Curse/Correction

I have been watching the Games of the XXXII Olympiad, which are taking place in Tokyo Japan through next weekend.  I marvel at this truly global event, where 206 national teams are competing in 339 sporting events.  It seems that there is something for everyone, from surfing to shot put (my personal favorites all take place in the pool).  Despite all the cultural differences of all the different competitors, including dozens of languages, the athletes challenge one another and encourage one another as they vie for bronze, silver, and gold medals.  Even though there are no fans in the stands, the media partners who are broadcasting the Games make sure that the world is watching.

This multi-cultural spectacular has made me think about the tower of Babel, the biblical account for the origins of diversity.  According to Genesis 11, the people of earth worked together to build a tower that reached the heavens with the stated objective of making a name for themselves.  God, seeing their efforts, decided to confuse their singular language and scatter the earth’s inhabitants across the globe, so that they could not accomplish their goal.   A recent episode of the “Think Christian” podcast leads me to ask the following question: Was God’s response to this primordial public works project a curse or a corrective?  Was God’s purpose in diversity punitive or was it curative?

I suspect that most of us would say that God punished the people by confusing their speech (a curse that was rescinded in the upper room at Pentecost).  Maybe.  Then again, maybe not.  So then, what was God’s initial purpose for humanity?  According to the Scriptures:

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”  Genesis 1:28 (NIV84)

Did you notice what God said to Adam and Eve?  “…fill the earth….”  God’s great design for His creation was not to build upward but to grow outward.  Perhaps we have a basic human desire to remain among our own.  Perhaps we have an innate urge to reach skyward instead of spreading globally.  When the temptation to be monolithic first surfaced, God’s corrective was to make us multilingual.  I think this was a corrective, a curative prescription to enable us to fulfill God’s purpose for His creation.  Because of the consequences of the Tower of Babel, humanity has filled the earth.

The temptation of the Tower, unfortunately, has not diminished with time among God’s people.  We still wrestle with a desire to work toward reaching the heavens to the detriment of reaching our multicultural community.  We would do well to appreciate the multiplicity of cultures – the foods, the music, the languages, and the fashions – that are all around us, knowing that God’s grace and glory are not confined to a singular expression.  Besides, it is highly unlikely that the culture of heaven is primarily our own.

May we all celebrate the beautiful diversity of life.

Care for the Living

Last week, my post was about plants and weeds.  This week, it is about a bonsai tree.  A few years ago, my daughter gave me a bonsai tree for Father’s Day.  I placed it on the desk in my ‘study’ at the church and cared for it for a while.  However, as time passed, I was negligent in my maintenance of the tree – not watering it enough and then watering it too much, not pruning back the tiny branches then pruning away too much.  Needless to say, the bonsai tree died.   It remained on my desk for a while, a bitter reminder of the consequences of inattention.

This past Father’s Day I received another bonsai tree.  Unlike the first – rest in peace, little shrub – this bonsai is virtually indestructible; this new tree is made on Lego© bricks.  Last week, I took about two hours and constructed the ornamental tree, complete with potting bowl, colorful stones, and ‘teak’ stand.  I also built the interchangeable branches (green for the dormant season and pink/white for the flowering season) so that I can appreciate its full beauty.  I am assured, through the comments in the instruction manual, that if I occasionally dust the tree, it will provide me with many years of enjoyment.

However, this plastic representation of a real tree will also serve another purpose when I place it on the desk in my ‘study’; it will serve as a reminder that living things need consistent care.  Plants need watering, pets need feeding, children need nurturing, and souls need attention.

I have been reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also.  2 Timothy 1:5 (NIV84)

Sincere faith – genuine and real faith – lives in every believer in Jesus as Lord and Savior.  This sincere faith is described in two ways in the Scriptures: it can be the body of truth that we have received through the Word and the Spirit that enables us to know and trust God, and it can be the unwavering reliance we have in God based upon this body of truth we have been given.  In either context and by either definition, faith lives and needs consistent care.

The body of truth that we have received through the Word and the Spirit needs to be attended to through weeding out unwanted interlopers, through treating for pests that would consume our vegetation before it can be fully formed, and through intaking vital nutrients.  Our doctrinal faith needs reinforcement and replenishment regularly.

The unwavering reliance we have on God needs to be attended to through engagement with others, through times of rest and reflection over all that is transpiring, and through times of celebration with others for God’s faithfulness.  Our saving faith needs consistent care.

I like my little Lego© tree, but it is not real.  It is a plastic representation of the real thing.  It is an aspirational substitute.  It makes me aware of my need for a living faith, not something plastic to play with.  Plastic cannot bear fruit – wouldn’t it be wonderful if Lego© trees and mini-figs need no longer be purchased – for only the living can give life.    My bonsai may look good, but appearances are often deceiving.  I desire the living truth.

Roots and Fruits

While the community was in quarantine, the time that people had volunteered to maintain our church building’s landscaping was reduced.  This meant that we only had time for lawn mowing.  Those restrictions have now been rescinded.  As one of those volunteers, I have discovered that the church property had been inundated with pernicious weeds and unplanned saplings.  I have also discovered, to my delight, a variety of wildflowers that now color our landscape.  Slowly, but surely, assuming there are sufficient rain-free days, we will weed out the unwanted, cut back the overgrown, and strengthen the good growth.

While I was lopping off the maple branches that infiltrated the forsythia bushes, I thought about our Tuesday night Bible study of 2 Peter.  As Peter writes to the Christians of his day, disbursed across the Roman Empire, he tells them that they are like the church grounds – that there are things that have been firmly established (the planted and planned shrubbery and grasses) and there are life-stealing interlopers that have taken root (the unexpected and aggressive weeds and saplings).   If we are not careful, the things we want to grow will be crowded out by the things we neglected to address.

So I will always remind you of these things, even though you know them and are firmly established in the truth you now have.  2 Peter 1:12

Many will follow their shameful ways and will bring the way of truth into disrepute.  2 Peter 2:2

As I have been reading through 2 Peter, I have been thinking about the things that take root and bear fruit in my life.  When we were studying chapter 1 of Peter’s letter, I thought about how the truth of God can take root in my heart and produce faith, goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, and love.  What a wonderful promise.  When we were studying chapter 2, I saw another dynamic at work: that false teaching can also take root in my heart and bring about destructive consequences.  Both the good and the bad can take root and both can bear fruit.

Just the other day I asked my wife, as she was cleaning up some unwanted vegetation, if the green thing farther up the driveway was a weed or a planting.  She was as unsure as I was.  Was I more motivated, I could have done some research or reading and discovered the answer.  The plant life lining the church lot did not rise to that level of concern in my mind.  However, the ‘vegetation’ that lines my spiritual path is another matter.  It is in my best interest and fosters my fruitfulness that I do the research or reading, in God’s Word, to be sure what is taking root in my heart.

We all need to tend to the garden of our soul, ensuring that the good growth is cultivated and the bad growth is cropped.  Otherwise, like some of the church’s landscaping, the good things will be fruitless due to the unwanted, but flourishing, weeds.  We could also benefit from the advice of those with a green thumb to assist us in recognizing what needs to stay and what needs to go.  Then, we can sit, for just a moment, in the paradise of God’s goodness before getting back to the tending of the land.

Scar We Are

My middle son’s ‘go-to’ board game is “Villainous”, an asymmetrical multiplayer game where each participant assumes the role of one of eighteen villains (when using all the expansion sets) from Disney’s animated universe.  Each player carries out their unique diabolical objective while preventing the other villains from completing their own evil scheme.  Playing “Villainous” requires one’s full attention, as focus needs to be maintained to thwart the plans of those around you while securing your own victory.  No villain is the same and, thus, no player’s gameplay will be similar to any of the other players.  Oftentimes, as you are inches away from victory, one of the other players declares that they have already won.

Despite the fact that I have yet to win, I enjoy playing the game with the family.  I enjoy being an animated villain, whether it is through my objective to vanquish Mufasa and secure succession to the throne or to defeat Peter Pan.  Where I get into trouble is when I fail to pay close attention to all the other objectives and schemes that other villains are perpetrating around me.   I should do something to thwart their efforts and derail their plans, but I am typically too wrapped up in my own next move to notice how close they are to realizing their evil intentions.

Be self-controlled and alert.  Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.  1 Peter 5:8

“Villainous” exposes a temptation that wrestles within my soul:  I am sometimes so consumed by my own plans (some of which are noble and some of which are nefarious) that I neglect to see the dangers of those around me.  As I was playing the game last weekend, I do not think about the plight of Cinderella, Taran, Belle, or Kuzco.  As I was living life and making plans this week, I was tempted to ignore the needs of those in danger.  Unlike “Villainous”, where we are hoping to be the one doing the ‘devouring’, in life we ought to be doing all we can to prevent anyone from succumbing to the appetite of the Devil.

We will be victorious when we remain alert, in other words when we are watching over ourselves and one another closely.  When we see the devious enemy making headway in his objective, we are compelled by the Spirit to take action to cease his progress.  We can graciously counsel one another, actively pray for one another, and faithfully equip one another so that we can, together, face the enemy and resist the attack.   Each person is confronted by the villain in a unique way, but his schemes are nothing new to God.  He has a plan for our perseverance.  He will always provide a way out so that we can withstand the Devil’s ploys.

Unlike “Villainous”, where one of the ‘baddies’ will always win, in life the ‘baddie’ need not claim victory; in fact, the victory has already been won by Jesus, through His blood and righteousness.  If we know that Christ is on our side, we will never succumb to the objective of any villain.

The Game of Life

Because of a Father’s Day gift from my older children, I had the opportunity to go to a Red Sox game at Fenway Park.  Nick Pivetta was pitching for the home team, who had pitched 6 2/3 innings of no-hit baseball against the division-leading Tampa Bay Rays in his last start just five days earlier.  I was sure that the Kansas City Royals, Pivetta’s opponents the evening I attended, with their below .500 record, would be no match for him.  Then the game began.  The first batter hit a home run.  The third batter hit a ground-rule double.  By the time Nick’s night was over, it was the sixth inning, and the Red Sox were trailing 6-5.

While I will never be a major league pitcher, I can understand the dynamic displayed by those in Pivetta’s shoes: some days you are at the top of your game and everything you do seems to work out, and some days your performance is utterly disappointing and, no matter what you try to do, you just cannot seem to make it work.  One day your fastball has great motion and you are hitting all your spots and the next day your pitches are being hit all over the park.  In baseball and in life, most of us cannot operate consistently at our peak, no matter how well we prepare.

For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.  Romans 12:3

In baseball and in life, it is wise to remember that the outcome does not rely solely on one individual performance.  Life is a team sport and God has surrounded each of us with a bevy of complementary players, all of whom will have days of good performance and days of lackluster performance, encouraging us to work together.  Life is a seasonal sport and God has slated a series of games, some of which will end in victory and others which will end in defeat, equipping us with a long-term perspective.  Life is like baseball.   We are, together as a team, better than our worst day (and, likely, not quite as good as our personal best day), and in the end, our record will show that.

At the end of the game, on that particular day, the Red Sox prevailed, 7-6.  While Nick Pivetta did not have his best day, others rose up and lifted the team, together, to victory.   May the same experience be ours.  Whether you are called to be a preacher or a teacher, to work in sales or broker deals, to treat patients or parent with patience, whether you do today, remember that you are not alone in this.  Know you are part of a team.  Remember that today’s performance does not define you and that it is your character that lingers.  Know that it is a long season.  We must not think too highly, or too lowly, of ourselves, but think of ourselves rightly, as God thinks of us.

Now, go out there and have fun.

Low and Slow

On Father’s Day, I was given the freedom by my family to do whatever I wanted to do.  Among other things, I chose to cook dinner by smoking some meat.  My wife had purchased a two-and-a-half-pound brisket, which I decided to prepare by utilizing our backyard smoker (I had received a smoker/grill for my birthday seventeen months ago, but until last Sunday had only used the grill side of the device).  So, after watching a few videos online and reading a bit from cookbooks, I dared to cook that hunk of beef in a new and different way.

The operative phrase for smoking meats is “low and slow” – the best results come when you can maintain a low heat over a long time; for brisket, it was recommended that I cook at 250 degrees for 6 hours.  It sounded simple.  All I had to do was fire up some coals in the firebox, regulate the heat through adjusting the dampers, and add fuel regularly.

I learned a few things about smoking meat.  First, you never actually check the meat for doneness (opening the lid allows the smoke and heat to escape); you have to trust the process.  Secondly, the temperature and output of smoke from a fire are fickle; it demands near-constant supervision.  Third, there are no shortcuts; accelerants and excessive heat will affect the flavor of the finished product.  Finally, there is real satisfaction in taking your time and doing the job right.

Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil.  It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow.  But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root.  Matthew 13:5-6

Spiritual maturity is similar to smoking meats, as it also requires a “low and slow” approach.  If you spring up too quickly you risk suffering from underdeveloped roots, and that will cause you to wither under the intense sun.  You will have to trust the process, knowing that placing yourself in an environment where your rawness will be surrounded by consistent heat will produce the desired result.  There is no way of checking your “doneness” – no God thermometer or spiritual scale – so you will have to rely on what the book says, that in due time God will raise you up.

When it comes to our spiritual maturity, you also cannot simply set it and forget it.  There will be times that other activities may occupy your thoughts and you will need to remain vigilant in stoking the fire.  You can be sure that there are no shortcuts and that only time will develop your true richness.  You will have to watch closely all that is transpiring and make the adjustments necessary.  In the end, if you focus on the task at hand, you will hear from the Lord, “Well done!”

One last thing I learned, which applies to both smoking meat and developing souls: the experience lingers long after the ‘job’ is done.  You can still smell the smoke days later on my clothes.  You can still see the growth years later in my life.

Lowering the Boom

Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.  1 Peter 5:6

At our Tuesday night Bible study, we were learning from 1 Peter 5.  As we discussed the passage we focused our thoughts, for a moment, on the topic of humility.  What does it mean to be humble?  If we researched the term Peter used, we would find that it literally means ‘to level or to lower”, as when Luke uses the term (in quoting Isaiah 40:4) to describe the flattening of the mountains and hills on the day of the Lord’s coming.  Metaphorically, to came to mean “to lower, reduce, or abase”, as we can see in this passage from 1 Peter.  If we wish to be humble, we must be willing to be brought low by God’s mighty and authoritative hand.

The sad reality is that we are often unwilling to be less.  We fear forfeiture.  We loathe losing.  We detest diminishment.  We idolize increase.  We savor supremacy.  We see the world in binary terms – there are winners and there are losers – and we never want to see ourselves as anything other than victorious.  However, the Bible tells us that there is a third option – there are the humble – where all of us are allowed to live on leveled ground.  The high and mighty are brought low and the meek and lowly are elevated.  In a culture connected to Christ, we all win together eventually.

If we are able to see the above sentence from the scripture as the conditional statement it is, it must be interpreted to say that we are commanded to lower ourselves so that we may be raised again by God.  Lowering ourselves can take any number of forms: not speaking your truth so that others who have been silenced can share, redistributing the blessings you have received from God so that those without have a portion, using our strengths and admitting our weaknesses to empower those long ignored, or accepting an unfamiliar path so that we can walk where someone has been.  By whatever means we do it, we can choose to be humble.

Then, when we act in obedience to God and lower ourselves, we can be assured that He will raise us up in His due time.  We can try to elevate ourselves, to ‘un-level the playing field’, but that will only serve to diminish the work of God that He desires for us.  We are called to lower ourselves and He promises to raise us up, in His time; not when we think it wise or when we have had enough, but when He determines that the time is right.  It may be soon or after several years, but it will come.

We all, in some area of life, have leverage – some have financial means, some have cultural cache, some have relational resources – that we can lessen within us for the sake of others.  It may not be easy, but it is right.  It is time.

A Normal Birthday

This weekend, my family will be celebrating my amazing wife’s birthday.  It will be the first ‘normal’ celebration we have enjoyed since the pandemic began and the first “outdoor” party in nearly seventeen months.  We will be going to the movies to see a musical (it will be a drive-in), we will go out for brunch (we will likely be eating outside), and we will spend time with my mother-in-law (who has recently returned from quarantine in Maryland).  There will be a cake, a few dozen candles, and several gifts for the birthday girl on the big day.  My hope is that the celebration will be as wonderful as the woman we are celebrating.

This birthday is also a sort of transition: for the last 32 years our family has been progressively expanding our celebration circle from two to six, but this birthday marks our first actual reduction.  Our daughter no longer lives near us, and work prevents her from being able to celebrate in person.  As the children, a majority of whom are in their twenties, grow older, they are doing what healthy hatchlings do – they are flying the coop.  It was just a matter of time, of course, and we can find consolation in the fact that we were thoroughly blessed with a full year of birthdays being all together.

There is a box of old photos somewhere that capture many of those 32 years of parties.  Recently, Jeanine and I looked through a few of those captured memories and I remember thinking about how young we were.  (I seldom think of the corollary truth of how old we have become.)  As the years passed, with the busyness of a hectic home with four children, I scarcely took notice of the deep and enriching beauty – inside and out – the young woman who chose to identify herself with my name had developed.  Despite her protestations to the contrary, she is still as stunning as ever and, even more so, good.

Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: “Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.”  Proverbs 31:28-29

They say that age is just a number.  That may be true, but numbers can be significant.  The numbers advancing on the odometer relate to the distance one has traveled.  The numbers on a bank statement relate to the worth one has accumulated.  The numbers on a birthday cake relate both distance and value.  With each year that passes, and indeed with each gray hair that appears, an advancement is made in wisdom and experience.  Each birthday we are able to enjoy, whether with many around us or not, is a blessed reminder that God is still working on us for our good.

As we all resume normal patterns of celebration, let us remember the significance of those whom God has given us to celebrate.  This weekend, it is my wonderful wife.  Next week it may be you who is honored.

Finally, I wish you the happiest of birthdays, Jeanine.

Opportunity for Community

This Sunday is Dorchester Day.  For those who are not fortunate enough to live, work, or serve in the greatest community in Boston, “Dorchester Day” is the first Sunday of June and is a day of celebration commemorating Dorchester’s settlement in 1630.  The hallmark of this community celebration is the Dot Day Parade – a marvelous mix of handshaking politicians, elaborate floats, advocacy groups, and marching bands winding their way down Dorchester Avenue from Lower Mills to Columbia Square to the delight of the onlooking crowds.  Due to the pandemic, the parade had to be canceled this year, making it two long years since we, as a community, have been delightfully able to gather in this way.

I will miss the Parade.  I will miss cheering on the Little League champions.  I will miss hearing the Kenny K-6 School band (and waving to Mr. Chu, my 26-year-old son’s then first-grade music teacher).  I will miss watching the Caribbean dancers and the martial artists twisting and twirling in front of us.  I will miss trying to gain the governor’s or mayor’s attention, but inevitably recognizing that they have engaged with those across the street.  I will miss waving to the people I know watching the parade with me and I will miss thinking about how big the kids are getting.  I will miss the sirens that would blear, the “Cycling Murrays”, the free swag from four different banks, and the candy thrown at my feet.  I will miss the ‘community’.

The strange thing is that I feel I will miss these things because I will be unable to enjoy the parade, but the truth is that I will miss these community interactions because I choose to only engage the community at the parade.  I could have gone to the championship Little League game or a concert at the Kenny.  I could have attended a dance lesson or martial arts class.  I could have visited with the mayor or the neighbor across the street.  I could have patronized the bank or volunteered with an advocacy group.  But I did not.  I missed the opportunity.  I like when the community parades itself before me and makes it easy for me to be a part of it.  I do not like it when I must take the initiative to foster community.

I have come to realize that the Dot Day Parade is not a community-building event, but a community celebrating event.  We get together on a Sunday and we celebrate together that we have one another because we have gotten together prior to that Sunday and have experienced life together.  We played together.  We learned together.  We worked together.  We laughed and cried together.  Then, we get together to celebrate together.  The Parade – the music and dancing and waving and conversing – is the product of all the effort we have expended together.

So, instead of attending the parade, I am going to try to participate in the community.  Will you join me, wherever you are, in sharing your life with those who live around you?

Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.  Romans 12:15

Thought of Train

I did something the other day that I had not done in over a year – I rode the subway home from the church.  Being fully vaccinated (and having waited the requisite 14 days), I masked up and took public transportation from Ashmont station to Wollaston station in the middle of the workday, spending about 45 minutes on a subway platform or in a subway car.  I would like to say that it was no big deal and that I serenely read a book as the train whisked me home; the truth is that I was terribly preoccupied with the handful of commuters around me that I missed my transfer.

The powers of the mind never cease to amaze me.  Sitting on the train, fully masked and physically distanced from my fellow travelers, I was irrationally uneasy.  I have been to grocery stores and visited take-out counters, fully masked, physically distanced from my fellow patrons, and have accepted the science that I am statistically no longer at risk of danger from COVID-19.  Yet, my mind tells me something different.  It tells me that those around me cannot be trusted, that experts might be wrong, and that I can conduct my behavior so that I have a risk-free and danger-free existence.  Unfortunately, my mind is a liar – in life, there are no guarantees.

The next time I ride the subway (or visit the grocery store or attend worship at the church) I need to rein in my restless and random thoughts, putting my trust in what I know to be true.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  Philippians 4:6-7

The Apostle Paul instructs the people of God to ask the Father for what we are lacking instead of being anxious in ourselves about what we cannot supply.  If we assume a posture of asking instead of anxiety, we will have a peace that will guard our inner selves.  This peace (and the accompanying contentment, serenity, and wholesome well-being) spans and exceeds our understanding.  It is vaster than our conceptions of God, of self, of society, of safety, and of science.  Paul goes on, in later verses, encouraging the church to focus on the goodness of God and act in accordance with divine wisdom.

As I think about my MBTA journey, I have come to the conclusion that I am inclined to panic instead of pray, which prevents me from participating in the peace of God.  Joseph Scriven, who mourned the loss of two fiancées due to accidents, wrote a hymn that contains the lyric, “Oh, what peace we often forfeit, oh, what needless pain we bear, all because we do not carry everything to God in prayer!”  Perhaps, when the back of my neck gets hot and my ears begin to hum, instead of stressing out I could sing this song.  Let go of the pain and go to the Lord in prayer.