November 7, 2015 § 3 Comments
“As the body of Christ, the church is called to live for the peace, love and joy of God’s reign.”
Mark Gornik, To Live in Peace
This weekend my home church, the Old Cutler Presbyterian Church, in Miami, Florida, celebrates her 50th birthday (they have appropriately named the weekend, ‘Jubilee’). Those of us who are familiar with this extraordinary church know that it has a rich history of blessing, growth, hardship and renewal.
I would say that’s a long time, but since I’m older than 50, we’ll keep it at, ‘What an accomplishment!’ And how sweet is it that in Bill and Carol Richards, Old Cutler still has two of its Charter Members, which means that they have been there since day one.
As with the church I am privileged to pastor today (Chapelgate Presbyterian Church), through the years OCPC has groomed pastors, sent countless people to the mission field, cared for thousands, ministered to Miami during hard times, loved the marginalized and broken, and served as a cultural center to the community.
Many of us had the privilege of sitting under the ministry of a pastor named Bob Davis. During his nearly-14 years in the pulpit, the church grew and flourished into the ministry it is today. Bob wasn’t a polished preacher, but he was an amazing pastor – my role model for ministry. He instilled in us that churches are meant to be local communities where Jesus is loved, lifted up and shared. On more than one occasion he said that when the church stops proclaiming Jesus, it should be razed and turned into a cornfield (he was a big old country boy).
Whenever a church grows to the size of an Old Cutler, it is often mischaracterized by the observing world. Those who look from the outside in sometimes assume it to be a cold impersonal corporate ‘machine.’ But to those who have experienced being part of the OCPC story, it is what it always has been – a holy community where babies are baptized, vows are exchanged, graduates receive their diplomas, loved ones are buried, tragedies are shared, hearts are broken, crises are endured, all at a crossroads where love and sorrow meet, as life is lived together, because of Jesus.
I can honestly say that God used Old Cutler shape my life and faith. And I could not be more thankful that He wove me into her story, and hers into mine.
God gave my family a church home for nearly all of those 50 years – Just within our family, weddings, funerals and baptisms all occurred – truly we have been ‘cradle to the grave.’
He gave me a pastor who treated me like a son and taught me the ministry (Through my college and seminary years he wrote fatherly, pastoral letters that I cherish to this day).
He gave Katherine and me friends for a lifetime, some still there.
He demonstrated the way He circuitously unfolds our stories into His magnificent plan – At OCPC I had the joy and privilege of serving as a volunteer, a summer Intern, a Youth Pastor, and then, amazingly for a decade, as the Sr. Pastor – Wowzer! (with this I can’t help but celebrate Mike Campbell, who once served as a Member who turned Elder, and then, as I was, was ordained into the ministry there, before returning as her new Sr. Pastor – how cool is that?).
I guess the storyline here is that at the end of the day, the lovelier and more meaningful things in life and faith – are local. The very dynamic that many attempt to eradicate when they ‘globalize’ the Faith out of some spiritualized dissatisfaction with flawed local expressions, is actually what robs them of the sweet joy that only comes through the very real, ‘on the ground’ human involvement in that imperfect, messy, often inconvenient, and never-having-arrived community called the local church.
For us, however, by God’s grace and in His goodness, in OCPC we have in our experiences and hearts, a church home that will always remind us that the Father loves and uses imperfect vessels, and that through His Son, He makes what is broken and eminently flawed, ravishingly beautiful.
what good news…
Happy Birthday, Old Cutler!
Happy Birthday, Family.
(Pictured below is one of two massive stained glass windows in the Sanctuary, constructed by a 5th Grade Math Teacher & OCPC Member, who has since made it ‘Home’, Roy Aldridge)
October 17, 2015 § Leave a comment
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” Jesus, Matthew 5:7
I recently had the privilege of visiting with the Senior Vice President of World Relief’s North American operation. World Relief is a global non-profit organization, based in Baltimore, and committed to caring for the weak and needy around the world, whether for orphans, for immigrants, for victims of natural disaster, or those lost in the horrors and brutality of human trafficking. Years ago, when our church in Miami planted a church in ‘Little Havana,’ the ‘landing place’ for many immigrants from Latin America, World Relief had an office where we started the work. That office remains today, and as you can imagine, has processed innumerable refugees through the years, offering legal advice, guidance for green cards, citizenship, etc.
At the heart of World Relief’s mission is the gospel’s call to the Church with the singular thrust that the strong have been made – by God – stewards of the weak. I am convinced that if the Church fails, all is lost. Every other system that attempts to care for the poor, the weak and the underprivileged has some underlining political agenda that eventually fails the very people they attempt to serve, and often lines the pockets and reputations of those who champion these causes.
World Relief’s Vision Statement is Stand/For The Vulnerable.
Last night Katherine and I shared a meal with a young couple that is committed to mentoring young people from Baltimore’s Inner City whose lives are racked with heartache, brokenness and poverty. They give what they can: safe harbor, school clothing and supplies – and love. They stand for the vulnerable.
This morning I ran into one of our Members (okay it was at Dunkin Donuts – what can I say?). He leads a team that regularly meets with folks at New Song Church in Sandtown, the neighborhood ravaged by fire and riots earlier this year. New Song drives the agenda, but together they are working through ideas to generate commerce in the neighborhood so that the dollar will remain there, and hopefully begin to break the pattern of violence, hopelessness and sorrow that most of us in the burbs can’t fathom possible. They stand for the vulnerable.
We have a friend in Miami who, when she and her family attended a downtown church, for years, drove an hour away from her home, to the slums of Little Haiti, to bring children to church and later that week to Youth Group. In between she and her husband kept in touch, provided for needs and loved well. They stood for the vulnerable.
‘Blessed are the Merciful,’ was Jesus version of, ‘Blessed are they who stand for the vulnerable.’ Every word, action and encounter exemplified this during His ministry, all the way to the Cross, where He died for us – the vulnerable.
Who more than Christians, know the relief of being forgiven a debt one could never repay?
We have been given much – in order to be to the world what Christ has been to us. It really is that simple. And when those we serve feel our touch, it will be as though they have encountered Jesus Himself.
What good, hopeful news…
June 20, 2015 § Leave a comment
A fellow pastor died earlier this week. The Reverend Clementa Pinckney, of the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina was slain along with eight other innocent people who gathered to pray and study the scriptures. Obviously we didn’t know one another, but in the ministry, where the Faith is mutually embraced, there is a shared bond that cannot found in denominations or nuanced theological differences – but in calling.
As someone who has led and been part of countless Wednesday evening gatherings like this, I can tell you that people are rarely more vulnerable than when they open themselves and their lives up before others and God in a small setting. So for this violence to be perpetrated in such a context is beyond the pale. There are no words. Nine people are gone.
I am thankful for my fellow pastors, black and white, who are wrestling with all they have, in networks, on social media, with one another, and within their own hearts, as they lead congregations in the reality of racism’s unquestionable presence in our country.
We stand together.
It is important that you understand that we are every bit as human as anyone else. We are moved by pain, and sometimes filled with the temptation to hate and retaliate. We are often utterly clueless as to what to do in any given situation, and every bit as limited as any other human being. And sometimes we are blinded by our own prejudices, fears and emotions. We weren’t born ministers.
We get angry too.
We want revenge too.
We want blood too.
We want justice too.
We want to understand too.
We desperately need Jesus.
And by God’s grace, we have the gospel, from which His grace flows, and love has been demonstrated for this fallen human race, namely to us, not by some hero-wannabee, but by Jesus, the pure and spotless Lamb of God, who gave Himself in sacrifice for the very sins we grieve. And we understand that everything horrible and violent and vicious that manifests itself in this broken world, has found some measure of residence within each of us.
Jesus asks that we follow Him, even when the world is bleak and hope is scarce, even when we want to lay aside our ordination vows, and act out of our own pain and heartache. In His death and resurrection He has ensured that one day the grip of injustice and the violence and bloodshed of all sin will finally and eternally be broken. Jesus has overcome the world and its curse. We were called to announce, embody and cling to this unspeakably lovely hope.
Like I said, I didn’t know Pastor Pinckney and we won’t meet until we are both at the Feast – He has already made it Home. But we share the bond of a calling that begins with giving one’s life away. In some way Pastor Pinckney sacrificed himself many years before God called him Home.
And in this is our hope. In the violence and sorrow of this sin-torn and fallen world, we have the promise that a Feast awaits those who have fled to Jesus – who Himself died and made it Home – first. For us.
Our good news…
February 21, 2015 § 2 Comments
Eugene H. Peterson, Leap Over A Wall
If you know anything about my work habits, you know that my sermon prep is a crazy time of prayer, solitude, music, study, distraction, desperation, and more prayer. It begins in my office on Thursday, and ends there early Sunday morning, with hours at ‘my’ Starbucks in between. This is my groove.
And when it is interrupted my world tips off its axis.
All of which leads to early last Thursday morning, when our daughter Emily called. She had a flat tire on a major highway leading into and out of Baltimore. Long story short, I ended up spending most of Thursday in a Firestone with a manager who reminded me of Newman on Seinfeld, in a community known as Reisterstown, just beyond the city. The store was situated on a loud, busy road. So there I was – no books, no office, no playlists, no groove!
Instead I was confined to a crowded room with strangers – you know, the people types. One lady was a night guard who worked the night shift. Another loudly cursed into her phone, enraged with a family member, while simultaneously giving us the play-by-play. Another changed her baby’s diaper on the chairs in front of the television beside the coffee maker that smelled as though it had been brewing for weeks. Game shows gave way to talk shows, and finally soap operas.
Somewhere around Noon I was expected on a conference call, and for an hour I walked around the store, in and among people, tires and furniture, and sometimes outside, in 14-degree weather. At meeting’s end, the leader asked me to pray. So, there in the Firestone, I got into a corner (pictured above), and prayed.
And when I opened my eyes, I was in a sanctuary.
Eugene Peterson writes of God’s people and how simple elements like rocks and animals, water, fire and hills were employed in worship when gathering and temples were not options. I think of Jesus, who worshiped early in the Temple, on a mountain in the morning, at the banquet of His betrayal, in the garden, and even on the Cross. It was never about perfect circumstances, and always about the very present God.
It turned out that I needed that place and those people and our daughter’s crisis more than I needed my office. The Father was at Firestone and He wanted me there.
It was in that Sanctuary that retail chairs transformed into pews, garage workers served as priests, customers became fellow worshippers, the seating arrangement, our confessional, our stories the liturgy, and the smell of new rubber combined with burnt coffee, the incense of our shared need.
Free from the ordinary, the world appeared a little clearer, and my sermon a bit less daunting. A letter I intended for a friend took shape, and heart. Texts with my wife, sermon notes, and thoughts of God’s protection over our daughter, songs of thanksgiving and praise.
Friends, find your sanctuary.
And discover once again, that it is the Father who has found you.
What good news…
February 7, 2015 § Leave a comment
One of the more thoughtful pieces I have read in recent weeks comes from New York Times op-ed columnist, Nicholas Kristof. In this particular article he queries as to how we might increase empathy – in the world and in ourselves. After discussing the ‘science’ of how people and organizations successfully manipulate the public in gaining support, whether financial or otherwise, he rightly argues that the only way for our hearts to be drawn to those suffering comes when we enter into it – whether through some form of involvement (like short-term service trips), or by simply meditating or praying over the fact that there is pain in the world.
This is not a new concept to the gospel. At the heart of our Faith is a God who has entered into a broken world. In choosing not to sterilize the planet before coming, Jesus demonstrated that love is not a risk-free enterprise. In fact I am convinced that the greatest obstacle to belief for many is the repulsion that comes with associating a pure God with a messy human condition. Keeping God at a distance is like posting touched-up photos on Instagram – Everyone looks better from far away.
All of which leads to politics – our national obsession. Politics, when reduced to rhetoric is a convenient, ideological way of staying safely far from people and suffering. Rather than get our hands dirty we rattle our sabers, vote, and then pat ourselves on our backs, feeling as though we have done something good for the world.
Don’t get me wrong, I love political debate, and vote every election. And there is a place for political activism. Activism led to the abolition of slavery in England, gave women the right to vote here, and ended wrongful child labor practices. In these cases Christians, along with unbelievers, embraced justice – and one another. They worked through differences for higher callings.
Because the world changes when people get their hands dirty and serve, regardless of politics. But toxic partisan rhetoric changes nothing. It twists words, demonizes flawed humans, divides and polarizes.
From a distance.
Frankly, parsing the National Prayer Breakfast is a colossal waste of time in my opinion.
Maybe this is a good way of looking at it: Imagine with me a horrible event where one of your children or friends is moments away from death unless they are delivered from some catastrophic circumstance. And imagine with me that the only person who can rescue them shares none of your political, theological or ideological values. Will you restrain them from saving your loved one?
Friends, Love is up close. It gets so near that distinctives and differences give way to breath, sweat, smell and heat – humanness.
Jesus has modeled that we are called to something more personal than cheap politics, and He warned against frothing over ‘Caesar’ (Mark 12:13-17). Every generation bewails the political landscape, but I want to encourage you to find something deeper to care about, nobler to aspire to and much more human to fight for.
In doing so, politics will give way to living, breathing, human expressions of the gospel.
Our world can only receive this as good news…
December 20, 2014 § 1 Comment
“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.
December 13, 2014 § 1 Comment
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…