The Meeting

“Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” ~ Jesus

For many generations, when parents would tuck their children in at night, they would have them say a little prayer. Many of you know this prayer:

Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.

 That’s kind of a cheery way to send kids off to bed, isn’t it? There’s actually a second verse:

Our days begin with trouble here, our life is but a span.

And cruel death is always near, so frail a thing is man.

 Night, night, honey—pleasant dreams.

People used to teach their kids to pray this, because people wanted their children to know that death is real, but it’s not the end.

Some time on Good Friday, while Jesus was being falsely accused, beaten and executed, the disciples ran for cover.  Their Messiah had been murdered.  Their hope had been nailed to a cross. They must have wondered, “Now, what do we do? How do we do life now that our hope has been executed?”

Jesus knew they needed a special visitation from Him. They needed to feel His calming presence and hear again His vision for the Kingdom in this world. Perhaps we do too.

Peace to you!

When Jesus says, “Peace be with you”, He isn’t just coining a new way to say ‘Hi.”  The word “Peace” captures the ancient Jewish idea of Shalom. It is the idea of wholeness and flourishing. When Jesus materializes on this Easter morning in this upper room and says, “Peace” he means that because of his death and resurrection all is well and all shall be well. The day of cosmic flourishing has begun.

Shalom is when nothing is broken and no one is missing. ~ Barbara Skinner

Because of the cross and the empty tomb, people like you and I with our brokenness, failings, and sinfulness can see the wholeness of resurrected life begin in our souls.

There’s a line in a song Window to the Sky, by U2, the number one rock and roll group in the world, that says,

The rule has been disproved, the stone it has been moved

The grave is now a groove, all debts are removed

Oh cant you see what love has done?

When Jesus stood before these frightened disciples he was sending a meta narrative to them and to us that says, “The grave that looms in your future that looked so much like a dead-end, is nothing but a groove, all debts are removed, Oh can’t you see what love has done?

We ought to be the kind of community that billionaires, and broke migrant workers would feel completely accepted. We ought to be the kind of community where people who are lily white could worship alongside a person of color. We ought to be the kind of community where liberals and conservatives could worship together. We ought to be the kind of community that would open wide her arms to receive Barak Obama and Donald Trump to join us in singing our favorite hymns in our churches.

If there were ever time for grace to dominate the discourse and radical acceptance to be the hallmark of the people of God it is this time. We will be that kind of place, so help us God.

That can only happen in the life of people who center their 24/7 lives around the Jesus who went to the cross and came out of the tomb.

The question I have is what would we have to do, what steps would you and I have to take in our own hearts, to be the kind of faith family that people of our community, regardless of their political, social, or sexual background, would feel comfortable coming here and sing praises to our risen King?

As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.”

As Jesus washed dirty feet, embraced the social outcasts, and touched the lepers as the hands of the loving heavenly father in person, we want to be that for our world as well.

How will a family that doesn’t have enough food to eat ever come to know the one who came to call himself “the Bread of Life?” How will the children who live in Johnson Village trailer park, who feel mostly forgotten about, ever come to know about a God who cares about them? How will a woman who walks mile after mile to get dirty water out of a shallow well in the Sudan, ever learn about the one who came to call himself, “the Living Water”?

How will an undocumented immigrant living in the San Luis Valley, who hasn’t come this country to rape, sell drugs, or steal jobs, but is too scared to drive to Church for fear of being pulled over and deported, ever hear of from the God who said, “The foreigner residing among you must be…loved [as you love] yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” (Lev. 19:34) if we don’t listen to them and show them that they have nothing to fear from a white man?

These precious people need more than a prayer, a tract, or a wall. They need someone to show them the love of God.

We want to be the kind of people who will show this world that the God we say we worship loves this world and is determined to not leave it abandoned. And the resurrection of Jesus is God’s first installment to not only take care of our personal sins, but to begin the healing process that rights all of those wrongs.

One of my favorite poets is the 19th century poet GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS. He lived a very difficult life and yet was able to distill the presence of God in language like few others in his generation. He has a poem called, As Kingfishers Catch Fire that I want to share with you a few lines:

…the just man justices;

Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;

Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —

Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

…through the features of men’s faces.

May Jesus be lovely in your faces and may Jesus play in ten thousand places—through you.

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The Song

Mary stood outside by the tomb weeping. – John 20:11

Not too long ago I read an article in The Atlantic about the state of Jazz in America. It was written by a man named David Hadju where he describes the experience of visiting a jazz club. As the band begins to warm up and moves into its first set of songs, he thinks he sees the great jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. Here is how he describes the scene…

“Excuse me,” I whispered to the fellow next to me (a jazz guitarist, I later learned). “Is that Wynton Marsalis?”

“I very seriously doubt that,” he snapped back.

The fourth song was a solo showcase for the trumpeter, who, I could now see, was indeed Marsalis, but who no more sounded than looked like what I expected. He played a ballad, “I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You,” unaccompanied. Written by Victor Young, a film-score composer, for a 1930s romance, the piece can bring out the sadness in any scene, and Marsalis appeared deeply attuned to its melancholy. He performed the song in murmurs and sighs, at points nearly talking the words in notes. It was a wrenching act of creative expression.

When he reached the climax, Marsalis played the final phrase, the title statement, in declarative tones, allowing each successive note to linger in the air a bit longer. “I don’t stand … a ghost … of … a … chance …” The room was silent until, at the most dramatic point, someone’s cell phone went off, blaring a rapid singsong melody in electronic bleeps. People started giggling and picking up their drinks. The moment—the whole performance—unraveled.

Marsalis paused for a beat, motionless, and his eyebrows arched. I scrawled on a sheet of notepaper, MAGIC, RUINED.

I tell you this story because, in many ways, it describes Mary’s life. The magic of her life was ruined when Jesus died on the cross.

Her hope was Jesus. He had changed her life, and she had followed him ever since. He had cast seven demons out of her freeing her from untold torment. He had given her life…a reason to live…a place in the kingdom…He had given her worth and dignity…understanding…compassion…love…and he had given her hope.

Now that hope lies at the bottom of her heart, flat, and lifeless.

But something helps her survive that cruel moment. Something resilient, like a blade of grass that springs up after being stepped on. That something is love.

Love brought Mary to his cross. And love brings her now to his grave.

The early church looked at Mary, weary with weeping grief, just outside the tomb of Jesus, as a symbol of the whole world. Mary’s tears are the tears of Fresno where a man gunned down three random men in an apparent hate crime.  Mary’s tears are the tears of Colombo, Sri Lanka when a garbage dump collapsed and crashed into nearby homes, killing dozens.

Mary’s tears are the tears of the family of Robert Godwin Sr., 74, a former foundry worker and father of 10 who was picking up aluminum cans on Sunday when he was shot and then the video was posted on social media. Mary’s tears are the tears of the families of those killed by poisonous gas attacks in Syria that killed at least 86 people, including 26 children.

And Mary’s tears are the tears of your life, too. Mary is a stand-in for all the grief and suffering of all the world. But here is what is important to remember: It is to Mary in the predawn dark, in her most painful moment, that Jesus appears.

Of all the people that Jesus could have revealed himself to, he chooses Mary first.

Peter and John had been there earlier in the morning, but they didn’t see angels. Angels only turn up for Mary and her tears. Maybe it’s because, sometimes, you can only see angels through tears.

Easter is not about escaping this sorry dark world into the next world. Easter is about tearing a hole in the fabric that separates this world from the next so that heaven can get into this world.

One of the favorite artist that my son Clinton and I share, Jack Johnson, has a song that describes the complexities of life in the 21st century. It is a song filled with pain, sorrow and the angst of our times, but he has a line that serves as a refrain in the song that says:

There were so many fewer questions

When stars were still just the holes to heaven.

I love that imagery. Next time you step outside and look up to see the stars, think of them as tiny holes in the floor of heaven.

Easter is a Grand Canyon size hole in the floor of heaven. The eternal came flooding into our world through that opening when the stone was rolled away. The bodily resurrection of Jesus is a foretaste of the renewal, re-integration and restoration that is coming when the ‘thy-will-be-done-on-earth-as-it-is-in-heaven’ part of our Lord’s prayer is answered once and for all.

Here’s the point of Easter:  God loves this world.

Sometimes I’ve said to skeptics that don’t yet believe in our faith that they should at least hope our faith is true; because it makes so much sense of the longings that are latent in all of our souls.

I love what Tolkien says,

We all long for [Eden], and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature…is still soaked with the sense of ‘exile’.

You, your children, and grandchildren may have walked away from the Church, but deep down they long for what the church stands for to be true. They have an ache for Eden.

The thirst for spirituality is not an illusion. It is there because we were made for another reality—God. Because God is our home. Your deep passion for health and education for children, justice in the world, and beauty in your life—these things are not random desires, they are inside us because they are a part of a world created by a God who made it to operate that way.

Why did my oldest son, Cole, take his four children to a park in Tacoma yesterday to pick up trash and celebrate Earth Day? Because he is a new age, liberal, tree-hugger? No, because for my son, who loves Jesus as passionately as any man I know, believes that how we respect this earth is a reflection of our love for the Creator-God who created the first garden called paradise and came back to life in a second garden of tombs.

David Hadju sat stunned in the back of the jazz club as the magic that he experienced in the room was ruined. But I want you to listen to what happened next…

The cell-phone offender scooted into the hall as the chatter in the room grew louder. Still frozen at the microphone, Marsalis replayed the silly cell-phone melody note for note. Then he repeated it, and began improvising variations on the tune. The audience slowly came back to him. In a few minutes he resolved the improvisation—which had changed keys once or twice and throttled down to a ballad tempo—and ended up exactly where he had left off: “I…don’t…stand…a…ghost…of…a…chance…with … you …” The ovation was tremendous.

That is a small picture of what God has done for us and the world at the empty tomb of Jesus. All the ways that we are unraveled, all the ways that we and the world are ruined—Jesus used all of that and transformed it into a restoration and healing.

Jesus has taken our brokenness, tears, and ruin—and he has refashioned it into a redemption song.

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Good Friday

A LAMENT FOR GOOD FRIDAY

I cry out to you, O Lord, I say, “You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.”
For I am a world-class sinner and my relentless transgressions are ever before me.
My God, my God, why have you abandoned me and feel a million miles away?
Do not leave me alone with myself.

For I am a world-class sinner and my relentless transgressions are ever before me.
O Lord, love me for who I want to be; not who I am.
Do not leave me alone with myself.
I’ve been Your son for fifty-two years and need you every hour.

O Lord, love me for who I want to be; not who I am.
My God, my God, why have you abandoned me and feel a million miles away?
I’ve been Your son for fifty-two years and need you every hour.
I cry out to you, O Lord, I say, “You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.”

Never celebrate Easter on Good Friday; it diminishes both. Do not hurry to Sunday, my friends. Feel deep the darkness. Be present with Jesus today.

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The Devil

My name is Legion; for we are many. ~ The Gadarene

If you make anything more important to your happiness, more important to your sense of self, more important to your sense of security than Jesus, it is your master. You have made a pact with it. You have made a Faustian deal. What is your heart centering on?

And if you win you get this shiny fiddle made of gold,
But if you lose the devil gets your soul. ~ Charlie Daniels

What is the driving thing that makes you want to get up in the morning? What is the real thing that makes you feel good about yourself? Or what is the core reason you can sleep at night?

I love how Rebecca Pippert puts it in her book Out of the Salt Shaker,

“Whatever controls us is our lord. The person who seeks power is controlled by power. The person who seeks acceptance is controlled by acceptance. We do not control ourselves. We are controlled by the lord of our lives.”

I’ve made a pack with somebody. I think I’m in charge and I’m wrong. Whatever is the center of my life.

Is it possible for security to be an idol?

According to Jesus, faithfulness moves us beyond love of neighbor to love of enemy. If pursuit of my safety trumps my ability to love whomever God has in my path, fear wins, and I distance myself from God’s heart for the world.

How can I love my “enemies” if I don’t know them? The idol of safety moves us away from people who are different than us and sends us inward to those who look, think, and act like we do. There is no love outside of relationship; there is only misunderstanding, demonization, and stereotype.

Jesus never called us to be safe; he called us to be faithful.

Interestingly, I find myself wrestling through this stuff during Holy Week. This is the week in which Jesus models to the world life as it was meant to be lived.

A life that ended with the uttering of this prayer for his enemies: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” These are the stories we tell in Sunday school and say, “Wow, Jesus was fearless! He wasn’t scared of anything, and I would do anything to live and love like that.”

Imagine if instead he chose to worship the idol of safety and never left the security of his little Galilean synagogue so he could read Torah and remain isolated from all the violence of the world? That story would not only stink, it wouldn’t reflect the heart of a God who literally moved into our human neighborhood to remind us what love looks like.

So, many of us buy more guns, hoard more food, pull away and only listen to and engage with people who are exactly like us in skin color, musical tastes, politics and fundamental sensibilities. And, as a result, we feel emboldened; we feel powerful. We might say, “They can have my guns when they pry them from my cold dead hands.” We almost dare “them” (pick a “them”) and say, “Come at me!”

But the more we focus on safety and security in our older age, the more we will find ourselves enslaved; because if we have at our core anything as more important than Jesus, our fears will reveal that we have struck a Faustian bargain.

By the way, I am not anti-security. I am anti-idol.

It is in seeing the cost Jesus paid to defeat evil in your life that you begin to understand how much He loves you, that frees you. Now you can look at the good things in your world and realize they are not the ultimate things; and the Faustian pact is broken.

Now your safety is just a lock on your door. Your security is wise financial stewardship.

They are not your savior.

During the Second World War, when Hitler conquered France, he immediately shut down the borders to keep the people from leaving the country. But one small border town saw its population diminish rapidly, so the Germans searched for the answer.

It turned out, this town had a cemetery that straddled the border with the neighboring country, which was free from Nazi control. The locals opened up an ancient gate in the wall of the cemetery, and they kept having “funerals” – except the people never came back! They went out to the tombs, but they just kept on walking, right out the back gate, to their freedom!

Perhaps it is time to have a funeral for the idols of your heart and walk out of the cemetery of your life in freedom singing that old familiar song,

All to Jesus I surrender
All to Him I freely give
I will ever love and trust Him
In His presence daily live

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A Lament for the Syrian Children

Photo: WFP/Abeer Etefa

You are the Lord, most high over all the earth; you are exalted far above all gods.
Poisonous gas has filled the lungs of the young ones and bombs are exacting revenge.
If you are as strong and merciful as you say you are, why won’t you stop the violence?
I have said to the Lord, “You are my God; listen, O Lord, to my supplications and stop the violence.

Poisonous gas has filled the lungs of the young ones and bombs are exacting revenge.
O Lord, protect the children from the evil of men.
I have said to the Lord, “You are my God; listen, O Lord, to my supplications and stop the violence.
O that wrinkled eyes, crepe-skinned hands, and bent backs would be the kind fate of the little ones.

O Lord, protect the children from the evil of men.
Poisonous gas has filled the lungs of the young ones and bombs are exacting revenge.
O that wrinkled eyes, crepe-skinned hands, and bent backs would be the kind fate of the little ones.
You are the Lord, most high over all the earth; you are exalted far above all gods.

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The Jail

I sat down on a cold plastic chair in a narrow beige room; a thick barrier of Plexiglas spanned the table to the ceiling. Tender names of lovers and vulgar epithets were etched on the walls. Loud voices and the bang of heavy metallic doors echoed in this cramped space as I waited for my friend to step through the door on the other side of the plastic barrier.

In the two minutes that passed before he arrived, I replayed the high points of our friendship.  I remembered the grace with which he received my story.  I flashed on the image of working beside him in a little church on Saturday Work Days.  I smiled at the deep laughter we enjoyed telling stories with our families.  I remembered the Bible study he led.  The prayers he prayed.  The acts of service for the community—all of these memories tumbled together in a swirl of kaleidoscopic colors and shapes.

The door opened and in walked my friend wearing a pink jump-suite.  His eyes fell to the cold floor when I smiled at him. He said, “I am sorry, Joe.  I am sorry you had to see me here in this place.”  Tears filled his eyes. “But,” he continued, “I am glad you came to see me.”

I don’t remember what I said.  Something about how cute he looked in pink, probably.  We tried to laugh.  Sadness and joy filled that confined space and became the sacrament of community. I prayed for him and promised I would be back next week and every other week until he was released.  I kept that promise. Each week it got easier to talk to him about his life in jail and the complications that alcohol abuse had wrought in his life.

He told me that he remembered God speaking to him through one of my sermons.  He said, “Joe, do you remember when you preached about Samson?  You talked about how he broke each vow one-by-one on his way to ruin.  That each vow was like a speed bump God put into his life to cause him to slow down and consider what he was doing, but that each time he approached that speed bump he just gunned the engine and eventually he lost everything and ended up in prison.  I heard you say all that while I was careening out of control and thought that won’t happen to me. I’m a good driver. Now, here I am in jail wearing a pink jumpsuit. I should have slowed down.”

Someone once said, “People want you to fix in a counseling session what they’ve rejected in a sermon.”

Here’s what I know:  Sin will take you places you never dreamed you would go.

It took Abraham to a lie about his wife. It took Moses to the desert. It took Samson to blindness. It took King David to Bathsheba.  It took Saint Peter to a warming fire. It took a prodigal to a pig pen. It took my friend to jail.

After my friend was released he wrote me this note:

My darkest moment during my incarceration was the overwhelming feeling of being cut off. I felt as if I was dead to the world, forgotten and abandoned. The foundations of my life were removed and I was drifting in a black sea of despair surrounded by unknown threats and undefined fears.

I never intended for my life to turn out this way yet I was in a prison of my own making. The worst part is realizing that there was no one to blame, no excuse, and no more rationalization. The truth was upon me—I had sowed the wind and was reaping the whirlwind.

During my despair, I came to know that the Lord had not forgotten me. And despite my attempts to destroy myself, he would not sit idly by and watch me go down. So he used the very ones I had betrayed as instruments of healing and reached through the bars to restore me.

Here is the good news.  There is no lie that God won’t forgive.  There is no desert that God won’t cause to bloom. There is no infidel’s bed that God won’t purify.  There is no betrayal fire that God won’t exchange for a breakfast fire. There is no pig sty that God won’t redeem.  There is no jail that God won’t visit.

Just ask my friend in the pink jumpsuit.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. ~ Saint Paul

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The Kingdom

With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?  It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade. ~ Jesus

Why didn’t Jesus put the definition of the Kingdom of God in a single sentence? The fact is Jesus never really defined it. He just tells stories, uses metaphors and likenesses to explain the Kingdom of God.

Flannery O’Connor was once asked to explain one of her stories, “Could you put the meaning of that story into a sentence?” She replied, “If I could put the meaning of the story into a single sentence I wouldn’t have had to write the whole story.”

She was not saying that she couldn’t give the thesis statement of a story. What she was saying was that the biggest things in life. The deepest truths in life cannot be tucked into a neat and tidy definition. One bullet point, one sentence will never impact the imagination and access the deeper parts of the soul like a story.

Jesus said that the Kingdom of God is so important that it cannot be reduced to a simple definition.

Originally, God dwelt on earth, and we had his presence, his life, his glory, his face. When he dwelt on earth, the world was a garden. A Paradise. There was no death, no disease, no decay. There was no poverty, no injustice, no brokenness of any kind.

Why? Because God’s presence, as it were, was like the soil every created thing had to be planted into if we’re ever going to blossom.

But we human beings wanted to be our own lords and saviors and we got exactly what we wanted. We assumed control of our destinies and thus the presence of God was removed. And Heaven became remote from earth.

So, we live in a broken world. Because when our relationship with God unraveled all relationships unraveled. In some ways, we are like fish flopping and gasping in shallow puddles, able to get enough oxygen to stay alive, but are not able to swim in the blue ocean for which we were designed.

We were not built to live for anything other than God. And yet we turn away from Him and live for our job, our family, recreation, beauty and our causes; and they are all puddles compared to the Pacific Ocean. They are all too small for our souls.

And the world is broken.

The Kingdom of God is the re-introduction of the presence of God into this world in order to turn this world into the home that our hearts most desperately want. A life that is cleansed of disease and decay, and death and brokenness of any kind.

A world that becomes a place where the deepest longings of your body and soul become satiated. A garden again. That is the Kingdom of God.

Jesus says, “I am bringing that.” As John Ortberg has said, “The Kingdom of God is bringing Up There down Here.”

God’s salvation is not only about making me happy, forgiving my sins, giving me strength during difficult circumstances and punching my ticket for heaven.

When you get to the end of the Bible, in the Book of Revelation, you do not see us as individuals escaping this world into heaven; you see heaven coming down and renewing this world. Because the purpose of God’s salvation is to restore this creation. It is not just to heal your alienation with God but also to heal all alienations that arose from the loss of God’s presence on this earth.

His salvation is not just to save souls it also includes righting social injustices. We are to be about trying to save souls…but also to feed the poor…to seek racial reconciliation, and to work towards justice for the voiceless.

The Kingdom of God is not just about me, it is about the world! But not only that, the Kingdom of God is not about me, it is about God.

God is a King. Why would I enter a relationship with a King? Not just to meet my needs. (Though He does that) I don’t enter a relationship with my King to make me happy. (Though it does) I enter a relationship with my King because it is His due.

I’ve had many conversations with folks who are interested in becoming Christians but they almost always ask this question: If I become a Christian what will I have to give up? What will I have to start doing?

But if He is the King of the Universe you can’t come to Him negotiating what you will do or won’t do. How do you come to a King? You bow, you kneel, and you offer your sword, hilt toward Him, blade toward you.

Why? Because when you offer your sword to a King hilt towards Him and blade towards you, you are saying, “I am now radically vulnerable to you and I trust you not to abuse what I am giving you.”

If you will not trust Him that much you are not treating Him as a King. Is He King of the Universe? Then we can’t negotiate the terms of our relationship!

Jesus Christ literally became the smallest of seeds.  He is the Lord of the Universe and became small.  Like a man?  No, before that.  Oh, like a baby?  Before that.  Oh, like a fetus?  Before that.  Oh, he became an embryo?  Before that, the Lord of the Universe became a single cell, the smallest of seeds.  Why would he do that?

He came down to a womb; to a manger; to a peasant family; in a no where town; in a no name nation to reclaim, redeem, and restore His creation.

Which includes you.

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