the least

May 27, 2020 § Leave a comment

“…I will praise him in the midst of the throng. For he stands at the right hand of the needy one…”

Psalm 109:30b-31a

The two photographs below are from South Africa. In the foreground of the first is the most decrepit neighborhood Katherine and I have ever seen. In the distance is an elementary school designated for this neighborhood, where amazingly, among the ruins and disrepair, there is hope.

In one regard, the current COVID-19 pandemic has leveled the playing field. Neither those in plenty, or those in need are exempt from the reach of the virus. Rich and poor, and regardless of faith, skin-color, or ethnicity, all stand in the same line outside the same grocery store, waiting for the indoor count to allow entry.

Westlake Neighborhood, Cape Town, South Africa

Initially, the virus seems weighted towards the poor. A March 11 Time Magazine article relates that the Coronavirus may disproportionately hurt the poor (embedded in that article’s title). Among this segment are those with low-income jobs that, in many cases are not accompanied by medical benefits, including sick leave. Many in this category live in close quarters in greater populated areas. A cardiologist friend recently related to me that over-crowded homes, poor ventilation, and unfiltered water among the poor, contribute to the problem.

However, any who work high-trafficked areas of business put all at risk, because they can’t afford to take days off. This means that those who come into contact with them; co-workers, customers, clients, are all compromised.

In a way that could not have been anticipated, this pandemic has brought together the haves and have-nots.

If you want to find God, look for the needy. That is where He stands. Jesus referred to the least of these in describing the oft-neglected segments of society. He teaches that when we care for the least of these, we do so for him.

He doesn’t even qualify it with words like ‘as though you were doing it for me,’ but adamantly asserts that any effort to care for the weak is an expression of care for him, in the way he told Saul (later Paul) that his assault on Christians was actually a personal attack on him (Jesus).

It isn’t that God loves the poor, weak and needy more, but that society regards them as less, and often ignores them as though they don’t count. But to God, they do.

Westlake Elementary Missionaries

At Westlake Elementary, missionaries surprisingly gained permission from the state to train the children in life and faith, while a young couple ministers in the neighborhood, where the wife grew up in unspeakably abusive conditions.

At some point in the woman’s life, through the kindness of others, God changed her heart. Then he compelled her to forgive those who so violently treated her, and to return to her neighborhood. Then he sent her husband.

Then he sent them – to minister in Westlake, alongside their missionary friends at the elementary school.

In a time when everything affects everyone, the Church has an opportunity to enter in, and embody the heart of God, with the Christian message that reveals a Redeemer who left his comforts for our chaos, his riches for our poverty, his throne for our weakness, and then, to hang in payment for sins we should bear.

The news doesn’t get any better than that, friends…

grace & peace.

Finding the Breach (& standing in it)

May 20, 2020 § Leave a comment

“Whatever the news, I wanted him to hear it from someone who cared about him.”

Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy

The above quote is part of Bryan Stevenson’s recollection of the execution of a Vietnam veteran whom he was called to defend, eleven years after he was incompetently represented by a court-appointed attorney, and only three weeks before his scheduled execution. By the time Stevenson came on the picture it was too late. His desperate last-minute attempts to secure a stay of execution failed, and this finds him awaiting word.

When he first contacted Stevenson, the man was desperate and frenzied, but in the moments before his execution, he was at peace, and to Stevenson’s surprise, he expressed gratitude to his last-second attorney, simply because he cared.

The Bridge

Has it ever occurred to you that more than anything else, God just wants you to be there? In the Christian universe it is easy to measure success by the wrong metrics. We think that our efforts are worth it, only if the payoff is a net gain: a conversion, an admission, a changed life. But in the currency of the gospel, it is the storyline of grace that wins the day.

For this reason, I love the Psalmist’s description of Moses, when God was breathing fire after Israel had once again forsaken Him.

“Therefore he said he would destroy them – had not Moses, his chosen one, stood in the breach before him, to turn away his wrath from destroying them.” (Psalm 106:23)

It is important to see that God’s relief was temporary. Israel would repeatedly rebel, until ultimately they became an exiled people. But was it all a waste?

The answer is no. Moses serves as a reminder that it is not temporary relief that the world needs, but Jesus, who not only stood in the breach (on the Cross), but died there, to do the very thing Moses could never secure for eternity – to turn the wrath of God from an otherwise hopelessly rebellious humanity.

The key is that Moses was God’s chosen one. He could stand in the breach, because he was safe, not from harm, but judgment. Only those who enjoy intimacy with the Almighty can brave the enormity of His holy presence, and live.

More often than not, to my shame, what I get so wrong, is that the intimacy I enjoy with God, through Jesus, is the testimony that those wrestling with the uncertainties, doubts, struggles, and sorrows of this world, most need – and long for.

They may not be able to articulate it, but they know it when they see it. And when it isn’t attached to some artificial agenda, it is deeply desirable.

Getting this wrong leads to all kinds of self-protection, self-righteousness, misguided guilt, and artificial pressure, and creates barriers in trust with those I have been called to love.

Because for those who know Jesus, the Christian testimony isn’t a strategy, but a transparent life of repentance and faith that accompanies any who enjoy intimacy with God.

Live the Faith, and the message will be heard!

We can’t change hearts, and only God is in the transformation business. But we have Jesus, and in his Name, we can stand in the breach, because he has stood once and for all – for us.

Friends, this is our good news.

grace & peace.

the Day of Small Things

May 6, 2020 § Leave a comment

“Little is large if God is in it.”

Leonard Sweet & Frank Viola, Jesus, A Theography

I was recently made aware of how on Sunday mornings, a woman in our church, a widow, phones her friend, also a widow, who does not have internet service, in order that they can worship together as our service streams, she on her computer, and her friend as she listens through her phone.

Such a small, but beautiful expression.

And the picture in this post was taken by a young woman in our church, a nurse on the frontline, who recently received this care package from a couple (members of our congregation) that quietly left it at her front door.

Small Things.

RileysSmallness and small beginnings comprise a theme that is woven throughout the gospel’s redemptive story. From the moment God created everything out of nothing, the big stories in the scriptures demonstrate God’s greatness with the obscure and unknown.

We can be glad for this. In spite of our own relative smallness, God invites us to collaborate with Him in the daily course of His grand care of the world, not by shows of strength or displays of greatness, but within the boundaries of our own limitations.

Zechariah prophesied that in time, “whoever despised the day of small things shall rejoice…” (4:10a). He foresaw when those who deemed the small things as meaningless, would be given a new perspective. Have you considered that the small things you offer might be received as life-giving in big, unexpected ways?

My guess is that when all is said and done with this current crisis, we will look back and remember that to some extent we were sustained by the power of seemingly tiny gestures, like a boy offering Jesus his lunch, who in turn fed thousands with it.

It is the simple kindnesses, the meager offerings, the encouraging phone calls, the anonymous prayers, the neighborly acts, the invisible sacrifices – people caring for others in quiet ways that will likely not be detailed on the evening news, but that are also not lost on the Father.

After all, isn’t this what endears us to the gospel? That in God we have a Father who wrapped His Son in obscurity, in the smallness of a newborn – for the sake of His spectacular design for making us His?

Isn’t this our good news?

grace & peace.

 

Story to Tell…

April 29, 2020 § Leave a comment

“indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable”

Matthew 13:34

Last Sunday I recounted a day my father lay unconscious on a gurney, awaiting examination, in an Emergency Room hallway. For roughly an hour he had been unresponsive – to our mom, to me, and then to the EMTs. While in that hallway, it occurred to me to sing to him, and somehow the words and notes made their way through whatever layers of resistance that held dad in unconsciousness – and he revived – first with faintly moving lips and no sound, but then, after a few moments, audibly, as we made discordantly beautiful music together.

ScroogeAfterwards, I was surprised and delighted to receive texts and e-mails from people who shared similar stories of situations where love pierced through the sadness of the moment.

Suffice it to say that your story matters.

During his public ministry Jesus was many things: teacher, leader, healer, and rabbi. But he was also a master storyteller. A redemptive theme runs throughout his parables (stories), with plots of forgiveness, restoration, love, even judgment. The characters are real, so real that we can see ourselves in their lives – which of course is the point.

Jesus understood that a good story draws one deep into the drama, before they recognize parts of their own lives they may not have otherwise had visited.

If the storyline of The Man Who Invented Christmas is true, then Charles Dickens could not complete A Christmas Carol until he was forced to revisit his painful childhood years. Only when he acknowledged that those years drove the Scrooge-like fear and anger that boiled deep within him, was he freed to envision – and then write – a redemptive conclusion to his book.

In John 5:39-40, Jesus said, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life, and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.”

All along, Jesus was telling his own story, one we have been invited into – through faith.

One day, we will tell the story of a time when the world stopped, as a virus spread round the globe. We will share what we learned, and remember who we lost. We will recount the good as well as the ugly things it revealed about our character and faith. It will serve as one chapter among many that we will look back on.

It will inspire elation and shame, repentance and rejoicing. And we will have grown. Most importantly, we will remember how Jesus relentlessly pursued us, and stepped into the dark places that threaten to deceive our hearts into losing hope, and forgetting the magnificent end of the story we have been written into because of him.

Which is why your story matters, unvarnished and unedited. In it, the Storyteller himself – Jesus, speaks the possibility of hopeful endings for all who hear.

what good news…

grace & peace.

A Time for Lament

April 22, 2020 § 1 Comment

“In his mercy, our God has given us a form of language that bends his ear and pulls his heart.”

Will Walker & Kendal Haug, Journey to the Cross

have always been compelled by Jesus’ words to his disciples at the Last Supper. As he blessed the bread he said, “I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God” (Luke 22:16), and then the cup, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves. For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes” (Luke 22:17-18).

SmileUntil now, I never associated lament with these statements. It had not occurred to me that Jesus was expressing a holy longing that he willingly bears until reunited with his friends. In this regard, this current crisis we find ourselves in has been instructive.

Jesus was no stranger to lament. He wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus (John 11:35), and then, as he approached Jerusalem for Passover (Luke 19:41-44), he lost it. He grieved with the grieving, and pitied the hurting.

Unfortunately, I always saw lament as an emotional speed bump to move beyond, and power through to happier, more productive things.

However, lament is a gift the Father has bestowed on his children. It is not self-pity, but a longing that enables us to enter into the world’s pain – as we feel our own – believing that God will one day redeem it.

So, go ahead! Accomplish much while secluded in the confinement of your home! Paint that wall, complete that puzzle, read that book, rearrange that room, clean out that closet, bathe that dog – all noble goals that life rarely offers time for.

But as you devise strategies to combat the insanity of isolation, and the uncertainties associated with constantly-changing timetables for our return to public life, take time for the sadness too.

Take the time to feel the moment. Feel the chaos of a world in disarray. Feel the displacement of communities, families and churches. Feel the loss of jobs and opportunities. Feel the heartache of those who are alone, and those who have lost loved ones in death.

I pray that God will allow this moment of frustrating isolation to challenge me to practice what I have spent an entire lifetime devising strategies to avoid. Because I never heard the holy longing in Jesus’ voice – until now.

He longs for us.

In the saddest, but sweetest of ways, this is our good news…

grace & peace.

A Rare Opportunity

April 15, 2020 § Leave a comment

“If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”

Romans 12:18

There is something in all of us that gravitates to the idea of sides: ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ – ‘good’ and ‘evil’ – Urban and Rural – Management vs. Union. You name it, there is an argument for any posture.

Virus Outbreak New York
Certain events throughout history reflect this tendency. World Wars. Ethnic struggles. Civil Rights. Moral/Ethical differences.

The competitive nature of athletics (which I love!) pits team against team, and fan versus fan. Election cycles ignite shameless mud-slinging, and endless offerings of political ads. Sibling tension led to the first murder. We even see it in churches. The list seems endless.

This is not to say that it is never good to take a side. When Hitler threatened Europe, the choices could not have been starker. However, in a fallen world we will strive.

For this reason, I find the moment we are in to be extraordinary. Right now, every human on planet earth is aware that they are equally, potentially exposed to the same virus. No one is immune, and all are at risk. Each feels his or her fragility, and relative smallness. For perhaps the first time in my life, and maybe in any of our lifetimes, the predominant narrative transcends surface divisions. We are all in this together.

The picture above is of tents that are erected in Central Park by Samaritan’s Purse, a non-profit led by Franklin Graham, who has been more political in his public statements than I am comfortable with. But to his credit, the tents are serving to provide hospital beds for New York City during the crisis. The action transcends politics and offers aid in a moment of need.

While as Christians, we are bound by the integrity of our Faith, Paul tells believers everywhere to “live peaceably with all.” I believe this is a call to model a healed world by how we live in that world – with and before others.

We don’t have to agree in order to lock arms. And we don’t have to sacrifice who we are in order to live at peace. In fact, I would argue that who we are as believers should reflect and facilitate the peacemaking passion of God in the life of the world.

After all, Jesus’ mission was to bring reconciliation where there once was alienation between God and humankind. While it is our nature to strive, it is God’s to heal.

We are called to live out of what our Savior has freely done for us with his own blood. When we do, the world notices, and lives change.

What good news…

grace & peace.

 

 

Clueless Wednesday

April 8, 2020 § 1 Comment

“the act of trust is an utterly ruthless act”

Brennan Manning

While sheltered in place, the Church worldwide celebrates Holy Week, when Jesus entered Jerusalem, was celebrated, betrayed, arrested, and crucified – and then resurrected.

Maundy Thursday is the night he met with the disciples and instituted the Lord’s Supper. It was in that Upper Room that Jesus gave his friends the new command, to love one another (John 13:34).

AcaciaOn Friday we are sobered – and blessed – by the crucifixion of Jesus. We call that day Good because it is. On the Cross, Jesus died in payment for the sins of the world. Our atonement was secured at Calvary. Jesus died as our Substitute.

Saturday is quiet. Along with Easter Egg hunts, the Church remembers it as the day Jesus lay in the grave. The grave would be where Jesus would leave our guilt, shame and sin.

And then, Sunday. Easter, when music and message are all aimed at the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus, and the hope we have in his conquest over sin and death. It is the celebration of celebrations.

Each day is dramatic and packed with meaning. But just 24-hours before events unfolded, the disciples moved through another day, oblivious to what was before them. I’m going to call it Clueless Wednesday, because that is what it was.

The fact is that we don’t know what God is doing with the world – with our worlds – in any given moment. We are clueless. I would argue that this is a good thing, because it is a childlike cluelessness. Even now, while we shelter in place, children delight in the moment, with danger as the furthest thing from their minds.

In hindsight we see events as they unfolded. Our past tense vision is 20/20, with the advantage of the whole picture. But until things happen, we have no idea what lies before. Like the disciples we move through the week, tending to responsibilities, enjoying friendships, caring for family, wrestling with life, temptation, weakness, and ambitions.

To know what lies before us in the immediate future is always tantalizing, but in reality, it would be disastrous, because the complexities of God’s unfolding redemptive plan would horrify us.

So, God never gives us more than what he is doing now. And, while for us we are clueless to the full meaning of the details of the immediate future, what matters is that Jesus knows what he is doing with the world – and with us.

What good news…

grace & peace.

Broken Tiles

June 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

Mural
“…there is something beautiful and concrete and well-proportioned about tending that size of a garden.David Brooks, The Small, Happy Life

Yesterday a mural mosaic was dedicated in a barely-conspicuous outdoor neighborhood service. The mural is visible to all who walk by the New Song Academy. It was constructed by the children of the Academy, under the guidance of a group called, Art with a Heart, a group that works in the City of Baltimore and teaches vulnerable children and adults through creativity. What makes the mosaic special is that the Academy resides in Sandtown, the neighborhood that was the flashpoint for the Baltimore riots in April. I have written about it here.

In a NYT OP-ED piece, David Brooks reported surprise at how many people responded to a survey, with the desire for what he termed, ‘the small, happy life,’ as opposed to what might seem to be more ambitious pursuits.

When I was in sixth grade, our teacher, Mrs. Hill, became weary with a group of us troublemakers. We happened to live in an area that was booming in development, and so she decided to take us around the community collecting tile for the purpose of making a mosaic for our elementary school, which we did. Over a period of months we stayed after school as she brilliantly channeled our energy into creativity. Eventually the completed project was erected at Coral Reef Elementary, like the one at New Song Academy.

One day, in response to His disciples’ request to increase their faith (because they were thinking big!), Jesus replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you” (Luke 17:6). Contrary to the claims of train wreck preachers who promise the moon and deliver disappointment, Jesus was simply saying, ‘Start small, because that is where we are.’ Put another way, ‘Start where you are, and offer what you have rather than what you don’t have.’

A cursory study of history will bear this out, whether with those who harbored Jews during the Holocaust, or others who have accomplished amazing feats of bravery, rescue, influence and impact. And there is always that ‘small step’ and ‘giant leap’ for mankind. Never do you hear braggadocio. Time and again we are introduced to humble people who merely did what they could in the moment. In the moment, the small was enormous.

Way back in 1960-something I learned that a mosaic is nothing more than a well-orchestrated outlay of broken tiles. It doesn’t take much for those seemingly worthless, jagged and often-dirty shards to become something wildly beautiful – like a scene from the coral reef, or a vision of a healed city. Every piece matters, and no tile is too damaged, in the same way that one simple mosaic on one part of one wall on one building in one neighborhood in a broken community can be that tiny piece that offers hope for something lovelier.

And it is for this reason that in Jesus God became small. Because we are small. Yet because we are adored by the Father, we are not insignificant.

What good news…

peace.

Let’s Stop and Remember

May 23, 2015 § Leave a comment

Arlington“At the heart of the cross is Christ’s stance of not letting the other remain an enemy and of creating space in himself for the offender to come in.”

Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace

It is Memorial Day weekend. As a Christ-follower it is not uncommon for me to find myself involved in a conversation over the merits and sadnesses of war. No one I know would argue that every war the US has been involved in was what the Church father Augustine would call ‘just.’ But this weekend is not about that. It is to remember that many made the ‘ultimate sacrifice’ for their country in giving their lives.

Through years and generations our Nation has found itself embroiled in warfare, whether in world wars, regional conflicts, or even a Civil War. Everyone knows the sick, heartbreaking feeling of watching flag-draped caskets unloaded from transport planes. A simple history lesson of Gettysburg is enough to elicit the deepest of emotions over lives lost. Sacrifice is nobel, but death is brutal.

Each time a friend’s child or spouse goes overseas to fight, we hold our collective breath for fear that the worst news will one day find its way home to their families. I hate that. WreathsWe all do.

But this weekend, let’s put the debate aside. Let’s thank God for those who gave ‘their last full measure of devotion.’ Let’s honor their sacrifices and long together for the day when all wars will end.

Let’s not get lost in political madness and philosophical diversions. Let’s not argue the merits of war versus pacifism. Let’s not be ‘Hawks’ or ‘Doves,’ Liberals or Conservatives. Let’s just stop and acknowledge that many have died. To their parents, their siblings and their children, loss is loss.

If you have ever visited the Viet Nam wall, then you know that one can hardly do so without discovering elderly parents or aging spouses and children – in tears – revisiting their grief and loss over the sacrifice of their loved ones.

MonumentSo let’s reflect on the fact our daughters and sons have given themselves for others, and let’s acknowledge that we are the beneficiaries of their sacrifices, and be thankful.

Together let’s believe that it wasn’t political posturing, or bloodlust that drew these precious individuals, but the sincere belief that even if they died, their sacrifice would have counted for something towards a more peaceful world.

And in remembering what has been given by men and women through the years in war and conflict, here in this broken, and often war-torn world, let’s consider Jesus, who ensures that one day all wars will cease, and because in Him, our war with the Father has been settled.

In His Sacrifice…

This is our good news.

Happy Memorial Day.

peace.

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Our Winding Stories

April 25, 2015 § 6 Comments

Armenians TogetherLast 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!

I love our people.Dad & Aunts

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.

Armenian Genocide

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.

Dad & MomMy 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.

Grandmas and meSo 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…

Khanaghutyun (peace).

Grandma & Papa

Sibs & Cousins

Cousins

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