A Mother’s Love

This Sunday we, as a society, will celebrate Mother’s Day.  While we are still confined by the restrictions attributable to a global pandemic (fewer of us will brunch together and more of us will Zoom together), we can all agree that the moms in our lives are worthy of recognition.  Mothers are special: they sacrifice in big and small ways their own personal preferences for the sake of their children, they say what no one else will share about personal grooming or attitudes, they stay up at night vigilantly listening for sounds of an infant’s arousal or a teen’s arrival.  Mothers are our first providers, defenders, and disciplinarians.  They are a blessing from God.

I was reading about a mother today who epitomizes the truth that they are a gift from God.  There was a woman whose daughter was suffering terribly from self-destructive behavior, and so this mother decided to go to a well-known and well-respected specialist, hoping that he could address her daughter’s condition and provide this mom with some relief.   However, when she first met with this specialist, he appeared indifferent to her pain and the receptionist requested that she be removed from the premises.  All she was told was that “her treatment was not ‘covered’.”

At that moment, this desperate woman went into what one might call ‘mother mode’.  Initially, she had endured the shame of an apparent insult but, knowing that she had nothing to lose and willing to do whatever it took to help her child, she nonetheless pled for the specialist to show compassion, trusting that they had the ability to remedy her daughter’s (and her) need.  Moved by the certainty of the woman’s belief that he was her only option, the specialist agreed to treat her daughter and the story ended with the good news that the woman’s daughter was healed.

Then Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith!  Your request is granted.”  And her daughter was healed from that very hour.  Matthew 15:28

By now, I am sure you know that this account is found in the gospels of Matthew and Mark.  This interaction is one of many in the Bible where a mother puts aside her own reputation and consideration for the sake of her child.  That is what most mothers do – “say what you want about me and take what you want from me; help my child.”  Most of us have memories of the Syrophoenician mother in our lives extending themselves for our sakes.  I know I do.  I remember my mother having a conversation in a principal’s office, an interaction with a police officer, and a reprimand for a physician.  I appreciate the gift of a mother’s love.

Some of us have only the memories of our mother’s love to cherish, but thank God for those memories.  Thank God for the words of homespun wisdom, the soothing silence of presence, the lessons of life and love that still linger.  Thank God for mothers.

Happy Mother’s Day to all of those who are reading this, those who are moms, future moms, motherly figures, and mother hens.  We, your children, are blessed with you.

Recycled

Because the weather one recent afternoon was so pleasant, my wife and I decided to walk the distance from our house to the Middle School to pick up our son.  We arrived a few minutes earlier than dismissal and took a seat in a city park across the street.  As I waited, I stared at the fountain in front of me, which had just begun to flow after lying dormant and dry for the winter.  As I sat there, taking in the spouting and cascading waters, I thought about this fountain’s function – that it simply recycled the same water through the same pumps and pipes, showering it over the same stones and depositing it into the same pool over and over again.

That fountain does not create anything new.  That fountain does not generate income or energy.  It just does the same thing over and over again.  Water goes up, water flows down, water goes around.  And yet, as I sit and as I stare I am captivated by the beauty of the mist as it creates prisms with the sunlight.  I am fascinated by the sheets of irregular and unpredictable water that tumble over then are torn off the fountain’s elevated bowl.  I am soothed by the sound of the ‘white noise’ wafting toward me from the waters.  As I sat in silence before this fountain with its perpetual motion, I found something valuable.

In sitting before the erratic repetition of this fountain, I was granted peace of mind and peace of spirit.  I sat before the beauty of stone and water and enjoyed the same experience over and over again, each time with subtle and unpredictable variations.  Occasionally I was surprised by the spray, caught by a strong wind, that sprinkled my skin.  Mostly, I was blessed by a moment of quiet meditation in the midst of my occasional malaise.  This structure of recycling water in the center of a city park is not doing nothing; it is faithfully doing the same thing.  That sameness was a gift to my soul.

All this reminds me of all the repetitive sameness I have in my life.  I eat the same breakfast every day.  I professionally work on the same tasks each week.  I read the same Bible, attend the same church, listen to the same radio stations, and watch the same shows.  It could be said that I am recycling the same life experiences over and over again.  Maybe that is true, but I find peace in the process and it is not uncommon for the ‘spray’ to surprise me.  Each day, even in the mundane and routine moments, we are granted insights and inspirations from unlikely sources.  We are surprised by the beauty of life and startled by its simple joys.

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.  They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. Lamentations 3:22-23

Embrace the ordinary and rejoice in the routine.  Expect, as well, to be surprised.

 

The Impression of a Life

For the last ten years, my wife and I have tried to view all the movies that the Academy Awards had nominated for ‘best picture’ before the Oscars broadcast.  This year, eight excellent and eclectic movies were nominated (The Father, Judas and the Black Messiah, Mank, Minari, Nomadland, Promising Young Woman, The Sound of Metal, and The Trial of the Chicago 7) and we had the privilege of enjoying each one from the comfort of our own couch.  Unlike some nominees in previous years, I thought each film – because of its writing or its cinematography or its acting – was worthy of its nomination.

What I found interesting in watching these movies were the themes that seemed to weave these independent works of art together into a whole.  Judas and the Black Messiah and The Trial of the Chicago 7 literally took place at the same time and in the same city and had depictions of some of the same individuals.  More figuratively, Minari, Nomadland, and The Sound of Metal all dealt with the struggle to find community, The Father and Promising Young Woman captured the effects of psychological and mental illness, Mank and The Sound of Metal showed the perils of mixing artistry with addiction, and Judas and the Black Messiah, Promising Young Woman and The Trial of the Chicago 7 shared the stories of those dealing with societal injustice.

Perhaps most surprising are the elements of faith found in these solidly secular motion pictures.  There were occasional overt mentions of the church and the Gospel (particularly in Minari and The Sound of Metal), but I was touched by other, more subtle, biblical truths: the elements of sacrificial love in The Father, the willingness to surrender one’s life for the cause in Judas and the Black Messiah, the commitment to biblical marriage in Mank, the blessing of family in Minari, the beauty of God’s creation in  Nomadland, the extension of forgiveness in Promising Young Woman, the reality of redeemed brokenness in The Sound of Metal, and the outrage at acts of inhumanity in The Trial of the Chicago 7.

I applied my heart to what I observed and learned a lesson from what I saw….  Proverbs 24:32

The context of the above passage is that the writer walks by the house of a sluggard and takes note of its awful condition.  As he averts his eyes, he commits to applying biblical wisdom to what he witnessed, thereby learning from the experiences (and mistakes) of another.  In many ways, that has been the blessing I received through this cinematic exercise.  I am glad I got to know a little about Anthony, Fred, Herman, Jacob, Fern, Cassie, Ruben, and Abbie.  I appreciate the stories of their lives – battling dementia or deafness, confronting sexual assault or political abuse, adapting to a new environment or adopting a transitory lifestyle, battling temptations within you or enemies beside you.  I value the lessons these stories, with the help of the Holy Spirit, have taught me.

Some of these films have remained with me long after I watched them.  In particular, The Father and The Sound of Metal were, for me, devastatingly moving and worthy of my vote for Best Picture.    It is unlikely that either will win Oscar’s biggest prize.  Far more likely, Nomadland will win.  This year, I will be pleased with whichever producer takes home the golden statue.

Green Thumbs

Through a friend on social media and an email from an online floral website, I was made aware that Wednesday, April 14th, was National Gardening Day.  I appreciate gardeners: while walking around the block, I delight in the flower gardens that my neighbors maintain; while eating dinner at home, I enjoy fresh herbs that my youngest child cultivates; when shopping for produce, I respect the labors performed by local farmers.  I am not, however, a gardener.  I do not have a green thumb, an agricultural temperament, or a disciplined lifestyle conducive to successful gardening.

Yet, as a follower of Christ, I am actively gardening all the time.  When the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, he referenced the practices of planting and watering seeds.  As Jesus taught through the use of parables, one of those oral illustrations was about preparing the gardening beds by removing boulders and briers.  While comforting his followers, Jesus described the work of God in our hearts through the horticultural lens of grafting and pruning.  Whether it is fostering growth in ourselves or in others, it seems that God desires all those who hear His voice to be active in gardening.

I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow.  1 Corinthians 3:6

As I reflect upon the imagery of gardening throughout God’s word, I am inspired by a few thoughts.

  • Gardening, particularly botanical gardening, develops an awareness of superfluous beauty.  Flowers serve an important function in floral reproduction but are unnecessarily resplendent.  We, too, within our processes of growth and increase, reflect the creative beauty of God’s limitless diversity.
  • Gardening requires a commitment of time and toil.  No seed, no matter how healthy, is productive overnight.  Gardeners are patient, knowing that their efforts will likely bear fruit in time.  And while they wait, they work – breaking up the hard soil, removing the underlying rocks, weeding out any interloping sprigs, building trellises, watering the blooms – so that the plants will reach their potential.  All growth comes through endurance with intentional effort.
  • Gardening involves discipline.  I have had a number of plants in my life that died on my watch, all because I did not do the needful work consistently.  These seedlings, and at least one bonsai tree, died from a lack of water or sunlight (or from an overcompensating abundance of water or sunlight) because I did not attend to the plants daily.  We are (spiritually) fruitful because we do what is needful each new day.
  • Gardening typically takes place in community.  Families work together in the vegetable garden.  Abutters appreciate the alstroemeria blooming next door.  Gardening groups and botanical blogs have multiplied online through this pandemic, allowing hobbyists and horticulturalists alike to share their insights.  The fields of faith, likewise, are best tended to through a team of godly gardeners.

I think I will pick up a few seeds and a flower box at the home improvement store.  I want to give gardening another go to increase the splendor in my life and to have a daily reminder of the work going on in my soul.  I will let you know what develops.   

Waiting for Heaven

This world is, more often than not, an unfair place.  One person does everything that they should to stay healthy and is stricken with disease while another person does nothing that they should to stay healthy and is able to enjoy a long life.  The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.  Justice is provided for those who can pay for it and is denied for those who cannot.  The sensational speaker gathers a crowd and the faithful preacher plays to an empty room.  Occupations of impact garner a salary of subsistence while occupations of amusement make the most money.  This world, sometimes, causes even the rosiest of optimists among us to long for heaven.

Fifty-seven thousand six hundred minutes.  Nine hundred and sixty hours.  Forty days.   That is how long Jesus stayed on Earth between his resurrection on Easter and his ascension up to Heaven.  When he said, on the cross, “It is finished”, he must not have meant, “I am out of here”.  Instead, he stuck around.  He hung out with his friends.  He appeared before crowds.  He had conversations.  For nearly six weeks he remained among the people.  He could have returned to the Father in paradise, but he remained in this world with us, an assemblage of simple, sweaty, selfish, sinful souls. 

After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive.  He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.  Acts 1:3

All this makes me wonder why Jesus did not hop the first cloud to his Father’s house.  All I can come up with is that Jesus delayed his divine appointment so that we could have the proof we needed to believe him.  It was not enough that Jesus suffered and died on the cross for our sins.  It was not enough that he rose victoriously from the grave.  It was not enough that God sent messengers to remind the women who traveled to the tomb that he was alive, just as he said.  No.  He wanted to stay in this world with us until a sufficient number, a critical mass, saw him and heard him.  He stayed so that we might be swayed.

This world is an unfair place.  But, just like Jesus, his followers are content to remain in this messed up world until the time God calls for us to come home so that we can offer proof of his resurrection and one more soul can witness what Christ has done.  Perhaps that proof will be enough to encourage the sick, the poor, the oppressed, the ignored and the unappreciated that God knows their need and will do everything to bring comfort and satisfaction.  Perhaps they, too, will be uplifted by the thought that Jesus remained so that we would remember that he wants everyone to know he is alive. I wonder what we could accomplish if we chose to remain in the discomfort of this world for a little while longer.

Crucified with Him

Today is Good Friday, the day where all Christendom remembers and reflects on the death of Jesus by crucifixion.  Most of us have a similar picture in our heads of what transpired on that day: three crosses erected on Mount Calvary, with Jesus in the middle; we imagine him suffering and dying for a crime he did not commit surrounded by two men who were truly sinful and immoral.  As we pause to contemplate the cross of Jesus, we ought to become undone over the dehumanizing and violent death Jesus suffered on account of the Father’s wrath against our sin.

Interestingly enough, that image that we have conjured in our minds of three crosses on a hill outside Jerusalem, while factual, is not quite complete.  There is a unique word (συσταυρόω) used in Matthew 27:44, Mark 15:32 and John 19:32 which means “to be crucified with”, and these passages use this verb to refer to the two other men executed with Jesus.  However, these are not the only times this word is used in scripture; in fact, the term is used in two other places by Paul.

For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin….  Romans 6:6

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.  Galatians 2:20

Look deeper at the mental image you have of Golgotha.  There is among the three literal crosses an untold number of metaphorical crosses, for all those who trust in Jesus as Lord and as Savior have been crucified with Christ. 

What does “crucified with him/Christ” mean?  Does it mean that at the moment when Jesus’ humanity was stripped away and his body was destroyed like the trash that we who know him as Messiah were representatively crucified within him?  Does it mean that a spiritual transaction took place at the moment of our confession of his lordship that we, too, were dehumanized and our sinful selves were executed alongside him?  Is it both representative and real?  Paul’s words to the church in Rome tell us that this ‘being crucified with’ him does away with our bodies of sin.  Paul’s words to the church in Galatia infers that we are ‘being crucified with” him so that we might also live in him and he in us.  It is a complex transaction.

Good Friday ought to be, for those who know Christ as Savior and Lord, more than a painful image of three crosses in front of the setting sun.  Good Friday ought to be a point of identification – the moment when God paid the price and incurred the penalty of our sin and the moment when we surrendered our lives to his leading.  It is the day when we do away with our bodies of sin and take up a life of faith in the Son of God.  In the shadows of the cross is a place reserved for us, a place where we are crucified with him.

I Love a Parade

It has been a full year since the community had a parade.  The St. Patrick’s Day Parade through South Boston: canceled; the Memorial Day Parade to Cedar Grove: canceled; the Dorchester Day Parade through Ashmont: canceled; the Independence Day Parade in town; canceled; the Christmas Parade down Hancock Street; canceled.  Further, the professional sports teams in and around Boston did not (during the pandemic) win anything worthy of a ‘rolling rally’, which has become a nearly annual event in these parts.   Whether these parades were a celebration of patriotism, reunion, accomplishment, or victory, I have missed those traditional community gatherings.

To be fair, there have been processionals in the streets throughout the global lockdown.  I, personally, have witnessed a ‘drive-by’ birthday party and a ‘drive-by’ graduation awareness event.  The women of our home participated in a ‘drive-through’ shower.  The local news reported on parade-like vehicle processions celebrating recoveries from COVID, retirements, and anniversaries.  Perhaps the need for a parade is engrained in our collective DNA: we need to get together and cheer regularly and consistently.  Most of us can resonate with the lyrics of the song from the 1930s, “I love a parade….”

When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen….  Luke 19:37

This weekend the liturgy of the church will remember Palm Sunday, which was when the triumphal entry of Jesus into the city of Jerusalem took place.  It was, for all intents and purposes, a first-century parade – a mass of humanity lining a road, waving things in the air and shouting words of civic pride and conquering peace.   As the wide cross-section of society (the disciples, the curious, and the Pharisees made up the crowd) gathered around the Savior who sat on a borrowed donkey, they were celebrating life and liberation.  This moment in history is worthy of reflection.

Palm Sunday, for many, will pass by without notice.  That is unfortunate, for Palm Sunday serves as a bookend (along with the angelic visitation to the shepherds in Luke 2) of the incarnation of Christ, concluding the narrative as it began, with the words, “Glory in the Highest!”  Jesus’ earthly work has been done: he enters the capital city having faithfully executed his duties and won the war which had taken place in the spiritual realms.  Jesus was finally (but not quite perfectly) receiving the honor due his name.

For me, I will miss the processional around the church and the waving of palm branches, but I will rejoice in my heart that I know the one who saves us – Hosanna!

It will be a while before we can gather with our neighbors, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, saluting the flag and shaking hands with local politicians, and trying to catch the candy thrown from floats, one day these parades will return.   It may be a while before we will gather together to celebrate the Risen King in our midst, but one day He will return.  This weekend will be a great way to get ready.

Behind The Sordid Details

The nominations for the Academy Awards were announced earlier this week, and my wife and I have agreed to watch the eight films nominated for Best Picture.  While the experience will not be the same as in years past (we will watch all the cinematic masterpieces through streaming services or DVDs while sitting on our couch), it is still a treasure for me to experience and converse about the stories (factual or imagined) of people and places foreign to my own life experiences, all while spending time with my wonderful wife.  I am looking forward to escaping into these diverse worlds over the next six weeks.

I am aware that someone reading this may be asking why a minister of the gospel and follower of Christ might sully his reputation and witness with 13 hours of R-rated aural and visual content (two of the Oscar-nominated movies [The Father and Minari] are rated PG-13).   It is true that My wife and I will be exposed to nudity, violence, drug use, and profanity by watching these films; it is also true that we may be exposed to these things by walking along the beach near our home or visiting the Museum of Fine Arts.  This questionable content can be a source of temptation for many and that is why I always watch these movies with my wife and why we limit our R-rated cinematic consumption to mainly nominated films.

By knowing the story of Chicago in the ‘60s (from the very different perspectives of Fred Hampton and Abbie Hoffman) or Arkansas in the ‘80s (from the perspective of a Korean-American family), I am enriched.  By watching the process of recovery by a punk-metal drummer in a deaf community or the descent into dementia by a wealthy patriarch, I am informed.  These are experiences that I will never know, but that those around me, at least in part, have endured.   These motion pictures illuminate the depravity of humanity, the grace of God, and the hope of deliverance.  They are, for me, modern-day parables.

These films, whether they are seen personally or merely discussed by those who have, serve as windows into the souls of our neighbors and ourselves.  They tell of eternal truths veiled in contemporary clothing.  They use the language and the imagery of our culture to convey the heart of God toward all those around us.  As I think about the last eight years that my wife and I have been viewing these films, I admit that some, but not all, have touched me profoundly.

Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it?”  Mark 4:30

We reveal ourselves – our strengths and struggles, our values and our vices – through the stories we share with one another.  I look forward to discovering something new about myself and discussing those insights with others because of what I observed in these eight nominated stories.  Perhaps, after the awards have been given, we can one day sit across the table from one another and share our thoughts and share our stories.  If you have seen or plan on seeing any of the Oscar-worthy films, I would be glad to hear your review.

Ordinary Time

Today, I have nothing new to retell.  This week, like so many over the past year, was ordinary:  my family and I went to the same four places we go every week (for church, for family, for coffee, and for groceries), we all did what we do every week (attended hybrid and on-line classes, participated in Zoom meetings, played video games, and watched television).  Nothing broke and no one got sick.  This week has been like the plot of the movie “Groundhog Day”.  According to the scriptures (taken completely out of context): “One person … considers every day alike.” (Romans 14:5)

With all that is going on in the world, I have been greatly blessed with an ordinary week.  The ravages of this insidious disease did not visit my house.  The bitter cold of winter took a respite from our community over the last seven days.  In fact, my home and its occupants were not impacted in any way by car troubles, power failures, financial shortfalls, political unrest, religious persecution, racial injustices, or general malaise.  I am mindful that the same cannot be said for so many around me.  For that reason, I will take my ordinary week and be glad.

This ordinary week that I enjoyed did not exclude me from moments of splendor.  Every morning, the sun rose high in the sky, whether we noticed it or not.  Every day our house and our hearts were lifted with expressions of love, whether we acknowledged them or not.  Every night, we were protected by God’s righteous right hand, whether we sensed it or not.  I am grateful that my ordinary week includes productive employment, supportive relationships, and instructive conversations.  I am mindful, as well, that the same cannot be said by so many around me whose ordinary days are filled with isolation, abuse, or despair.

God is God every day, whether that day seems ordinary or extraordinary.  He is sustaining us through the miraculous and through the mundane.  He is revealing Himself through the remarkable and through the routine.  In fact, it is through the ordinary that God shows Himself most powerfully.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.  2 Corinthians 4:7

There is nothing special about a clay jar; it was worth a denarius a dozen.  What matters is what the jar contains.  My ordinary life during an ordinary week is also, cosmically speaking, nothing special.  However, because my heart is filled with Christ’s love, my soul is filled with the Holy Spirit, and my hours are filled with the Father’s loving-kindness, my ordinary life during an ordinary week is, in all actuality, anything but ordinary.

My prayer for you is that you, too, would enjoy an ordinary week in the days to come: may harm find no home and evil gain no entrance; may goodness daily greet you and kindness be your companion.  Through it all – in the trivial, the trying, and the triumphal – may God be glorified.

Smile, You Are on Camera

It was unexpected but not surprising.  I was in an area with which I had no familiarity and I got caught doing something wrong.  I was photographed by a traffic camera driving 37 MPH in a 25 MPH zone.  There was no excuse for my disregard for the law, and the reasons for my infraction are moot (e.g.: I was remaining in the flow of traffic, it was a sunny afternoon with clear road conditions, I was unaware of the speed limits).  The evidence that was mailed to me was indisputable, and the circumstances are irrefutable, so now the consequences are undeniable.

There was a moment, as I held the Notice of Infraction in my hand, that I questioned if I had been unfairly targeted because of my out-of-state license plates – there must be someone reviewing the camera footage and determining the offenses that would be fined and the offenses that would be forgiven – but that thought was quickly dismissed for two reasons: first, it diminishes the real plight of those who are actually baselessly targeted by the police; and second, I did what I am being fined for doing.  I was fined because I was speeding, whether I realized it at the time or not.

Where else have I been a lawbreaker without being conscious of my errant behavior?  Is jaywalking still a thing?  Or littering?   Have I parked within 10 feet of a fire hydrant or on a curb?  Thoughtless infractions are nonetheless infractions.  Beyond the parameters of civil disobedience, have I practiced biblical disobedience?  Was that conversation an avenue for sharing gossip?  Have I been covetous, envious, or divisive?  What are the telltale signs of blasphemy?  I do not want to imagine what would be discovered if my actions, even for a single hour, were all captured on a camera and reviewed for rightful rebuke.

I will bear the indignation of the Lord because I have sinned against him, until he pleads my cause and executes judgment for me.  He will bring me out to the light; I shall look upon his vindication.   Micah 7:9 (ESV)

These musings lead me to a deeper question: is God like that traffic camera at 1300 New Jersey Avenue NW in Washington, DC?  Obviously not, for otherwise our mailboxes would be filled with millions of notices.  But then again, obviously so, for there is nothing that escapes the notice of the Almighty.  He knows our every transgression, every iniquity, and every sin, but He does not impose fines on every infraction; sometimes, He lets us off with a warning.  Whether our actions warrant a penalty or only a word of caution, we become aware of our overstepping of the bounds.  We are responsible for our appropriate actions moving forward.

When we find ourselves in unfamiliar places, we would do well to seek the counsel of those who have traveled these streets before us.  When we find ourselves with uncomfortable consequences, we would do well to humbly acknowledge our offense and learn from the experience.  Whether it is a moving violation, an interpersonal offense, or a private indiscretion, we are compelled to admit your fault and, in repentance, move forward.  And be thankful that, by God’s grace, every incident is not captured on camera.