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
March 29, 2014 § Leave a comment
“God’s work to release himself from his suffering is his work to deliver the world from its agony… When God’s cup of suffering is full, our world’s redemption is fulfilled.” Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son
I had no idea that the extraction of a wisdom tooth could be so painful, though I consider anything done in my mouth while in the dentist’s chair to be an act of violence. I thought the guy was going to rip my jaw off my face! It was like he was going to crawl inside my mouth. Sure, I’m an unapologetic anti-dentite (though I denied this to him – he had tools and drills and stuff at his disposal – you know, live to fight another day, and all that…).
And then there was the pain afterwards. A few hours following the extraction (the term alone is enough to elicit screams of panic and shrieks of terror!), I had a late afternoon meeting. All I could think of was my poor mouth. My pain. Me! It was freezing outside and I was sweating and daydreaming of romantic encounters with Extra Strength Tylenol, holding my jaw in my hand, in agony (proving that I’m no faith-healer).
It didn’t help for our Director of Worship to ask, ‘Is it safe?’ (you have to know the horrific scene in Marathon Man to grasp the depth of cruelty in this person that amazingly, I call ‘friend’).
So it is with pain. It demands our undivided attention, reminding us that all is not well with our bodies. When in pain, it is difficult to think of anything else.
And mine only lasted a day. But the world has been in pain ever since the fall.
Just yesterday a friend posted his sorrows on the birthday of a son that he and his wife lost – he would have turned seven years old. It was so painful I could barely read it.
Pain puts us on notice: in our homes, in our relationships, our minds – wherever it touches. We are cruelly reminded that the world isn’t what it was intended to be.
Amazingly, in the Lenten season we actually celebrate Christ’s pain, because His ‘via dolorosa,’ was not only a path of suffering, but also the passageway to a healed world. One day, what we see and know and experience and avoid and collide with every single day – will pass.
This is the narrative we sometimes miss in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, when we reaffirm that though pain occupies a place at the table in a broken world, it will not be seated at the Feast of Jesus when He makes all things new.
What good news…
February 22, 2014 § Leave a comment
By now it should be obvious that some of my posts are last-second ideas that spring to life on the day of publication. Today is no exception. Sometimes this happens when I already have already written something else for Saturday, and others, well…
Each Saturday the goal is to arrive at my Starbucks somewhere between 8-9:00 AM following a few hours in the office. This is my writing groove, but today involved a hospital visit in between, and because of this the schedule was altered, which impacted parking more than anything else. Normally, to arrive at the mall by 10:15 AM is to be relegated to the second tier parking spots (translation: nothing close to the mall entrance), and for me that is like surrendering to the enemy.
So this morning, at 10:17 to be exact, I arrived at the mall, only to find the spot pictured in this post. It is not only near the mall entrance, but it is the best spot in the lot. If you notice in the photo, there is ice on the asphalt. Whenever we experience big snows, which we did two weeks ago, parking lots like this one are cleared, leaving huge piles of plowed snow-become-ice. Ironically the best spots disappear under the piles.
But today the sun is shining, and my guess is that when the ‘first-tier-parkers’ arrived early, it wasn’t available. However by the time I got there, it had melted away.
For me. Sweet.
You can’t follow Jesus for long before discovering, and then rediscovering that He turns every natural power grab on its head. One of them is our inclination to be first. Shockingly, the Creator of all that is, taught that in order to be first in His Kingdom, one has to be last (Matthew 20:16). It isn’t the only crazy twist Jesus put on life, but it is one of the biggies, and one He demonstrated with His atoning death on the Cross, and in what He modeled in His treatment of people every day. It is an invitation to entrust ourselves into the hands of a Father who loves us more than we could ever love ourselves. This can only free us give ourselves away and to love, without fear.
And it serves as an offer of hope to the weak, to the underprivileged, the poor, the disadvantaged, to those perpetually chosen last to be on the team, to the losers, the slow, the forgotten, the fragile, the marginalized, the broken, the discarded and to every man, woman and child who feels that life somehow got away from them.
What good news.
January 25, 2014 § 1 Comment
Tragic news has struck our community here in the Baltimore burbs. A fatal shooting rocked the Columbia Mall, where I write my sermons and blog each Saturday morning. Were it not for the fact that Katherine and I are speaking at a Marriage Conference in Atlanta this weekend, I would have been there.
But today, on every news network and, exploding on the Internet, the story of a horrid tragedy in our own backyard predominates. I am sick to my stomach and overwhelmed with sadness. The shards of our world’s brokenness have struck ‘home.’
It was only last week that we returned from Miami, my hometown, where we had our Mom’s funeral service. There were all kinds of sentimental moments in the experience. We enjoyed dear friends, ate the familiar food, cleaned the home we grew up in, took in the tropics, and returned to the last church I was a member of (pastors don’t retain Membership in churches).
But ‘home,’ at least here on earth in this sweet season in our lives, has become for us, Greater Baltimore. This place, this region – this home that we have come to love – is hurting.
Sometimes home hurts.
As we enter into adulthood we do so with all kinds of expectations for our lives. Our hopes are only good ones, and our dreams presume the distinct possibility that they are entirely attainable. This is how we think – and it is a good thing. We should interweave our natural longings for heaven into the people and world we live in.
Only this could transform what would be a most understandable response of repulsion, into a deepened love for a ‘place’ and people that have entered into a shared sorrow. In fact, I find myself anxious to rejoin our wounded community, and to get back to the church we have grown to love, the ‘place’ we now call home – and ‘my’ Starbucks – to freshly embrace what is now part of the landscape of our shared world. This pain has drawn me in.
And I find it inexplicably beautiful that the closer He moved towards His betrayal and death, Jesus’ love for His disciples became more pronounced – rather than less. I have to believe that His ‘joy set before Him’ (Hebrews 12:1-2) served as His promise of a one-day sweeter and deeper intimacy with His beloved friends.
This was the good news Jesus embodied.
Written with deep sadness…
January 18, 2014 § Leave a comment
Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge
Working through our Mom’s home was a huge undertaking. We had a five-day window to sift through more than 3,000 square feet and nearly-50 years of accumulation to decide what was junk, what we would sell and what each of us wanted to take home, before closing down the house we grew up in. Amazingly, between reminiscences, one more football game on our side yard, and picture-taking, we got it done, and by the time we left Miami, the house was empty, clean and on the market.
Somewhere in the mad dash we came upon a huge stockpile of tapes and CD’s, nearly all of which were sermons I had preached through the years. Before the dawn of podcasts and church web sites, Mom had my messages mailed to her weekly.
It took roughly one second to decide to toss the stash.
I can’t tell you that Mom listened to each of them, though I wouldn’t be surprised if she had. And admittedly, had I meticulously sifted through the titles, I probably would have categorized them according to how well or poorly I felt about each delivery.
But it wouldn’t be because of the quality of my messages that Mom continued to listen, rather that she loved and was proud of her son, just as she was of each of her other four children.
If there were any particular snare I fall prey to every single day, it is that every fiber of my being wants to believe that I am measured, and that my value is determined by what I do, rather than by who I am in Christ.
There is always a deep-seated desire to work myself out of my own mess, and perhaps more sinister, an even deeper unwillingness to accept that God is a Father who loves and accepts me with full knowledge of how insecure, flawed and disposed to sin that I will always be until I make it Home. Put another way, there is something within me that resists accepting that my righteousness is in Jesus rather than anything I have done or can do.
But has it ever occurred to you that love’s truest measure can only come, not when we are lovely, but when we are utterly unlovable?
This means that everything we need for the Father to lavish love on us as His children, Jesus secured on the Cross. The math is simple: ‘We love because he first loved us.’ (1 John 4:19). It’s all there…
What better news could there be?
October 12, 2013 § 1 Comment
Christine D. Pohl, Making Room
I was writing at my favorite spot yesterday – in Starbucks at the mall (as I am now). This is rarely an unsatisfying experience, but yesterday it was, because a woman who sat nearby decided to open and then eat a salad with a pungent dressing. In a word, it stunk! I assume she thoroughly enjoyed it, but I smelled it. The aroma was all I could think about (obviously I’m still thinking about it!).
And it wasn’t like there weren’t dozens of empty seats she could have chosen other than one next to mine!
Actually my problem wasn’t with the salad. It was the woman who dared invade my space (are you sensing a twisted rationale here?) with an unwelcome smell. Never mind that she purchased something Starbucks sells and actually encourages people to eat on site!
It got me thinking.
In the scriptures I observe how graciously Jesus entered into the lives of people who constantly inconvenienced Him – it all appears so seamless. He just received people, even crowds, without complaint – when He was exhausted – when His heart was heavy – when His tears flowed – when betrayal and execution were immanent.
Children jumped into His lap. Crowds denied Him rest, even when on a sea vessel attempting a moment of solitude.
None of it was convenient!
But none were turned away either. And still today, He says, ‘Come…’
As I rattled Jesus’ way around in my brain and heart, it occurred to me that He wasn’t gritting His teeth, secretly stewing over the smells, weirdness, troubles and inconveniences of people. He was being who He had always been, reflecting the welcoming presence of His Father. Welcome is the currency of the Kingdom of God.
At the end of the day it wasn’t a salad, but my attitude that stunk up the place. Fortunately Jesus has taken that into account as well. In fact, in spite of this, He became a sweet aroma to the Father on my behalf. Yours too.
That’s good news…
September 28, 2013 § Leave a comment
“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.
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…
September 21, 2013 § Leave a comment
Patty Kirk, Confessions of an Amateur Believer
Our Music/Worship Director recently noticed that my desk was looking less book-infested, and I was thrilled because he was the only one among our Staff that noticed. It doesn’t take much for that desk to become a monstrosity, as mentioned in last week’s post. When it does, it usually remains that way for weeks until the clutter wins and makes it impossible for me to think (as happened recently), which then compels me to ‘scorch the earth,’ so to speak, and clean the desk.
The truth is that I love it when it’s clean, but I don’t mind if it’s a mess. At the end of the day it isn’t that important.
As Christ-followers it is easy for us to aspire to the wrong things – and one of them is our track record. Part of this is due to what we assume to be expected of us, internally and externally. Hey, try being the only pastor in a family of thousands (okay, it seems that way) of proud Armenians!
There is something diabolical within all of us that want our records expunged on a daily basis. We love God’s grace yet our natural darker selves hate that others would notice our need for it. But we do. And the only evidence of its working in our lives is that we are flawed. We aren’t perfect parents, perfect couples or perfect humans. We wrestle with our demons, our wickedness and our weaknesses. We aren’t perfect Christians. We are unfinished.
To embrace this truth is to truly accept what Jesus became for us – ‘God made him who knew no sin to become sin for us…’ 2 Corinthians 5:21.
Part of the problem is that we are easily lost in the wrong storyline.
Friends, perfection never was the story. Sure, Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden – and that is entirely on them, as our sins are on us – but God’s design wasn’t for perfect automatons – it was and is for daughters and sons. Redemption is the story. And there is something wildly beautiful about letting go of the need to appear to be something we can’t be, and frankly, something that doesn’t even matter, to entrust ourselves into the hands of a Father whose sole interest takes Him past our brokenness and into what we will one day be.
Could there be any better news?
August 10, 2013 § Leave a comment
Our mall is remodeling and expanding, and among the new shops is a designer jeans retailer called True Religion (being a Levis man, I’ll pass). While on vacation one of our daughters informed me that TR jeans are nice but too expensive. The irony was not lost on me.
Religion is a word we hear thrown around inside and outside of the Church. For many it refers to the whole faith thing. Many use it to lump all kinds of negative experiences and observations together from what they have seen in the Church and in the lives of people who call themselves Christ-followers: dogmatic, rigid, hypocritical, close-minded, naive, you name it, much of it deserved. As a pastor, I try to pay attention. Whenever we (I) get away from who and what we are, and what we believe, we get lost in un to lose generations – and should.
James makes it clear that there is only one true religious expression, and it flows from what Jesus consistently modeled during His earthly ministry. Rather than find importance in externals, He turned conventional wisdom on its head. He is Almighty, yet chose servanthood, resisted fame, refused self-protection and walked the path of suffering, while exchanging glory for shame. He was attracted to the weak, friends with the the discarded and tender to the broken.
On the surface it all seems so convoluted, until you consider this: Lowliness is where we actually live. The route Jesus chose to travel reveals that He knows us, and feels no need for proving Himself greater, though He is infinitely so. And it means that your deep, and often hidden needs and sorrows are never lost on the Father. Which means that the ultimate religious expression happened, not in a church, but on the Cross.
Nothing short of love can explain.
So when it comes to the people of God – you – me – yes, the Church – unfinished though we may be, religion happens when our spirituality translates into love in action, on the most humble and undetected of levels, and for the sake of those who could never repay our efforts.
I am reminded of those credit card ads that break everything down into dollars, until it comes to the most precious – relationships – those we love – time together. The tag on what is most precious… is priceless.
Jesus had that figured out.
And this is our good news.
grace & peace.
July 29, 2013 § 1 Comment
The Heidelberg Catechism
Q.9 Is God, then, not unjust by requiring in His law what man cannot do?
A. No, for God so created man that he was able to do it. But man, at the instigation of the devil, in deliberate disobedience robbed himself and all his descendants of these gifts.
The catechism answer almost says it all but it is worth delving into. First the obvious: It would absolutely have been unjust for God to give commands to Adam and Eve that they could never have possibly obeyed. But Adam and Eve could have obeyed – they had perfect natures and a very basic command, yet they rebelled.
And it remains fair, even now for a single reason: God has made perfect obedience possible, through Jesus. In other words, Jesus is the One True Law-Keeper, and so through faith in Him, we are considered pure in God’s sight. It is not our own righteousness, but Christ’s. Amazingly, because of Jesus, we are perfect law-keepers.
Luther puts it perfectly in his paper, Concerning the Letter and the Spirit:
These then are the two works of God, praised many times in Scripture: he kills and gives life, he wounds and heals, he destroys and helps, he condemns and saves, he humbles and elevates, he disgraces and honors… He does these works through these two offices, the first through the letter, the second through the Spirit. The letter does not allow anyone to stand before his wrath. The Spirit does not allow anyone to perish before his grace. Oh, this is such an overwhelming affair that one could talk about it endlessly!
Q.8 But are we so corrupt that we are wholly incapable of doing any good, and inclined to all evil?
A. Yes, indeed; unless we are regenerated by the Spirit of God.
This is a difficult one to accept, I know, and it is why I believe it was important for the Catechism to begin with our comfort in life and in death through Jesus. In arriving at the good news of the gospel we have to journey through some pretty deep – and dark – waters. The scriptures’ teaching on sin is hard because it is brutally honest.
What makes this particular teaching (we call it ‘Total Depravity’) difficult is that we see do good out there – in people – in causes – in communities, etc. This is no illusion, and something in all of us wants to believe that there is some redeemable quality in man that can overcome sin.
But if we are ‘wholly incapable of doing any good,’ then where does this ‘good’ that we observe come from? The answer is that God allows for good in spite of the presence of sin in a fallen world. We believe a doctrine called ‘Common Grace,’ and this doctrine says that God has sprinkled all Creation, including mankind, with His kindness, to varying degrees. If He hadn’t, we would live in utter self-destruction and complete anarchy. Instead, we are restrained by the grace of God.
So back to our corruption. If we can get past our initial sense of offense this makes sense, because when it comes to anything that is pure, there is no middle ground, right? Think about it, either something or someone is completely pure, or it is polluted. An ocean with a single drop of poison in it cannot be completely pure, but this doesn’t mean you can’t swim in the ocean. Make sense?
So what does this mean for us? It means two things, I think. First, we need God to change our hearts – We can’t do this for ourselves, because we are part of the problem. We need God’s Spirit to give us what Ezekiel 36 refers to as ‘hearts of flesh’ (vs. 26). It is an inside job, and though we will wrestle with that old nature for the rest of our lives, the simple acknowledgement that we bring nothing to the table before a holy God brings relief from the torment of trying to justify, excuse and rationalize our inner corruption. In other words, admitting our inner depravity doesn’t condemn us – it sets us free, and bears evidence to God’s regenerating work on our hearts.
But second, it means that we have no alternative but to live lives in complete reliance on God’s grace, looking to Jesus, the One who not only sprinkles kindness on a fallen world, but who has sprinkled our sins with His own blood, making us clean. Our corruption is our signal to look to Jesus for grace for cleansing. But there I go, getting ahead of myself again…
Q.7 Whence, then, comes this depraved nature of man?
A. From the fall and disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve, in Paradise, whereby our nature became so corrupt that we all are conceived and born in sin.
In theological circles we call Adam our ‘Federal Head,’ that is, that he represented all of mankind in his fall. At various times I’ve reflected on this dynamic, because something in all of us – myself included – instinctively see it as unfair that we would be held responsible for Adam’s sin. We ask why we didn’t get the same chance he got, but instead we are born with sin natures because of his ‘original sin,’ that is, we were born as though we had committed it! How is this fair?
But when you think about it, it only makes sense. Adam sinned in a pure environment – a perfect garden. He had no memory of sin – for him it was little more than a concept. He had no memory of sin, no experiences with sin, no examples of sin or sinners, and no history of sin in his life. In other words, with no propensity to sin, Adam sinned. In a perfect world! So if Adam and Eve would sin in a perfect world, then is it really credible for us to assert that we should have been given an opportunity to live perfectly? Or maybe a more practical way of putting it: Just try. Go ahead. Try to live a day without a single sinful action, thought, motive or imagination.
You can’t, can you? Neither can I. Why? Because the same thing that was in Adam and Eve is in us.
There is a better way (and again, I’m getting ahead of myself here, but it fits, so bear with me). The better way is to look to whom Paul calls, the ‘second Adam’ – Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:45). To this Paul says (in Romans 5:19), “For as by one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners [a reference to the first Adam], so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous [guess who].”
So we can either spend our energies disputing the reality of our nature, or we can look to the Perfect One who had made us what we could not make ourselves, on any day, or even in a perfect garden.
Q.6 Did God, then, create man so wicked and perverse?
A. By no means; but God created man good, and after His own image; that is, in true righteousness and holiness, that he might rightly know God his Creator, heartily love Him, and live with Him in eternal blessedness to praise and glorify Him.
There is something in all of us that wants to blame God for our sin – or anyone for that matter. We hate taking responsibility for the evil we struggle with. But God is not the source. Admittedly so, this is a bit of a mystery because while the scriptures clearly teach that God is not the author of sin (James 1), they also present Him as sovereign over all things and all that takes place in His Creation.
But rather than blame God for our evil impulses, it is far more fulfilling to marvel that He actually made us to be good. In fact, we were created, the scriptures teach us, in His image, that is, we were created to bear His likeness on earth – we reflect God. We were created with the capacity to love and reason, and to live in communion with God.
It is so easy to get lost in the ‘blame game’ and to shuffle responsibility for sin, even on God. But this completely misses the point. The point is that God wants us to enjoy what He has created us to be – He is invested in this desire – personally invested – through Jesus. In other words, what was shattered in the fall has been restored in Jesus, and until He makes all things new, we live in that reality through His work on our behalf.
Accepting this is the passage to enjoying Him until we make it home.
Q.5 Can you keep all this perfectly?
A. In no wise; for I am prone by nature to hate God and my neighbor.
This was Luther’s conclusion. In fact, his zeal to perfectly obey only caused him to loathe God, having concluded that a Father should never put such an impossible weight on a child. But He doesn’t (Luther later finally understood this). Instead, He put the weight of perfection on His perfect Son, Jesus, who took our sins to the Cross (I’m getting ahead of myself here!). Suffice it to say here that God didn’t save us to make us perfect, but His.
But why the weight of a law we could never keep? Ask yourself this, ‘Would I even look to Jesus if I didn’t feel the press of the law’s perfection?’ It just may be that the law’s primary value is found in where it causes us to look. It reveals what we actually think of one another, and of God, and it is the means by which God causes us to look to someone other than ourselves!
The best way for me to illustrate this is to describe how we taught our children to drive straight, when they were pursuing their licenses. Their instinct was to keep the wheel perfectly straight, and the car wove all over the place! So we told them to look to the end of the block where the stop sign was – to stop worrying about driving perfectly straight, but to just drive. You know what happened – They drove straight!
So this means that those pangs of guilt that sometimes nag at you – they come from God’s Spirit who has written His law on your heart. He is applying the force of the law to cause you to look past your own righteousness, which is no righteousness at all – to Jesus. Trust me – better yet, trust the scriptures, that simple shift of focus is all the difference between living to be perfect before a cruel tyrant, and desiring to live obediently to a loving Father.