August 19, 2020 § 2 Comments
“God’s design for human flourishing cannot be satisfied in isolation.”
James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom
Reunion has been on my mind lately. Our church returned to in-person worship last Sunday, after nearly half-a-year in isolation. It was more than we hoped for. We met outdoors and were greeted with beautiful weather. The music and the atmosphere were electric. But it was the people coming together, masked-face-to-masked-face – people who had not seen one another in months, that made the evening what it was.
Whenever I think of reunion, I am taken to the Allman Brothers Band’s song Revival. It was used one year in a Publix commercial as the backdrop for a family reunion because the song carries that sense of joy. The video is posted below – Don’t listen to the theology – just turn up the volume, sit back, and enjoy the music. Publix is a growing Florida-based grocery chain.
On Sunday evening I reminded our church community that isolation is a byproduct of the fall. Like our God who lives within the mysterious community that is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we were designed to live in relationship with one another. When Adam and Eve sinned, humankind was thrown into a world of isolation that societies, governments, nations, and individuals have never been able to break through with sustained success. The Cross is God’s answer to the world’s isolation, reconciling a fallen humanity to Himself, through the sacrifice of Jesus, who endured the isolation of hell’s torment in order to break the curse of Eden.
This busts open the doors to forgiveness, healing, and reconciled relationships, and represents the triumph of God’s grace, where everything we cannot reconcile in this life, will be healed and brought to closure in eternity, all the fruit of God’s unfailing love.
The fact is that as wonderful as last Sunday was for our church, it wasn’t all it could have been. Many among our church community could not attend due to the health risk. We are not whole until we are wholly reunited.
Through years, God seasons our lives with dear relationships that help shape us. These relationships are only separated by geography or death.
However great joy awaits all who belong to Jesus, when together we are Reunited with “a great multitude that no one could number” (Revelation 7:9), when heaven and earth are one in God’s new world.
How sweet that will be…
grace & peace.
June 24, 2020 § Leave a comment
“This moment contains all moments.”
C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
To follow Jesus’ public ministry is to observe someone who was captured by every moment, the good and the bad. Every encounter. Every outing. Every criticism. Every conflict. Every town and village, community and neighborhood. Each presented opportunities that he exploited for good, in which he saw opportunities to teach, heal, serve, encourage, and inspire.
Jesus lived in the moment.
It wasn’t that he moved without vision or purpose. Jesus was a man on a mission. Luke 9:51 reveals his determination to go to Jerusalem – to die. His reason for being on the earth drove his moment-by-moment passion and actions.
There were no wasted moments. Each person represented an opportunity to put God’s Kingdom on display.
The healings. The feedings. The teachings. The casting out of demons. The rebukes. Every meal. Every confrontation. Every moment, from early morning hours, to evening fishing expeditions. Every blow of his executioners. Jesus capitalized on every moment to teach us the good news of the gospel.
I want my life to reflect this. But here’s what I think happens – Rather than see present moments as opportunities, we allow those that have come and gone to define us – especially the hard ones.
Here’s what Jesus is teaching me lately: That the best way to discard dreadful moments that are behind me, is to begin by letting go of past glories. Even referring to them as such is revealing, isn’t it?
There is wisdom in Paul’s words (Philippians 3:13b-14) – “…one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
It bears consideration that we tend to struggle to let go of past painful moments, because we are also fiercely determined to hold on to past glories, when in fact, both cause self-destructive patterns in the present.
Sure, we will say and do things that affect the rest of our lives, and therefore each action is to be measured carefully. And I would say that most of the sadness that I encounter in ministry, is due to regret over the past: Past sins, past decisions, past relationships, past struggles, you name it. I struggle with my own!
But the grace of God ensures that your darkest moments, even those due to regrettable decisions, will be recycled into gracious expressions that could only be forged in the kiln of forgiveness.
There is no turning back. What will you do with this moment?
Friend, if you follow Jesus, then you are not doing time! You belong to the Eternal One who stands above time! How else could he assure a dying thief that on that very day they would meet again – in Paradise?
Here is the Thing: Holding on will always be what holds us back. But in Jesus, then you can be assured that the moment – this moment – is crammed with opportunities to flourish, and to testify to the God who doesn’t hold our pasts against us, while inviting us into the wild adventure of His goodness and grace – right now.
What news could be better?
grace & peace.
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…”
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.
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.
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.
July 11, 2015 § 1 Comment
Eugene H. Peterson, Leap Over a Wall
Katherine and I were blown away by an unexpected gift from a college friend who sent us front row tickets to a Cirque du Soleil performance of Verekai in Baltimore this past week. The athleticism, strength, beauty and choreography were stunning. The music was mesmerizing and the set and costumes were beautiful. This particular production follows two people from birth to marriage, and ends with the wedding, replete with triumphant music, spectacular gymnastics and the falling of rose petals.
It was breathtaking.
I was reminded of Frederick Buechner’s description (in his book The Longing for Home of a visit to Sea World in Orlando, and a confluence of nature, beasts and mankind, leaving Buechner (whose birthday is today) with a glimpse of what God had always intended.
And this took me to Eugene Peterson’s description of his dad, a local butcher, whom he came to see as more than a guy who cut meat, but in this capacity, also a priest to their community.
In Christian circles we speak of ‘the priesthood of believers,’ which is another way of saying that every Christ-follower is called to be to the world and one another what Jesus has been to us, a healing presence that sacrificially loves and serves for the sake of others, out of a vision of flourishing that will one day accompany the new heavens and new earth.
John the disciple takes this further by saying that we are “a kingdom of priests to his [speaking of Jesus] God and Father…”
When you put it all together (because it is all intended to be so) we find that our vocations, along with our natural surroundings and abilities are all woven into a larger mosaic of beauty that not only displays hope before a broken world, but one that also reaches the Father who is every bit as invested (and more) as we are in the promise of new things.
Friends, as stunning as Cirque du Soleil was, this is even more so…
June 6, 2015 § Leave a comment
“…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…
April 25, 2015 § 6 Comments
Last 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!
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.
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.
My 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.
So 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…
March 28, 2015 § 1 Comment
“Despair and hope. They travel the road to Jerusalem together, as together they travel every road we take – despair at what in our madness we are bringing down on our own heads and hope in him who travels the road with us and for us and who is the only one of us all who is not mad. Hope in the King who approaches every human heart like a city. And it is a very great hope as hopes go and well worth all our singing and dancing and sad little palms because not even death can prevail against this King and not even the end of the world, when end it does, will be the end of him and of the mystery and majesty of his love. Blessed be he.”
This past week a dear woman died of cancer. You may have heard of Kara Tippetts, a young wife and mother in Colorado, who, along with her husband Jason, a church planter, and their four precious children, chronicled their journey and their hope in Jesus. Their story is profoundly inspiring.
Cancer and Death, Jesus and Hope – How can this be?
For those who may not know, Palm Sunday is the celebration of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem one week before His crucifixion. It was the time of the Jewish Passover, and hundreds of thousands filled the city, many of whom converged on Jesus as He rode in, believing Him to be their promised Deliverer (which He was, only not as they expected).
Every emotion was captured in the moment. The crowd expressed elation. Critics seethed. Children cried out.
But Jesus wept.
Through His tears, He cried, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes” (Luke 19:42).
His sadness was over a city and people who lived as though this is all we have. And I get that – I am inclined towards seeing life and the world through the spectrum of ‘now,’ and when the ravages of the curse hit so violently, such as in the death of a young mom, it is difficult to get beyond the pain and loss. And all the pontificating in the world won’t make that pain subside.
And it would all be so hopeless, except for one thing: Jesus didn’t come to fix ‘today.’
I know this sounds harsh, but it is where our true hope lies. ‘Today’ is part of the damaged litany of this broken world. Fixing right now would only bring temporary relief, and spawn new sorrows for tomorrow. But what Jesus did, in His death and resurrection, enables me to endure the worst of todays, because it promises that forever is a settled matter for the good. No, Jesus came to fix forever.
One day all the pain, sorrow and death that this world brings, will be gone. The gospel teaches that after Jesus wept, He died – and then He conquered. And now He prepares the Feast we will one day share, when everything is made new.
Kara understood and firmly believed this: “My pain is gone, my fears are calmed, I’m in the sovereignly good hands of Jesus. He is my forever enough now.” – Letter to My Readers Upon My Death
Friends, this is our good news…
Photograph by Jen Lints Photography
February 21, 2015 § 2 Comments
Eugene H. Peterson, Leap Over A Wall
If you know anything about my work habits, you know that my sermon prep is a crazy time of prayer, solitude, music, study, distraction, desperation, and more prayer. It begins in my office on Thursday, and ends there early Sunday morning, with hours at ‘my’ Starbucks in between. This is my groove.
And when it is interrupted my world tips off its axis.
All of which leads to early last Thursday morning, when our daughter Emily called. She had a flat tire on a major highway leading into and out of Baltimore. Long story short, I ended up spending most of Thursday in a Firestone with a manager who reminded me of Newman on Seinfeld, in a community known as Reisterstown, just beyond the city. The store was situated on a loud, busy road. So there I was – no books, no office, no playlists, no groove!
Instead I was confined to a crowded room with strangers – you know, the people types. One lady was a night guard who worked the night shift. Another loudly cursed into her phone, enraged with a family member, while simultaneously giving us the play-by-play. Another changed her baby’s diaper on the chairs in front of the television beside the coffee maker that smelled as though it had been brewing for weeks. Game shows gave way to talk shows, and finally soap operas.
Somewhere around Noon I was expected on a conference call, and for an hour I walked around the store, in and among people, tires and furniture, and sometimes outside, in 14-degree weather. At meeting’s end, the leader asked me to pray. So, there in the Firestone, I got into a corner (pictured above), and prayed.
And when I opened my eyes, I was in a sanctuary.
Eugene Peterson writes of God’s people and how simple elements like rocks and animals, water, fire and hills were employed in worship when gathering and temples were not options. I think of Jesus, who worshiped early in the Temple, on a mountain in the morning, at the banquet of His betrayal, in the garden, and even on the Cross. It was never about perfect circumstances, and always about the very present God.
It turned out that I needed that place and those people and our daughter’s crisis more than I needed my office. The Father was at Firestone and He wanted me there.
It was in that Sanctuary that retail chairs transformed into pews, garage workers served as priests, customers became fellow worshippers, the seating arrangement, our confessional, our stories the liturgy, and the smell of new rubber combined with burnt coffee, the incense of our shared need.
Free from the ordinary, the world appeared a little clearer, and my sermon a bit less daunting. A letter I intended for a friend took shape, and heart. Texts with my wife, sermon notes, and thoughts of God’s protection over our daughter, songs of thanksgiving and praise.
Friends, find your sanctuary.
And discover once again, that it is the Father who has found you.
What good news…
February 14, 2015 § 2 Comments
I wanted to take a moment to write and offer thoughts on the recent events in your very high profile and public life. One can’t imagine the constant scrutiny you must constantly live under in your position.
So first, we like you – a lot. We probably don’t share your politics, and our convictions may not fully align, but you possess a unique gift that transcends alignment. We watch NBC News, chiefly because of how personally and ‘humanly’ you deliver the day’s events. We love how you ‘enter’ into stories, and particularly the more heartwarming ones. Only this week we learned that you are younger than we are. For whatever reason I’ve always assumed that our news anchor would be older than I am, like Presidents and Sunday School Teachers (hey, I’m a pastor). We have written a letter to NBC on your behalf with hopes that you will be restored after your suspension.
We hope this because we live in a largely graceless world. David Brooks has written beautifully to this, and I echo his sentiments. And NBC now has a rare opportunity to do what many have failed or refused to do with past failures, and that is to say with their actions that redemption is better than perfection, and that along with justice; mercy and forgiveness are indispensible to human flourishing.
You have an opportunity as well, Brian. I have no idea what drove you to lie, but I hope you’ll deal with it – for you and those you love. I hope you will do the hard, brutal and agonizing work of facing your demons, acknowledging your failures and admitting whatever is true. I offer this as an insider to human failure, due to my own sin. If you do this, regardless of what comes of your life professionally, you will heal. Because whatever success we realize or heights we scale, we bring our brokenness with us – our stories follow us. We are always more than what others see from the outside.
You are more than the sum total of your public persona, and this transcends whether or not you are restored. To discover – or rediscover this – is to be free. Hey, Brian, what you have done is not remotely the end of the world, but hoping it will all go away without the hard and painful work of deep self-reflection and healing, sort of is.
So whether or not you are restored to your former position, we can’t wait to see how the broken pieces of your life come together in a narrative that is far more real and compelling than one that comes from hiding and fear.
And I would be remiss by failing to say that as Christ-followers, the God we worship is one who rather than avoid our brokenness, entered into it, into the dark places we hide – where we really live and where we are most wounded and insecure, in order to redeem and make us whole.
For this reason our message is called, ‘good news.’
Because it is…
Hang in there.
January 24, 2015 § 1 Comment
Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be
So here I am, jumping on the bandwagon, capitalizing on the New England Patriots’ latest scandal (it isn’t their first). This one involves the National Football League’s standard for game ball inflation. It has been determined that in the first half of last week’s AFC Championship Game against the professional football team from Indianapolis (you have to live in Baltimore to understand this designation), the Patriots had the advantage of underinflated footballs (I’ve never been so careful with wording), thus giving their Quarterback, Tom Brady, an edge in gripping the ball under adverse conditions (rain and ice).
To the uninformed, that is, to those who don’t give a rip about football, this is cheating – it is a violation of the rules of fair play.
All of which begs the question: So why did they do it? The Patriots’ organization is one of the most successful in professional sports history. Their Head Coach is the best in the NFL and perhaps ever, and their Quarterback one of the greatest to play the game.
Added to the mix in all this is that it had no bearing whatsoever on the outcome of the football game. New England won 45-7. In fact they scored more points in the second half when the balls were at regulation compression. Far and away, New England was the better team.
So why cheat?
Actually it is for the same reason that we cut corners, flirt with moral disaster, find ways to bend the rules and give in to temptation. In fact, now that I think about it, it is the reason I take some kind of twisted delight in the Patriots’ current woes.
The short answer is sin, but more to the point, from the moment Adam and Eve played off script and ate the forbidden fruit, our hunger to be God has been insatiable. We don’t just want to win, we want to rule. It isn’t so much about cheating, as it is our repulsion with being restrained by rules, limits, and in the end – by God.
Yet before Adam and Eve transgressed, they already had everything the serpent promised them. How sad.
If the Patriots win the Super Bowl (the NFL’s championship game), they will always carry with them the blemish of this scandal – and they didn’t need to. How deflating (oh come on, I had to take at least one shot!).
Fortunately, even though we can’t fix our condition, God has remedied it in the death and resurrection of Christ. This means that our response is not to press that natural bent to rule through overtly religious channels (we Christians may be the most contrived species on the planet), but to come clean and acknowledge weakness.
This simple admission will never make us perfect. It is the posture of children who remember that they are always safest and most valued, when they rest in the presence, love and delight of their Father.
What good, sweet news…