday in 1977 when Jenni joined the church

the Undeniable Thaw

March 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

Plant - 3 “Death and the hells of dereliction and abandonment eat people up, exhaust them, scrape them out, and bring them to nothing. Jesus is already empty, already poor, already nothing, for God is everything in him; and so the inexhaustible life of God meets death and eats it up and exhausts it.”Rowan Williams, A Ray of Hope

This has been one of the coldest winters on record for Maryland, a season that has repeatedly flirted with our hopes, offering a few warm moments and days, only to remind us of its presence, with arctic blasts, day-long snows and gray skies. Being from Florida we generally greet the snow with excitement and fresh wonder. But winters like this are exhausting. One can only shovel so much snow and spread so much salt before wondering if it will ever end.

But it will.

This past fall I buried over 140 bulbs in the front of our town home. Until we moved north, I thought bulbs were the old version of Christmas tree lights, and that ‘football’ and ‘hurricane’ were the only valid seasons. But when it comes to gardening, bulbs are these agricultural knots of root and dirt, that when left in the ground to endure the cold of winter, yield beautiful flowers in the spring.

Amazingly, after months of frigid temperatures, hard-as-concrete frozen ground, and layers of snow, they have begun to emerge from the dirt.

Spring is something we cling to on cold, long winter days. When the thaw comes, we rediscover that God has designed hints of the life and beauty He always intended for Creation.

With the approach of Easter comes the celebration of Jesus’ conquest over the grave. Because of the resurrection we don’t have to pass over Christ’s pain – or ours. We can feel sorrow as it affects us and others. We don’t have to pretend that disappointment doesn’t wound and that death doesn’t devastate.

They do. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.

In his own retelling of the redemption story, Solomon puts this to verse, singing, ‘My beloved speaks and says to me: ‘Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away, for behold, the winter is past; the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.’” (Song of Solomon 2:10-12).

Friends, in a broken world pain, disappointment and sorrow will be our realities until Jesus comes.

Terms like ‘resurrection’ and ‘renewal,’ though beautiful – and real – are hard to capture in the midst of life and pain. When our worlds come crashing in around us, they can seem hollow and unhelpful.

No, what sustains us is love, and in Jesus, we are the Father’s beloved.

this is our good news…

peace.

Lovely Things Happen Too…

February 15, 2014 § 1 Comment

Bride “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints.” Billy Joel, Only the Good Die Young

Last month Katherine and I were in Atlanta speaking at a conference. A wedding was taking place at the hotel we stayed at, and while in the elevator, headed to the business office to print out a talk, the Bride (pictured), along with the Wedding Coordinator, came into that small cubicle and transformed it into a magnificent room.

Because we live in a fallen world there is a tendency for those of us in the Faith to focus on the brokenness we share. There is no make-believe when it comes to the gospel. It exposes the painful manifestations of the fall. And for too long the Church was all ‘victory,’ and no reality. The Faith was presented as something people had to perfectly maintain more than a journey we set out on with Jesus, flaws, insecurities and all. The result was a lot of hiding – folks filled with shame, fear and guilt for not being able to live up to expectations never laid out in the scriptures, with no room for finding anything good in this broken world God created to be good.

But heaviness that isn’t balanced out with joy is a dangerous thing. It leaves the watching world with the impression that our end is misery, and our enemy is laughter, reducing the Church to the sorry end of a Billy Joel song.

In Ecclesiastes 7:14, Solomon writes, ‘When times are good be happy…’ He wasn’t proffering escape. His next words are, ‘but when times are bad, remember the same God has made them both.’ His point is that there is a vital balance in life and faith that enables us to live with the promise of good things, even in the midst of brokenness. Without this balance everything is warped.

Friends, heaviness and severity are not gifts of the Spirit. Joy is. And when it comes, God wants us to celebrate. Failure to do so does not demonstrate spiritual vitality. No. Only something oppressive will do this to us.

Because lovely things happen too…

You see, this is our destiny. In the story Jesus has invited us into, we are the Bride, and everything He teaches and embodies clearly demonstrates that He wants His wedding feast to be magnificently joyful.

The world is fallen and broken, but Jesus is making it new, and because of Him, when the lovely things come our way, we can enjoy them…

…because they do.

What good news…

peace.

When Home Hurts

January 25, 2014 § 1 Comment

MSNBCTragic news has struck our community here in the Baltimore burbs. A fatal shooting rocked the Columbia Mall, where I write my sermons and blog each Saturday morning. Were it not for the fact that Katherine and I are speaking at a Marriage Conference in Atlanta this weekend, I would have been there.

But today, on every news network and, exploding on the Internet, the story of a horrid tragedy in our own backyard predominates. I am sick to my stomach and overwhelmed with sadness. The shards of our world’s brokenness have struck ‘home.’

It was only last week that we returned from Miami, my hometown, where we had our Mom’s funeral service. There were all kinds of sentimental moments in the experience. We enjoyed dear friends, ate the familiar food, cleaned the home we grew up in, took in the tropics, and returned to the last church I was a member of (pastors don’t retain Membership in churches).

But ‘home,’ at least here on earth in this sweet season in our lives, has become for us, Greater Baltimore. This place, this region – this home that we have come to love – is hurting.

Sometimes home hurts.

As we enter into adulthood we do so with all kinds of expectations for our lives. Our hopes are only good ones, and our dreams presume the distinct possibility that they are entirely attainable. This is how we think – and it is a good thing. We should interweave our natural longings for heaven into the people and world we live in.

Only this could transform what would be a most understandable response of repulsion, into a deepened love for a ‘place’ and people that have entered into a shared sorrow. In fact, I find myself anxious to rejoin our wounded community, and to get back to the church we have grown to love, the ‘place’ we now call home – and ‘my’ Starbucks – to freshly embrace what is now part of the landscape of our shared world. This pain has drawn me in.

And I find it inexplicably beautiful that the closer He moved towards His betrayal and death, Jesus’ love for His disciples became more pronounced – rather than less. I have to believe that His ‘joy set before Him’ (Hebrews 12:1-2) served as His promise of a one-day sweeter and deeper intimacy with His beloved friends.

This was the good news Jesus embodied.

Written with deep sadness…

peace.

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