June 17, 2020 § 2 Comments
Through the years, I have learned that if I don’t see the Christian Faith as a journey God is leading me on, then either it has grown stale, or there is something in my character that is resistant to the ongoing work of God’s Spirit within – often manifested in how I respond when my long-settled opinions and comforts are challenged. Defensiveness is usually an instant signal that the challenge is hitting home, and something needs to change.
We can’t simultaneously claim to follow Jesus, and then refuse to change, when it challenges our lifestyles, our vocations, or our long-held views.
If you follow Jesus, he will challenge your conventions.
He will take you to unexpected places.
He will confront your sin.
He will demand a willingness to live in the scrutiny of the gospel.
He will force you to see your views and commitments through his eyes, and then demand that you change when they are incompatible with his.
unfinished1 is meant to reflect my journey of faith, to put into words the working out of that faith; the struggles, the revelations, the insights, the weaknesses, the sins, the fears, the failures, the depths, the fresh discoveries, the immaturities, and the shallows, with hopes that as I wrestle with mine, that you will with yours. It will not always be what you assume, or want, or like, or hope, or expect it to be. Where would the challenge and joy of discovery and fresh thought be in that?
Right now there are a myriad of voices out there, attempting to shift the balance of opinion to their political or social views and biases regarding race. They are born of strong convictions and long held positions.
They represent friends on either side of the aisle – friends, past and present. They are family. They are Black and White, Cops and non-Law Enforcement. They are Conservative and Liberal, Democrat and Republican.
Somewhere, in between the spaces and lines, there are answers that only reside in the gospel. These answers transcend the choices we see and hear out there. Because Jesus isn’t Democrat or Republican. I have long said, in the pulpit, and in this blog that he is more liberal than liberalism, and more conservative than conservatism.
He certainly did not save you in order to preserve your opinions. He saved you in order to rescue you from yourself, including your opinions!
Right now, we are in a moment that the Church can’t pretend isn’t there. It has me wrestling through what it means for those of us who follow Jesus, regarding preconceived notions about race, poverty, affluence, crime, justice, and the Church itself, to name a few.
Is it possible for us to learn something new in all the madness?
I have to believe that it is!
Our society has become so volatile, and sadly, the Church seems to have been sucked in. If you question your own long held ideas, you are either sliding down the slippery slope of liberalism, or embedding too deeply in conservatism. These are the lies we believe when our faith is shaped by politics and social constructs, rather than the renewing power of the gospel (Colossians 3:10).
I think of Peter, who loved Jesus and followed him as one of the disciples. Peter had a blindspot in his view of people other than Jews. He was a racist. As a Jew he held to the purity of Israel, defined and protected by ceremonial rites that were intended as temporary gifts of God to serve as shadowy glimpses of Jesus, rather than unending requirements of law. Peter’s friends protected his position. And his religious zeal enabled him the convenience of feeling righteous about his disdain for non-Jews.
But he was wrong.
And he remained unchallenged in this posture, until the apostle Paul confronted him (Galatians 2:11-14), after which Peter could no longer live out of his settled paradigm.
When the Jerusalem Counsel met to discuss the merits of admitting non-Jewish Christ-followers into the Church, who did not observe the historic rites (circumcision) into the fellowship (Acts 15) it was Peter’s change of heart that stood out: “But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they [non-Jewish believers!] will” (verse 11).
My challenge to you is to resist letting your political position inform your faith, but to measure your settled convictions against the backdrop of the scriptures – because you follow Jesus. Forget party lines! Forget news cycles! Resist extreme views and theories! Resist sensational online articles that justify whichever posture one wants to argue from! Assume headlines and storylines to be misleading!
Live above all that! It will make the journey all the more adventurous, all the more meaningful, all the more beautiful, and all the more astonishing.
After all, Peter was right. It is God’s grace that saves us, God’s grace that claims us, and God’s grace that keeps us.
There is no better news…
grace & peace.
June 10, 2020 § 1 Comment
“He who feels that he is not loved feels that he does not count.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Strength to Love
As is often the case, George Floyd’s story was told after his public execution. Sadly, it is rarely the other way around. A young man, jogging through a Georgia neighborhood (Ahmaud Arbery), a young EMT (Breonna Taylor) executed by police in her Kentucky home in a “botched” operation.
The stories seem to always follow the tragedy – all too late. There are reasons for hashtags such as #saytheirnames and #BlackLivesMatter – They put humanity to statistics, faces with smiles to cold incidence reports. Which is exactly why Emmett Till’s mother Mamie chose an open casket at the burial of her 14-year-old son, who was lynched in Mississippi, for offending a white woman. She wanted the world to see that in spite of his grotesquely beaten and shot-up face, that there was a human being behind the brutality he endured.
Decades too late, Till’s accuser admitted (in court) that she fabricated the story that got him killed.
And far too late, after the deathbed confession of a white man, George Stinney, a 13-year old African-American who was falsely accused of murdering a girl he helped search for when she was missing, was executed in South Carolina by electrocution, for a crime he never confessed. The 14-year-old was so small that the restraints of the electric chair slipped off, and when officials stepped in to tighten them, Stinney’s tears were seen by all who witnessed his unjust death. Just a little boy. A story too late.
Meet Ulunda Baker, a Christ-follower. Ulunda and my sister Venus are dear friends in the Charlotte area. She constantly threatens that they will drive to Maryland one Sunday, to attend one of our services – a sweet day that will be! Last week she posted part of her story, and permitted me to share it.
“Sitting here this morning staring in the mirror criticizing myself about the dark blemishes on my face. All of a sudden I remember my first experience of racism at 13. I was walking to the corner store and a pickup truck with confederate flags flying rode by and yelled, “Fat black N girl.” That’s hard to write but truth is that was the first time it dawned on me I’m a FAT BLACK girl in America and that bothered somebody enough to stop and remind me.
But, I did not get killed. I lived and she doesn’t….. [referencing Breonna Taylor]
The truth is that I don’t know the plight or the struggles of being a person of color in America. Which is partly why I posted Russ Whitfield’s (@whitness7) chapter from Heal Us Emmanuel last week.
I don’t know what it is like for parents like new friend Dre Wells, who served our Nation with three war tours in the Army, and his wife, to explain to their tearful daughters that their story is soaked in the blood and yoke of slavery, a story barely touched upon in schools, and often minimized in society.
You see, I don’t know these things.
Something most in my world were not raised to understand or even care about is powerlessness over a span of generations, even centuries. The conditions of our upbringings were generally healthy or hidden, therefore we can’t conceive of how horribly defenseless one feels when they don’t have the ability or infrastructure to change their circumstances, particularly when the historical narrative skews against them.
And because we don’t understand, it is difficult to comprehend the level of intensity and anger that drive reactions to repeated injustices. And it is this ignorance, this cold indifference that drove my harsh questions that were aimed at fighting another’s pain, and born more of my own deeply embedded racism.
It is true, not all reactions are ‘righteous’ or helpful. But it is also unfair that those scattered unrighteous reactions become the baseline for throwing the entire cause of justice out the window, wouldn’t you say?
Last week I did something I have never before done in my 62 years. I walked in a peace march. It was just that – peaceful. A couple thousand showed up in our little corner of the universe. They carried signs, chanted, and marched resolutely. Very few signs were offensive. Those marching were black, white, young and old.
The march took place under the protective watch of local county police officers who assisted individuals, answered questions, directed traffic, enabled marchers to safely cross streets, all while remaining undaunted by the few offensive signs aimed at them.
On duty that day was my friend Jared Dean, a county officer, and a Member of our church. Years before he took me on a ‘drive-along’ one evening. Throughout the evening he made any number of stops; people with pot, the apprehension of a bike thief, crashing an area where drugs were being sold.
One stop in particular left an impression on me. As Jared turned into an apartment complex in a low-income area, a household of children ran out to greet him with their single mom in tow. You would think it was Christmas. When Jared comes by, they get to safely play outside until he leaves. They love him as though he is family.
Sure, there are bad cops. But, as with many friends I’ve known throughout my life, most consider what they do as a calling. Their work is often thankless. They grieve whenever their brothers and sisters are killed, and they are appalled at what happened in Minneapolis, like friend Jason Kindel, a Howard County Police Officer, whose love for Christ has given him love for all in our current narrative, even as he laments fallen officers and their grieving families.
Whenever such tragedies strike, it is natural to buy into the narratives presented by the mainline media outlets, politicians, even at times, spokespeople for law enforcement. But when it is brought down to feet-on-the-ground, face-to-face, eyeball-to-eyeball interaction, it is human beings with stories, intersecting with other human beings with stories. And when the noise and spin and lights are dimmed, there is hope for something sweeter because stories embrace. Humanity reemerges in simple interactions. Cops kneel with protesters. Protesters reject inciters of violence. Cameras capture expressions of love.
And beautifully, the scriptures teach of an even lovelier embrace, where, as the Psalmist writes, “Steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other.”
This embrace is supernatural, because none of the players on the world stage have enough love in them to pull it off beyond the moment. None are faithful. None righteous. And every moment of peace is more like the eye of a raging hurricane that brings greater damage after it passes.
No. It is not the embrace of protesters and cops, black and white, nation and nation. It is the unlikely, impossible-to-attain, embrace, made possible by Jesus Christ, who bore on himself the rage, sin and anger of a hopelessly fallen human race, to become a holy Peace Offering for the sake of the world, hanging in the breach between a holy God and cursed, corrupted humanity, between heaven and earth, and in that space where the war that rages within every individual’s own heart takes place.
Jesus invites us into this embrace, only to find that in him, every other is made possible, imperfect and unfinished as they may be, until heaven and earth are one, and together we are one, at the Feast in God’s new world.
Friends, what good, hopeful news.
grace & peace.
June 3, 2020 § 17 Comments
The following article was written by my friend, and brother in ministry, Russ Whitfield (@whitness7 on Twitter). Russ pastors Grace Mosaic Church in NE Washington, DC. We have known one another for roughly 10 years. He is wise beyond his youth, and my life is richer because of him.
This is long, but informative, compelling, and a beautiful read from Russ’s entry in Heal Us Emmanuel, a book we were both privileged to contribute articles to. It places our current struggle into context with the big story of the gospel. I hope you’ll take the time to work through it as I have.
You may be having a difficult time understanding the reactions of many people of color (and White allies) to the news of Black people dying at the hands of law enforcement. Maybe you are even a little bit frustrated with the emotional response and the cries of injustice against “the system.”
Perhaps, you’re on the other side of these events. You are angry, heartbroken, and feeling hopeless because you can’t help but see injustice every time one of these all-too-familiar scenarios appears in news headlines. Either way, if you identify as a Christian, you have been called to be a reconciler, a peacemaker, and a light in this current darkness. It is imperative that you work through this distinctly Christian calling with wisdom, courage, and a mind to new obedience. The love of God constrains you. The grace of God teaches you. The Spirit of God empowers you to live an altogether different kind of life in light of the new age that has dawned in the death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ.
The issues at hand deeply affect the lives of real people within your local church and real people outside of your local church whom you have been called to love faithfully. This is to say that our engagement or disengagement with these issues will shape the dynamics of our life together, along with our missionary encounter with the world. On these issues, our local churches will either testify to the glory of the risen Christ through mutual love and humble repentance, or we will obscure the glory of the risen Christ through hardness of heart and indifference.
One thing, however, must be made absolutely clear: passivity has never been a viable Christian response to divisive and destructive social dynamics, especially within the church. Most of us are already convinced of this. But we feel like we’re stuck. We’re unsure of how to participate in bringing the healing that is needed.
STORY AS GUIDE
So how might we begin to proactively engage these issues? How can we begin to chart a course forward? I would invite you to consider the theme of story as a guiding paradigm for progress. All sides in this racial struggle tend to live within their own separate stories. These cultural narratives predetermine who our friends should be, who we can trust, and how we should relate to the world. These cultural narratives encourage us to find our deepest identities and alliances within our own ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic groups. However, I would propose that if we are to move forward together, then we must situate these tensions, our community, and our very lives within the same story—the story of God. No matter what truths may be found within these smaller cultural stories, we must give the greatest weight and the final say in our lives to God’s story. To put it another way, the story of God must be our “true north,” our greatest orienting factor. The story of God must dispel the cultural myths in which we have been living for far too long.
I’m intentionally resisting the typical “to-do” list, for real problems are rarely solved by checking the boxes. Rather, I’m proposing what I think will be a fruitful trajectory of thought as we try to move forward in mutual love and understanding. Admittedly, it takes much prayerful, humble, and communal reflection to figure out what this might look like in your context. The specifics will take different shape in different places. However, I would propose that if we are to be built up together in love (Eph. 4:16), then we must stay attuned to God’s macro-level narrative for perspective.
Let’s start with some important ideas. Each tragic, racialized event tends to take on a life that is much bigger than itself. Each of these events tap into a broader, more tragic, and more painful story for people of color. If this does not register for you, then the effect of all your preaching, Scripture quoting, and #praying tweets will be muted, at best. Please understand that every act of racial injustice, every episode of racism and race-based mistreatment takes on a symbolic status that brings to mind an entire network of historic injustices, sufferings, and the dehumanization of African Americans and other people of color. In the minds of many Black people, each racialized event serves as a heart-rending cipher for chattel slavery, Jim Crow, historic church bombings, Klan terrorism, redlining, and many other wounds received personally, and by living family members of former generations. Each event reads like another chapter in America’s running commentary on my Blackness—my worth, my status, my place in society—and it’s not a hopeful picture.
At one time, I did ministry in an affluent area in another part of the country, and I was often invited to large parties that were held in the beautiful homes of friends and church members. I was usually the only person of color in the place, except for “the help,” of course. On more than one occasion, a fellow party-goer would come up to me and put their trash or empty glass on my plate, assuming I was “the help.” I was clearly not expected to be in attendance as an equal or a friend. On another occasion, as I stood at the front of the house chatting with a friend and taking in the beautiful weather, a fellow party-goer tossed their car keys to me upon their arrival, assuming that I was the valet. Why did he toss the keys to me rather than my White friend? On each of these occasions, I heard America’s commentary clearly: “We’ve already assigned a social role for people who look like you, and that role is beneath us.”
Based on your current life situation, these events can carry slightly different, but equally painful messages. If I’m a Black achiever, I get the message that no matter how many letters I have behind my name (MDiv, PhD, JD), no matter how much money I have in the bank, no matter what gifts, talents, or job titles I hold, I will forever and always be subservient, even expendable. The dark clouds of stereotype, racialization, and essentialism will never lift.
I will never be able to walk through the world with the freedom and security of my White counterparts. The media stereotypes, fear-filled glances of passersby, and constant pressures to prove my virtue, decency, and value are a regular reminder that I don’t get the benefit of the doubt so I must work that much harder to diffuse the doubts and fears. In certain situations, it could mean the difference between life and death. Each tragic episode tells me that I will be on the social treadmill indefinitely: The reality of motion with the illusion of progress.
If I’m a Black non-achiever, I get the message that if I ever entertained even the smallest notion of rising from my current situation, I should probably just forget about it. It’s not worth the effort. I’m stuck and might as well stay put. If I try to rise, anyone with cultural power can put me back in my place of subjugation without any repercussions. Each racialized incident sounds like a ringing confirmation of the nihilistic chorus of voices that continually dance in my head. Sadly, many succumb to this bleak outlook.
If at this point you want to say, “Well just follow the law, and you don’t have to worry about these things happening. You can take responsibility for your actions—look at Barack Obama!” I understand how this makes sense to you, and it is true that personal responsibility must be taken, but try to consider the countless Emmett Tills of America (and if you don’t know who Emmett Till is—Google him!) For every Barack Obama, there have been thousands of Emmett Tills in American history. In addition, each incident is a reminder of the flood of personal experiences of racism and injustice that the particular individual has endured. Like that time when I was called a racial slur and that time when people expressed shock at my ability to speak “the king’s English.” Add in that day when my college friends suggested that I was granted acceptance because of “affirmative action” rather than personal merit (because I could not possibly have earned it…being Black and all). We could easily produce dozens of these microaggressions that have rubbed our souls raw through repeated abrasion.
None of these incidents that I or anyone go through happen in an emotional or historical vacuum. God made us as emotive, storied people, it’s a fact of our anthropological hardwiring. So, often, when Black people experience America’s commentary, it is an experience similar to the real, lived pain of seeing a mangled car on the roadside after having lost a dear loved one in an auto accident. Viewing that singular image on the side of the road instantly creates a tidal wave of emotions. Then, after this wave hits you, the rip tide of grief carries you out into the sea of anguish. You remember first hearing the news of the loss. You remember watching your surrounding loved ones burst into tears. You remember the black suits and dresses at the wake. You remember the roses being thrown on the coffin as the undertaker prepared to lower your loved one six feet into the ground.
In a similar way, African Americans are reintroduced to a grief, pain, and sense of loss every time one of these tragedies occurs, and inasmuch as you refuse to acknowledge this and mourn with the mourner (Rom. 12:15), you exacerbate the pain and alienation. You stall healing and, sometimes, inflict deeper wounds.
We must realize that the optics of these events matter. Regardless of the particulars, the overriding truth, the loudest voice heard by African Americans is that another Black person’s life has been extinguished because Black lives are invested with less value.
If you are always down in the weeds arguing “the facts,” you will likely be harsh and insensitive. The worst part about this is that you may be “right” with regard to technicalities, but you will not be right with regard to Christian love. You may need to consider holding your tongue in certain moments. Many of the things that we think in our minds are not beneficial for public consumption (beware your Facebook and Twitter rants).
The question is not so simple as to ask, “Do the details of this particular case harmonize with the American justice system?” The bigger question is, “Does the American justice system harmonize with the true justice of God in this particular situation?” To conflate the American justice system with the true justice of God is naive and misguided. We have to acknowledge that the American justice system is failing Black people, brown people, White people, and law enforcement officers at any point where the American justice system departs from the principles of eternal justice. I’m not suggesting that we could or should pursue a theocracy in America. But what I am suggesting is that there must be an acknowledgment of the fallibility of our system and, at the very least, a fight to rid the American justice system of its glaring inadequacies, insofar as we are able to participate in this labor.
But it is also important for us to remember a number of other important facts as we aim to move forward.
First, there is a beautiful history of White people entering into solidarity and seeking justice for all. They have used their social, educational, and financial privileges to work for justice. People of color should encourage them and receive them as family and allies in this worthy struggle.
Second, there are many genuine, kind-hearted, White people who are doing their best to make sense of things. They do not see any injustice or why these incidents would warrant such strong reactions. They are honestly trying to work through it all. Let grace and the Golden Rule be your guide in dialogue. Try to give the same space and grace that you would need to see things from their angle, given their life experiences. If they ask you questions and the answers seem painfully obvious to you, don’t assume or project malicious intent, lest you be guilty of the same kind of thinking that contributed to these tragedies in the first place.
Third, there will always be people who see emotional responses of pain and frustration in such situations as “race-baiting,” “excuses,” or “playing the race card.” There will be trolls on the comment sections of digital newspapers and blogs that spew unspeakably awful, hateful things. I would simply encourage you to spend your emotional energies on your local context with real people, building real relationships of trust and honesty. Staying at the national level to the neglect of the local level will likely tend toward hopelessness and despair. Conversely, the small victories that happen around the kitchen table and in the neighborhood, born of prayer, love, and perseverance, will bless you more than you know. Celebrate this good fruit.
What’s even more important than these practical pieces of advice is the more central need that we have to share the same overarching narrative. This is the truth: We need each other if we are going to break out of the dehumanizing narratives under which we each live. If there is any truth to the notion that we are deeply affected by the narratives under which we live, then we are confronted with a question: What does a narrative of untimely death, violence, criminalization, racialization, and inferiority do to a people group? When this historical narrative of subhumanity and expendability seems to be confirmed time and again, what happens to its beleaguered characters?
It has been said before that racism and the racialization of American culture is bad, not just for people of color, but for White people as well. It is not true nor healthy for people of color to live under the narrative of inferiority and dehumanization. In the same way, it is not true nor healthy for White people to live under the narrative of superiority and suprahumanization. You are in a dangerous and unhealthy position when your race, ethnicity, biology, and overall way of life is canonized and made to be anthropological holy writ. Adherence to this social orthodoxy will cloud your mind with a soul-stifling pride, which God opposes (James 4:6). No one people group should be so cast down below the rest, and no one people group should be so exalted above the rest—neither of these outlooks is a healthy way to be human. The conflicts we are witnessing result from the ways in which we have all lived out of these lesser narratives, allowing these mythologies to govern our lives and ruin our relationships.
However, there is a way in which all people can simultaneously acknowledge their lowliness, fallibility, and the vulnerability of their situation—but also the beauty, glory, and hope for their situation. This is the story of the Gospel, and it is this story that we must share together if we are to make progress in mutual love and understanding.
According to God’s story, every human being was designed for glory and dignity in connection with God and the people around him or her. Every human being surrendered his or her glory in walking away from God. But the hope that God gives is that his story is all about affirming these twin truths: You and I are simultaneously sinners, yet accepted in the Beloved by grace alone through faith alone. We are ruined but rescued, awful but adopted, devious but delivered. God’s story tells us that brokenness is not the sole proprietorship of any one ethnic group, and by God’s grace, glory is not the sole inheritance of any one ethnic group. This is God’s commentary on our shared identity in Christ; and it’s infinitely better than America’s commentary.
This story alone sets the stage for fruitful, healthy, restorative dialogue and true progress. This story tells me that my identity rests, not on being right, but on being loved. I am free to be wrong, to learn, and to change as I live in community with the other. I am free to acknowledge that my mind needs to be renewed, and that this renewal is possible. If what the Bible says about me is anywhere near the truth, then humility, teachability, and grace must govern the way I move forward.
Don’t politicize this issue, gospelize it. The Gospel is the only story big enough to swallow up the grief of a ruined humanity, overcoming that ruin with the glory of a renewed humanity. Build this into your local church through every means available—pulpit, programming, community groups, and neighborhood gatherings. Explore the implications of God’s story for the current racial conflicts that we are facing. In what ways do you need to embrace difficult changes personally and corporately? How does God’s story encourage me to drop my defenses? Who should I be inviting to my dinner table in light of God’s story? How should we rethink the power-dynamics of our church or organization in light of a glorious God who humbles himself in love in order to lift the other?
The story of God answers these questions and many more with life-giving and life-changing direction. But one thing is for sure, if you bury your head in the sand on important issues like these, your witness will be blunted and your missionary encounter with the world will ebb over time as America grows more diverse.
You have an opportunity to speak dignity over the disenfranchised—did not Christ do this for you (1 Pet. 2:9)? You have an opportunity to proclaim words that invite humility and gracious acceptance—did not Christ proclaim these words over you (1 Pet. 5:5)? You have an opportunity to participate in the formation of a cross-cultural community—is this not the community that God has already determined to bring to completion (Rev. 7:9)? In God’s story, the poor are made rich because the rich One was made poor (2 Cor. 8–9). In God’s story, the weak are made strong because the Almighty was pleased to enter into our weakness (Rom. 5:6, Phil. 2:5ff).
In God’s story, there is hope for the hopeless, joy for the joyless, and power for the powerless. Christ, the King, will not suffer the status quo injustice and tragedy of this world to remain in place forever. But my question for you is this: Are you going to embrace your role as a participant in God’s story of renewal? In Christ, we have an entire treasury of resources for living up into this bigger, more meaningful, and more beautiful story. I would invite you to reimagine your relationships in light of this story. Reimagine the final chapter of this story, allowing that vision to shape your life and relationships in the present. If you do, the mile markers on the side of the road will reveal that you are actually making progress in the journey toward racial healing and social flourishing. This story, shared among us, is our hopeful way forward.
 Peggy McIntosh. “White privilege.” Race, Class and Gender: An Anthology, (1998): 94–105.
May 20, 2020 § Leave a comment
“Whatever the news, I wanted him to hear it from someone who cared about him.”
Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy
The above quote is part of Bryan Stevenson’s recollection of the execution of a Vietnam veteran whom he was called to defend, eleven years after he was incompetently represented by a court-appointed attorney, and only three weeks before his scheduled execution. By the time Stevenson came on the picture it was too late. His desperate last-minute attempts to secure a stay of execution failed, and this finds him awaiting word.
When he first contacted Stevenson, the man was desperate and frenzied, but in the moments before his execution, he was at peace, and to Stevenson’s surprise, he expressed gratitude to his last-second attorney, simply because he cared.
Has it ever occurred to you that more than anything else, God just wants you to be there? In the Christian universe it is easy to measure success by the wrong metrics. We think that our efforts are worth it, only if the payoff is a net gain: a conversion, an admission, a changed life. But in the currency of the gospel, it is the storyline of grace that wins the day.
For this reason, I love the Psalmist’s description of Moses, when God was breathing fire after Israel had once again forsaken Him.
“Therefore he said he would destroy them – had not Moses, his chosen one, stood in the breach before him, to turn away his wrath from destroying them.” (Psalm 106:23)
It is important to see that God’s relief was temporary. Israel would repeatedly rebel, until ultimately they became an exiled people. But was it all a waste?
The answer is no. Moses serves as a reminder that it is not temporary relief that the world needs, but Jesus, who not only stood in the breach (on the Cross), but died there, to do the very thing Moses could never secure for eternity – to turn the wrath of God from an otherwise hopelessly rebellious humanity.
The key is that Moses was God’s chosen one. He could stand in the breach, because he was safe, not from harm, but judgment. Only those who enjoy intimacy with the Almighty can brave the enormity of His holy presence, and live.
More often than not, to my shame, what I get so wrong, is that the intimacy I enjoy with God, through Jesus, is the testimony that those wrestling with the uncertainties, doubts, struggles, and sorrows of this world, most need – and long for.
They may not be able to articulate it, but they know it when they see it. And when it isn’t attached to some artificial agenda, it is deeply desirable.
Getting this wrong leads to all kinds of self-protection, self-righteousness, misguided guilt, and artificial pressure, and creates barriers in trust with those I have been called to love.
Because for those who know Jesus, the Christian testimony isn’t a strategy, but a transparent life of repentance and faith that accompanies any who enjoy intimacy with God.
Live the Faith, and the message will be heard!
We can’t change hearts, and only God is in the transformation business. But we have Jesus, and in his Name, we can stand in the breach, because he has stood once and for all – for us.
Friends, this is our good news.
grace & peace.
June 6, 2015 § Leave a comment
“…there is something beautiful and concrete and well-proportioned about tending that size of a garden.” David Brooks, The Small, Happy Life
Yesterday a mural mosaic was dedicated in a barely-conspicuous outdoor neighborhood service. The mural is visible to all who walk by the New Song Academy. It was constructed by the children of the Academy, under the guidance of a group called, Art with a Heart, a group that works in the City of Baltimore and teaches vulnerable children and adults through creativity. What makes the mosaic special is that the Academy resides in Sandtown, the neighborhood that was the flashpoint for the Baltimore riots in April. I have written about it here.
In a NYT OP-ED piece, David Brooks reported surprise at how many people responded to a survey, with the desire for what he termed, ‘the small, happy life,’ as opposed to what might seem to be more ambitious pursuits.
When I was in sixth grade, our teacher, Mrs. Hill, became weary with a group of us troublemakers. We happened to live in an area that was booming in development, and so she decided to take us around the community collecting tile for the purpose of making a mosaic for our elementary school, which we did. Over a period of months we stayed after school as she brilliantly channeled our energy into creativity. Eventually the completed project was erected at Coral Reef Elementary, like the one at New Song Academy.
One day, in response to His disciples’ request to increase their faith (because they were thinking big!), Jesus replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you” (Luke 17:6). Contrary to the claims of train wreck preachers who promise the moon and deliver disappointment, Jesus was simply saying, ‘Start small, because that is where we are.’ Put another way, ‘Start where you are, and offer what you have rather than what you don’t have.’
A cursory study of history will bear this out, whether with those who harbored Jews during the Holocaust, or others who have accomplished amazing feats of bravery, rescue, influence and impact. And there is always that ‘small step’ and ‘giant leap’ for mankind. Never do you hear braggadocio. Time and again we are introduced to humble people who merely did what they could in the moment. In the moment, the small was enormous.
Way back in 1960-something I learned that a mosaic is nothing more than a well-orchestrated outlay of broken tiles. It doesn’t take much for those seemingly worthless, jagged and often-dirty shards to become something wildly beautiful – like a scene from the coral reef, or a vision of a healed city. Every piece matters, and no tile is too damaged, in the same way that one simple mosaic on one part of one wall on one building in one neighborhood in a broken community can be that tiny piece that offers hope for something lovelier.
And it is for this reason that in Jesus God became small. Because we are small. Yet because we are adored by the Father, we are not insignificant.
What good news…
April 11, 2015 § 1 Comment
Sir Robert Grant, 19th C.
Katherine and I sat in our family room, with tears in our eyes, and unable to talk through our tears, as we watched the news report of Lauren Hill’s death yesterday. In case you don’t know the story, last year this inspiring young woman contracted an inoperable tumor in her brain (DIPG). Early on it was known that it would eventually take her life, yet she was determined to live out her dream of playing and scoring a basket in a college basketball game for Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati, much to the delight of the home crowd and her opponents.
Through her efforts she raised nearly $1.5 Million towards Cancer Research. She was heroic in life and death, and on some level she became our Nation’s daughter, sister and cousin. Somewhere in her journey, she accepted her lot before boldly committing herself to those she would never meet, but care for, past her life here.
The storyline for me is that life is fragile. The Psalmist rightly says that we are like dust (Psalm 103), and from here it isn’t a leap to make the mistaken assumption that this makes our lives are meaningless and disposable.
The other day I took a pic (right) of the pickup truck in front of me at the county dump.
In it was a huge, old school big screen TV that was literally coming apart at the seams. I could imagine it as the grand technological trophy in some basement ‘man cave’ before giving way to its sleeker, larger, lighter successor.
The gospel asserts that we are not throwaways! No life is irredeemable, and all are created in God’s Image, with value. The Psalmist refers to our days being like grass and our lives as flowers that fly away with the wind. However the centerpiece of the passage isn’t our frailty, but God’s love.
Here is how the Psalmist closes this particular thread: “…the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him…” (vs. 17). For the Christ-folllower, unfinished as we are, it isn’t our frailty but the Father’s love that is the true storyline.
Jesus loves me! This I know,
For the Bible tells me so;
Little ones to Him belong;
They are weak, but He is strong.
Anna B. Warner
Amazingly, Jesus became like us in securing our redemption by offering His very human body to be sacrificed in death. God made Himself fragile for the fragile, and breakable for the broken.
what good news, friends…
RIP Precious Lauren
April 4, 2015 § Leave a comment
Rowan Williams, A Ray of Hope
Earlier this morning, as I watched with delight as hundreds of precious children made their way to the not-so-hidden Easter Eggs, I could not help but also think with sadness of Kenya, where 147 equally precious Christian university students were mercilessly and savagely executed because of their Faith.
For all the times I have hoped that I would be able to die for my Faith, they did. And I will feel privileged to one day meet them in God’s new world.
Today we remember, even celebrate that Jesus not only died but was also buried. The grave has as much a role in the redemptive drama of God and His people as every other aspect of the narrative. To the grave Jesus took our sin. In the grave He experienced the isolating silence and darkness of death.
Separation and finality accompany a grave. Each time I conduct a funeral, the most painful moment comes when the casket is lowered into the ground. Within days families in Kenya will bury their dead. It is at the grave that we say our farewells.
Today we reflect on the solemnity, sorrow and indignity of death’s sting. Most can’t relate to the Crucifixion, but all understand that the grave awaits us.
Were you there when they laid him in the tomb
Were you there when they laid him in the tomb
O, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble
Were you there when they laid him in the tomb
John Wesley Work, Jr. Frederick J. Work
Whenever unspeakably horrible things happen, like what occurred in Kenya, the worst in me comes out, because the very sin that drove such acts of violence finds residence in my heart in the form of hatred and revenge – I too bear the markings of the curse.
And it is for this reason, that the gospel teaches that our only comfort can only ever be found in Jesus. In Jesus, in spite of the violence and sorrow of the fall, in and outside of us, because He ‘died and was buried,’ even the grave is not a place the Father is unwilling to go to care for us, His beloved children.
Friends, this is our good news…
“O Father, Giver and Sustainer of Life,
We praise you for the promise of a renewed world,
when Heaven and Earth will one day become one,
and suffering and sorrow, tears and illness are gone,
and justice and peace embrace in your Kingdom.
Our hearts are broken for brothers and sisters we will not see,
until we are Home at the Feast.
Be with their families and friends.
Bring comfort that only Jesus, who suffered for us, can give.
Redeem their tears and meet them in their terror and sorrow.
Bless them, for they have been persecuted for your sake.
And cause the Easter hope to somehow find residence
in their broken hearts and devastated communities.
Through Jesus. Amen.”
April 3, 2015 § Leave a comment
“Good Friday brings us to our senses. Our senses come to us as we sense that in this life and in this death is our life and our death. The truth about the crucified Lord is the truth about ourselves.”
Richard John Neuhaus, Death on a Friday Afternoon
We just finished our Good Friday service here at the church. In an attempt to hold the service as near to the time of Jesus’ crucifixion as possible, we meet in the afternoon – more for a sense of historic proximity, for lack of a better way of putting it.
I remember that feeling in Dallas once, when standing in sixth floor window of the Book Depository from which Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated President John F. Kennedy in 1963. In some way it brought the events of that fateful November day to the forefront. And I’ve always wanted to walk across Abbey Road in England, and reenact the Beatles’ album by that name for the same reason.
Good Friday is the celebration of the death of Jesus, plain and simple. However our true proximity is not to the time, but the Person and His Cross. Standing in the shadow of the Cross we gain a renewed sense of the enormity of our sin and immense sacrifice and depth of love demonstrated to us by Jesus, our Sin-Bearer.
The apostle Paul asserted the Cross to be the central event and essential reality of his life – “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).
To stand in proximity to the Cross is to be recentered and reminded that it is more than something beautiful (which it is), but that it is everything – because Jesus is.
It is our good news…
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 28, 2015 § 1 Comment
“Despair and hope. They travel the road to Jerusalem together, as together they travel every road we take – despair at what in our madness we are bringing down on our own heads and hope in him who travels the road with us and for us and who is the only one of us all who is not mad. Hope in the King who approaches every human heart like a city. And it is a very great hope as hopes go and well worth all our singing and dancing and sad little palms because not even death can prevail against this King and not even the end of the world, when end it does, will be the end of him and of the mystery and majesty of his love. Blessed be he.”
This past week a dear woman died of cancer. You may have heard of Kara Tippetts, a young wife and mother in Colorado, who, along with her husband Jason, a church planter, and their four precious children, chronicled their journey and their hope in Jesus. Their story is profoundly inspiring.
Cancer and Death, Jesus and Hope – How can this be?
For those who may not know, Palm Sunday is the celebration of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem one week before His crucifixion. It was the time of the Jewish Passover, and hundreds of thousands filled the city, many of whom converged on Jesus as He rode in, believing Him to be their promised Deliverer (which He was, only not as they expected).
Every emotion was captured in the moment. The crowd expressed elation. Critics seethed. Children cried out.
But Jesus wept.
Through His tears, He cried, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes” (Luke 19:42).
His sadness was over a city and people who lived as though this is all we have. And I get that – I am inclined towards seeing life and the world through the spectrum of ‘now,’ and when the ravages of the curse hit so violently, such as in the death of a young mom, it is difficult to get beyond the pain and loss. And all the pontificating in the world won’t make that pain subside.
And it would all be so hopeless, except for one thing: Jesus didn’t come to fix ‘today.’
I know this sounds harsh, but it is where our true hope lies. ‘Today’ is part of the damaged litany of this broken world. Fixing right now would only bring temporary relief, and spawn new sorrows for tomorrow. But what Jesus did, in His death and resurrection, enables me to endure the worst of todays, because it promises that forever is a settled matter for the good. No, Jesus came to fix forever.
One day all the pain, sorrow and death that this world brings, will be gone. The gospel teaches that after Jesus wept, He died – and then He conquered. And now He prepares the Feast we will one day share, when everything is made new.
Kara understood and firmly believed this: “My pain is gone, my fears are calmed, I’m in the sovereignly good hands of Jesus. He is my forever enough now.” – Letter to My Readers Upon My Death
Friends, this is our good news…
Photograph by Jen Lints Photography
March 7, 2015 § Leave a comment
C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
If you have ever lived in the north, then you know that snow is part of the seasonal rhythm of life. Having grown up in the tropics, I still find it to be magical. There is something about watching it fall, and then seeing an entire area that has been turned white by hours of God’s carefully placed flakes and flurries upon a landscape. Don’t get me wrong. I could do without the cold! Seasonal life has a way of bringing both anticipation of the next season, and weariness with the present.
But then there is the inevitable cleanup. Municipalities constantly attempt to get ahead of the snow, salting roads, positioning plows and alerting citizens.
Unless one can ‘dig out,’ they are stuck. The other night, after a lovely eight-inch snow, Katherine and I got out and shoveled our entryways, the back of our garage, and then the car we had parked outside. You have to dig out in order to get out.
At our church, a large facility on 62-acres, it is crucial for us to be plowed, cleared and salted, in order for people to enter. A team of unsung heroes, both from our Staff and contracted, work tirelessly, with heavy equipment, doing what is needed for our church to be ready for whatever activity or gathering is scheduled.
This hit me freshly yesterday as I watched our crew work, while at the same time fifty or sixty Middleschoolers sledded and snowboarded down a hill on the property. While the Young People played, the workers plowed. Or to put it another way, the workers plowed so that our Young People could play.
I so love that.
Sometimes our own sense of anonymity can be torturous if we have no greater context. We want to matter, right?
I know what happens – Our tendency is to narrow our influence to the small quarters we work or live in. It is hard to conceive of an influence beyond what we know. But you see, the gospel demonstrates the opposite.
Hey, I don’t know what you do in life, but I can tell you this: Whether you are high profile, or all but invisible, you matter, and what you do matters to God. Someone is affected by who you are and what you do. Can your ego enable you to accept this? If not, flee to the Throne! Just read through the scriptures and rediscover the attention God places on those who labored behind the scenes. An unnamed slave girl in Syria comes to mind (2 Kings 5).
What you do may never grab the headlines, but have you read the headlines lately? Besides, in the end, isn’t it the sweeter things that matter most when it comes to a meaningful life?
And isn’t it stunning that the most meaningful Person in history was born in anonymity, that in Him, what appeared to His contemporaries to be an act of meaningless sacrifice, turned out to be the only hope of the world.
In fact, this is our good news…