January 4, 2014 § Leave a comment
Robert E. Webber, the Divine Embrace
It is a new year and it is all there for the taking. What do you see before you?
If I am honest I have to admit that I sometimes cheat myself out of what is before me because of what lies behind. There are so many words I can’t un-speak, so many mistakes I can’t un-do, and so many people I can’t ‘un-hurt.’ We think we move on, but the deceiver loves dragging us into his warped version of the past, where grace is never has a part. It is all so personal and easily devolves into paralyzing guilt. Sometimes I’ll apologize to one of our children for something I did, or didn’t do when they were young, only to have them say that they don’t know what I’m talking about.
We can make ourselves prisoners of the past, even when the past isn’t holding on.
I think Robert Webber is right in saying that the story of any given religion shapes our spirituality (and therefore how we view life and perceive the world). And I see this all the more clearly when I am pressed to function and respond in the unknown. Because in the story we were born into the future is always terrifying and the ending is never good. The weight of failures and past injuries tend to find their way into our greatest hopes.
And this is what I love about the gospel. It is the new story – the story we have been invited into. And in this story, at the heart of the plot is Jesus, who entered into all that causes fear, dread and regret, to bring what we always dream we may have but never feel we can obtain – Redemption. In other words, that old narrative is only relevant so far as we allow it to be.
So here is the New Year. Only fear will make the future appear to be terrifying – a fear born of the story you were not meant to any longer be defined by.
Is this what you want?
But the new story beckons, and everything lovely that it represents is before you: reconciled relationships, forgiven sins, healed wounds, restored families, renewed passion, grace for all you can never ‘fix’ on your own – it is all there.
What are you waiting for?
It isn’t that we have overcome, but that Jesus has, and because of this, with Paul we can ‘forget what lies behind… straining forward to what lies ahead’ (Philippians 3), not because we know how things will go in the year, but because we know how the big story ends.
What good, mysterious, exciting news…
Happy New Year.
December 14, 2013 § 3 Comments
A great Shadow has departed,” said Gandalf, and then he laughed and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King
Just this week a young pastor in Florida took his own life. It is a tragedy. He was our son and daughter-in-law’s pastor until last year when his personal life began to unravel publicly. He was both gifted and brilliant. But he carried pain.
His dad (also a pastor) and I have corresponded since things began to fall apart last year. My initial contact was to encourage him with what his son had been to ours. Some years ago, at a crucial point in our son’s life, this young man took time out of his crazy schedule to field his questions about life and faith and ministry – We will always be in his debt, and nothing that has transpired since will take that away. At this point I have no words – only sadness.
And I am freshly reminded that as long as the world is broken, people will be too – you – me – everyone. We carry our pain.
The Advent cry is God’s gift to the broken. We long for healing and wholeness, when we will no longer walk the earth in the confusing tension of secret shame, besetting sin and genuine hope. The insecurities, weaknesses, ‘demons’ and struggles we carry are real – they are our right-now reality.
But our hope is every bit as real, and because of Jesus we live in the promise of what we will one day be, when He will come and make everything new.
What you need to know is that God is okay with this. He isn’t the One expecting you to be perfect – you are. And that isn’t helpful (it also isn’t righteous!).
Jesus has come and He is coming. Until He does, He has given us the assurance that His grace is sufficient. It is ‘from the fullness’ of this grace, and not our ability to keep it all together, that we receive ‘one blessing after another’ (John 1:16).
With full view of our flaws, sins and failures, Jesus extends Himself.
Friends, this is good news…
peace on earth.
What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.
Christina Rossetti, In the Bleak Midwinter
December 7, 2013 § 1 Comment
“The goal of human existence is that man should dwell in 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. To dwell in shalom is to enjoy living before God, to enjoy living in nature, to enjoy living one’s fellows, to enjoy life with oneself.”
Nicholas Wolterstorff, Reason within the Bounds of Religion
Until a fellow pastor taught me that God draws us into the shared brokenness that is our fallen world, I lived under the sad and selfish delusion that if all was right with me and mine, then that was enough. But this couldn’t be further from the teaching of the gospel and I will always be indebted to this dear friend because of his patient guidance.
Just this week Nelson Mandela died, and the free world grieves. It mourns because in his work to end Apartheid in South Africa something resonated within us. We were created to be free, and every person instinctively knows this to be true.
It is evident in the offerings of the culture (even in the DC store window pictured!). The best movies are redemptive. The sweetest writings echo compassion. The most passionate causes aim at justice. Even at Christmas I am freshly reminded of this in Stevie Wonder’s song, Someday at Christmas…
Someday at Christmas we’ll see a land
With no hungry children, no empty hand
One happy morning people will share
Our world where people care
This is the cry of the prophets, perhaps no more beautifully expressed than in Isaiah:
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
At Advent we freshly enter into the collective brokenness of our world with a longing for healing. Until Jesus makes everything new, even our joy is incomplete unless it is expressed through the embrace of a shared sorrow. After all, it was ‘the joy set before him,’ that is, it was the joy of a reconciled and redeemed new world, that sent Jesus to the Cross.
With this in mind, He captured our sorrows in His own, our sins upon Himself, and our future joy in His resolve.
What good news…
Truly He taught us to love one another
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name
Adolphe Adam, 1847
November 23, 2013 § 3 Comments
“Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves
Life is difficult. This is the first line of M. Scott Peck’s book, The Road Less Traveled. Life is difficult, and love sometimes seems an unobtainable dream in the disappointments, pitfalls and disparities of life as it wears on.
Broken hearts. Broken promises. Unrealized dreams. Unforeseen calamities. Unbearable trials. Painful seasons. Haunting Regrets. Betrayals. Sedentary Relationships.
All have their ways of extinguishing the dream of love.
The picture posted above is from our basement wall. Katherine and one of our daughters had left the house to me while I painted, and to signal to them that the work had begun, I painted the now-famous heart – the less-than-three sign. Once that went on the wall, the commitment was made. Someone had to slosh the walls with blue.
It is curious to me that the closer he moved to the Cross the more Jesus’ teachings were predominated by love, particularly with His disciples who that very evening would betray and abandon Him to His captors
Our instinct is to do the opposite. Whenever disappointment threatens, we tend to insulate ourselves against fresh experiences with pain. We say and do harmful things to protect our fragile hearts. We force ourselves to be cold and uncaring.
Love is the last thing we want to risk our vulnerabilities on because we are never more exposed than when we open our hearts to the possibility of their being broken.
I get that. Life is difficult and Love is terrifying. Who has room for Love and all the mess it brings?
But it is also what we most yearn for. To love and be loved. And someone has to make the first move. Someone has to start painting.
So God did.
Let it be your prompt to love those who may be hiding from you behind their own self-protections, though every bit as terrified. Start painting. Forgiveness, tenderness and vulnerability are scandalously risky. We know. Jesus went there for us. Trust me, Love is the first stroke.
He knew the risks when He opened His mouth to call the disciples His friends. Amazingly, to Him they were worth it.
So are you.
What good news.
October 5, 2013 § Leave a comment
Last week we built a small courtyard in the space between our garage and our townhome. Being a man, you have to know that I initially asserted that it was something I could do by myself. Sixteen hours later I realized that such a declaration had disaster written all over it.
It isn’t that I couldn’t have pulled it off. It is what it would have looked like when I did! It would have taken weeks, perhaps months to complete a poorly graded, hideously spaced, embarrassingly puddled, monstrosity.
Instead, our Worship Director, a former Landscape Architect, oversaw a team of college students, his twin sons, and me, as we took on the project. It was a blast, and when we finished, it was beautiful, and each of us felt a great sense of accomplishment.
Reflecting on the project, I realized how, until we were completely finished, it never really looked good.
This seemed instructive as I considered who we are in the day-in and day-out struggle as unfinished Christ-followers. The question is this: Can we accept ourselves in disrepair, trusting that God is doing something magnificently beautiful in us over the course of a lifetime?
This took me to a story I read online a few weeks ago, of a cathedral in Barcelona, Spain that is still 13 years from completion. What distinguishes this project is that it began in 1882! That’s 131 years ago!
It’s magnificent, but it will be more so when completed.
So will you.
Don’t take this lightly, friend.
Hey, a little advice: Dwell on what God is doing in you, not what you look like until He is done.
I know, I know! We look in the mirror and see the dust and the holes and the flaws and the unfinished spaces. But that isn’t what the Father sees. He sees His Son. And He sees who you will one day be.
The thing is, we are all like unfinished cathedrals – or courtyards – We are under construction, and until we are Home, it won’t always be pretty. But Jesus has come. The important thing is that He finished His work. Amazingly, His work was you.
What sweet, good news…
September 21, 2013 § Leave a comment
Patty Kirk, Confessions of an Amateur Believer
Our Music/Worship Director recently noticed that my desk was looking less book-infested, and I was thrilled because he was the only one among our Staff that noticed. It doesn’t take much for that desk to become a monstrosity, as mentioned in last week’s post. When it does, it usually remains that way for weeks until the clutter wins and makes it impossible for me to think (as happened recently), which then compels me to ‘scorch the earth,’ so to speak, and clean the desk.
The truth is that I love it when it’s clean, but I don’t mind if it’s a mess. At the end of the day it isn’t that important.
As Christ-followers it is easy for us to aspire to the wrong things – and one of them is our track record. Part of this is due to what we assume to be expected of us, internally and externally. Hey, try being the only pastor in a family of thousands (okay, it seems that way) of proud Armenians!
There is something diabolical within all of us that want our records expunged on a daily basis. We love God’s grace yet our natural darker selves hate that others would notice our need for it. But we do. And the only evidence of its working in our lives is that we are flawed. We aren’t perfect parents, perfect couples or perfect humans. We wrestle with our demons, our wickedness and our weaknesses. We aren’t perfect Christians. We are unfinished.
To embrace this truth is to truly accept what Jesus became for us – ‘God made him who knew no sin to become sin for us…’ 2 Corinthians 5:21.
Part of the problem is that we are easily lost in the wrong storyline.
Friends, perfection never was the story. Sure, Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden – and that is entirely on them, as our sins are on us – but God’s design wasn’t for perfect automatons – it was and is for daughters and sons. Redemption is the story. And there is something wildly beautiful about letting go of the need to appear to be something we can’t be, and frankly, something that doesn’t even matter, to entrust ourselves into the hands of a Father whose sole interest takes Him past our brokenness and into what we will one day be.
Could there be any better news?
August 24, 2013 § 8 Comments
The arms of the crucified are open – a sign of a space in God’s self and an invitation for the enemy to come in.
Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace
Last week, while in my Starbucks, where I write and think, the man in this picture entered into the mall. What distinguished him was that he was blind, which meant that his steps were deliberate as he navigated a complex he couldn’t see and only sensed with the aid of his cane, while walking among people and activity he could only hear. It all looked so tenuous. That is until the woman pictured here with him, greeted him, having entered from the opposite direction. It was obvious that each had highly anticipated the encounter, evidenced by their immediate delight and embrace. The joy was palpable.
Upon reflection I’ve concluded that at the end of the day this is what we want. We want a God who sees us even when we don’t see Him. We want a God who has space to take us in, a Father who delights at the sight of us (Luke 15:20), and who rushes to embrace us when He has every right and reason to be punitive. Yet my tendency every day is to ‘unbelieve’ the gospel, to journey back to the Egypt of my slavery to self, to buy once again into the notion that God could never love someone so damaged and unloveable. Don’t feel sorry for me – it is arrogance, not humility. Every day I want to be my own deliverer, and every day I fail.
That’s not how it works though. God is our Deliverer, and He did what the woman in this encounter did, in order to make His love credible – He came close. And His immediate proximity translated into the sacrifice of His Son.
It’s funny – initially I didn’t really know how to categorize this sweet moment, but I utterly enjoyed it, and maybe that is the point. It may be that there are experiences and encounters and glimpses and scenes that God simply wants us to witness and enter into for no other reason than to reflect in small part what He has done for us in Jesus, and continues to do with his children every day.
That in itself is good news…