Unveiled Faces and the Power of Community

Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate[a] the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. 2 Corinthians 3:12-18

I was addressing Christmas cards for my dad to send out just this week when we came across a stack of pictures of him with my mom. (My mom was promoted to eternal glory on May 30th of this year. After over 60 years of marriage, you can imagine how much he misses her and how lonely he is at times. All of us miss her.) As he looked at the picture of the two of them, I noticed right away that his countenance changed. His face tightened with a bright smile reflecting what he was seeing in her face. Even though her presence was mediated through a photograph, the connection was there. In a sense, she was present. For him, there was recognition and joy.

img_0991I couldn’t help but reflect on how much my mom impacted our lives, how important each person is in shaping us, how we really live in community, all dependent on each other in our belonging and becoming. The people in our lives are more than co-rememberers of the events that take place. They actually form part of the canvas of who we are.

This whole idea of us as individuals really on our own in the world doesn’t quite square with the way life really works, who we actually are. None of us is on our own. We came to be through the union of lives, and we grow in the context of community, of relationships.

Every fiber of our faith leads us toward community. First, there is the community of the Trinity. The Godhead is not a power or force at work in the universe but the divine dance of three persons loving each other and sharing in everything, in person three, but in essence one. Then, there is Jesus who came for us. When he speaks of his body, he speaks of himself in community with those he loves, his brothers and sisters. Finally, there is the Spirit of God who binds us together in community with each other and with the Lord.

And that leads me back to that photograph of my mom and dad. That picture is really a dim expression of what happens when we see each other in person. Then we are not looking at a static thing, but instead, we enjoy the unveiled face of each other where we are changed by what we see and what we share. Yes, for you know, we are changed just by looking into each other’s faces.

This is why we need each other for life. This is how we can change each other for good.

A Promise Kept

I’ve stood with scores of couples through the years as they shared their vows with each other. I was prompted through them by my pastor in 1983 when Sandy and I exchanged vows…

In the name of God,
I, Worth, take you, Sandy
to be my wedded wife,
to have and to hold
from this day forward,
for better for worse, for
richer for poorer,
in sickness and in health,
to love and to cherish,
till death do us part,
This is my solemn vow.

When we exchange our vows, it is easy to dream about love that will last a lifetime.  But, what about the true cost of walking together for a lifetime? At the time we exchange vows we do not know what the future holds and all of the ways those sacred promises will come under attack.

keptYears ago, I had the privilege of reading Robertson McQuilkin’s book entitled: A Promise Kept.  Robertson and his wife Muriel spent over a decade as missionaries in Japan. Then Robertson became president of Columbia Bible College and Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina.  Things were going along swimmingly in their marriage until Muriel began to repeat stories she had already told. Her memory was slipping away. Robertson could not believe the diagnosis when he was told she had Alzheimer’s.  She seemed to most of her abilities, yet her ability to remember was slipping away.

Of course, husband and wife rallied together to cope with the changed circumstances.  Robertson can keep working though she was struggling.  But, he noticed a change in her. When he would leave for work, she would become more confused and unhappy. When he was present she seemed calm and peaceful.

Then Robertson did the thing that shocked everyone.  In the height of his career and the success of his leadership, he resigned.  When he spoke to the staff and leadership of the college, and to the community, he said:

My dear wife, Muriel, has been in failing health for about eight years, and so far I have been able to carry both her growing needs and my leadership responsibilities here at the school.  But recently, it has become apparent that Muriel is contented most of the time she is with me and none of the time I am away from her…. So it is clear to me that she needs me now full-time.  The decision was made to stay with her forty-two years ago when I promised to care for Muriel in sickness and in health… She has cared for me fully and sacrificed as my wife all these years.  If I cared for her for the next forty years, I would not be out of debt.  Duty, however, can be grim and stoic.  But there is more.  I love Muriel.  She is a delight to me—her childlike dependence and confidence in me, her warm love, an occasional flash of wit that I used to relish so, her happy spirit…I don’t have to care for her.  I get to.  It is a high honor to care for so wonderful a person.

Everyone was stunned.  In our world of individual rights and personal accomplishments, here was a man loving his wife, being faithful to his promise. It was beautiful.

Why was it beautiful? God planned marriage as the place on earth that we humans can get the closest to reflecting the love of God for us.  Maybe, just maybe when there is love that is faithful like this we will be able to get a small glimpse of what Jesus has done for us.  Maybe from this high vantage point, we can see the Lord himself, that his promise is our life, and that he is faithful not because he has to, but because he really does love his people.

Christmas is the story of God’s promise kept.  This is why Jesus came, and why Jesus did what he did for us, laying aside his rights and choosing instead to lay down his life for us.  And yes, all of this rests on something as fragile as a promise.  Of course, a promise is as strong as the love of the one who makes it.  That is why we can feel secure.

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;I have summoned you by name; you are mine. Isaiah 43:1

In this, we rejoice this Christmas.  We have been loved by Love Himself.  And, we live every day in this promise.

Granada’s Vision – Changing the Way We Think

screenshot-2016-12-01-18-38-53This summer we had a team of Granada elders, staff, and leaders revisit our church vision. (Our church vision functions as our road map for our congregation helping us chart the way we are going.  It is the way we think about ministry going into the future, our intentional focus for planning how to serve Christ in our community.)  Here’s part of what we found. People in our city feel increasingly isolated and alone.  Yes, there are plenty of people here, but real meaningful connection is not happening as we would like.  In truth, many people come to Miami for financial opportunity, but in the process, they experience social detachment.

We make these decisions for good reason. This country was built by people who left home for the hope of a better future. We love the old stories like Little House on the Prairie that tell how a small family can make it on their own.  We tune in to watch American Idol or similar shows that showcase self-made superheroes.  We extol the lone ranger standing tall on his or her own, not needing anyone’s help.  This is the American experience we have imbibed and we truly believe.  As one writer put it:

We seek a private house, a private means of transportation, a private garden…self-service stores, and do-it-yourself skills of every kind. An enormous technology seems to have set itself the task of making it unnecessary for one human being to ever ask anything of another in the course of going about his daily business.  Even within the family Americans are unique in their feeling that each member should have a separate room, and even a separate telephone, television, and car… We seek more and more privacy, and feel more and more isolated when we get it. (You may be shocked to find that these words by Philip Slater were published in 1970!)

The problem is that the living this story makes us feel isolated. The truth is that it doesn’t work. It is as if we are actively seeking the things that make us unhappy.  So as we were looking at our city and the gospel and our church, we began to envision a different future.  A future where people find support and can share their lives in authentic community, a community of grace.  As we looked deeper, we found that this is what the gospel is about.  What Jesus has done is about bringing us back to God, and joining us to a living community of faith.  When we look at the first days of the church that sprang from the ministry of Jesus, we find an extraordinary sense of community.

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common.  They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.  Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. Acts 2:42-47

 Now, I find it difficult to relate to such a community of mutuality and connection.  But, I believe this is what we were created for.  This is where we thrive and flourish as people, where we can enjoy God and also each other.

screenshot-2016-12-01-18-38-08Now, here’s the hard part.  For this to happen here and with us, we have to change the way we think, from thinking only about me, and to thinking about ourselves in community. This means measuring life in ways we are not accustomed to, and giving ourselves to each other in community.  Changing the way we think is tough for any of us to do. But, this is the journey we are on together.

In the coming weeks, we’ll be talking more about this and the direction Granada is going in 2017.  I look forward to sharing the journey with you.

It Keeps Popping Up

Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths. Joseph Campbell 
The last episode of the latest season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. ends with one man giving his life to save the world (and the woman he loves). That man, Lincoln Campbell (played by Luke Mitchell) is an inhuman (a human being with enhanced powers derived from the fact he has become part alien) who has the ability to manipulate electrical charges. Among the many sub-plots of this season that tell stories of sacrifice, the major plot-line is the most powerful. Daisy Johnson, the one Lincoln loves, played by Chloe Bennett, is gripped with guilt over those she used her special powers to hurt during the time she was brainwashed by the evil force in the world named “Hive.” (“Hive” sorta sounds like “Legion” in the New Testament, that overwhelming demonic force that showed up in great numbers and destroyed a man’s life.) The “Hive” of this story intends on destroying the whole world by robing people of their humanity and creating legions of zombie-like creatures willing to serve him. Because she served “Hive” for a time, Daisy is so racked with guilt she can not forgive herself and she absolutely refuses to accept forgiveness from her team when it is offered to her.

As evil as “Hive” is, he seems also to be indestructible. The agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are no match for him. The whole story turns as one agent, the newest agent of all, Lincoln, realizes that he can destroy “Hive” at the cost of his life. Lincoln can take “Hive” into space and detonate a bomb on the ship that will destroy them both.

It is a touching scene as Daisy realizes what Lincoln is doing for her, for the team, and for the whole world. Here is part of her last exchange with Lincoln as the craft heads into space:

Daisy: It should be me to fix the damage to my friends, to you. You can’t just die for me like this. It’s wrong.

Lincoln: Saving the girl that I love and the world at the same time. Feels pretty right to me.

Within a few moments, communication falls silent. The ship is in space away from the earth’s atmosphere. There it explodes, destroying “Hive.” The world is saved by sacrificial love..

Joseph Campbell would love Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. because it retells a story he found in cultures all over the world. Campbell was a mythologist known for studying the great stories of the world. He found an amazing story repeated in diverse cultures, even in those that had no contact with each other. His explanation of this meta-myth is found in his little monograph entitled: The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The story he found so oft repeated tells of a hero, one who saves his people. All of these stories are filled with wonder and heroism.

Campbell’s works begs the question: why do so many cultures tell the same story? Why does this story resonate so deeply in the human heart? Why do we love this story?

I believe our hearts love this story because it is the story all of us are living in. We need to be rescued. Our world needs to be saved. Evil appears so powerful we find it hard to believe it can be destroyed. We are no match for it, really.

It is said that J.R.R. Tolkien (writer of the Lord of the Rings trilogy) and C.S. Lewis (writer of the Chronicles of Narnia) were talking about the “myth” that seems to be repeated in culture after culture. It keep popping up. During that talk, Tolkien told C. S. Lewis that, yes, the story of Jesus was a myth like this, but this was the time when the myth actually happened in human history, not just in a story.

Yes, it actually happened. A hero appeared, entered into our world, and took death upon himself to redeem us. Not just. Fairy tale, but a flesh and blood savior. Jesus.

For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. Mark 10:45

This latest season of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. powerfully shows the lure of happiness and pleasure, the grip of addiction, the deep guilt of sin, the paralyzing prison of shame, and the power of sacrificial love.

Transforming Victories

Christian love aims beyond “this world.” It is itself a ray, a manifestation of the Kingdom of God; it transcends and overcomes all limitations, all “conditions” of this world because its motivation as well as its goals and consummation is in God. And we know that even in this world, which “lies in evil,” the only lasting and transforming victories are those of love. Alexander Schmemann, in Great Lent

schmemannThere are times when I doubt the power of love and grace. I don’t think I’m alone. I doubt it when violence springs up in airports and train stations. I doubt love’s power when conflicts seem intractable and endless. I doubt it when more people are hurt, and become afraid. I doubt that there is any love strong enough to pierce the darkness of it all.

I think that is how we must feel as this week, Holy Week, progresses. As we walk with Jesus who arrived in Jerusalem out of love as the religious leaders conspire to take his life. Jesus is willingly giving it up, laying down his life. Perhaps, we must feel hopeless to let such love in.

That is what happens as Jesus goes to the cross. He puts love to the test. Is love strong enough to provide forgiveness for the worst that we can do? Is love enough to staunch the flow of wrong and bring healing in the face of generations of division? Is love stronger even than death?

Jesus’ answer is the cross and the empty tomb. The cross shows us that there is no place God will not go to love. The empty tomb proclaims the victory of love, God’s love, and it invites us to live this new way of love that can only come from Jesus. This is the love that can love one’s enemies because we were God’s enemies and he loved us. This is the love that lives beyond death because Jesus came from the grave.

Who am I?

 

Perhaps, you heard the news that Pat Conroy died last week in his native Beaufort, South Carolina. Pat deserves mention because of his popular searching novels such as South of Broad and the Prince of Tides. Like me, you may love the southern reflections in his work:

Pat ConroyI would like to walk his southern world, thanking God for oysters and porpoises, praising God for birdsongs and sheet lightning, and seeing God reflected in pools of creekwater and the eyes of stray cats. I would like to have talked to yard dogs and tanagers as if they were my friends and fellow travelers along the sun-tortured highways, intoxicated with a love of God, swollen with charity like a rainbow, in the thoughtless mingling of its hues, connecting two distant fields in its glorious arc. I would like to have seen the world with eyes incapable of anything but wonder, and a tongue fluent only in praise. ― Pat ConroyThe Prince of Tides

Pat died of pancreatic cancer. His last Facebook post drew my attention:

I celebrated my 70th birthday in October and realized that I’ve spent my whole writing life trying to find out who I am and I don’t believe I’ve even come close. Pat Conroy

I love the honesty of Conroy. How many of us share that feeling?  The project of our lives has been to discover who we really are. We use our relationships, our vocation, all of our energies for that singular purpose. Our lives are journeys of self-exploration. One wonders if Conroy is not, by creating and developing his characters, by noodling out their stories, really exploring his own passage, the tide of his own life.

As human beings we have long lived with this question. The Psalmist asked: “What is man that you are mindful of him?” Solomon explored his identity by attempting to unravel the meaning of life. John Calvin opened his opus The Institutes with two parallel statements:

There is no knowledge of yourself without the knowledge of God.

There is no knowledge of God without the knowledge of yourself.

Calvin tied these two together more closely than bread and butter, up and down, salt and pepper. You cannot have one without the other. Perhaps, that is the fly in the ointment of our present world. We want one without a willingness to consider the other. Even Jean-Paul Sarte said:

No finite point has meaning without an infinite reference point.

So, who am I? Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrestled with this from his captivity in a Nazi prison. He wrote tellingly what he discovered. In part, he said:

Who am I? They often tell me
I would step from my cell’s confinement
calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
like a squire from his country-house.

Who am I? They also tell me
I would talk to my warders
freely and friendly and clearly,
as though it were mine to command.

Am I then really all that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself,
restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat…

Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today, and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others…

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.

Seeing his own life, Bonhoeffer cannot answer the question of his own true identity. He sees the mess of all he has been. It is only in God, being God’s, that his life is rooted, that he can know who he is. Whoever I am, I am yours.

In Praise of Repentance

I confess that I did not raise a finger for civil rights. I was taught (sic) with one thing, and that was to start a new denomination, for the sake of the scripture, for the sake of the preservation of historic Presbyterianism, and for the furtherance of the gospel proclamation. And so I confess my sin.

I’m not confessing the sin of my fathers, I’m confessing my sin, and of those twelve men.”

Dr. James Baird, spoken at General Assembly

This past week I had the privilege of attending the 43rd General Assembly (GA) of the Presbyterian Church in America.  GA is a collection of elders from presbyterian churches from across the country.  For a number of years, I did not enjoy attending GA. It seemed that the procedures and rules for this annual meeting had long ago eclipsed the real purpose for such times together. Granted our meetings need to be orderly, but something had been lost.  I think it was the living nature of a communion of believers falling on their knees together to cry out to God together, to seek his face for life, and to rise up with a renewed sense of mission in the world.

Screenshot 2015-06-16 18.27.10I’d been avoiding GA for years when a friend exhorted me to attend.  I, for one, am glad I did. During the assembly, a personal resolution came forth from two Mississippi pastors calling the denomination to repentance over the sins of racism and an unwillingness to stand together with African American sisters and brothers in their distress.  The resolution was heartfelt and well crafted.  But, the assembly stumbled over the process of moving forward with it.  It was the final meeting of the assembly when Dr. Jim Baird, one of the PCA’s founders, rose to his feet to speak.  The assembly, about 900 elders present at the time, fell silent as Dr. Baird cut through the procedures with a clear and beautiful confession of sin. No excuses were given. There was not a trace of minimizing.

I sat in my seat and wept.   Not because he was a founder of the PCA.  Not because he was a former pastor of Granada Presbyterian Church where I now serve.  Not because this fixed the injustice of the past.  No, it was because it was true, a true word, a real and living confession before God.  Repentance.  I believe only God can grant real repentance.  We can’t work it up. We don’t produce it on our own. And, when it comes, we can only step back and say, “Surely God was in this place and I did not know it.”

Thankfully, a new procedure was not invoked.  Instead, the moderator called the assembly to prayer, and what Dr. Baird started continued as fellow-elders rose to join a chorus of confession and repentance.  I think this is the first real assembly of the church I have attended.  Others were business meetings, it is true. But, what is to happen when the church meets together? We appear before each other for sure. We also appear before God. I believe this is what happened, and this gives me a deep hope that a corner has been turned, if but a small one.

The good news in this is that it was just a beginning.  I heard elders and pastors talking about how to take this work of repentance back to their churches and presbyteries.  I heard others speaking about “producing fruit in keeping with repentance.”  All of this sounded to me like life, the presence of God and the power of the Spirit of God.

Years ago when I first came to Granada, my mom gave me a very nice leather journal, one I felt was too nice to use for the normal daily journaling I do much of the time.  How could I use it?  I decided to record in it those things I saw that were clearly works of the Spirit of God.  Surely God is at work in all things, but I wanted to keep a record of things that I could find no other earthly explanation for, works of God among us.  You’d think the journal would have been filled long ago.  But, sadly not. Perhaps, it is my lack of vision or flawed perspective.  For whatever reason, many pages remain blank.  Immediately, I knew I needed to write this down, and thank God.

I hope you will do that with me.  Thank God.  And yes, confession. It is not a one-time event.  It is a life of sensitivity to the holiness of God, a life honest about one’s sins and the deep need for what only God can provide.  Please pray with me that this repentance will flow like a mighty river bringing many to their knees, that our sisters and brothers we have failed will forgive us, and that God will teach us how to love one another.