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…
October 10, 2015 § 3 Comments
Francis A. Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live?, 1976
Last week Katherine and I were in Nashville for a pastor’s gathering. While there we visited her Dad, who lives in a long-term care facility. We also visited her Mother’s grave, which rests in a national cemetery in a lovely setting in the hills of the city.
Something happened when we went to pay our respects. The guys caring for the lawn all stopped until we were done. They stood there and watched respectfully as we remembered, wept and prayed.
This past year has been a brutal one for American society. Riots in St. Louis (Ferguson) and Baltimore, and unspeakable violence in South Carolina and last week in Oregon, have left a trail of violence, death and tears.
Just a few weeks ago, the body of a beautiful two-and-a-half year old girl, designated ‘Baby Doe,’ washed ashore in the Boston area. Her body had been chopped up to fit into a garbage bag. The reason? Her mother’s boyfriend regularly beat her with his fists until one day she just died.
Political knee jerk reactions garnish coverage but don’t help because the presenting problem is never the issue. The issue is that we have become a culture that accommodates contempt for life whenever it intersects with our own comfort and convenience.
Millions of abortions every year, daily inner city bloodshed and violence, tacit support for veterans with PTSD, human trafficking, widespread drug abuse in the burbs and the exploitation of the poor and weak, along with the sins of corporate greed – all of these scream that we have become cold and indifferent, with no regard for our ‘neighbor.’
When will we wake up?
How many newborns need to be tossed into trash cans at proms?
How many elderly need to be neglected and mistreated in nursing homes?
How many babies need to be aborted and discarded, with bodies treated as commodities?
How many girls need to be sold into slavery?
How many war vets need to take their own lives?
How many people will we allow to mutilate themselves, and ease the tragedy by terming it ‘Gender Identity’?
How many massacres do we need to endure?
What will it take for it to finally sink in that we have become a society that settles for ‘arbitrary absolutes?’
Do we really believe God is fine with this?
Do we really believe that if we don’t see the baby, or name the child, or if we reduce PTSD victims to impersonal statistics, that we are any less culpable for this utter disregard for human life?
You see, I believe all these are interrelated. It isn’t many things. It is one thing. We have become so indifferent to life that we have ‘forgotten how to blush’ (Jeremiah 6:15).
And this makes me sad.
Listen, I know that the Church has largely failed. I know that politicians are self-serving. I know that extremes – to the left or right – are deadly to any semblance of a just society.
I’m not shouting. I’m weeping.
You should be too. Because at the same time we are accommodating our lifestyles and easing our consciences, we are killing ourselves and one another.
Oh, friends, I could go on and on, but I’ll close by taking you back to that cemetery in Nashville. Those workers could not have treated Katherine and me, and the memory of her Mom, with more respect and kindness – And this for someone who is no longer here! How sweet.
It struck me as we drove off that if we could reject the voices (including our own) that fill ‘that vacuum’ with ‘arbitrary absolutes’ and that are intended to ease our guilt, quiet our shame and accommodate our indulgences, with uninterrupted ease, then perhaps the ‘Baby Does’ will have hope in this world.
And this is what Jesus did. He rejected the voice that offered Him rule and power, acclaim and immediate satisfaction (Matthew 4), at the expense of His own comfort – for us.
What good news…
It is never about just me.
Her name was Bella.
September 19, 2015 § 1 Comment
C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces
I thought it good to reenter into the blogosphere by way of confession, so pardon the meandering – there really is a point.
First the ridiculous. You need to know that I have this propensity to find what I like and then hold on to it – like forever, whether a pair of shoes, a style of pants, or a shirt (our Congregation will tell you that I only wear one shirt on Sunday mornings!). My guess is that it is born of tons of insecurity, control and pride, but it is the way it is. For instance, I have worn the same style of top siders for about ten years, and normally I have a backup pair – in the box for when the initial pair ‘dies.’ When that backup is gone and there is no other and the shoes are unattainable (because in a sane universe things go out of style), it unnerves me and sends me on a twisted journey to find its replacement (which I would prefer not to have to do – thus the backup!).
Hey, I warned you. Ridiculous, right?
When we moved to the Baltimore region nearly ten years ago I thought my life was over. It wasn’t because the people we left hated us or the people we came to were other than welcoming. It was because I held on to the idea of living in my hometown for life (yes, idolatry). But somewhere in that delusion, God stirred our hearts to move. How could He do this and still love me? It was the most disruptive, confusing and dislodging time of my life, and our lives. But the Father’s leading was unmistakable. He wanted us here. And we have since discovered that it was out of love that He did.
Baltimore has become home and we are blessed.
If you read Joseph’s story, you will find that ‘the Lord was with Him,’ and prospered him in Egypt, even when as slave, and later when imprisoned on false charges (chapter 39). He continued to thrive and care for people.
I have come to realize that most of us live out of unholy trajectories for how our lives should unfold. If we become slaves to these trajectories, then well, we are just that – slaves. In this pattern regret becomes torturous, forgiveness seems impossible, and the present, intolerably joyless.
But we were redeemed to flourish, and if we buy into the fact that we have a Father who loves us, who sent His only Son on the most dangerous, yet redemptive journey of all – for us – then we have discovered something. We have discovered that our true trajectory is heaven and everything between now and there – is good.
Friends, the gospel is an adventure to be embraced…
July 11, 2015 § 1 Comment
Eugene H. Peterson, Leap Over a Wall
Katherine and I were blown away by an unexpected gift from a college friend who sent us front row tickets to a Cirque du Soleil performance of Verekai in Baltimore this past week. The athleticism, strength, beauty and choreography were stunning. The music was mesmerizing and the set and costumes were beautiful. This particular production follows two people from birth to marriage, and ends with the wedding, replete with triumphant music, spectacular gymnastics and the falling of rose petals.
It was breathtaking.
I was reminded of Frederick Buechner’s description (in his book The Longing for Home of a visit to Sea World in Orlando, and a confluence of nature, beasts and mankind, leaving Buechner (whose birthday is today) with a glimpse of what God had always intended.
And this took me to Eugene Peterson’s description of his dad, a local butcher, whom he came to see as more than a guy who cut meat, but in this capacity, also a priest to their community.
In Christian circles we speak of ‘the priesthood of believers,’ which is another way of saying that every Christ-follower is called to be to the world and one another what Jesus has been to us, a healing presence that sacrificially loves and serves for the sake of others, out of a vision of flourishing that will one day accompany the new heavens and new earth.
John the disciple takes this further by saying that we are “a kingdom of priests to his [speaking of Jesus] God and Father…”
When you put it all together (because it is all intended to be so) we find that our vocations, along with our natural surroundings and abilities are all woven into a larger mosaic of beauty that not only displays hope before a broken world, but one that also reaches the Father who is every bit as invested (and more) as we are in the promise of new things.
Friends, as stunning as Cirque du Soleil was, this is even more so…
July 4, 2015 § Leave a comment
“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence, we usually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”
Closing words of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776
It is Independence Day, July 4, 2015.
In case you haven’t figured it out, we are all in when it comes to things patriotic. Even as I type I am wearing my Quicksilver shirt, a boarding/surfing brand that put out a Tee with the colors of the Star Spangled Banner. Later I will change into another patriotic Tee for a local fireworks show. You get the point.
I remember the day in 1976 when we celebrated the bicentennial of the signing of the Declaration. And then there was the July 4 when my boss at Gold Triangle in Miami, told me that we didn’t close because the Fourth is a ‘Yankee Holiday,’ as he put it.
You can find the original Declaration of Independence at the Rotunda of the National Archives in Washington DC. To see the display and consider that this is the very document our Founding Fathers actually signed in 1776, when they made official their resolve to form this Nation is an awesome thing. Adding to the drama of the document is the fact that First Lady Dolley Madison saved the document when Washington burned in 1814.
Hey, there is plenty that is and has been wrong with our Nation. I wish that our Founding Fathers understood the severity of the sin of slavery, that American culture didn’t take so long to recognize the dignity of women, and that we even need child labor laws. Sin abounds in our history, because it is and always will be a nation of sinners.
But today is a day to be thankful…
Thankful for our Founding Fathers.
Thankful for all who have fought for our Independence & Freedoms, and for present and future servicemen and service women.
I’m thankful we finally crossed the color barrier in the White House.
And I am not one to say that it is the greatest country in the world. It isn’t that I don’t think it is so much, but that I don’t want to cheapen ‘home’ with comparisons. I love the US because it is where I am from in the way that my parents will always be my parents. Home is good enough, and better.
I am an American pastor. A Christian first, sold out for Jesus and loyal to Him first and foremost. But as a citizen of this Nation, I can be thankful – and I am.
So from our family to you and yours, Happy Independence Day.
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…
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…
May 23, 2015 § Leave a comment
Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace
It is Memorial Day weekend. As a Christ-follower it is not uncommon for me to find myself involved in a conversation over the merits and sadnesses of war. No one I know would argue that every war the US has been involved in was what the Church father Augustine would call ‘just.’ But this weekend is not about that. It is to remember that many made the ‘ultimate sacrifice’ for their country in giving their lives.
Through years and generations our Nation has found itself embroiled in warfare, whether in world wars, regional conflicts, or even a Civil War. Everyone knows the sick, heartbreaking feeling of watching flag-draped caskets unloaded from transport planes. A simple history lesson of Gettysburg is enough to elicit the deepest of emotions over lives lost. Sacrifice is nobel, but death is brutal.
But this weekend, let’s put the debate aside. Let’s thank God for those who gave ‘their last full measure of devotion.’ Let’s honor their sacrifices and long together for the day when all wars will end.
Let’s not get lost in political madness and philosophical diversions. Let’s not argue the merits of war versus pacifism. Let’s not be ‘Hawks’ or ‘Doves,’ Liberals or Conservatives. Let’s just stop and acknowledge that many have died. To their parents, their siblings and their children, loss is loss.
If you have ever visited the Viet Nam wall, then you know that one can hardly do so without discovering elderly parents or aging spouses and children – in tears – revisiting their grief and loss over the sacrifice of their loved ones.
Together let’s believe that it wasn’t political posturing, or bloodlust that drew these precious individuals, but the sincere belief that even if they died, their sacrifice would have counted for something towards a more peaceful world.
And in remembering what has been given by men and women through the years in war and conflict, here in this broken, and often war-torn world, let’s consider Jesus, who ensures that one day all wars will cease, and because in Him, our war with the Father has been settled.
In His Sacrifice…
This is our good news.
Happy Memorial Day.
May 16, 2015 § Leave a comment
C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces
As you know, we have been immersed in the aftermath of the events surrounding the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Perhaps the most challenging thing for us has been to ignore the voices from ‘outside.’ This is not offered in disrespect, but to say that whenever a crisis comes to a city, such as the one we have experienced, politicians and media outlets alike descend to make the most of it for their own purposes.
For example, there have been five murders in the same area since Freddie Gray died a few weeks ago, but no one has heard this. Why? Because it isn’t the kind of news that sells air time.
Don’t get me wrong. My intention is not to vilify or sow seeds of bitterness. It is to say that regardless of the crisis, and whether or not they are citywide or deeply individual, solutions never come from the outside. They are always far more personal, the deep ‘insider’ work of God’s Spirit.
Earlier our Staff spent the day with the Staff at the New Song church in Sandtown (the Sandtown/Winchester neighborhood was the flashpoint for much of the riots). It was one of the more delightful and hopeful meetings I have ever enjoyed, and it promises to forge a bond of deep love and friendship. The week before, a couple of us met downtown with some of the New Song Staff, along with Freddie Gray’s cousin and some locals. In each case we laid aside our assumptions and simply listened, only to find that we are all the same – people who carry their sorrows, struggles and fears, all trying to figure out life and faith in our contexts.
We also acknowledged that programs, violence and projects are not the answer, but that love and ‘kinship’ (as one young man termed it), are.
The gospel is eminently human as it is divine, each captured in the incarnation, life and rule of Jesus. Doesn’t it amaze you that God didn’t save us by some edict, but instead by sending His Son to become one of us? It does me! The last thing I want is for God to walk in on my ugly humanness, but this is exactly what He has done – and it is our only hope.
Whenever I find myself looking for a silver bullet to cure my problems, struggles and messes, it is because I want an easy way out, some symbolic ‘fix’ that only exacerbates my pain, and drives me more deeply into sin.
For the unfinished, healing and peace never come apart from face-to-face encounters with Jesus. The Father will never allow His people to approach Him religiously. It will always be in the unedited reality of our brokenness, because this is who we are.
And this is who the Father loves.
Friends, what good news…
May 2, 2015 § 1 Comment
“I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Letter From Birmingham Jail
If you live in or around Baltimore then you know firsthand how painful this past week has been. One cannot have lived here and not be affected. My heart goes out to friends near and far who are from Baltimore – their sadness is palpable.
I offer these words as a white guy who has lived in relative safety all his life, and knowing that those I have loved and known these five decades may disagree, and possibly even be angry. I also offer this knowing that I bring my own prejudices, predispositions and fears to the table.
It would be tempting to opine on the dynamics of the inner city, injustice and the future, but we who live in relative safety, are better served to keep our mouths shut and listen. We don’t have the answers. Wonks, politicians, news organizations and bloggers think they have the answers, but unless they have lived in the City, they don’t. At night we go home to our safe neighborhoods. We sleep in the assurance that when we awaken, our world will be as ordered and secure as it was when we went to bed. We aren’t there on the ground. We don’t know how good it is or how bad. We don’t know the desperation and the vicious, endless and often violent cycle of poverty, firsthand. We make assumptions and most of those assumptions are wrong.
It seems to me that answers from afar, criticism and finger pointing, are false versions of ‘care.’ They create within us the artificial self-assurance that we have connected, but that isn’t real at all. And we can postulate all we want on ‘fatherless America,’ and responsibility and the ‘American Way,’ but this helps nothing. It does exactly what those who spout these things want them to do – it keeps me away from you and ‘us’ from ‘them.’
So it is better to listen and observe. This past week some of us had the privilege of spending time with old and new friends in Sandtown. Sandtown is ‘ground zero’ for last week’s riots. You have read about this neighborhood in this blog. It is among the poorest in the country, but also one of the most beautiful. In spite of what you may assume or have read online or heard in the news, the residents of Sandtown are among the proudest of any neighborhood I have ever met. They love their community, and no amount of national sorrow can match the sadness they feel collectively when it suffers.
The picture above was taken at lunch after a morning of clean up (most had been done by the Sandtown residents when we arrived the morning after the riots). It is of two guys, one black and the other white – no distinction – work boots and jeans – people who locked arms for the sake of a healed neighborhood. ‘A cord of three strands is not quickly broken’ (Ecclesiastes 4:12).
Years ago I learned from a friend who led Miami’s rebuilding effort after Hurricane Andrew decimated it, that one can either sit around and point fingers and complain about problems and perpetrators, or they can see possibilities and the beauty of a healed City, and then work together towards that vision.
The scriptures are strewn with examples of people who lived in the hope of future joy. After all, isn’t this who we are? We are a people who live in the promise of what will one day be. And we serve a King who came and on our behalf saw that same future (Hebrews 12:1-2). He personally entered into places where weakness, oppression and sorrow prevailed, and by His care bore evidence of hope for a city of delight, and human flourishing.
Friends, beyond our advantages, fears and differences, it is not what we have, but whose we are and what will one day be ours…
This is our good news and the gospel’s sweet new song…