February 28, 2015 § Leave a comment
Two conversations this past week dovetailed with some of my own thoughts of late. The first involved a treasured lifelong friend, and the second a younger friend (incidentally all three of us share the same birthday! What’s that all about?).
Each of us could point to a moment in our lives when everything seemed as we always thought it was supposed to become, but then we admitted that we grew (aged) through those moments into the present tense, as though we blinked and it was all different. Together we acknowledged that we we were not created to live in a state of inertia.
And then Mr. Spock died. Well, Leonard Nimoy passed away. But to those of us who grew up in the Star Trek era, he will always be that emotionless, pointy-eared, Vulcan who worked among humans in outer space, and helped ward off cheesy-costumed aliens ‘where no man has gone before.’ Exactly – he was a pastor.
Whenever someone like Nimoy dies, it rocks my world a little bit. It isn’t that my hope or trust are in these figures, not even remotely, but that they represent points along the continuum of my life story. When they are gone, something that sort of identifies me, disappears, almost like Marty McFly’s fading picture in Back to the Future. These ‘points’ are always accompanied with who I knew, my age at the time, how I dressed, where we lived, and who my friends were. It isn’t just a television show, but the entire context of my life at the time the show was on TV.
This is why I love Moses’ epitaph. On the last day of his life, God gave him a glimpse of Canaan. For decades Moses led Israel, but somewhere in the journey he played God, and as a result he was told he would never enter the Promised Land. But on the day he died, God showed him Israel from a distance. We read that ‘His eye was undimmed, and his vigor unabated’ (Deuteronomy 34:7).
But why a glimpse of a land he would never enter? I have to think that it was as though God rewarded his unwillingness to look back by showing him that his life, actions, mistakes, strengths and weaknesses were not wasted in God’s story – even up to the day he died.
One thing you will discover as you read through the gospels is that there is nothing sentimental about Jesus. There is much that is precious, and He was anything but Vulcan when it came to emotion – He wept, shouted, empathized, sympathized and pitied. His heart went out to friends and strangers alike. He was moved by injustice, brokenness and sadness. But He never looked back. His eyes were always on the Cross, because beyond the Cross was something better. Beyond the Cross was God’s new world, and the Feast prepared for His friends, not as they were, but as they would one day be, through Him.
What good news…
Live Long and Prosper.
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 14, 2015 § 2 Comments
I wanted to take a moment to write and offer thoughts on the recent events in your very high profile and public life. One can’t imagine the constant scrutiny you must constantly live under in your position.
So first, we like you – a lot. We probably don’t share your politics, and our convictions may not fully align, but you possess a unique gift that transcends alignment. We watch NBC News, chiefly because of how personally and ‘humanly’ you deliver the day’s events. We love how you ‘enter’ into stories, and particularly the more heartwarming ones. Only this week we learned that you are younger than we are. For whatever reason I’ve always assumed that our news anchor would be older than I am, like Presidents and Sunday School Teachers (hey, I’m a pastor). We have written a letter to NBC on your behalf with hopes that you will be restored after your suspension.
We hope this because we live in a largely graceless world. David Brooks has written beautifully to this, and I echo his sentiments. And NBC now has a rare opportunity to do what many have failed or refused to do with past failures, and that is to say with their actions that redemption is better than perfection, and that along with justice; mercy and forgiveness are indispensible to human flourishing.
You have an opportunity as well, Brian. I have no idea what drove you to lie, but I hope you’ll deal with it – for you and those you love. I hope you will do the hard, brutal and agonizing work of facing your demons, acknowledging your failures and admitting whatever is true. I offer this as an insider to human failure, due to my own sin. If you do this, regardless of what comes of your life professionally, you will heal. Because whatever success we realize or heights we scale, we bring our brokenness with us – our stories follow us. We are always more than what others see from the outside.
You are more than the sum total of your public persona, and this transcends whether or not you are restored. To discover – or rediscover this – is to be free. Hey, Brian, what you have done is not remotely the end of the world, but hoping it will all go away without the hard and painful work of deep self-reflection and healing, sort of is.
So whether or not you are restored to your former position, we can’t wait to see how the broken pieces of your life come together in a narrative that is far more real and compelling than one that comes from hiding and fear.
And I would be remiss by failing to say that as Christ-followers, the God we worship is one who rather than avoid our brokenness, entered into it, into the dark places we hide – where we really live and where we are most wounded and insecure, in order to redeem and make us whole.
For this reason our message is called, ‘good news.’
Because it is…
Hang in there.
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…
January 31, 2015 § Leave a comment
“…I have come to believe that by and large the human family all has the same secrets, which are both very telling and very important to tell. They are telling in the sense that they tell what is perhaps the central paradox of our condition – that what we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else.”
Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets
We had a great laugh in our Ministers & Directors meeting last week, and it involved our new office phones. A few months ago we replaced our 25-year old system, and in our meeting we took time to enjoy the obligatory shared gripe session. We complained about how the speaker functions, how the buttons press down – all that minor stuff. And then one of us said, ‘You think that’s bad… I have six messages on my phone and I don’t know how to get to them!’ At that point all started laughing, because secretly we (mostly the guys, I hate to admit) all had the same problem. Of course it is almost a waste of space for me to say that this particular malady wasn’t the system’s fault!
Either way it was worth the laugh.
I am convinced that the greatest damage sin does to the human soul is found in its isolating power. Through the agency of shame, it has a way of driving us underground into secrecy for fear that exposure would further alienate us from those we know and love. We are secret carriers. Temptation finds us when we are vulnerable and alone, and then imprisons us in isolating guilt.
The Church hasn’t been too good at this whole sin and acceptance ‘thing.’ Our message is grace, but our practice often comes across as perfectionism. In spite of Paul’s assurance that our struggle with temptation is a common one (1 Corinthians 10:13), we can be terrified at the prospect of admitting our struggles. And so it is no wonder that people often feel more comfortable confessing their sins in the workplace than with fellow believers. It isn’t that there are more sinners there. It is that no one denies the struggle.
But the gospel presents a Deliverer who suffered and died in isolation, from friends, even from His Father, when He bore punishment for the very guilt that we hide in. And this means that we don’t have to hide.
Hey, until Jesus comes and renews the world, we will bear secrets. We’ll never feel perfectly safe in our fallen frames, and there is an argument to be made for oversharing, but every time we take the Bread and the Cup, together we publicly acknowledge that perfection isn’t the point, and that the Father loves us in spite of the fact that once again we didn’t make it through the week unscathed. And this simple acknowledgement draws us out of the shadows.
Friends, this is good news…
PS Enjoy the Super Bowl (and take the poll)!
January 24, 2015 § 1 Comment
Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be
So here I am, jumping on the bandwagon, capitalizing on the New England Patriots’ latest scandal (it isn’t their first). This one involves the National Football League’s standard for game ball inflation. It has been determined that in the first half of last week’s AFC Championship Game against the professional football team from Indianapolis (you have to live in Baltimore to understand this designation), the Patriots had the advantage of underinflated footballs (I’ve never been so careful with wording), thus giving their Quarterback, Tom Brady, an edge in gripping the ball under adverse conditions (rain and ice).
To the uninformed, that is, to those who don’t give a rip about football, this is cheating – it is a violation of the rules of fair play.
All of which begs the question: So why did they do it? The Patriots’ organization is one of the most successful in professional sports history. Their Head Coach is the best in the NFL and perhaps ever, and their Quarterback one of the greatest to play the game.
Added to the mix in all this is that it had no bearing whatsoever on the outcome of the football game. New England won 45-7. In fact they scored more points in the second half when the balls were at regulation compression. Far and away, New England was the better team.
So why cheat?
Actually it is for the same reason that we cut corners, flirt with moral disaster, find ways to bend the rules and give in to temptation. In fact, now that I think about it, it is the reason I take some kind of twisted delight in the Patriots’ current woes.
The short answer is sin, but more to the point, from the moment Adam and Eve played off script and ate the forbidden fruit, our hunger to be God has been insatiable. We don’t just want to win, we want to rule. It isn’t so much about cheating, as it is our repulsion with being restrained by rules, limits, and in the end – by God.
Yet before Adam and Eve transgressed, they already had everything the serpent promised them. How sad.
If the Patriots win the Super Bowl (the NFL’s championship game), they will always carry with them the blemish of this scandal – and they didn’t need to. How deflating (oh come on, I had to take at least one shot!).
Fortunately, even though we can’t fix our condition, God has remedied it in the death and resurrection of Christ. This means that our response is not to press that natural bent to rule through overtly religious channels (we Christians may be the most contrived species on the planet), but to come clean and acknowledge weakness.
This simple admission will never make us perfect. It is the posture of children who remember that they are always safest and most valued, when they rest in the presence, love and delight of their Father.
What good, sweet news…
January 17, 2015 § Leave a comment
Eugene H. Peterson, Leap Over A Wall
One thing that I’ve always loved in the scriptures is that God addresses people such as Moses and Abraham, as friends. And then Jesus does the same thing with His disciples (and us). In some way He gives us what every person can have in a fallen world where marriages sometimes fail and love often disappoints.
The fact is that we were not meant to walk through life alone. Even in the garden, when creation was perfect and he lacked for nothing, and before sin ever entered into the story, it still was ‘not good’ for Adam to be alone (Genesis 2:18). This relational piece was built into the human psyche. What we learn in the scriptures is that God Himself lives in community – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are relational beings, designed as such by our relational Creator.
The proliferation of online dating sites bears this out. The yearning to love and be loved, to touch and be touched is deeply embedded within every heart. Even when pain, past hurts and relational disappointments ice us over and leave us feeling cold to the idea of ever trusting anyone else, we still can’t expunge the desire to be loved. In fact, those who most stridently reject the need for love are often those most wounded by it, and secretly desirous that their defenses would be crashed through. The prospect of living and dying alone is more than any soul can bear.
The problem is never the longing – actually this is healthy and natural. But whenever the solutions begin with an idea of trust and intimacy that can only be satisfied by another person, then there will always be disappointment and heartbreak. I know you don’t need me to write this, but it is true that those we love are every bit as flawed as we are.
I’ll never forget when one of my dearest friends deeply wounded me. When I got honest, I realized that it had as much to do with my expectations as his actions. The actions weren’t the end of the world, but the expectations were ridiculous. Working through it brought real friendship. No relationship of any value can thrive in a vacuum. The ‘mess’ we bring to our relationships is like the needed bacteria we have in our own bodies – none of us are perfect, and if one of us were, love would be impossible.
Here is the thing, friends. Jesus is that ‘friend who sticks closer than a brother’ (Proverbs 18:24), the only one who will ever love completely.
Because He lived sinlessly and loves perfectly He is the first relationship, the watermark for all others. And this means that for all the times we fail those we love, and in every disappointment we experience, He will still be there, speaking the Father’s care into our lives, ‘face to face, as a man speaks with his friend’ (Exodus 33:11).
What good news…
January 10, 2015 § Leave a comment
Years ago Katherine responded to something I offered by saying that there was ‘a more excellent way,’ which was her gracious way of saying that though I might have been right about something, being right was not enough. I have carried that with me.
We are in the aftermath of a bloody, violent siege in Paris. Lives were lost and a manhunt ensues (I hope they catch her and execute her). Just yesterday it was confirmed that as many as 2,000 people have been massacred in Nigeria in a Boko Haram killing spree. Three days ago a man in Florida threw his own daughter off the Sunshine State Bridge in the Tampa-St. Pete area. She died. My heart is grieved.
What scares me in all this is that amid the revulsion and sorrow I am prone to forget what I believe. I want to respond in rage because this is in my heart, and it is my right to feel it.
It happens subtly. The horrid expressions of the fall have a way of jarring us, and hatred tunnels into our sensibilities to the extent that we get lost in understandable outrage. Politicians don’t help. They bend over backwards to deny the obvious and only stoke the flames of anger to those who are not blind.
I forget what I believe because the pain, suffering and injustices are all so real, and because there is nothing we can do to fix what is broken. We can’t bring back the victims. And lost lives are not shattered lightbulbs we sweep away and replace with new ones. We can’t stop the violence. We can’t change governments and we can’t realign a global moral compass, much less our own!
But we have Jesus – and He is the ‘more excellent way.’ What I mean is that on some level my perspective, though fairly rational, isn’t the issue. The issue is that until heaven and earth are one, the world will always be broken, and because of this, no expression of civility, though eminintly appreciated, will ever be the trajectory upon which humankind moves. Our brokenness always eventually manifests itself in damaged expressions.
We just celebrated God’s coming into the world in the flesh – Jesus. Don’t let this be lost on you. In the Incarnation we have a God who, rather than blame or ignore, entered into the rage, filth, hatred and violence of our world. He bore it in death and left it in the Grave. It was the more excellent way. He is the more excellent way. Even on the Cross He forgave His executioners when it was His right to condemn them, and He demands that we surrender our right to outrage – to the law of love.
Truthfully? I don’t want to do it. But closer inspection reveals that this is exactly what Jesus has done for me.
Friends, this is our good news.
January 3, 2015 § 2 Comments
Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously – Trust me, you’ll enjoy yourself more, and more importantly, others will too! We can get so wrapped around ourselves that we fail to thrive and flourish as we were intended. I tell people that every swimming pool has a deep end and a shallow end, and you can’t enjoy the pool unless you use both. People who are always heavy and severe are difficult to take in large doses. Don’t be one of them, and the world will be better for that.
Don’t be consumed by Little Things – Unless your aim is to drive yourself crazy in 2015 (and everyone else for that matter!), don’t let politics and other such smallnesses (my word!) rule your life. Settle in your heart what you already know to be true: Christ is on the throne. He doesn’t share His rule with anyone. Can you trust Him with the universe? It’s not that he’s waiting on your vote of confidence, but if you can, life will be far more enjoyable for you and the people around you.
Live Generously – Okay, I know this must sound suspect coming from a pastor, but my observation is that the happiest people are the most generous – with their time, their money, their resources and their love. Taking, consuming and amassing are not what we were designed for, and stingy people always seem to be complaining about not having enough. But when we live generously, we are free, and we connect with our Creator, who designed us after His own image, and deep within we know this.
Serve More than You are Served – If you serve more than you are served, you will avoid living as though everyone owes you – because they don’t. Trust me, at times it will be inconvenient and thankless, but servanthood is like underground Disney for God’s people – it is where things really happen. Those who open their hearts and homes to others reflect what the Father has done for us. Servants change the world. Jesus proved this in His teachings and by His own example, and He isn’t doing too badly, is He.
Hold Those You Love Close – One of those beautiful countercultural commands Jesus gives to the Church is to love our enemies and to pray for them (Matthew 5:43-47). The Corleones got it wrong. Hold those you love closest, friends. Love them well. Throw pride aside! Practice forgiveness and be willing to own up when you’re wrong (and even a few times when you’re not wrong!). We only have a few moments on this planet, and this means that any relationship worth having is worth holding dear, and will bring immeasurable joy for the journey.
Embrace the Journey! – John Calvin taught that knowing God and knowing ourselves go hand in hand, so this is also an encouragement to engage with Christ. Enjoy who God created you to be, and don’t apologize for it. Make decisions and live with them. Own up to mistakes, but don’t wallow in self-pity. Be who you are, but don’t let that be the end of the journey. As you engage with Jesus, the Father will reveal what you need to deal with and change, and God’s Spirit will enable this to come about, but in the mean time, live where you are!
Friends, it’s all there before you. what good news…
Happy New Year.
December 25, 2014 § 1 Comment
When blossoms flower e’er ‘mid the snows,
Upon a winter night,
Was born the child, the christmas rose,
The king of love and light.
The angels sang, the shepherds sang,
The grateful earth rejoiced;
And at his blessed birth the stars
Their exultation voiced.
O come let us adore him
O come let us adore him
O come let us adore him
Christ the lord.
Gesu Bambino, Pietro Yon, 1917
It is Christmas Morning. The coffee is brewed and the tree lights on. Katherine is making her Christmas breakfast casserole. Within a few hours gifts will be opened, and some time today we will go to our traditional Christmas movie. By tomorrow the entire family will be gathered. We are blessed. Each Christmas brings its own joy.
I am not deluded to think that everyone is experiencing joy, and in spite of my utterly latent immature perspective, I know that the point of Christmas isn’t my own happiness, or anyone else’s for that matter.
But Jesus has come. His humble entrance and sacrificial life bear evidence to the fact that He is doing much more with the world He created to be good, than to ‘fix’ the moment.
So come to Jesus, friends. The rhythms of life are crazy, aren’t they? Our hope is in who Pietro Yon refers to as, ‘the King of Love and Light’ – Jesus. Tears fill my eyes as I type these words. It is that beautiful and He is that precious.
What good, sweet news of great joy…
“Adeste fidelis. Come and behold him, born the king of angels. Speak to him or be silent before him. In whatever way seems right to you and at whatever time, come to him with your empty hands. The great promise is that to come to him who was born at Bethlehem is to find coming to birth within ourselves something stronger and braver, gladder and kinder and holier, than ever we knew before or than ever we could have known without him.”
Frederick Buechner, The Hungering Dark
(with thanks to Steve Dallwig for this photo from our Candlelight Service last evening)