Find Your Starbucks

May 3, 2014 § 2 Comments

Starbucks “…place is a quintessentially human concept in that it is part of our creatureliness… God has ordered creation such that the whole earth is designed as a home for humankind.”

Craig G. Bartholomew, Where Mortals Dwell

Each Saturday morning I spend a few hours in the Starbucks at our local mall. If you have followed this blog for any time then you know that I refer to it as ‘my Starbucks.’ It is an affectionate term for a ‘place’ that has become part of my own weekly rhythm, replete with familiar faces. There is the manager who only ever wears short pants, even on winter’s coldest days. He hid patrons and staff in the back room when gunshots rang throughout the mall earlier this year. An older English gentleman who teaches yoga in apartment communities is a regular, and sings along whenever old Rock & Roll plays. The other day he stumped me on a Donovan song (though he wasn’t entirely certain it was Donovan). There is an environmental engineer who is on a personal search for life and faith. We talk weekly, and can finally remember each other’s names. And then there is the young cop, a Member of our church, whose beat includes the Mall. He often meets with other officers at my Starbucks, and when he does, we embrace and catch up on his wife and little children.

Having spent our early years in Youth Ministry, Katherine and I learned that it was important to look out for young people who seemed ‘out of place.’ They were lonely and didn’t quite fit into the categories their fellow students had established for that ‘community.’ Forcing acceptance was the worst thing we could do for either party because finding one’s ‘place’ is more about coming to terms with who we are before Christ. That isn’t an easy thing to teach young people, much less to embrace for ourselves.

Jesus’ promise to be with us ‘always’ (Matthew 28:20) is more than a kind parting sentiment. It is the radical promise that ‘place’ was never intended to be a moving target dictated by social status, personal wealth or religious savvy, but in a relational reality that transcends time, space and circumstance. Because of Jesus, every location in which we find ourselves, whether a coffee shop, a sanctuary, a brewery, a prison or a home – is sacred… because He is there.

Jesus is our Place, and this means that regardless of where our journey takes us, we belong…

What good, sweet news.

peace.

the Sweet Song of Advent…

December 21, 2013 § 6 Comments

Mom's Room “We matter to God. Inexplicably. Undeservedly. Even we dedicated Christians tend to forget this truth – or doubt it or altogether reject it – when we encounter trouble. It is difficult to understand why we matter, but we do. God is watching, listening to us, speaking promises into the cacophony of our worries and the certainty of their fulfillment into our most deeply buried hopes.”

Patty Kirk, Confessions of an Amateur Believer

For years I have been sitting here – at ‘my’ Starbucks – writing, reflecting, observing and praying.

In observing, I see weariness, weirdness, craziness and determination, in fellow regulars who have become friends I will likely never see outside these walls. And strangers. Strangers who walk by, and strangers who stop by.

We talk. Antlers

Many are desperately trying to survive and navigate the details of their lives. Some are actively searching, looking for meaning and purpose. They are in touch with their longings and can hear the music, but haven’t yet discovered the source.

All of them matter. Each was created in God’s Image, shattered though that Image may be by the fall. Not all have discovered the beauty of Jesus, but with tears, I hope each will.

As I write, my Mom is dying. She is a Christ-follower and woman of God, and when she passes I’ll write more. But on this the day of my sister’s 50th Birthday, my sense of awe is with her. Venus works in home health care and for a year she has relentlessly pursued a dignified setting for Mom’s passing.

The picture at the head of this post is of the bedroom she and my brother-in-law prepared for Mom in anticipation of her arrival. It isn’t merely a room with a bed, but a suite, with classical Christmas music playing, lovely family pictures, homey furnishings – and massive doses of love.

Mom is barely ‘here,’ and she can only communicate with a nearly undetectable whisper and nuanced facial expressions that we kids recognize as being uniquely ‘hers,’ yet this dying woman is being treated like a beautiful queen who has everything before her – and she is and she does.

She matters. You matter. We matter. God’s Image. How sweet.

The Advent longing is not a hopeless cry, but the song of redemption, a beautifully hopeful melody, whose music emanates from the humbleness of the manger and the conquest of the Cross, sung into the messy reality of our fallenness, which is precisely the point of Jesus’ entrance into the world.

It isn’t enough to say that God loves the broken. Stopping there leaves incomplete the fullness of the gospel. God not only loves the broken and has entered into our mess with forgiving grace, but amazingly, He also sees us as though we are perfectly whole – because in Jesus, we are.

Ornament

What good news of great joy…

peace on earth and good will to all.

The Welcoming Kingdom

October 12, 2013 § 1 Comment

Salad“A community which embodies hospitality to strangers is a sign of contradiction, a place where joy and pain, crises and peace are closely interwoven.”

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…

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.

Still Thankful…

November 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

This morning at breakfast Katherine and I talked about what we were thankful for. It wasn’t our Thanksgiving pre-season exercise. It just flowed from a conversation that wound us around and through the world we’ve known together for over 30 years. Something Katherine said resonated – that it isn’t so much the details, but just the fact that God has filled us with thankfulness.

It set my mind into gear. So I wanted to pause and simply give thanks.

Somewhere last year it dawned on me that everything I had hoped for over 30 years ago, with Katherine and the future, God has brought about and much more. It is so cool that God has allowed for us to experience all this together. I could not be more grateful for this extraordinary woman. As the Beach Boys sang a million years ago, I don’t know where, but she takes me there, and I love going with her. But I am amazed at what we have been able to watch unfold through years, life and fulfilled, and yet-to-be realized dreams. How I thank you for Katherine, Father.

This Christmas all of our children will be home. On Thanksgiving our daughters will be with us. We are thrilled. In each of them is a story that testifies to the unfailing grace of God. We remember their infancies, their childhoods, their teen years, and their important moments. They live in the continuing narrative of God’s goodness, and we get the privilege and joy of praying for them daily, and then watching them grow, fall, get back up, and mature – we are amazed. Thank you, Lord for our precious ones.

Both of us are the products of parents who love Jesus. Two of our parents have made it home. All of them have helped to weave faith, hope and love into our fabric. None of them have been perfect, and even this has contributed to understanding the big story of God’s grace. The ones who are gone, we miss terribly, and the ones who remain we love deeply. Thank you God, for parents who gave us glimpses of you until we met you.

We are in ministry. It has always been challenging and sometimes exhausting – and He has rewarded us beyond the very real rigors of the pastorate and in spite of our even more real inadequacies. With each challenge He has poured out grace. And now He has set us in the midst of a beautiful congregation. He was more patient than my homesickness in the early years, and has brought more blessing than our imperfections. He has surrounded us with an amazing Staff, Leaders and Flock. I guess this is the right place to say that He has given me a Starbucks to write and reflect, because it is here (where I write even at this moment), that many from our church family, including our Young People, knock on the window, stop to say hello, and wave as they graciously pass their hermit pastor. This Sunday we ordain a young man who will start a new work in the City of Baltimore. How groovy! O God, thank you for the Chapelgate community (and my Starbucks!).

He has graced us with friendships – enduring friendships – amazing friendships – friendships that stretch all the way back to childhood, friendships from each congregation, old and new friends. It has occurred to us that many of the Young People who were in our youth group when we first entered into ministry have become dear friends in adulthood – how good is that. Our friends are treasures. Each has been placed in our lives by the Father who knows our needs. Through shared trials, love-shaping conflicts, love-affirming apologies, and in spite of time and distance, we have been the beneficiaries of a vast network of affection. Thank you Father for giving us these meaningful friends.

He has given us Jesus. A long time ago Jesus entered into our lives – our worlds. He has shaped, shaken, disrupted, comforted, convicted, confronted and contended with us. He has shown up in moments when we thought we were desperately alone – and without Him we were. He has been our life and for us, He gave His life. Thank you Father for giving us your Son.

The truth is that I could go on and on. God has been good to us and has blessed us with immeasurably more than we could ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20). I hope this and more for you.

All Thanks and Praise be to God, through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Happy Thanksgiving.

peace.

PS I’ll begin posting again two weeks from today.

Relief

November 2, 2012 § Leave a comment

We may joyfully believe that there was, that there is, one to whom no human suffering and no human sin is strange, and who in the profoundest love has achieved our redemption. It is such joy in Christ, the Redeemer, that alone protects us from the dulling of our senses by the constant experience of human suffering and also from accepting as inevitable the suffering in the spirit of resignation.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letter to the Brethren at Finkenwalde, 1942

This week, sitting in Starbucks was more than about burrowing in my preferred writing spot. It was also due to the fact that our office was closed and without electricity since Monday, when Hurricane Sandy hit Maryland. Only late yesterday power restored. Fortunately our Staff found creative ways to meet, study and work in spite of the circumstances.

We got off easy. The devastating consequences of Sandy’s wrath in states like New Jersey and New York will yield decades of aftereffects and sorrow. Loss of life has been high, and is climbing. Homes were demolished and entire communities obliterated by water, wind and fire. The sorrow that comes through in news stories and interviews is almost too much for Katherine and I to bear.

Having lived through hurricanes, and having experienced two historic floods in Mississippi during college and grad-school years, I can tell you that there is nothing romantic about going through something like this. Jobs will be lost. Lives will be altered. Families will walk away from their homes, never to return. Relationships will be tested to the brink. Opportunists will exploit desperate people. The world many know will never be the same.

When Hurricane Andrew demolished much of the southern hemisphere of Miami in 1991, a friend (and one of my models for leadership), Ray Goode, the one-time City Manager, along with another city leader, decided to launch a campaign called, ‘We Will Rebuild.’ They rightly resolved that the city was worth restoring, and so as he dealt with the devastation on his own block, Ray led Miami in an effort that was nothing short of Herculean.

Relief is more than a physical dynamic. It is a resolve. And it is something that doesn’t happen effectively in a vacuum and without a larger community of people committed to something greater than themselves. The most enduring and effective relief efforts happen when broken people recognize their own condition in the lives and events of others, and then act on them – together.

A long time ago I discovered something about Jesus that I might not have guessed in my ‘neat’ and ‘responsible’ universe. As you follow Him, and observe how He is constantly confronted by the pathos of people who bear the effects of a fallen world, you discover that He only ever offers relief. What I mean is that He doesn’t ask how something happened, never ascribes blame, and makes no demands – He simply relieves burdens. His response to brokenness is never conditional.

Because the crazy thing is that Brokenness is Jesus’ point of connection with humanity – it is the singular reason for His entrance into our world.

And He wasn’t merely exhibiting His saving power, which would be enough. He was also demonstrating what the Church is called to, and how effective she could be by merely entering into and serving the very broken world Jesus came to save.

Here is the thing: We are connected. All of us. When one person is cut, we all bleed. When one suffers, we grieve together. When a city lies in ruins, we are reacquainted with the reality of our shared condition.

And when there is renewal, as one, we all have cause to celebrate. So we find connection in our shared brokenness. And in relief, together we taste of and share in the good mission of the One who is making all things new.

This is our good news.

peace.

If you are looking to help, you can do so directly. Here are two sister church communities that will bring relief where they serve:

1. Brooklyn Presbyterian Church (a community of several congregations):

Brooklyn Presbyterian Church – Mercy Team (make your check payable to this line as well)
174 Prospect Park West
#1L Brooklyn, NY 11215

2. Redeemer Presbyterian Church – Hope for New York

Unconditional

October 27, 2012 § 5 Comments

My interest was piqued. Two coffee-drinkers at Starbucks spoke loudly enough for me to be an unintended, yet all too willing listener. One man was recruiting the other. It would have otherwise been a no-brainer to tune them out, but then I heard the words, ‘the Agency.’ Those of us that live in proximity to the Beltway understand what this is. We live in the ‘If I told you I’d have to kill you’ Intelligence Community where you need clearance to enter buildings and a disciplined tongue in all casual conversations.

But here I was. And one of those words was used, almost like the things you hear about when it comes to how phone calls are monitored regarding National Security, when certain words or phrases are used that alert computers that alert agents, that alert the Pentagon, that alert the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that alert the President…

The Agency. Security and Pentagon and President stuff! THE AGENCY!!!!!

I pastor a church filled with people in the Intelligence Community. When it comes to what exactly they do, I don’t ask and they don’t tell.

Why?

Because then they’d have to kill me.

And they would be without a pastor.

Well… and I would be dead too – bad all the way around.

So you can understand why my ears were burning.

It is a rare thing to be privy to such secret national interests. I couldn’t hear every word, but terms like central and computers and cases broke through the mumbling. And that was enough, because, not only do I pastor such people but I’ve seen a lot of movies about them – and I’m certain it’s all true…

But then something happened. Something utterly unexpected was said that caused me to stop listening all together.

No, I wasn’t discovered to be listening. Like I said, I’ve seen the movies and shows going all the way back to The Man From U.N.C.L.E. – I know how to do espionage (yikes! – one of those words!) and how to listen like a secret agent. When I was a boy I turned my first generation Bic pen into a mini-walki-talkie, and yes, I’ve talked into my shoe. Trust me, I listened under the radar.

Through my above-average sleuthing, I learned that it was in fact a recruiting meeting. One man was enlisting the other, however, it was not for some top-secret, black-ops, high-clearance, two-people-have-to-turn-the-key-to-make-it-happen kind of position, but to join…

An Insurance Agency!

An Insurance Agency with a central database! An agency with computers and cases!

Immediately – almost faster than immediately – I lost all interest! From then on the only words I heard were ‘blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah…’

What a waste! How could these inconsiderate clods sit close enough to another patron and make such noise about such trivial things? The audacity!

It left me thinking two things, the deepest of which was that I belong to a Father who never…

Ever.

Loses interest in me.

Or you, if you are His.

His love is unconditional.

It is an everlasting love (Jeremiah 31:3). His interest in us never depended on our ability to be interesting, good, exciting or pure. It is a never-give-up-on-the-prodigal (Luke 15), it-never-depended-on-you kind of love.

It is simply unconditional.

In a world filled with conditions and short attention spans this is good news.

What was the other thing it left me thinking?

If I told you I’d have to kill you…

peace.

Every Morning

October 20, 2012 § 4 Comments

Early this morning I was struck by the magnificent contrast of darkness and light as I drove into the mall where my sermon-writing Starbucks resides. It seemed as though east and west converged and dark and light clashed in the parking lot just above my head. In the sky I could see both last night and this morning at the same time – it was a magnificent display.

Without fail this happens every morning.

Today our church enjoyed a magnificent Fall Festival. The temperatures were in the 60’s and low 70’s. The sun shined on our property to beautiful live music as hundreds ate, rode horses, got their faces painted and enjoyed a hayride, to name a few of many fun activities. Just yesterday it poured in our area. But that was yesterday. Then today came, and everything was different. Who could predict?

Even as I type my hometown college football team is playing on TV. And there is no way to predict how the game will turn out. And if the two teams were to play again tomorrow the outcome would be equally unpredictable.

Yet in roughly nine hours, just as with when I turned into that mall lot, the sun will rise, and somewhere in the sky darkness will once again give way to the light of day.

It is our reminder – One of those subtle prompts God has given us to look to when we are freshly revisited with the disappointments and heartaches of our broken world that leave us feeling alone and depleted. With each new day the morning announces that God isn’t going anywhere, and with Him comes fresh mercy and unfailing love.

He has given us each new morning to remind us that while everything we look to in this life will eventually fail us, He won’t.

He just won’t.

I will. But He won’t. You will. He doesn’t.

In a time when his nation was slipping into captivity, and he had every reason to despair, the prophet Jeremiah connected the dots and remembered God’s unending love and fresh mercy (Lamentations 3:21-24). How did he do it (with the help of God’s Spirit)?

He woke up.

Hey, our world is a fallen one, so life will always be sprinkled with sorrow, disappointment and pain. But as the sun rises with each new morning we have the assurance of a God who refuses to allow His goodness to be darkened by a hopelessness His Son Jesus has already overcome.

Like you and me, Jeremiah was unfinished, and he needed something bigger than himself and his sorrows to get his feet back on the ground, because his own circumstances had outdistanced his ability to cope.

So God gave him a new morning.

And in a few hours, He will give you one as well.

Friends, this is good news…

peace.

face2face

October 6, 2012 § 1 Comment

As you may know, I frequent a particular Starbucks to do most of my weekly writing. This particular Starbucks is located at the edge of a beautiful mall in Columbia, Maryland. It is at the entrance closest to a large L.L. Bean and as a result, it is a thoroughfare for tremendous traffic – People entering and exiting in crowds, couples and individuals.

Inevitably, over the course of time, people, faces and the rhythms of the mall become increasingly familiar. Though I have few names, it isn’t uncommon to see the same folks throughout a month, some on a weekly basis. There’s the guy from England who sits and reads the paper, and sings Beatles tunes when they come on in Starbucks (I sing with him). There’s the former Arkansas State running back that I wrote of in another post (we saw one another this morning). There’s the woman behind the Starbucks register, whose name means ‘flower’ in Spanish, and her always delightful and smiling co-worker who wears a bandana on her head. There is the guy who wears University of Miami garb while he works beside me at the bar (his daughter graduated from there and we have hit it off). I could go on.

And then there are those who work right outside the Starbucks window. Among these folks is a woman who sells popcorn and cotton candy at the entrance of the mall (she is in the photo in this post, and her face is intentionally obscured). She is always there, always working and moving, pouring powdered butter into the popcorn machine and twirling clear plastic bags of cotton candy. Because of her activity and her wardrobe I rarely see her face, to the extent that until last week I would never have been able to identify her in another context.

But now I would. Last week I sat at the ‘bar’ against the window in a spot that was close enough to see her, and I discovered that both her arm and face bear the scars of having been severely burned. And I couldn’t help but wonder what her story is, and I had to work hard not to imagine the worst.

Though I’ll probably never know, in reflecting on that moment I thought of one of my all-time favorite bible verses, where in Exodus 33:11 I read that God spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. I’ve always loved that verse because incredibly it reveals that God is willing to enter into friendship with us, in spite of the fact that we are damaged by the fall.

It means something else too, and I don’t think I’ve ever really considered this. It means that when God speaks with us, He sees us – as we are. There is no hiding or pretending. Intimacy demands no less, and God wouldn’t want it any other way.

Yet we so readily hide. And normally we’re fairly successful – until God gets in our faces.

We hide because we know He sees, only to find that when He comes, rather than express repulsion, He offers friendship.

Because He has already accepted and overcome whatever ugly realities define us. Through His Son. Amazingly, the Father recognizes Jesus in our most broken places. And He loves us all the more.

And this blows my mind.

What good news…

peace.

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