January 31, 2015 § Leave a comment
“…I have come to believe that by and large the human family all has the same secrets, which are both very telling and very important to tell. They are telling in the sense that they tell what is perhaps the central paradox of our condition – that what we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else.”
Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets
We had a great laugh in our Ministers & Directors meeting last week, and it involved our new office phones. A few months ago we replaced our 25-year old system, and in our meeting we took time to enjoy the obligatory shared gripe session. We complained about how the speaker functions, how the buttons press down – all that minor stuff. And then one of us said, ‘You think that’s bad… I have six messages on my phone and I don’t know how to get to them!’ At that point all started laughing, because secretly we (mostly the guys, I hate to admit) all had the same problem. Of course it is almost a waste of space for me to say that this particular malady wasn’t the system’s fault!
Either way it was worth the laugh.
I am convinced that the greatest damage sin does to the human soul is found in its isolating power. Through the agency of shame, it has a way of driving us underground into secrecy for fear that exposure would further alienate us from those we know and love. We are secret carriers. Temptation finds us when we are vulnerable and alone, and then imprisons us in isolating guilt.
The Church hasn’t been too good at this whole sin and acceptance ‘thing.’ Our message is grace, but our practice often comes across as perfectionism. In spite of Paul’s assurance that our struggle with temptation is a common one (1 Corinthians 10:13), we can be terrified at the prospect of admitting our struggles. And so it is no wonder that people often feel more comfortable confessing their sins in the workplace than with fellow believers. It isn’t that there are more sinners there. It is that no one denies the struggle.
But the gospel presents a Deliverer who suffered and died in isolation, from friends, even from His Father, when He bore punishment for the very guilt that we hide in. And this means that we don’t have to hide.
Hey, until Jesus comes and renews the world, we will bear secrets. We’ll never feel perfectly safe in our fallen frames, and there is an argument to be made for oversharing, but every time we take the Bread and the Cup, together we publicly acknowledge that perfection isn’t the point, and that the Father loves us in spite of the fact that once again we didn’t make it through the week unscathed. And this simple acknowledgement draws us out of the shadows.
Friends, this is good news…
PS Enjoy the Super Bowl (and take the poll)!
August 30, 2014 § 5 Comments
Robert E. Webber, the Divine Embrace
Two weeks ago I posted on Robin Williams’ death with the hope of honoring the impact he has had in the life of my family, and our world. Additionally, I relayed that he had confessed the Faith, to express that regardless of what drove Williams to suicide, it could not negate the gospel’s power if he belonged to Jesus, fully expecting that some in the believing community would take issue with this (which proved to be true). But I stand by this.
What I didn’t expect was the backlash on the more incidental statements I made on suicide (that they are selfish and cowardly). I say, ‘incidental,’ and am admonished by treating any words lightly.
So let me begin by saying that I greatly appreciate the response! What a rich and rewarding conversation.
Unfortunately, as a pastor, I have always been on the survivors’ end of things – walking beside people in the aftermath of suicide, as they process their last conversations, their last arguments, and their own feelings of guilt, anger, devastation and sorrow. From the survivors’ perspective it always looks selfish, even cowardly.
But what I have learned is that for those who suffer from depression, it all looks the opposite. To the seriously depressed it seems the only unselfish thing left to do.
Here is what a new friend sent my way:
Until recently, I have hidden my struggle with depression. I felt ashamed, weak, lazy, selfish, sinful, and stupid for something I never knew is actually a disease. The chemicals and neurotransmitters in my brain that help stabilize moods don’t work as well as they should. It isn’t that much different from someone whose pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin… The words you chose to use in your blog, cowardice and selfishness, are condemning enough to shame me and lots of others into hiding again.
A long time friend offered this:
Yes, suicide is selfish for those left behind, in that the one considering it is only concerned about relieving his own pain. I would contend, however that with such tremendous pain, he is not choosing to put himself above all others, but rather is unable to see past himself.
Last year the New York Times published an article on suicide, noting that more people die from it annually than in auto accidents. I remember a Youth Workers Convention seminar Katherine and I attended in 1984 that reminded us that every attempt is serious, and will usually be followed up with another.
So to those I was insensitive to, please accept my sincere and heartfelt apologies.
I have a lot to learn. I guess we all do.
I’ll never forget a sermon by the great theologian and pastor, Sinclair Ferguson, who said that he believed that Jesus, in experiencing every human emotion, even battled mental illness in the Garden of Gethsemane.
All this to say that regardless of what we do and don’t understand about the workings of the human condition, fortunately, until He makes everything new, in Jesus we have a Redeemer who sympathizes with and fully grasps whatever darkness we live with – even if no one else can.
And that is very good news, friends…
Postscript: In his LAWeekly blog, Henry Rollins, a former Punk Rocker out of DC, recently wrote on suicide (in response to Williams’ death), and experienced a similar backlash that I did. His articles don’t come from a Christian perspective, and the language is rough, but I appreciate what he offers.
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…
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…
March 29, 2014 § Leave a comment
“God’s work to release himself from his suffering is his work to deliver the world from its agony… When God’s cup of suffering is full, our world’s redemption is fulfilled.” Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son
I had no idea that the extraction of a wisdom tooth could be so painful, though I consider anything done in my mouth while in the dentist’s chair to be an act of violence. I thought the guy was going to rip my jaw off my face! It was like he was going to crawl inside my mouth. Sure, I’m an unapologetic anti-dentite (though I denied this to him – he had tools and drills and stuff at his disposal – you know, live to fight another day, and all that…).
And then there was the pain afterwards. A few hours following the extraction (the term alone is enough to elicit screams of panic and shrieks of terror!), I had a late afternoon meeting. All I could think of was my poor mouth. My pain. Me! It was freezing outside and I was sweating and daydreaming of romantic encounters with Extra Strength Tylenol, holding my jaw in my hand, in agony (proving that I’m no faith-healer).
It didn’t help for our Director of Worship to ask, ‘Is it safe?’ (you have to know the horrific scene in Marathon Man to grasp the depth of cruelty in this person that amazingly, I call ‘friend’).
So it is with pain. It demands our undivided attention, reminding us that all is not well with our bodies. When in pain, it is difficult to think of anything else.
And mine only lasted a day. But the world has been in pain ever since the fall.
Just yesterday a friend posted his sorrows on the birthday of a son that he and his wife lost – he would have turned seven years old. It was so painful I could barely read it.
Pain puts us on notice: in our homes, in our relationships, our minds – wherever it touches. We are cruelly reminded that the world isn’t what it was intended to be.
Amazingly, in the Lenten season we actually celebrate Christ’s pain, because His ‘via dolorosa,’ was not only a path of suffering, but also the passageway to a healed world. One day, what we see and know and experience and avoid and collide with every single day – will pass.
This is the narrative we sometimes miss in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, when we reaffirm that though pain occupies a place at the table in a broken world, it will not be seated at the Feast of Jesus when He makes all things new.
What good news…
September 14, 2013 § 4 Comments
“Every night, friends. You have done what you could. Let it go. “Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson (via Fred Harrell)
This has been a crazy week in the life of our church Staff. In addition to preparations for worship, tomorrow evening we will share some vision with our church community. We have been in a focused planning mode for weeks, writing, talking, sharing, editing, revising, videoing and praying. So it was good to sneak away with Katherine to a movie last night. The movie was okay, but the company was fantastic.
It would be fair to say that on a practical level I don’t believe Emerson. On any given day my desk is cluttered with books, scriptures, papers, notes, letters, cups, pens, markers, letter openers, pictures, and lots, that is, tons – we’re talking piles and piles of things to do. Maybe that desk is reflective of my head and life, kind of in the way we guys assume it is for women and their purses (but why go there?!).
This morning as I left my office for Starbucks, I reflected on this, and the conclusions were like those personality tests where you feel great when you see your good qualities, and then turn to despair over the negative results. While I have the capacity to get a lot done in a day, there are darker angels that shape my profile, and one of them has to do with an unwillingness to stop.
I don’t want to get too deep here, but there seems to be something terribly idolatrous about an unwillingness to let go of the day. In one sense, we are always unfinished, so to hold on is to galvanize a moment God intended to pass, in taking us to the next. The cost can be immense, and the joy we are intended to experience each new day – with those we love, and even within ourselves, is often squandered in restlessness.
The alternative is to flee to Jesus – to actually stop and believe that His invitation to come to Him with our weariness (Matthew 11:28-30) will relieve us of the impossible burden of finding our value in work, and the other unfinished realities of our lives.
Friends, this is good news we can rest in…
September 7, 2013 § Leave a comment
“When we die, we lose whatever grip we had on our unreconciled version of our lives. And when we rise at the last day, the only grip in which our lives will be held will be the reconciling grip of Jesus’ resurrection. He will hold our lives mended, cleaned, and pressed in his hand, and he will show them to his Father. And his Father, seeing the only real you or me there is to see, will say, ‘Wonderful! Just what I had in mind.’ He will say over the Word’s new creation of us at the last day exactly what he said over the Word’s first creation of us on the sixth day: ‘Very good!'”
Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment
The picture in this post was taken from the top outer deck at M&T Bank Stadium as a friend and I headed home from a Baltimore Ravens pre-season game. I love going to the games (hint, hint, not-so-subtle hint! H-I-N-T!!!).
As with my home City, Baltimore has a breathtaking skyline. To approach Baltimore from I-95 is a spectacular experience. It emerges from the water, with steeples, fly-overs, old and new buildings, constructed from brick, glass and concrete. Katherine and I still remember driving through Baltimore in 1984, because of the huge smoke stack that has the word, ‘BALTIMORE’ painted sideways, up and down the entire cylinder.
The other night, as we walked down that ramp, a train moved beside the stadium (something else I love), and spray painted on one car were the words, ‘No Hope.’ Baltimore has a lot of pain and pathos as well as beauty. And this is who we are. In some way, we are like cities with beautiful skylines. However within the beauty are things that aren’t so pretty: our sin, our wounds, our scars, our regrets, our shame – you name it, the list is a long one.
Our instinct is to not only hide this, but to generate the impression that it doesn’t even exist! But it does, and to hide only erodes us internally and diminishes God’s lovely work of grace within us. Friends, this isn’t what God wants – or likes. The gospel restores our native value and beauty (theologians call this the image of God) as we let go of the need to have it all together, in reality, and in appearances. And amazingly, it gives us permission to be concurrently restored while also a mess – until Jesus comes. In fact part of what makes our restored selves so beautiful to an observing world, is that we belong to a God that loves us on the skyline and deep into the pathos of the City.
What good news…
April 6, 2013 § 2 Comments
It’s happened. Don’t you get it? It’s tomorrow! – Phil Connors, Groundhog Day
One of my all-time favorite movies is Groundhog Day (already alluded to once on this on this blog). It is the story of a weatherman who gets lost in one particular day (Groundhog Day) that continually repeats itself over and again. It is obviously an extended period, because over time he learns how to masterfully carve ice, play professional jazz piano and perform life-saving acts – all on the same day.
With the Easter season behind, a prevailing thought for me is, what now? The chocolate bunnies have been eaten and most of our Peeps (yummy!) have been beheaded and devoured – what do we do with our lives now that we are back to the ordinary?
By way of confession, with celebrations such as Easter, for a pastor the very human instinct is to feel the proverbial ‘letdown.’ In the process one becomes lost in a moment.
For Phil Connors, the main character in Groundhog Day (played by Bill Murray), the point is that he is full of himself, trapped in a world that only has room for what he wants, when he wants it. Sadly, I resonate (ask Katherine – she will confirm). And it isn’t until he realizes that he is on the planet to live for someone other than himself that he begins to accept his strange circumstance, and ultimately find relief from the imprisonment of that particular day (and ultimately, himself).
The resurrection isn’t the end of the Christian’s story – it is the beginning. And only the risen Christ can inform our hearts that we are free from the tyranny of self, and what He will do with the rest of our lives. But because we are unfinished we will always trend towards what is behind us.
Imperfect as it is, the past is safe while the future represents the unknown, and threatens to take us out of our comforts – out of our selves – this can be terrifying. But the risen Jesus invites us to enter into the wild unknown of His hopeful future with the promises that He will be with us (Matthew 28:20), and that He is making all things new (Revelation 21:5). It is an invitation to get over ourselves and find ourselves, all at the same time.
What a relief, and what good news…
PS I am taking a few weeks to retool and learn some things about blogging and design that will make for some changes. See you then!
March 4, 2013 § 1 Comment
N.T. Wright, For All The Saints
Forgive a belated post. I spent the last five days in Atlantic City, New Jersey, with a team of nine that did restoration work in a community ravaged by Hurricane Sandy. Three teams worked in three different homes, and one church. The before-and-after images of the homes two of the teams spackled, sanded and painted had to bring unexpected delight to the folks whose living spaces were invaded by the storm’s violence.
The team I served on laid a kitchen floor after stopping a radiator leak, first by constructing a sub-floor. The project involved a healthy chunk of time measuring and re-measuring every contour of the floor’s layout, then in cutting large blanks of thin plywood (sub-floor), gluing, driving screws, rolling, and then gluing again in order to situate the new floor into place.
For us novices, this installation was a two-and-a-half day project. Those who spackled, sanded and painted would say the same. Paid professionals would knock this stuff out in no time. We were doing our part.
It will be years before Jersey and other affected states are able to finally put the storm behind them. More remains to be done than has already been accomplished. This is the way of such devastation.
But it is also the way of healing.
As we debriefed one evening, it occurred to us that this is the way the Gospel enters, in the way Jesus would simply enter into a town or village, and brings flourishing into brokenness, at every level – a heart, a life, a home, even a community. You can break it down further: Injured marriages, failing cities, broken relationships and damaged memories all heal in the same way.
Even if one could point to a moment, it is rare that everything happened in a particular instance. No, it is normally after many dynamics converge into a quantifiable point in time. This after brokenness was unearthed, damage was acknowledged, and deep need and despair were felt. The sub-floor of brokenness.
And then, healing came.
When we enter into a broken community, or start a new church, or encourage a hurting neighbor, we do what the gospel does – we come to them, not to fix (because we can’t), but to enter into a greater narrative in God’s work of healing the whole world.
Last week, in the process we met friends we may never again see until the Feast. But for them, and for us, the gospel had come in a fresh and beautiful way – to all of us, just as it always does – with salvation and healing, hope and renewal.
It comes to a world that will remain unfinished, a world populated with people equally incomplete – until Jesus finishes what He has inaugurated – until He satisfies every yearning, heals every neighborhood and reconciles every broken part of His good creation.
And this just floors me…
It is the good news.
January 26, 2013 § 1 Comment
This week marks the 40th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision to legalize abortion in the U.S. My friend and fellow blogger Tom wrote thoughtfully and passionately on the issue in his current post and it is well worth the read. I want to offer thoughts on the subject with hopes that an often-disregarded dimension might be considered.
First, I am pro-life. I offer this humbly and with deep conviction. In spite of the Church’s often insensitive and clumsy way of dealing with moral and cultural issues, I am convinced and bound by the undeniable biblical premise that God alone gives and takes life. And I believe that every abortion ends the life of a living baby. I know how thoughtless this must sound coming from a man, when in fact it is women who become pregnant – I get that. Really I do.
But for the Christ-follower, male or female, this isn’t a matter of choice beyond choices that have already been made by the time pregnancy occurs. It is about God’s prerogative to bring life into the world and the value we are called to treat life with – Life we see at birth and life we recognize even while still in the womb.
And what this means is that neither politics nor gender issues are the Church’s rationale for such conviction. Which makes it all the more difficult, because I am convinced that we are not a political organization and have wasted far too much credibility in our often-pitiful attempts to play with weapons of the flesh rather than those of the Spirit. But we are called to something.
There is a peculiar verse in Exodus 7 where God tells Moses, ‘…I have made you like God to Pharaoh…’ (vs. 1). He could simply have given Moses a plan to execute, but He adds this little statement, meaning that Moses would essentially be the divine presence of God on behalf of an oppressed people – to their oppressor. He would give them voice. This is the way God works. He always calls on the strong to champion the plight of the weak. Jesus never failed to notice, care for and serve the broken, and He would pass this principle down to the Church in His simple words, ‘In as much as you have done it to the least of these…’
In other words, the Church has been called to recognize and champion the weak, the broken and powerless as if it were God Himself doing the caring.
Because He is.
The scriptures call this justice.
But here is the thing – I know women who have had abortions – old and young women – women I hold dear – women who love Christ and His Church. Hurting women – women who carry sorrow with them – years of sorrow. Someone’s daughter – Someone’s mother – Someone’s sister. Women who feel they could never share their stories with the Church for fear of being driven more deeply into shame. And not only women who acted out of their own shortsightedness and selfishness, but women whose parents were more concerned for their own reputations, and pressured their confused and terrified daughters into abortions. Women whose husbands and boyfriends declared that love would be abandoned if they had their babies. Women whose pastors agreed it wise to quietly put their troubles behind. My blood boils as I think of these sweet women. This is what happens when it is personal – and it is. I see faces and names – and that is a good thing. And this means that I owe something to the women I don’t know as well.
You see, their lives matter too. And no amount of railing and accusation on my part, or on the part of the Church, can make them feel worse about themselves than they already do. And why would we any way? What they need is what everyone needs, what I need, and what we so passionately proclaim – that Jesus has the power and desire to heal our wounds and forgive our sins. That none of us is damaged goods to the One who makes all things new.
Here is the thing, friends: If the Church has ‘been made like God’ to the weak, then it has utterly failed in her mission for not recognizing the fragility of these dear and wounded ones.
In fact, I believe the Church has forgotten this many times over, and in her zeal to stand for truth she has often insensitively trampled the sorrows of many, and has violated the very principle of the value of life that she claims to champion in the first place, leaving many to feel as though they are damaged goods we are trying to sweep the world clean of. And this simply isn’t good enough.
And I guess this is where I want to land. Because the Church isn’t called to converge on Washington DC, though it should be unashamed in seeking justice for the unborn. It converges at the Cross. And whether in the womb, on the ground, or near the end of life, the Church is bound to love the weak, and to do so with such force of love, peace and grace, that any would feel safe to come out from hiding and rush to taste the sweet, healing waters of Jesus, the One who became sin and shame for us, that we may be made righteous – through no goodness of our own.
That would be such good news…