the least

May 27, 2020 § Leave a comment

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

Psalm 109:30b-31a

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

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

Westlake Neighborhood, Cape Town, South Africa

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

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

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

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

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

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

Westlake Elementary Missionaries

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

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

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

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

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

grace & peace.

the Beautiful Priesthood

July 11, 2015 § 1 Comment

Cirque d Soleil“My father was a priest in our butcher shop, and I was with him, doing priestly work. Our butcher shop was a place of blessing.”

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…

peace.

Broken Tiles

June 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What good news…

peace.

Proximity

April 3, 2015 § Leave a comment

Light Cross “Good Friday brings us to our senses. Our senses come to us as we sense that in this life and in this death is our life and our death. The truth about the crucified Lord is the truth about ourselves.”

Richard John Neuhaus, Death on a Friday Afternoon

We just finished our Good Friday service here at the church. In an attempt to hold the service as near to the time of Jesus’ crucifixion as possible, we meet in the afternoon – more for a sense of historic proximity, for lack of a better way of putting it.

I remember that feeling in Dallas once, when standing in sixth floor window of the Book Depository from which Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated President John F. Kennedy in 1963. In some way it brought the events of that fateful November day to the forefront. And I’ve always wanted to walk across Abbey Road in England, and reenact the Beatles’ album by that name for the same reason.

Good Friday is the celebration of the death of Jesus, plain and simple. However our true proximity is not to the time, but the Person and His Cross. Standing in the shadow of the Cross we gain a renewed sense of the enormity of our sin and immense sacrifice and depth of love demonstrated to us by Jesus, our Sin-Bearer.

The apostle Paul asserted the Cross to be the central event and essential reality of his life – “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).

To stand in proximity to the Cross is to be recentered and reminded that it is more than something beautiful (which it is), but that it is everything – because Jesus is.

It is our good news…

peace.

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

Impression

March 14, 2015 § 1 Comment

License Plate “There is our hope – the infinite resource of God’s love, the relationship with his creatures that no sin can finally unmake. He cares what we do because he suffers what we do. He is forever wounded, but forever loving… We have a future because of this grace.”

Rowan Williams, A Ray of Darkness

As you can see from the picture above, I parked a little, how do I say it… forcefully, the other day. Hey you would too if you had as much snow as we’ve experienced the last month! Give me a break! I digress. Not only that, but apparently I parked in the wrong place and immediately had to move my car, only to reveal evidence that I had been there.

The good news is that by now the snow has melted, and with it, my offense.

With the coming celebration of the resurrection of Jesus from the grave, comes the beautiful rehearsal of the sufferings and death of Jesus.

One of the things we sometimes miss in the message of grace is that while our sins are forgiven, they are still part of our history. There is no make believe in the Christian gospel. There is no ‘Leave Wounds Outside’ sign on the Faith. We carry our imperfections, flaws, indiscretions and pasts with us when we enter into the Kingdom of God through Jesus. We are unfinished. Our pasts don’t melt away, their impressions lasting and sometimes haunting.

But here is where it gets really beautiful. Though we carry our scars, Jesus carries them too.

“Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands…” Isaiah 49:16

Though we are forgiven, at the same time that the pain and sorrow of past sins sometimes reemerge to remind us of our weakness and propensity to rebel, the scars Jesus bears serve as our reminders of the Father’s love. In some way we bear the same scars! Ours are painful reminders of our condition. His are powerful encouragements that we are loved. One cannot go without the other.

Amazing isn’t it. Every purchase demands a receipt – evidence that what we possess is ‘paid-in-full.’ There was a day when a receipt was the only acceptable proof for returning an item. To lose one would be calamitous if the pants didn’t quite fit, or the drill didn’t work when plugged in.

In Jesus, our forgiveness is sure. The receipt is engraved on His hands, never to be misplaced, and a perpetual reminder for us that the sacrifice has been made, once and for all.

What unspeakably good news…

peace.

An Open Letter to Brian Williams

February 14, 2015 § 2 Comments

Williams Dear Brian,

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.

peace.

The More Excellent Way…

January 10, 2015 § Leave a comment

Terror “And I will show you a still more excellent way.”
1 Corinthians 12:31

Years ago Katherine responded to something I offered by saying that there was ‘a more excellent way,’ which was her gracious way of saying that though I might have been right about something, being right was not enough. I have carried that with me.

We are in the aftermath of a bloody, violent siege in Paris. Lives were lost and a manhunt ensues (I hope they catch her and execute her). Just yesterday it was confirmed that as many as 2,000 people have been massacred in Nigeria in a Boko Haram killing spree. Three days ago a man in Florida threw his own daughter off the Sunshine State Bridge in the Tampa-St. Pete area. She died. My heart is grieved.

What scares me in all this is that amid the revulsion and sorrow I am prone to forget what I believe. I want to respond in rage because this is in my heart, and it is my right to feel it.

It happens subtly. The horrid expressions of the fall have a way of jarring us, and hatred tunnels into our sensibilities to the extent that we get lost in understandable outrage. Politicians don’t help. They bend over backwards to deny the obvious and only stoke the flames of anger to those who are not blind.

I forget what I believe because the pain, suffering and injustices are all so real, and because there is nothing we can do to fix what is broken. We can’t bring back the victims. And lost lives are not shattered lightbulbs we sweep away and replace with new ones. We can’t stop the violence. We can’t change governments and we can’t realign a global moral compass, much less our own!

But we have Jesus – and He is the ‘more excellent way.’ What I mean is that on some level my perspective, though fairly rational, isn’t the issue. The issue is that until heaven and earth are one, the world will always be broken, and because of this, no expression of civility, though eminintly appreciated, will ever be the trajectory upon which humankind moves. Our brokenness always eventually manifests itself in damaged expressions.

We just celebrated God’s coming into the world in the flesh – Jesus. Don’t let this be lost on you. In the Incarnation we have a God who, rather than blame or ignore, entered into the rage, filth, hatred and violence of our world. He bore it in death and left it in the Grave. It was the more excellent way. He is the more excellent way. Even on the Cross He forgave His executioners when it was His right to condemn them, and He demands that we surrender our right to outrage – to the law of love.

Truthfully? I don’t want to do it. But closer inspection reveals that this is exactly what Jesus has done for me.

How excellent…

Friends, this is our good news.

peace.

Christmas Song

December 20, 2014 § 1 Comment

Choir “He was checked in his transports by the churches ringing out the lustiest peals he had ever heard. Clash, clang, hammer, ding, dong, bell. Bell, dong, ding, hammer, clang, clash! Oh, glorious, glorious!

Running to the window, he opened it, and put out his stirring, cold cold, piping for the blood to dance to; Golden sunlight; Heavenly sky; sweet fresh air; merry bells. Oh, glorious. Glorious!”

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

The picture in this post is from a mall in Nashville, taken earlier this month. While Katherine browsed the shops, I stood above and listened as the children sang to their proud parents and other gatherers. The music was lovely.

It is impossible to navigate the Christmas story without hearing the music that runs through its narrative. Elizabeth sings God’s glory when she learns that she will bear a son that would prepare the way for the Christ. Mary sang the goodness of God to the angel who revealed that she would give birth to Jesus. The Angels fill the skies with song and worship before the shepherds in fields to announce Jesus’ arrival.

Music is obviously high on God’s list. Early in the scriptures we learn of Jubal, who was the ‘father’ of all who played the harp and flute (Genesis 4). In music God has given us something lovely, something that weaves itself between the logical checkpoints of reason, and the confining precision of time and space.

John Calvin said something to the effect of how even the unbelieving ‘unwittingly express the beauty of God in their music.’

I’ll never forget the comment a friend made when his world fell apart. He was a good pastor who lost his way, and when it all came crashing in, it was too late. Later he would tell a gathering of friends, ‘I have lost my song.’ So sad.

How sweet that when Jesus was born, the silence of God’s voice in Israel of nearly 400 years, was broken, not with a fresh command, or display of strength, but with song.

I am blessed with a wife who is also a musician. Not only does she sing, but she teaches, plays, hums, and sometimes even verbalizes entire thoughts – in Song. Our running exchange when the latter happens goes like this: ‘Did you have to sing that?’ ‘Yes, I did.’

One day I’ll get it.

Advent tells us that one day we will sing the new song of the redeemed. One day our hearts will no longer be burdened by deadlines and pressures, by thoughts of past failures and present worries. One day we will no longer be at a loss for words in expressing ourselves. One day, those who have lost their song, will once again find it.

We won’t have to any longer understand or process or parse or worry about accurately expressing the Faith. In God’s new world, we will be before Jesus, and all the hints and tastes and glimpses of the beauty that have dotted our lives in anticipation of that day, will converge in full measure before the majesty and loveliness and beauty of the Father, who in His Son has made us His.

And we will Sing.

What beautiful, good news of great joy…

peace on earth.

Makeshift Family

December 13, 2014 § 1 Comment

Jazz O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Translated by John Neal (1818-1866)

Each Christmas season our church musicians perform in the community. For three consecutive evenings on a weekend they do Christmas Jazz in a local eating establishment that opens its doors to us. We are on our third venue in five years because of how the event has grown. It helps to have gifted musicians, for which I am thankful (a short clip is provided below).

While our hope is to spread Christmas cheer, our deeper desire is to love our community well and provide opportunities for people to connect.

Something special happened this year. Our Band decided to ask church members to bring voluntary donations in the form of gift cards to local vendors, for the only homeless shelter in the county. These gifts would enable the residents of the shelter to be able to make purchases that we sometimes take for granted. Our people responded generously.

The music was spectacular, and the venue was perfect as it enabled us to meet, dine, converse and enjoy one another. We could not have asked for more. Katherine and I spent Sunday evening getting to know people we had never before met.

Amazingly and unexpectedly however, patrons from the larger area were so moved by the expressions of music and welcome that they wrote checks and offered cash to the cause. We posted no signs and made no mention outside our church doors, yet people figured it out any way.

I have no way of knowing why, but I do know that for two hours, three nights in a row, in that room, people didn’t have to be alone.

Here’s what I sometimes miss in the celebration each year – I miss how incredibly lonely it must have been for Joseph and Mary. They were far from home, and she was pregnant. They arrived in Bethlehem too late to get a real room, and then were stuck in a stable. There would be no family to celebrate with, and no familiarity with which to introduce their precious newborn.

Then Jesus came, and everything changed.

Angels appeared and sang from the heavens to shepherds who day and night existed in isolation, in dark, lonely fields. Magi journeyed from far away with gifts. All converged in Bethlehem to the stable, and in doing so, they served as a makeshift family to make the moment a little less lonely for the young couple and their infant.

Jesus has come, and He makes us family – I like that (my friend, Debby Sutton wrote beautifully to this on our church Advent blog – a worthy read). And one day He will gather His community – His family – in the new heavens and new earth. No one will be alone. None will be without provision. All will celebrate in reunited joy.

What good news…

peace.

First Christmas

December 6, 2014 § 3 Comments

Katherine & Opa “The Christian future hope is the Advent hope.”

N.T. Wright, For All the Saints

Yesterday Katherine and I visited with her father where he is being cared for in a Nashville medical center. We are here because I am performing a wedding ceremony for friends who live in Baltimore (and I fly back late tonight!), and it gave us an opportunity to spend some time with ‘Opa,’ as our children call him. It was a sweet time.

At some point Katherine and her Dad, both gifted with beautiful singing voices, joined together in singing ‘Great is Thy Faithfulness.’ Lovely would be an understatement.

This Christmas is a first for us. For the first time we will celebrate without either of my parents in this world. Along with Katherine’s Mom, both have died and are no longer here. From time to time sadness overtakes us. Ornament

Regardless of how old we become, we can look all the way back to childhood in remembering Christmases past.

Recently some of us recalled growing up in Miami. When I was a young boy we lived in Carol City, which is almost as far north as one can go without leaving the city. Each year the streetlights on NW 27th Avenue were decorated with those colored frilly foil candy canes and Christmas bells. We would drive past them and throughout the neighborhoods as a family, listening to Christmas music on our car AM radio, looking at the lights as we embedded ourselves into the season.

Sweet memories.

One day our children will remember after we are gone.

The memories bring a kind of muted joy. Though sometimes I am brought to the point of tears in recalling them, I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

Advent is as much about embracing sadness as it is looking to a future joy. Herod plotted Jesus’ death as Mary and Joseph celebrated His birth. This is our world – joy and sorrow always intermingled. And until Jesus comes and makes everything new it will be this way. Even in blessing Jesus at his presentation at the temple, Simeon said to his mother, ‘and a sword will pierce through your own soul also…’ (Luke 2:35).

To insulate ourselves from the world’s sorrows is to live as though Jesus is merely an ornament rather than the Deliverer that He is, and it robs us of the joy of the expectation of His coming. It is in the sadness that we find a deep longing for the sweeter day when Jesus returns.

We celebrate that He has come, and that He is coming. We limp along with our world, longing for the day when it will forever reflect His good reign.

We look to the day we will see our parents again – at the Feast. Until then, we embrace the sorrow that in Jesus, leads to unending joy. Every now and then we are given opportunities to hear the sweet song of life, and maybe even to sing along.

What good news of great joy…

grace and peace.

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