Seeking the Peace of the City

Photo credit: clarkmaxwell on Flickr

It’s a beautiful spring Sunday morning here in central Maryland. Cool, sunny, a little breezy. The rains that have been a continual backdrop for the past two weeks have finally ceded their hold to gorgeous blue skies. But it’s not a typical Sunday for us, because on a morning when most Christians are preparing for worship, getting the kids ready, having coffee, our family, along with most families at our church, stayed home.

No, it’s not a church split. No one is angry at anyone else. And the pastor still has his job. It’s just that on this particular Sunday, we took a different view of what it would look like if we worshiped God and loved our neighbors at the same time.

Some background: our church – Columbia Presbyterian – has been at our current location for a couple of decades. We have a large property, big parking lots, and between 500-600 in regular attendance on any given Sunday. We’re parked right in the middle of suburbia with neighborhoods and a very large park and lake right across the road. And that park and lake are an important part of the story.

For as long as we’ve been at this location, the Columbia Triathlon has been based out of that park. It’s big. a USA Triathlon-registered event, with many athletes, thousands of people. And on one Sunday morning in May every year, they all converge on that park and the surrounding neighborhoods to run,  bike, swim, and to cheer for athletes. And all this is happening in a suburban neighborhood just about the time that our 500 worshipers are arriving for church across the street.

Imagine the traffic.

Imagine the parking nightmare.

Imagine the opportunities to love our neighbors.

The park has a few hundred parking spaces, but it’s not nearly enough. So race-goers end up parking anywhere they can – all throughout the neighborhood, clogging up suburban streets, blocking driveways.

A couple of years ago, we entered into a relationship with the Ulman Cancer Fund, the race sponsor, and offered up our building and parking lots for race registration and activities on Saturday. And a small team of dedicated servants show up early on race day every year to serve coffee to the pre-daw5387462_orign spectators who gather in the park. But that parking problem persisted, and we were still fighting our way through the traffic just to get to our building on Sunday mornings.

It would have been easy to stew about it. But instead we decided to approach the race asking ourselves, “What would it look like for us to love our neighbors on race day?” We thought about their needs. We considered our own needs. We thought about God’s instructions to his people as they  were exiled in Babylon to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you.” And we arrived at a simple conclusion – loving our neighbors would mean opening up our parking lots on Sunday morning for race-goers, relieving the parking disaster in the neighborhoods around us, and welcoming athletes and spectators with joy. So for this one Sunday a year, we moved our morning worship service to the evening and most of us stayed home.

Small teams showed up to help direct traffic, welcome people, and cheer for athletes, of course. But the point was to keep the parking lots clear, so my family, along with most other families in the church spent the morning outside of our normal routine, even as we prepared for a worship service in the evening.

Are there critics of this decision? Sure. Sunday morning is traditional worship time in America, and for some, it didn’t seem right to “give in to the culture” by cancelling morning worship. But it wasn’t just a question of what was good for us as a congregation, but also what was good for the peace and prosperity of our community and its people. Self-sacrifice is at the heart of the gospel, after all.  So today we’re loving our neighbors by welcoming athletes and offering a solution to a difficult neighborhood problem.

It’s not a perfect solution, by any means. I’m sure some confused visitors showed up for worship this morning and wondered what was going on. And some community members may not be all that comfortable with the church taking a definite role in this event. But we earnestly believe that we’re called to love our neighbors, and even to sacrifice our time and personal convenience for them. So, while it’s a little inconvenient to rearrange our church schedule, we taking a step towards service today, and gave our neighbors some breathing (and parking) room.


Sabbatum Sanctum

The Two Marys Watch the Tomb, James J. Tissot

There’s a brief moment between the crucifixion and the resurrection, between what we now call Good Friday and Resurrection Day, that is so completely unique in human history, and yet so common to our shared experience, that it demands that we pause for consideration. Masses and great liturgies have been written, whole requiems composed for the events of the Passion and to celebrate that most holy of Sunday mornings. But that Saturday was an in-between day, the day of waiting after the tragedy, but  the not-yet day before the redemption. And make no mistake, they did not know redemption was coming. For them, Saturday was all despair. Today we call it Holy Saturday. I doubt the disciples had the energy nor the presence of mind to call it anything at all. They spent the day in weeping and confusion and dejection, unsure of what had just happened, what would happen next, or what any of it meant.

Caught in the in between.

They could not imagine what the next day would bring. Most of them were still struggling to understand that the Messiah to whom they’d devoted their lives was dead. And not just dead of the regular kind. Stunningly dead. Humiliatingly dead. He had entered the city to loud shouts of praise just days before, hailed as the Messiah of God. Dead. They had placed all their hope in him. Not just in his teachings, but in him. And now their hope was crucified, executed by the state as a criminal. What were they supposed to do? What would God do for them now?

Would he do anything?

Anything at all?

Surely those few hours just past crucifixion, but still not quite resurrection, were the worst of their lives. They were just hours away from the greatest event in human history, but still not understanding what the Christ had explained to them. Excruciating hours of waiting, of mourning, with no expectation that the dawn would bring hope and life eternal. They had heard all the words, but not understood any of the promises.

Stuck in the middle.

The day was unique, but the feeling is not. The disciples were not the first to experience shattering disappointment when hopes are dashed. Each of us may find ourselves caught in the in-between of failure and dejection. Waiting. Uncertain, even afraid. Asking God for help, but not sure if he’ll answer. Maybe the day is more like a month. Or a year. Longer. An interminable period of longing and waiting that seems to have no end, and no hope.

Does God hear me?

Is He doing anything?

Many messiahs had come into the world before Jesus. Many more would come after him. They are legion, even today. Some are celebrated. Most of them, if they are any kind of half-way decent radical at all, are maligned, even killed. And each of them, in his or her own way, leaves behind a group of disappointed disciples.

What makes the experience of Jesus’ disciples unique is what would come with the dawn on the following day, the Great Event that they could not anticipate. Their Messiah refused to stay dead. For most of us who lose faith when our personal messiahs fail, the Saturday after stretches out into an endless parade of Saturdays after, until the pain finally begins to fade away and we make some fragile peace with our misplaced hope. But for the disciples it was different, because the next day came with the realization that everything Jesus had ever told them was true, all of his stories and parables and promises were now affirmed, not by his death, but by his life, by his living presence among them there in the garden by the tomb where they’d laid his body just days before. All previous and future messiahs could only disappoint, but this one time in history, dejection gave way to incredulous rejoicing when they realized that everything he had said about himself was all true.

With that, despair is banished. We may have misplaced our hope in the past. We may be dejected, or sad, or afraid. But we do not live in the Saturday in between, but instead on this side of the resurrection of the Christ, and all of his promises are shown to be true. He is risen, indeed, and he has said of all those who follow him:

Your sins are forgiven. Completely.

You will find life, and peace, in God.

He himself will call you brother, sister, friend.

There is a place at God’s table that is already set for you.

God will never leave you, forsake you, or send you away from his presence.

He is with you, forever.

The disciples had heard the promises, but had not yet seen the proof – the resurrected Jesus, standing before them, his hands stretched wide to prove his life, his death, his passion. Without the seal of his resurrection, the promise of reconciliation and relationship with God seems impossible. We have seen the reality of the risen Christ – if we know him and place our faith him, then we can shake off despair, put aside whatever fear, and live this Holy Saturday in the joy of the resurrection. Don’t wait until tomorrow to experience the forgiveness, the peace, the friendship, the companionship, and the presence of God. He is present, he is willing, and he is able, even on the most in-between of days.

On Daylight Savings, A Modest Proposal

I was up at five this morning. Well, technically it was six, having set my clocks an hour ahead last night after dutifully testing the smoke alarms. And while I’m normally up at 5:30 on weekday mornings, arising at five on a Sunday seemed . . . unnatural. And somewhat painful. Certainly not something I’d want to do on a regular basis, but because I’m teaching a Sunday School class and need to set up my classroom early, it was necessary today. So I crept out of bed at five. It was dark. Cold. Dawn was still more than an hour victoryaway. Nothing about it felt quite right.

It didn’t occur to me until later in the day that perhaps we’re approaching this problem of daylight savings with the wrong mindset.  Maybe, just maybe, we could find a better way.

Now, I’m not one of those people vehemently opposed to daylight savings. I get it. I come from a part of the country that’s largely agricultural, and making adaptations for the sake of the farming community is a perfectly normal way of life for me. In fact, when I was a kid tractors didn’t even have headlights, so that proverb about making hay while the sun shines – that was not actually a proverb in Missouri. That was just what farmers did. So why wouldn’t we shift the clock to accommodate the processes that create food for our society? It makes good economic sense.

Even today, when daylight savings is more about energy savings than farming, I’m all for it. I like saving a little money on my energy bill.

No, my objection is more in the implementation than the theory of the thing. It’s how we make that bi-annual transition between Daylight Savings Time and whatever we call the other thing (Real Time? Normal Time?) that doesn’t make sense to me. Because, you see, we’ve made a decision based on an assumption, and that assumption is that we should bury the transition at 3 o’clock on Sunday morning, so that we all sleep through it and it has little effect on our lives. Why cloak it in darkness? Let’s drag that monster out into the daylight and give it a makeover. In other words, I think we could start thinking about this transaction in a different way, and come up with a result that’s more satisfying to a larger group of people.

Let me explain. For the sake of consistency and convenience, we’ve standardized the time when the transition occurs – 3 a.m. on Sunday morning, twice a year. There’s logic in this method. Consistency is generally helpful, and pinning the change to a regular time helps us remember to do it (if our cell phones fail to remind us). But let’s challenge the assumption that the leap forward and the fall back must occur at the same time of day, or even on the same day of the week. In fact, decoupling the two events from each other opens up an interesting possibility.

We can all acknowledge that, universally, we relish the extra hour of sleep in the fall. And equally so, we all decry the loss of the hour of sleep in the spring. But there’s an imbalance to the system that, having disconnected the events from sharing a day and time, we can now rectify. The whole system is set up so that in the spring we gain, and in the fall we lose. After all, that’s the way the world works, isn’t it? Time is a set commodity, and you can’t gain an hour for one activity without losing an hour for another. If you gain an hour in the fall, you have to lose an hour in the spring. Ad oculos. But what if we set it up so that we gain an hour that we all enjoy, and lose an hour that none of us like anyway?

Here’s my plan: Once a year, in March, let’s Spring Forward on a Friday afternoon at 3:00. In other words, we could agree to lose the worst hour of the week. Let’s face it, Friday afternoons are already terrible, and Friday afternoons in the spring, just when the weather is starting to get nice, are unbearable. I left my office during the middle of the day for meetings a couple of times during the warm spell last week, and then had to force myself back inside, back to my desk for the afternoon. Three days later, and I still regret everything about that decision.

Think about it. Once a year, the three o’clock Friday meeting would be an impossibility. “Sorry, Frank – I can’t meet with you to go over the slides for Tuesday, because today we’re going directly from 2:59 to 4:00 with no intervening 60-minute waiting period. Catch me on Monday.” Can you see how lovely that is? Pure joy.

And, on the back end, let’s agree to Fall Back and gain an hour when we all really want it. Rather than bury the transition in an extra hour of sleep, let’s take our extra hour at 3 o’clock on an appropriate autumn Sunday afternoon. Use it for a nap if you want to, or extend your weekend by taking a long walk, playing a board game with your kids, or reading a book. An extra hour of church. Have dinner with friends. No matter what you do with the time, it’s still an extra hour during the best, most restful part of the week. Think of how refreshed we’ll be on Monday after enjoying our annual 25 hour Sunday!

That’s it. A slight change in thinking, a little shift in the schedule, and daylight savings could become everybody’s favorite biannual event. We could gain an hour of something we all want, and get rid of an hour that’s universally despised. Win/win, yes?

I realize that I’m probably not the first person to think of this. And I’m sure there’s a downside in there somewhere. The labor unions are likely to object. I’m sure someone will let me know why That Will Never Work. This is why comments sections were invented. Go for it. But for now, just let me dream of an abbreviated Friday afternoon and an extra hour of Sunday afternoon sunshine.


My Favorite Podcasts of 2015

As much as I love interacting with the written word, I found myself listening to more podcasts in 2015. In previous years, podcasts were relegated to family car trips, a way to keep ourselves entertained as we drove across the country. Nice, but limited to what was entertaining (and appropriate) for a family with children. We’ve always had a tendency to load up on audio books prior to vacation, and a few podcasts are always a welcome interruption from youth fiction and children’s stories.

For a variety of reasons, though, I began paying more attention to podcasts this year, and I found a few gems that I thought I’d share here.

Backstory – It’s not a secret that I’m no fan of the short-form news report that takes up most of the oxygen on television and radio backstory-logothese days. I much prefer a deep dive into larger issues, and the American History Guys – Ed Ayers, Peter Onuf, and Brian Balogh – do a great job of looking at a topic from multiple angles to bring light and clarity to current news from an historical perspective. This podcast never fails to entertain and inform.

Freakonomics – If I could go back and do it all over again, I think I’d be an economist. OK, maybe not, but ever since I read the best-sellfreakradiologoing book by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner I’ve been a fan, and I can’t stop listening. I love the sideways approach that this duo brings to topics, and while they may at times take a coldly mathematical view to situations where I’d prefer to bring a spiritual approach, their show is among the best, and I can’t help but listen all the way to the end of every episode..

Lookout Mountain Presbyterian Church – When it comes to preaching and spiritual guidance, I rely first and primarily on the pastoral team and my fellow elders here in Maryland at Columbia Presbyterian Church. They are my first line of counselors and teachers, and as Trevin Wax has already noted, your pastor can’t be replaced by a podcast. However, I do
recommend having a good cimg2558-largepulpit or two on your list, and LMPC is on mine. I met Pastor Joe Novensen years ago when he was the featured speaker at a youth conference, and I’ve been listening ever since. The entire LMPC team provides thoughtful, gospel-oriented preaching every week, and now that you can find them on iTunes, there’s no reason you shouldn’t listen, too.

This Is Your Life – As far as leadership podcasts go, Michael Hyaalbum-art-v-2-760x760tt’s is among the best. I’ve only started listening this year, but so far every topic he’s covered has been meaningful to me as a leader. There’s so much in here about productivity, personal development, leadership, and technology that I can’t help but recommend it. And I’m already working on an Annual Time Block spreadsheet to plan my year for 2016.

Coaching for Leaders – Another great leadership podcast. Dave cover170x170Stachowiak focuses on building and leading teams, communication, and leadership skills. He has a knack for interviewing interesting and informative guests, and he and his wife, Bonnie, take the time each month for a Q&A podcast. Subscribing to Dave’s weekly Leadership Guide will also bring additional resources – articles, book recommendations, and videos – to your email inbox every Wednesday.

The Look and Sound of Leadership – Tom Henschel’s monthly Excover170x1701ecutive Coaching Tips are an invaluable resource for me. Pulled from real life executive coaching situations from the team at Essential Communications, this podcast touches on all the major issues that leaders and managers face, and is like receiving a monthly coaching session with a professional. Many of the scenarios Tom describes strongly echo situations I’ve experienced as a leader, and Tom’s advice is always spot on.

I hope that you find something here that you can take away for your own enjoyment in 2016. Each of these podcasts has been valuable to me in the past year, and I’m looking forward to seeing what they bring in the coming year!



Featured Image Credit: Patrick Breltenback, Flickr



Syria’s Crisis – Ways to Help


Photo Credit: Freedom House via Flickr

Discussion during our drive home from church this afternoon was mostly about the growing refugee crisis in the Middle East, and its inevitable spread into Europe. Our family has prayed for years for countries within the 10/40 Window, and have eagerly looked for God’s response to those prayers. I’ve learned that God’s answers to prayers often do not take the form I expect, and I pray that we’ll begin to see how his sovereign hand has been at work through this current crisis. In spite of the violence, in spite of the hatred towards people of all faith, there are amazing opportunities for the gospel in the Middle East. The world’s attention is now focused on this region, and I continue to pray for God’s mercy to be evident to all through the work of his church.

I was especially encouraged to see the welcoming response of the Germans as refugees from Syria and elsewhere entered the country. Our family made our home in Germany years ago, during the fall of the Berlin Wall, and watched as that country underwent profound change as East and West reunited.  I’m remaining hopeful that the rest of Europe will follow Germany’s lead and show a gracious, gospel response that welcomes the outsider in.

Discussion in the car quickly turned to what we can do personally to help to alleviate the crisis. Problems this immense are overwhelming, and sometimes it seems impossible for individuals to make a real difference. In addition to efforts through our church’s deacons, our family has decided to work through Samaritan’s Purse to provide relief for refugees in Europe.  Samaritan’s Purse has a great history of providing relief in word and deed all around the world, and we’ve been impressed with their work in similar crises in the past.

In addition, our family will be signing this petition to the White House, asking the administration to follow International Rescue Committee recommendations and accept at least 65,000 refugees into the U.S.  So far, the U.S. has committed to accepting between 5,000 and 8,000 refugees, figures that pale in comparison to Germany’s commitment to take in 800,000. Over the past five years, the stream of refugees in crisis has overwhelmed Syria’s neighbors, and it’s past time for Europe, the U.S. and Canada to do our part.

Please pray and consider how you can help. And please consider donating to Samaritan’s Purse and urging the Obama Administration to accept more refugees into the United States!

In Appreciation – Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey

Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey receives the President’s Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service from President Kennedy, August 7th, 1962.

Frances Oldham Kelsey died yesterday. Never heard of her? If you’re under 55, she may have saved your life. In fact, her work changed the lives of millions of Americans born after 1962.

Dr. Kelsey had just taken a job as the newest medical officer at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1960. She was one of just seven full-time and four part-time physicians reviewing drugs for the FDA. A month into her new job, she was handed a review file for a drug that was already widely in use across Europe, Canada, and South America as a sleep aid. Added benefits – it provided pregnant women relief from morning sickness and was completely non-addictive. The Richardson-Merrell pharmaceutical company of Cincinnati was applying to introduce the drug in the U.S. under the commercial name Kevadon. Its clinical name was thalidomide.

Frances Oldham Kelsey, FDA scientist who kept thalidomide off U.S. market, dies at 101 – The Washington Post.

The decision should have been easy. In fact, Dr. Kelsey later speculated that they’d given her the file precisely because she was new, and it was a simple approval for a sedative. The drug was already in use around the world, it just needed approval in the U.S. But Dr. Kelsey wasn’t satisfied with the level of research in the file; she would later note that “The clinical reports were more on the nature of testimonials, rather than the results of well-designed, well-executed studies.” At that time, a drug company could push a drug to market 60 days after an application was filed with the FDA, and manufacturers often supplied experimental drugs to doctors and encouraged them to try them out on patients. Dr. Kelsey kept requesting more information from the manufacturer, and each time she did, the 60 day clock was re-set, further delaying release of the drug. The company representative began to grow frustrated, calling Dr. Kelsey regularly and eventually, her supervisors, to complain that she was nit-picky, and unnecessarily delaying the release of the drug.

Dr. Kelsey kept pushing back. For 19 months she kept at it, asking more questions, conducting more research, and absolutely refusing to approve the use of thalidomide in the U.S. until she was satisfied. Meanwhile, in Europe, physicians began to see a disturbing trend in new births: babies born with deformed limbs, toes and fingers sprouting directly from hip and shoulder joints, malformed internal organs, and defects of the ears and eyes. Miscarriages and early infant deaths were occurring everywhere. The cause wasn’t clear at first, but by late 1961, it was obvious – 50% of deformities were occurring when mothers took thalidomide in the first trimester of pregnancy.

Dr. Kelsey’s demand for sound research and an evidence-based approval process ultimately saved thousands of children in the U.S. from deformity or death, and the long-term effects were even more profound. The attention that she brought to the process sparked a change in drug evaluations and approvals for market in the U.S. After 1962, Congress took a much more active oversight role of  FDA processes, enacting tougher regulations, and demanding greater accountability from both the agency and drug manufacturers. Those regulations have changed life for all of us born after the thalidomide scandal. In fact, there are many of us who might not be alive today were it not for Dr. Kelsey and her work.

There are a great many lessons to learn from Dr. Kelsey’s story. But the one I’ve been thinking about today is her role as an ethical leader in government. She did what she believed was right, continuing her research, focusing on excellence, in spite of accusations that she was just another nitpicking bureaucrat standing in the way of progress. Her work wasn’t particularly ground-breaking or exciting; she just built on research that she and others had already done. But she did her work well, she stood her ground, and her tenacity changed the health and well-being of millions of Americans.

We talk a lot about the men and women that we elect to political office, about their influence, their power, the good they do, and the mistakes they make. But as much as we need solid, ethical leaders in politics, we also need a cadre of regular government employees who are dedicated, who make wise decisions, and who strive to do what’s right over a lifetime of government service. So, a little appreciation today for bureaucrats everywhere, especially those in the spirit of Dr. Kelsey.

Dr. Kelsey was a recipient of the President’s Award for Distinguished Federal Service in 1960, the Gold Key Award from the University of Chicago, Medical and Biological Sciences Alumni Association, the Foremother Award from the National Research Center for Women & Families, and an honorary doctor of science degree from the Vancouver Island University in 2012. A dual citizen of the U.S. and Canada, she was inducted into the U.S. National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2012, and named to the Order of Canada in 2015.

Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.