‘In My Darkest Dreams…’ (aka someone saved my blog tonight)

April 5, 2014 § 1 Comment

Record “To live by grace means to acknowledge my whole life story, the light side and the dark.” Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel

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.

No scratches.

No skips.

What good news…

peace.

Donut Grace

September 28, 2013 § Leave a comment

DDonuts “Encountering God’s grace is a formative, creative moment as a result of which a person is not only graced by God’s love but also becomes gracious because of God’s love.” Scott Hoezee, The Riddle of Grace

You have to know that I’m a creature of habit. Rarely does a week pass when I don’t do the same thing – the exact same thing, on particular days. On Thursday and Friday, unless something wildly spectacular beckons, you will find me in my little, peaceful Dunkin Donuts, in line to get my extra large coffee (with an occasional donut). Friday afternoon and Saturday mornings are reserved for Starbucks, but Dunkin Donuts sustains me through the week. This week was no exception.

But on Friday, at the counter in front of a long line, was a woman who commanded a huge order. We’re talking boxes and boxes of donuts, bags of bagels, etc. It took forever, and somewhere in the course of the transaction, the volume on her voice began to rise. Those of us in line took note, observing the woman while wondering how the staff would respond. In spite of their patience and attentiveness, she became even louder, and we, more uncomfortable.

Unfortunately this led another younger woman to pass by her and offer some exchange – I have no idea what was said or done, but this only intensified the moment. The two women dropped the ‘f-bomb’ on one another, and we stood in shock. One of our church Members, a football coach, was there as well. Men, women, children – all there to witness this surreal moment.

And I thought about it all morning. What was that all about?

A bad day?

A hard heart?

A misunderstood person?

A misinterpreted gesture?

A hurt, wounded human under pressure?

Every instinct within me wanted to presume motives, rush to judgment and ascribe blame. In the moment, the Clark Kent in me wanted to turn into Superman to rescue the situation – but that would have been like throwing gasoline on a campfire.

No, it was one of those instances when the façade of a neatly packaged day came unglued and exposed at the seams by the ever-present ugliness of the curse.

In me.

Wait!

What?

I thought it was ‘them.’

Didn’t see that coming.

“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Jesus, John 8:7

Thank you, Jesus – You are our good news…

peace.

Going There

August 31, 2013 § Leave a comment

Field_of_Dreams_poster “The darkness has faded just enough so that for the first time he can dimly see his opponent’s face. And what he sees is something more terrible than the face of death – the face of love.”

Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat

Field of Dreams, is one of my favorite movies because it taps into our deep yearning for wholeness. Ray (played by Kevin Costner) is compelled by a whisper-ish voice that inspires him to build a baseball stadium in a corn field in Iowa. The movie’s most enduring line is, If you build it, they will come. But the haunting refrain that pulses throughout it is, Ease his pain.

Much happens between Ray’s first encounter and movie’s end, but the most touching scene comes when he is brought face to face with his father who had died years before. Their reunion and exchange close the movie. However just before engaging his dad he realizes that the voice that inspired the construction of the field was his own, and only a journey of pain and uncertainty would bring him to that point.

So it is with us. The prospect of facing life uncensored and raw is terrifying because it is personal, but the gospel cuts through our layers of resistance to take us ‘there.’ Mysteriously, at one and the same time God enables us to face ourselves, and then live out of that reality without pretense, as He satisfies our God-given desire to be seen for who we are – and yet still be loved.

I am reminded of Joshua’s commissioning, where Moses says, The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged,” (Deuteronomy 31:8), asserting the promise and principle that there is no place God will ever lead us that He has not already been.

It is ‘there’ that God heals our pain with Christ’s pain, our sorrows with Christ’s sorrows and our brokenness with Christ’s own death, demonstrating that He has already been ‘there’ on our behalf, and has completed our broken stories with His own. In short, He eases our pain.

Such good news…

peace

A Friendly Rant about Sin

February 18, 2013 § 5 Comments

Mayor Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.

Isaiah 1:18

Last week, Maureen O’Connor, the former Mayor of San Diego (and widow to the Founder of the Jack in the Box burger chain) admitted to misappropriating (stealing) millions of dollars from a foundation in order to feed her gambling habit. In the course of nine years she won and lost a billion dollars. Wow!

Hey, we’ve all done horrible things and the point of this post isn’t to trash a person for committing a sin (or would that be a billion individual sins? Who’s counting though…), it is to speak into the way O’Connor was able to shape her confession in order to minimize the public response and consequences for her crime. Because of a brain tumor (we are told), she became another person. This is the argument. In her words, “There were two Maureens – Maureen No. 1 and Maureen No. 2…” Her assertion goes something like this: Maureen No. 1 (the good Maureen) didn’t know what Maureen No. 2 (the bad Maureen) was doing. Apparently she has been given the kind of plea deal that corporations often get with big time tax evasion.

Let me see if I understand… The Department of Justice is mad at Maureen No. 2, but is charging Maureen No. 1. Or is it that it is punishing Maureen No. 2, but Maureen No. 1 gets a vote? I’m confused.

Sounds like a lot of No. 2 to me…

Oh sure, there could be some credibility to such an explanation. But it occurred to me that we never hear this story in the opposite order, do we. We never hear someone say, ‘And then I developed an illness that turned me into an over-the-top generous person.’

No, we never hear it the other way around. It is always that the condition drives worse behavior. And no wonder why we lose faith in pastors, politicians and corporate executives, and anyone else who holds the public trust.

But wouldn’t it just blow you away if some public figure one day stood up, after some magnanimous accomplishment, and said, ‘Please don’t give me credit, I’m usually an overbearing SOB, but my tumor turned me into something inexplicably benevolent, and I can’t control it! That wasn’t the real me.’

Here is the thing: God doesn’t beat up sinners. He forgives them. Pretending our sin to be something other than what it is only deafens us from His sweet invitation to be made clean, a plea to approach a throne drenched in the mercy of Christ, and then to dance to the sweet song of forgiving grace.

The alternative is… well, it’s just confusing.

So let’s recap: God has a throne. He invites sinners to confidently approach it. On this throne sits Jesus, the One who has paid for the very sins we confess. And from this throne He dispenses mercy.

That sounds like good news to me…

peace.

Shameless for Shayne

February 16, 2013 § Leave a comment

shaynepreach This is the path Jesus has called us to. It is a path of courage and compassion, resolution and healing that goes into the dark and difficult places of the world and brings the redemptive, restorative light of Jesus Christ. Shayne Wheeler

It will be rare that you will find my blog to be a shameless plug for a book (much less for one I didn’t write!), but this one is warranted. Friend and fellow pastor, Shayne Wheeler has come out with what I consider to be an important book for believers, who desire to follow Jesus, but who find the pursuit to be a difficult, and sometimes-lonely path.

Shayne lives with his wife Carrie, and their children in Decatur, Georgia where he pastors All Souls Church, a ministry that has successfully and beautifully reached into the margins of culture without sacrificing the integrity of the gospel.

More than anything, his book, The Briarpatch Gospel: Fearlessly Following Jesus into the Thorny Places, aligns with the message of this blog. In telling his story, Shayne paints the picture of an unfinished one who is shaped by God through the influences, people and experiences that have dotted his life in his journey with Jesus.

Shayne pulls no punches – with himself or us. He confesses sin, admits weakness, owns up to failure and offers glimpses into his own stumblings, all in a successful effort to draw the focus away from himself and towards Jesus.

Dive into the book and you will wish that you had read it sooner in your journey, while at the same time wondering if you can continue reading, as the dangerous, risky and loving Jesus challenges you with every step.

I was fortunate to be given a prescreening of the book, and so before it became available I was able to already count it among my favorites. Through the years I have begun to write a few books that one day may make it to press, but if I were to take one that someone else had written for my own, this would be the book.

Get it friends, and enjoy the feast. It will be your good news…

peace.

A Worthy Celebration

February 10, 2013 § Leave a comment

Jazz I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Letter From Birmingham City Jail

I celebrate Black History Month. Quietly, but joyfully. Each February I encourage our church members to do so as well, not only in heart, but also by taking in the culture, the food, the readings and the stories, often accompanied by a shameless plea to our African American brothers and sisters for a taste of the cuisine.

This year one of our families took this to heart and brought us to Darker Than Blue, a wonderful Soul Food restaurant in Baltimore, replete with live Jazz (pictured) and the lovely and peaceful atmosphere of a quaint dining establishment. And I was delighted when a member told me that she is reading through Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

I can tell you that we have been the beneficiaries of much more than good meals and evenings together. It is as though we have been welcomed into a trust forged out of pain and suffering.

A few years ago a friend asked why I do this, and why not other ethnicities that have experienced pain in their histories – a question worth considering. In answering, it may be worth starting with my own background.

In the early 20th Century the Ottoman Turks invaded Armenia and my grandparents (on both sides) were driven away by threat of death. One and a half million Armenians died in this attempted genocide, and the world’s relative indifference to their suffering became Hitler’s rationale for his ‘Final Solution’ (his plan for exterminating the Jews), to his skeptics.

My grandparents came to America by different routes, some via Iran and others through Egypt – all eventually came ashore at Ellis Island. America’s shores were open to them as with other people groups with dreams for living on our soil. They didn’t have to come – they chose to. And so Armenians celebrate being Armenians with Armenians!

We celebrate Black History as a nation because those who came from Africa didn’t have this luxury. They were forced to America by the slave trade. Men and women, boys and girls were treated like animals, considered property that could legally be beaten, raped, sold, even murdered. They were sold and auctioned publicly. Their ‘owners’ determined the limits of their rights as humans. The Slaves’ children were destined to the same oppressive existence.

Growing up in the sixties and seventies I remember the national and local tensions of the Civil Rights Movement, and then the Black Power Movement. The explanations from a white-leaning media. The rationalizations. The revisionist history. The images. The violence. The deplorable indifference to documented acts of injustice and cruelty. Jim Crow laws.

We’ve had the privilege of hearing stories from those who were ‘there,’ the stories behind the food and the stories of faith and resolve in the face of obvious national unrighteousness. A Vietnam Vet who, along with fellow black soldiers, constantly found themselves put on the most dangerous side of missions. A woman whose sister went to jail in Selma, and who herself rode the Freedom Buses. The stories are real, and the history is recent.

We deplore human trafficking today because we finally acknowledged the deep sin of our nation’s involvement in the slave trade, and then its nasty implications more than a century past Abolition.

We remember.

But it wasn’t only a nation.

It was the Church too.

Denominations.

Pastors.

Members.

Many bought into the lie that said that one human being carried less value than another, simply based on the color of her skin – while teaching that ‘all ground is level at the foot of the Cross.’ From a Birmingham Jail Dr. Martin Luther King wrote, pleading local white pastors and churches to strong, persistent and determined action.

We celebrate courageous people like Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass, Dr. King and Harriet Tubman because they acted out of their conviction for justice when it was costly and they were quite alone.

But they shouldn’t have been.

So we celebrate. If we were not to celebrate then we would have no right to plead the cause of the unborn, or call the Church to care for the plight of the weak. We celebrate to not forget or grow cold and indifferent to the injustices we could otherwise so easily pretend to not notice. We celebrate because the gospel freshly informs us that there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).

And this is our good news…

peace.

More than Damaged Goods…

January 26, 2013 § 1 Comment

IMG_2619This 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…

peace.

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