September 2, 2020 § Leave a comment
“And as he passed by…”
Have you ever noticed how some of Jesus’ most profound encounters happened along the way? His healings, teachings, confrontations, and encouragements occurred as he passed through towns and villages. Though not immune to exhaustion, he was remarkably accessible – along the way.
The picture in this post is from the summit at Waterrock Knob in the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina. I was amazed at how difficult the last half-mile of the climb was, and had to stop several times to catch my breath – and legs. However, as I ascended, this young couple bounded from behind, and whether out of pity, or just kindness, then made the rest of the climb with me. Atop the mountain, we learned one another’s stories, talked life, work, faith, God’s grace, and the beauty of our surroundings, then took pictures and exchanged information.
We were not put on the planet to live for ourselves. The most miserable people I know do. Unfortunately all of us fight this demon to some degree, and preachers are no exception! So, file this in the ‘take-it-from-one-who-knows’ category. We are naturally self-centered.
Six years ago I uploaded a video that within weeks was viewed nearly one-million times (made you look!). It was featured on the Jimmy Kimmel show! Hitting one million views became my not-so-secret obsession. I would text the YouTube address to close friends, knowing they would open it, and add to the much-coveted views. But YouTube added a demonic feature that enabled unwitting victims to get a sneak preview of what they received, and my self-serving scheme was dashed to pieces just 34,046 views short of one million (not that anyone was counting) – Curses!
Standing in contrast to a culture obsessed with clicks, self, and from-a-distance reality – is Jesus, who modeled the face-to-face, social construct-defying principle that we find our lives by giving them away in self-denial and servanthood, one person at a time.
Our ‘made-you-look’ society reflects our ugliest narcissistic tendencies, and in the process, robs us of life and love along the way.
But a world of opportunity is out there for those who escape themselves to enter the journey, and someone needs you along the way. Someone you likely haven’t yet met. Someone wondering if they should abandon the climb, walk away from it all, or just give up hope.
So, get moving. Trust me – you will get tired of you! And the world awaits!
After all, we live in the assurance of the gospel – that regardless of our own circumstances, it is not beyond the scope of a Savior who is constantly passing by, to enter, heal, and forgive, along the way. Jesus is no static concept. His cross and resurrection ensure that the possibility of his intervention in our lives is as real as it was when he bore flesh and walked the planet.
Friends, this is good news…
grace & peace.
August 12, 2020 § Leave a comment
“Who shapes the very nature of your being from day to day?”
Robert Webber, the Divine Embrace
We love certainty, and we hate pain. Both are undeniably human, and they shape us more than we may realize.
We want to be able to foresee outcomes and determine whether they will be good or bad, before making decisions. At the heart of this is our preoccupation with control.
This preoccupation drives myriad decisions, all intended to manage disappointment. But living out of this rubric enslaves us to outcomes. It also robs us of the learning curves that accompany failure. Every successful person will tell you that they learned more from their failures than their successes.
The scriptures are loaded with examples of God’s people being instructed to head in one direction. The results of doing otherwise are almost always disastrous, and they are rooted in fear and control – refusing to believe that God can – or has the right to – determine what is best for one’s life.
The delusion of control is universal. We can actually convince ourselves to believe that if we maintain our grip, we can manage life’s expectations, while limiting disappointment. Christian bookstores used to be loaded with spiritualized self-help books – all aimed at one objective: to avoid pain! They ranged from raising perfect children, to overcoming temptation, protecting against failure, and conquering depression. Sadly, that’s the short list.
The carnage has been extensive, littering the ecclesiastical landscape with devastated parents, disenfranchised believers, confused sinners, indifferent young people, and angry Christians who rightly believe they have been sold a bill of goods.
“…though the Lord give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself anymore, but your eyes shall see your Teacher. And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it,’ when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left.” – Isaiah 30:20-21
Do you hear the reality in these words?! God doesn’t promise smooth sailing. He offers Himself, to guide us through.
But getting there is more than a declaration. It begins with admitting our unholy determination to be in charge, and takes us through the winding process of repentance over self-rule, and then continues by demanding the daily offering of our constant determination to take over, anchored in the belief that we are unconditionally loved by the Father.
The fact is that failure and pain are hardwired to our deeper fear of abandonment – of being unloved. But on the Cross, Jesus experienced both unfathomable physical torment and unthinkable desertion, and in his resurrection he purchased a life of peace – which is found, not in the madness and delusion of control, but by trusting God, who opens for us the gates of wholeness and unspeakable joy – in everything.
Only the gospel is our good news…
grace & peace.
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 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)!
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…
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…
June 7, 2014 § Leave a comment
Rufio, ‘Lost Boy’ to Peter Pan in Hook
If you have ever simultaneously known exactly where you were, and at the same time were completely lost, then you understand how I felt the other day in downtown Baltimore. After parking, I began to walk in the direction of a hospital where one of our Members was recovering from surgery. However in spite of the fact that I was headed on the right street towards the building I knew to be two blocks away, at some point I realized that I had no idea where I was!
The buildings were so tall that I couldn’t see anything other than structures immediately in front of me, and I got disoriented. Fortunately a nurse who was obviously headed to the same hospital, pointed to the building next to us when I inquired as to its location.
Yes, it was that close.
There are correlations with the Christian journey. I can know the direction, the rules, the promises, and everything else about a given situation, but then still find myself lost, missing the point. Strangely it often seems as though it is when I’m following the rules and walking rightly (according to my standards, of course) that I am most unnerved when things don’t add up, because everything inside of me says that God owes me for my presumed goodness.
Eventually this flawed thinking prevented Moses from entering the Promised Land (don’t worry, his story ended good!). God had used him in leading His people, but rather than see his own relative weakness, Moses presumed himself to be more than he was, and in doing so, he got lost – in plain sight.
I do too.
In other words, my self-righteousness is exposed, and I am utterly (and mercifully) derailed, until freshly reminded that the rules have never been the story…
…Living in His delight is.
Ironically, it is the admission of our inability to wrap our arms around life and faith and righteousness that we become unloosened from those terrible chains of perfectionism and self-consumption, and begin to understand the gospel’s beauty – that God is a Father who desires us more than we could ever keep up.
And that is very good news, friends…
April 19, 2014 § 1 Comment
Fred Harrell, Sr. Pastor, City Church San Francisco
In just a few hours our church grounds will be swarmed and traversed by hundreds of children in search of even more goodies that have been hidden in plain sight at our annual Easter Egg Hunt. It is one of the more delightful things we do during the Easter season at our church, and a sweet interlude in the reflective observance of Jesus’ death. It occurs on the day that commemorates Jesus’ last day in the tomb before the Resurrection, and I have to think that the joyful laughter of children is a fitting expression of our confidence that Jesus didn’t remain in the grave.
This past January our community was rocked by a senseless shooting at the mall from which I post this blog. Understandably the Zumiez store shut down. But I was glad to recently notice that they are undertaking whatever restoration work is needed to once again open their doors to the public.
Though I’m not quite certain what was going on in the grave on that day before the Resurrection, or the day before for that matter, I do know that it was good, and that there is something in the silence that is good for my soul.
In some way it is representative of our lives here on this still-injured planet as we await Jesus’ return. We are His, and we are redeemed, but we wait, trusting that His healing work continues, even when undetectable.
While the Cross insures that our sins have been paid for, and the Resurrection that our eternity is secure, it is the Grave that hits me where I am, every day in the struggle, and reminds me that I can hang in there.
I can hang in there through the adversity.
I can hang in there when I am weak.
I can hang in there when my sin drives me to fall before the Throne in sorrow.
I can hang in there when I am assaulted by doubt and unbelief.
I can hang in there even when I don’t want to hang in there.
“…he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us…” – Hosea 6:1a-2b
I can hang in there, that is, I can trust Him, because on that quiet day, Jesus lay in the Grave. But He didn’t stay there.
And this means that even God’s silence is saturated with healing properties that bear testimony to the fact that the Father delights in calling us His.
So I can hang in there. And so can you.
What good news…
April 18, 2014 § Leave a comment
“The ‘problem of evil’ is not simply or purely a ‘cosmic’ thing; it is also a problem about me. And God has dealt with that problem on the cross of his Son, the Messiah… The cross is the place where, and the means by which, God loved us to the uttermost.” N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God
We will soon gather for our Good Friday service. There will be readings, song, prayer, silence, even incense, and then one of our pastors will nourish our souls as he reflects on Jesus and His Cross. One of the things that strikes me in the gospel is that it never gets old. Last month Katherine and I saw the Eagles in concert. This summer we will hear Billy Joel and James Taylor. We love these guys, and others like them. But sometimes as we are making our way home, we wonder out loud how many times they must have had to sing the same songs over and again through the decades, in countless venues around the world. How old that must get.
But not the gospel. No, it is fresh with each telling because every time we reflect on Christ’s great work we are freshly drawn into both the great price He paid and the amazing love He displayed on our behalf. At the heart of of John’s vision in the book of Revelation, is Jesus and His Cross. He is ‘the Lamb who was slain’ (5:12).
It is all so personal. In the Cross my sin was placed entirely on Jesus, the precious Lamb of God, our great High Priest and undefiled Sacrifice at one and the same time. The Father’s wrath was satisfied in the death of His very own Son, and my redemption was secured. I am forgiven. And with every retelling I discover new contours of my unworthiness and Christ’s amazing act of love, as though hearing it for the first time.
How else can we respond other than with Isaac Watts’ 1707 hymn, “Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.”
Such good news…
The Cross is the hope of Christians
The Cross is the resurrection of the dead
The Cross is the way of the lost
The Cross is the savior of the lost
The Cross is the staff of the lame
The Cross is the guide of the blind
The Cross is the strength of the weak
The Cross is the doctor of the sick
The Cross is the aim of the priests
The Cross is the hope of the hopeless
The Cross is the freedom of the slaves
The Cross is the power of the kings
The Cross is the water of the seeds
The Cross is the consolation of the bondmen
The Cross is the source of those who seek water
The Cross is the cloth of the naked.
We thank you, Father, for the Cross.
— 10th Century African Hymn
April 5, 2014 § 1 Comment
With a wedding to perform and our own daughter’s forthcoming wedding, my plan was to let the blog go today (translation: a vacuum of good ideas), but then, sitting in the office, preparing for the wedding, a post presented itself.
When in my office, I listen to music – anything from classical to classic rock, to present-day rock, to mellow tunes, to country, to show tunes, and everything in between.
This morning, as the classic rock song list played, Elton John’s Someone Saved My Life Tonight, came on. It was a hit in the 70’s (not mine – still making my way there!) from his Captain Fantastic & the Brown Dirt Cowboy album. I am embarrassed to admit that I gave that album to a girl I was dating (I wonder if I could get that album back)…
Back then, you had two practical choices if you wanted to listen to music. Either you put an 8-Track tape in the player in your car, or you listened on vinyl, also known as an LP Record. An LP is a big flat, pizza-shaped piece of plastic with grooves in it. An amplified needle would move within the grooves to produce the sound. The thing with an LP is that if it became scratched, then the song would skip.
As I sang along this morning, when it came to the place in the song where John sings the words, ‘…in my darkest dreams…’, whereas he continues with the next written lyrics, I sang along as I had when I would play my scratched LP. Even though the MP3 didn’t skip, I did!
At first I laughed it off, and was amazed that I probably haven’t sung the song correctly since before my LP got scratched. Then it struck me that when I am honest, deep within, I am prone to believe the lie that I am a damaged tune rather than the new song that has been composed into my life in the gospel.
It isn’t an acceptance of my brokenness, but a rejection of it. Or more accurately, a rejection of God’s grace, that in Jesus the Father loves me, and sees me and accepts me – as whole, which means that the song we will one day sing when heaven and earth become one, is already playing on my behalf.
What good news…