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…
December 6, 2014 § 3 Comments
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.
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.
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.
November 15, 2014 § 2 Comments
C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
The other night, Katherine and I sat in our courtyard, beside a small fire, reflecting on our lives together, our family and children, our ministry and calling – you name it. There is something about a fire that seems to suspend all urgency, and draw us into such conversation. And yes, we listened to Christmas music as we did, while sipping on hot chocolate.
As we conversed, we agreed that much of what we thought to be important many years ago in our lives was not so important after all. It wasn’t so much about regret, but of perspective. The thing is that we would not trade anything for where we are now. Fortunately God’s hand has not been thwarted by our stumbles.
‘If I had to do it over again…’ can be a dangerous statement. So can, ‘What if…’ Micromanaging our pasts and obsessing over the future only steal from the present.
Unfortunately the Church hasn’t always been helpful in this area. Through the years Christians have fixated on the future to the point of madness, parsing events and people, while attempting to fit them into a sensationalized ‘end times’ blockbuster movie-type scenario. Authors have raked in millions, feeding off the fears and frenzy of ‘end times’ enthusiasts.
But the gospel teaches that what God will one day do, He is already doing – Right Now. He didn’t identify Himself to Moses with the words, ‘I was’ – It was, ‘I am,’ and you can hear this in Jesus’ prayer, ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…’
The gospel works because of this. It enables us to find fresh hope in the moment – Today. Only our regrets and fear of the future will rob us of enjoying God’s grand design for our lives in the present.
Within weeks we will read and recite the beautiful announcement, ‘Today, in the city of David, a Savior has been born…’ This is the refrain we find throughout the scriptures – it is all so present tense!
In fact, you would be hard pressed to find a single instance in Jesus’ ministry, in which He dwelled on the pasts of the people He encountered. Other than opening one woman’s eyes to His ability to see through her defenses, He never drudged up incidents and failures of the people He healed and consoled. He was all about the moment.
This was no accident. It was His announcement that with the Father there is grace to continue on with the journey, in spite of our pasts that are speckled with failures, poor decisions and regrets, as well as with the future unknown.
Settle this in your minds and hearts, friends: Regret over the past and Anxiety over the future are not on the Father’s radar.
‘You can step out into it at any moment…’
That’s good news…
October 11, 2014 § 10 Comments
Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge
A friend died this week. The truth is that I can barely write these words without weeping. It isn’t merely that a friend passed away, but someone who was so convinced that God is a generous God, that he became one of the most generous people I’ve ever known.
While alive Lewis never wanted people to know the extent of his generosity. To look at him, he would be the last person you would assume this of. His daily garb was a white or light blue guayabara, slacks and a shirt pocket full of pens, notepad and a cell phone. He evoked a semblance more like that of John Madden than some polished mogul.
Yet Lewis was a pioneer in the cruise line industry, the owner and developer of one of the most successful food service companies in the business.
Somewhere in his journey, Lewis met Jesus and through the guidance of his pastor (and my mentor), he learned that the Kingdom of God is worthy of our lives, our hearts – and our resources. So he became someone who gave generously – to the Church – to Missions organizations – to Missionaries – to Christian schools – to Community Projects – to out-of-work strangers – to struggling single-parent families – to drug rehabs – to ministers – to widows – all the while believing that he could never out give God.
All of this, Lewis did, joyfully and secretly behind the scenes. Even when he and his wife lost their college-aged son to a rare heart condition, his faith was unwavering in the midst of his unspeakable grief.
As his pastor, each year I would be the recipient of an envelope stuffed with thousands of dollars that he wanted for me to anonymously distribute to people in need – no tax write-offs – no publicity – no recognition – just gifts. I’ll never forget knocking on the door of a single mom who was barely making it, to say, ‘Merry Christmas from someone who cares, and who loves the Lord,’ and the look of joyful amazement on her face. That indeed made my Christmas very merry.
This doesn’t even scratch the surface.
That was Lewis. He didn’t do it to be noticed or even thanked. In fact this may be the first public mention of his generosity. He quietly served on boards, embraced ministries, visited widows, ate with outcasts and befriended the lonely – just as Jesus did.
And I guess what I’m getting at is this: In his liberality Lewis discovered his life. He wasn’t generous to impress or to prove anything, and he would be the first to admit to being unfinished and broken. No, Lewis gave because he was free. He truly found himself in giving himself away.
I am going to miss Lewis – our annual phone conversations and predictions about the Hurricanes’ football program, and our deep talks about life and loss and faith and heaven. Because fortunately, in the mix of ministry and life, I was blessed to discover Lewis’ greatest value to be that of friend.
And now he is home, reunited with his son, and his generous Savior, Lord and Friend, Jesus.
What good, sweet news…
September 20, 2014 § Leave a comment
“The goal of human existence is that man should dwell at peace in all his relationships: with God, with himself, with his fellows, with nature, a peace which is not merely the absence of hostility, though certainly it is that, but a peace which at its highest is enjoyment.”
Nicholas Wolterstorff, REASON [within the Bounds of Religion]
If you haven’t seen the moving video entitled, Made in New York, produced recently by Gatorade honoring Derek Jeter, the retiring New York Yankee shortstop, then sit back and enjoy – it is a worthy watch.
If anything has distinguished Jeter’s career it is that he is a team player. While he is unquestionably an exceptional athlete, it is his commitment to the wellbeing of the team that separates him and others like him.
Hey, I’m no Yankees fan! But those who play for the team – those who care primarily for people other than themselves, they are the ones that transcend the lines of demarcation that normally separate people. I think this is because they tap into what we were created to enjoy with one another, and all creation, before the fall cursed the world with isolation. They embody the selfless expression that community demands in order for it to flourish. In a year filled with painful sports scandals, both on the professional and collegiate athletic levels, it is refreshing to say farewell to a pro that ‘got it.’
This is partly why I believe the Baltimore Orioles’ season has been special (other than winning the AL East Division Title!). They have survived disappointment and injury – as a team. Last Tuesday evening in Camden Yards (picture below) was magic, because team and city converged in joy. It is always about the team, and the people/city the team plays for.
I often don’t get this. In a culture and society that is so individualized, it is easy to get lost in doing my job: preparing my sermon, writing my blog, paying my bills, fixing my house, etc, that I forget the grander, sweeter communal life of love, friendship, fellowship and faith I have been called into.
We weren’t created to live for ourselves. And we are miserable when we do. In spite of the fact that our selfish instincts often prevail against the messy, inconvenience of relationship and sacrifice and self-abandonment, it is when our darkest wishes come true, and everything is in its perfect order just as we wanted it, and we are left to ourselves, that we are at our most miserable.
So God gives us simple expressions of self-abandonment in order that we may catch fresh glimpses of Jesus, who exchanged glory for shame, and honor for love, that we may rediscover that the Father’s great delight is most beautifully enjoyed when shared together… with the team.
What good news…