Quicksand Spirituality

Quicksand Spirituality

In a meeting with strangers, Thursday night, the question was asked, “Who gets stressed?”  We all knowingly chuckled.  We ALL get stressed.

The leader asked, “What stresses you?”  Work.  Family.  Relationships.  Health.  Money.


But, I never said a word, out loud.  I smiled and nodded.  “Yes. Work, family, and money stress me too.”

I know this sounds terribly judgmental – please, forgive me.  As I listened to our trite examples of stress, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Have we forgotten what JUST happened?  Or, are we just being polite?  Or, is it too painful to say out loud?  Are others inwardly shouting, as I am?  Or, has everyone else moved on?”

I know we have to move on, some how.  We can’t wallow in this forever.  The students have gone back to school.  Businesses are open.  Teams are playing sports.  New stories are making the headlines.

But, I can’t “move on.”  Though I wasn’t directly affected by this tragedy, this tragedy has deeply affected me.  I’m functioning, fairly normally, I think.  But, my soul is troubled.  I’m wrestling with questions I’ve not really wrestled with before, and I can’t find satisfactory answers.  My heart hurts, a lot.  My prayers have devolved into angry rants.  I’m listening, but not hearing.

My struggle is not nearly as significant as the MSD families who lost loved ones, or the students who witnessed horrors, or the parents who now fear their children’s safety, or the faculty and staff who, somehow, must pick up the pieces and make something of the remaining academic year.

Perhaps I’m struggling because I’m supposed to speak for God.  After all, that’s my job.  That is what I’m paid to do.  I’m supposed to know why God allows tragedies to happen.  No. I take that back.  I’m supposed to know why God allowed THIS tragedy to happen.  I’m supposed to know where God was during THIS shooting.  I’m supposed to know why a “good” God allowed THIS evil and suffering.  I’m supposed to know why God didn’t intervene.

God!  Why didn’t you intervene?????

I don’t know.  I’ve had answers before, when things happened to strangers, in far away places.  But, today, two and a half weeks later, my neat theological explanations aren’t holding water.  At least, they’re not for me.

I can’t seem to retreat into comfortable spiritual routines, or familiar theological answers, or even my faith.  In fact, it’s my faith that troubles me most.  How do I speak for a God I don’t understand?  I’ve never presumed to comprehend God.  But, that’s different.  God is beyond human comprehension.  I actually like that.  I need that.  I’m comfortable with that.  This?  Not so much.

Though I haven’t lost or abandoned my core spiritual convictions, or turned my back on God, I feel like my foundation has turned to quicksand.  Where is my rock?  I don’t know where to step and stand with confidence.  And, I’m beginning to wonder if “moving on” spiritually will require me to know and speak for God with a lot less certainty.  That’s unsettling.  To say the least, that stresses me.

Stressed?  Yes, I am stressed.  But, for none of the normal reasons.

Who is My Enemy?

Who is My Enemy?

My day began, preparing for my Friday morning Bible Study.  We’re currently studying the Sermon on the Mount, and our passage today was the end of Matthew 5, “You have heard it said… but I say to you…”

Included in that group of teachings is the instruction to love our enemies, which raised the question, “Who is my enemy?”

I’ve been chewing on that question all day.  The Greek word for enemy, used in the New Testament, is “echthros,” which means someone who is openly hostile, hateful and actively seeking to do me harm.  With that definition in mind, “Who is my enemy?”

A few moments ago, I had an unexpected visit from a family from New York, who are members of a Bruderhof community.  Members of Bruderhof communities are Christians, living in community, sharing all things in common.  Their purpose is to live as close to the values and ways of the New Testament Church as possible.  Bruderhof communities began in Germany, but now exist all over the world.

This particular family is here, in Coral Springs, to serve our community in the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School tragedy.  Their primary message is the need for love and forgiveness.  Can you imagine traveling across the country, giving more than a week of your life, to share about forgiveness?

So, my day has been bookended by two common themes – “Who is my enemy?” and forgiveness.

I know I’m not everyone’s favorite person, and that some may not like me at all.  But, I sincerely hope no one thinks of me as an enemy.  Though I’m the target of an unfriendly word from time to time, I know that comes with being a pastor and a leader… and being an imperfect human.  But, the messenger, no matter how harsh the message, is not my enemy.  As the New Testament defines “enemy,” I’m grateful to say I don’t have any that I’m aware of.

You’re not my enemy if you disagree with me.  Your’e not my enemy if you yell at me.  You’re not my enemy if we vote for different candidates.  You’re not my enemy if we have different theologies, or interpretations of Scripture.  You’re not my enemy if you leave an angry reply to this post, or any other.  You’re not my enemy if you leave something distasteful on my social media (though, I’ll likely delete it).  You’re not my enemy if you cut me off in traffic… well, maybe…

Jesus, undeniably had enemies.  They crucified him.  The earlier Church had enemies.  They were persecuted.  Though I’m not always popular, I’m thankful I’ve never experienced having an enemy, actively seeking to do me harm.  At least, not yet.

But, forgiveness, is a different matter.  I need to be forgiven, for a lot.  There are lots of people I need to forgive, that aren’t necessarily my enemy.  I need to forgive family, friends, co-workers, brothers and sisters in Christ.  I need to forgive people I love.  I need to forgive some people I don’t particularly like.  I need to forgive myself.  I may even need to forgive God.

And, I wonder if the longer we don’t forgive someone, the more likely we may begin to see them as an enemy?  I wonder.

Whose your enemy?  Who do you need to forgive?



Preaching for the Governor… and Fox, NBC, CBS, ABC, Reuters…

Preaching for the Governor… and Fox, NBC, CBS, ABC, Reuters…

I was prepared for yesterday (Sunday, February 18, 2018) to be a “different” kind of Sunday, given the recent tragedy in our community.  We’d already modified the service to address the myriad questions and emotions, to honor the dead, and to comfort the hurting.  We were prepared for larger crowds, knowing people often turn to the God and the Church following tragedies.  And, they did.

I didn’t, however, expect Governor Rick Scott to show up.  We’d heard it was possible, but didn’t know for sure.  Governor Scott was in town to attend several funerals of the victims, and wanted to attend a worship service in the community.  He chose First Church, and we are honored that he did.

I also didn’t expect the press.  They weren’t there for the Governor – that had been kept a secret.  But, they were all there!

Throughout the morning, different people said comments to me, like, “You must have worked extra hard on that sermon, preaching for the Governor!”

With no disrespect for Governor Scott, at all, and no desire to sound self-righteous, I  honestly replied, “Governor Scott never crossed my mind.  I was preaching for the person whose hurting the most, and needed to find God this morning.”  

Maybe that person was Governor Scott.  I don’t know.  If so, thank God.

I wrote and delivered my sermon, with someone local in mind – not Governor Scott, and not the press.  I was thinking of the grieving, the confused, the traumatized, the hurting.  I was thinking of the men and women, children and youth, who’ve been most personally affected by this terrible tragedy.  I was thinking about the person who needed to be reminded that God exists.  I was thinking of the person who needed to hear that God is with us in our pain and suffering.  I was thinking about the person who needed to hear that it’s ok not to be ok.

Please don’t hear any of this as false humility.  Yes, I was conscious of the Governor’s presence (as well as his security detail).  I was aware of the cameras and microphones, recording my every word and move.  I was aware that I really need a hair cut; that my shirt was too wrinkled; that I’ve gained way too much weight.  I was aware that I was missing a rare opportunity to address the broader topics of gun violence, mental health, school safety, mental health, etc., etc.   I was painfully aware of every word I stumbled over, and every thought I couldn’t articulate.  I was deeply aware of my many pastoral inadequacies and shortcomings.

But, thankfully, none of that was my primary focus.

Maybe something I said, or something the press recorded, or something they experienced personally, may have touched them or a broader audience.  If so, to God be the glory.  But, that, to me, is secondary.

Isn’t it interesting how our attention is drawn to what, or who, the world says is important – like a governor or the press?  No doubt, they are important, in their own respective ways.  And yet, Jesus’ attention was always drawn to the least “important,” and the ones who suffered the most.  Jesus’ attention is still drawn to suffering.  I hope the same is always true of me.

The Governor has returned to Tallahassee, I suspect.  Soon, the attention of the press will be drawn elsewhere – not to another tragedy, like this one, I pray.  Soon, life in Coral Springs and Parkland will return to “normal” – whatever that means, now.  But, the wounds inflicted upon us on February 14, 2018 will remain for a long, long time.

That’s all that mattered to me yesterday.  That’s what matters to me today.

“Wounded” – A sermon on 2/18/18 for First Church Coral Springs, following the 2/14/18 tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School

“Wounded” – A sermon on 2/18/18 for First Church Coral Springs, following the 2/14/18 tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School

Shock and Disbelief…

On Wednesday, as I was running errands, several emergency vehicles passed me at high speed, with sirens blaring and lights flashing, heading northwest to Parkland.  Shortly after, I stopped by my house, and could hear helicopters in the distance.  My next-door neighbor was standing in her yard, visible shaken – trembling, actually – and told me there was an active shooting happening at the High School. Texts started pouring in.  The news reported seventeen “injured.”  I sat for a few moments in utter shock and disbelief.  “This can’t be happening!  Again.  Here.”  I could still hear the helicopter’s blades, within walking distance from my home.

I flashed back to Columbine, way back in 1999, and the shock I felt then.  I’d never imagined anything like that could happen – at a school, of all places – or could ever happen again.  But by now, “Columbine” is synonymous with the many school tragedies that have happened since.

But, “Columbine” was 2000 miles away.  Virginian Tech, West Nickle Mines, Sandy Hook – tragedies, but so far away.  And, there’ve been countless others we’ve forgotten, on campuses and off.

Now, our own Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School has been added to the list.

Shock.  Disbelief.  Fear, anger, outrage, grief.

How could this happen?  How could this happen here?


Wishing for Lions…

            Revelation 5 paints a picture of God’s throne in heaven, high above the violence and chaos of this world.  God asks, “Who is worthy?” to open a scroll, foretelling events yet unknown.  When no one was found, Revelation 5:5 says, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”

This, of course, is the risen Jesus Christ, the Lion of Judah, who conquered death, dying on the cross, but rising from the dead.  Death is the ultimate enemy of humanity.  No one has ever conquered death. No one, except the Lion of Judah.

When tragedies, like this, occur, we turn to God.  I did on Wednesday.  I immediately prayed for the protection of everyone at that school.  I prayed for the first responders.  I prayed for the families who couldn’t get to their children.  I prayed that the reports of injuries were only injuries, not fatalities.  I prayed for the incident to end as quickly and as peaceably as possible.  I prayed God would prowl through the halls of Douglas High School like a triumphant, powerful, fearless lion, to save the day!

When tragedy strikes, I pray for God to move in power.  In the words of Isaiah 64:1, “Oh, that you would burst from the heavens and come down!  How the mountains would quake in your presence!” Isaiah 64:1

            I want the God who sent plagues on Pharaoh.  I want the God who parted the Red Sea.  I want the God who defeated armies.  I want the Jesus who drove out demons.  I want the Jesus who calmed the storm.  I want the Jesus who raised the dead.  I want God to show up in power, defeating evil, saving the innocent.

Psalm 18 says, “In my distress I called to the Lord; I cried to my God for help.
From his temple he heard my voice; my cry came before him, into his ears.  The earth trembled and quaked, and the foundations of the mountains shook; they trembled because he was angry.  Smoke rose from his nostrils; consuming fire came from his mouth, burning coals blazed out of it.  He parted the heavens and came down; dark clouds were under his feet… The Lord thundered from heaven; the voice of the Most High resounded.  He shot his arrows and scattered the enemy, with great bolts of lightning he routed them.  The valleys of the sea were exposed and the foundations of the earth laid bare at your rebuke, Lord, at the blast of breath from your nostrils.”

That’s the God I wanted Wednesday.  A God who intervenes.  I wanted God to be like Superman, to swoop down and save the day.

But, when the day was over, seventeen were dead, fourteen injured, the assailant in custody, families traumatized, and a school, community, and nation in shock.

I’ve no doubt God was in the bravery of the students, faculty and staff, in the first responders, and in the comfort of family and friends.  I’ve no doubt God was present in the worship services and prayer vigils.  I’ve no doubt God has been present in acts generosity.  I’ve no doubt God is here, with us, now.

But, I suspect we’d give all of that up in exchange for God saving those seventeen lives.


Worthy is the Lamb who was slain…

            According to the Bible, God has moved powerfully in history.  Yes, the Lion of Judah triumphed over death.  But, the following verse, in Revelation 5:6ff, says, Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne… He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. And they sang a new song, saying: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.”

The Lion of Judah appeared as a wounded, sacrificial lamb – not a lion.  The one who is worthy, is the one who was wounded – wounded for our transgressions; for our sinfulness; for our rebellion; for our disobedience; for our brokenness; for me; for you; for Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Marjory Stoneman Douglas; wounded for the sins of the world.

Worthy is lamb who was slain.  Worthy is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.

God’s greatest act in history – when death was defeated – looked in every way like weakness, tragedy and defeat.  No one at the cross saw a roaring lion.  And, yet, on the cross, true power and greatness were revealed.

Pope Benedict XVI said, “God’s distinctive greatness is revealed precisely in powerlessness… God consciously revealed himself in the powerlessness of Nazareth and Golgotha. Thus, it is not the one who can destroy the most who is the most powerful…but, on the contrary, the least power of love is already greater than the greatest power of destruction.” 

Henri Nouwen wrote, “In Christ we see God suffering – for us. And calling us to share in God’s suffering love for a hurting world. The small and even overpowering pains of our lives are intimately connected with the greater pains of Christ. Our daily sorrows are anchored in a greater sorrow and therefore a larger hope.” 

            Isaiah 53:2-3 says, He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.  He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.  Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.  (Isaiah 53:2-3)

As we now know firsthand, we live in a world filled with senseless violence, tragedy, and death.  This isn’t the first, the only, or the last tragedy.  We know that.  But, this is OUR tragedy!  As people of faith, we may wonder where God is when tragedies occur.  Where was God last Wednesday?  If he doesn’t come in power to intervene, where is he?

The cross is God’s answer.  The wounded Lamb is God’s answer.

            Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.  But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.  We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”  Isaiah 53:2-6

            “By his wounds we are healed.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The Cross is the eternal expression of the length to which God will go to in order to restore broken community.” 
            One of my seminary professors, Richard Hayes, writes, “God has chosen to save the world through the cross, through the shameful and powerless death of the crucified Messiah. If that shocking event is the revelation of the deepest truth about the character of God, then our whole way of seeing the world is turned upside down.”

God rarely shows up in force, at least as we see it.  God rarely comes like a roaring lion.  God comes as a wounded, sacrificed lamb.

`           Where was God last Wednesday?  God was with the pain.  God was with the suffering.  God was with those students, faculty, staff, and families huddled in fear.  God was with the dying.  God is with the injured.  God is with the grieving.  Wherever there is pain, suffering, fear, grief, God is there – holding us together, whispering words of comfort, promising that one day all will be made well.

One day all will be well – but, not yet.  Until then, he suffers with us in our sorrow and our pain.


Reconsidering the Cross

Though my thoughts and emotions are scattered, I keep returning to a single thought.  In light of this tragedy, and so many others like it, so many things seem so small and insignificant now.  The things I fret over daily, pale compared to what we’ve lost.

But, as so much seems smaller, and less important, the cross looms larger, and more important, than ever before!

How often do we talk about the cross as the place Jesus died to make me a better person?  How often do we talk about Jesus dying to save me from my bad habits?  How many times do we think of the cross as the antidote for our insecurities and low self-worth?  How many times do we treat the cross like a charm, as protection from bad luck?  How many times is the cross little more than a fashion accessory to our otherwise unspiritual, worldly lives.

Yes, Jesus cares about small things.  But, the cross is so much bigger.

When Jesus hung on the cross, by all appearances defeated and destroyed, he was dying for the sin of the entire world – yours, mine, everyone’s.  He sacrificed himself so that the most broken stuff of this world could be restored.  He was wounded to make us whole.  He was wounded so that days like February 14, 2018 will not define history.  On the cross, he carried the weight of every sin, of all pain and suffering, of every tragedy – including ours.  With the 17 victims, Jesus was wounded too – with them, for them.  He was wounded to make ALL things new.

He didn’t die to make things better.  He died to make them NEW!

We may want a lion, to intervene in moments like this.  God knows that.  But, God knows we need a wounded Lamb, to be with us suffering; to carry our suffering, to redeem our suffering, to ultimately save us from our suffering.  Wherever there is pain, darkness, and suffering, Jesus is there, bringing hope, restoration and redemption.  Hopefully that is a comforting thought.

But, I also hope we can hear the whisper of the wounded Savior calling to us, the Church, “If anyone wants to be by follower, if anyone wants to claim me as Lord and Savior, they must deny themselves, pick up a cross and follow me, to join me in the dark, and the suffering, and the pain, to make this world new again!”

While we would do anything to turn back the clock, to stop the evil, to bring back the dead, we can’t.  There is evil in this world, and terrible tragedies happen.  God doesn’t always stop them – that is undeniably true.  But, God has entered our darkest suffering, and is with us.

            “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain — to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing…  Blessing and honor and glory and power belong to the one sitting on the throne and to the Lamb forever and ever.”

He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.”




What broke him?

What broke him?

Yesterday, Nikolas Cruz entered the campus of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, FL – a school he was expelled from – murdering seventeen innocent victims and injuring at least fourteen others.  The press is already reporting there were “red flags” – expulsion, social media posts, strange behaviors, etc.  He doesn’t seem to have friends.  Apparently Cruz has experienced significant loss and grief.

As yesterday’s events unfolded, I asked, “What broke him?  Who broke him?”  This wasn’t the act of a “normal” person choosing wrong.  This was not the act of a “normal” person suddenly overcome with evil.  Yes, what he did was unspeakably evil!  But, this wasn’t the act of a “normal” person.  Only a “broken” person could do something this horrific.

“What broke him?  Who broke him?

We could ask the same every time one of these tragedies occur.

Perhaps some people are born evil.  Some would make that argument.  I can’t accept that.  I believe God doesn’t make broken people.  I believe God creates us in his good image.  I believe this world breaks people.  And, today, I wonder what broke Nikolas Cruz, and others like him.

Inevitably, many are already debating the need for better gun laws versus better mental health screenings.  Though I firmly believe some kind of law should have prohibited Cruz from purchasing a semi-automatic weapon, my point is not to enter that particular debate.

I’m wondering when Cruz’s brokenness began, who might have recognized it early on, and who failed to intervene?  I’m wondering what might have saved Cruz – and, now, all of his victims – closer to when his brokenness began?  I’m not looking for someone to blame.  I’m wondering about how Cruz, and others like him, might have been helped before doing such unspeakable harm?  I’m wondering who the next Cruz might be?

And, I’m wondering what the Church’s role is?  Obviously, the Church is quick to offer aid following tragedies.  We hold special services.  We offer comfort, counsel, and prayer.  But, I’m wondering, if we are called to be salt and light in world, how we could – must – address the widespread brokenness in our world?  Where was the Church for Nikolas Cruz?

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not blaming the world, the Church, or anyone else for Cruz’s sin.  Cruz made that evil choice.  I’m just wondering why, and what might have stopped him.

I confess I am struggling today.  These aren’t just theological ponderings.  I’m wrestling deep in my soul.  I’m torn between knowing there is darkness in our world, and feeling an immense responsibility to stop playing “Church”; to actually do something substantial and assertive, to drive back the forces of evil in our communities and our world.  I’m torn between believing in the free-will that allows for evil choices, and believing God’s will ultimately prevails.  I’m torn between feelings of hopelessness in the face of so much despair, and an outrage-driven conviction to do more about it.  I’m torn between utter hopelessness, and knowing we have the power of almighty-God at our disposal.  I’m torn between wondering if the Church is making any difference in this world at all, and knowing Christ, working in the Church, is the only hope we have.

I watch as society drifts further and further away from God.  I watch as families senselessly decay.  I watch as more and more die of drug overdoses.  I watch as so many “Christian” families are less and less involved in Church, and more and more drawn away to other worldly distractions.  I watch as woman after woman after woman comes forward to bravely confront men who’ve assaulted them.  I watch as our country grows more and more divided.  I watch as age-old-racism seems to be rekindled.  I watch as the constant threat of war and nuclear annihilation looms on the horizon.  I watch as we literally throw away our lives on the smallest, most petty, trivial pursuits.

Friends, what are we doing?  Yes, Cruz is broken.  But, maybe Cruz is broken because we are broken?  Maybe Cruz if broken because the world is so broken.  Maybe the world is so broken because we – the Church – are doing so little about it.

And I’m thinking a lot about Jesus today.  I’m thinking about Jesus coming to heal our brokenness and rescue us from sin.  I’m thinking about the trivial ways we talk about sin, without confronting the sin that leads to yesterday’s massacre.  I’m thinking about the terrible weight Jesus bore on the cross, dying to save us from all of our sin and brokenness.

I’m wondering what Jesus is calling his church to do?

I don’t know who broke Nikolas Cruz.  But, I do know who could – who can – heal his brokenness. I know who can heal the brokenness all around us.

So, here’s my question, to the Church.  Are we going to keep playing Church – with nice worship services, cozy fellowship, shallow religious programs, and petty squabbles over silly, unimportant, irrelevant disagreements?  Or, are we going to get to work, with all of the courage and conviction we can muster, driving back the forces of darkness that lead to death and destruction, in Jesus’ name?

Isn’t the correct answer obvious?

What broke him?  What are we going to do about it?