My People

Earlier this week I was in Memphis to celebrate my mother’s eightieth birthday.  One part of the days-long celebration was a gathering of my mother’s friends at her house, a collation of a dozen or so women, middle-aged and above, who spent a few hours extolling the virtues of my mom.  As I stood among them, I was delighted to see her surrounded by her people, those who are willing to share in her sorrows and stories, to stand amidst her strengths and struggles.  As the afternoon progressed, there were times of laughter and tears as the ladies retold their memories of the birthday girl.  It was a glory to witness.

I have come to realize that this, in some deep recess of my psyche, was something I needed to know that after eight years of living in a community 1,100 miles from her old neighborhood, my mother had people who cared for her.  She had church friends and development friends.  She has others to talk with or to cry with.  She has women who have taken an interest in her and she has taken an interest in them.  It was a comfort to be introduced to people who loved my mother deeply and dearly.

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.  1 Peter 2:9

It is comforting to have ‘people’.  It is glorious to know, through Christ, that we can be ‘God’s people’.  It is hard to fully comprehend that we are chosen by God to engage with Him personally.  As we contemplate this relationship we have with the Almighty creator of the universe, we begin to realize that it is less like meeting a world leader in his ostentatious office and more like my birthday party.  We ought to cower in His presence, perhaps, but instead we are warmly and joyfully embraced as we swap stories of sorrow and delight.  We have a place beside Him. We are included in the inside jokes.  We are part of ‘God’s people’.

There is no one who needs to go their way alone.  We are all sojourners and travelers; the residences we occupy are only temporary housing and the companions we make are very changing.  Yet, we are, at every turn and through every step, blessed by God with His people to make the journey more glorious.  It was a joy to meet some of His people as we celebrated Mum’s birthday.  I pray, too, that we all realize this blessing of being, and being surrounded by, God’s chosen people as we make our way through life.

Gratitude

Research has shown that practicing gratitude boosts the immune system, bolsters resilience to stress, lowers depression, increases feelings of energy, determination, and strength, and even helps you sleep better at night.  In fact, few things have been more repeatedly and empirically tested than the connection between gratitude and overall happiness and well-being.  Experts confirm, over and over again, that those who would consider themselves happy are those who also consider themselves grateful.

Even though there is a preponderance of evidence for the benefits of thankfulness, most people do not practice gratitude.  In a survey done by Janice Kaplan for her book The Gratitude Diaries, she found that while “more than 90% of people think gratitude makes you happier and gives you a more fulfilled life … less than half regularly express gratitude.”  When was the last time you said anything more than an obligatory “Thank You” to the waitstaff at a restaurant or a wave of appreciation for the kind soul who held the door open for you at the bank?  Have you experienced the benefits of a lifestyle of gratitude?

Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.  Colossians 3:16

The words of Paul tell us that those who have been transformed buy the good news of Christ will be singing to God with gratitude.  This act of singing may be figurative, or it may be a first century way of saying what the researchers of today contend: gratitude brings a melody to mind.  It is quite possible that Paul knew the same link between happiness and gratitude that Kaplan has now written about.  It is likely that the God who created us, in all our complexity, inspired the Apostle to pen the connection between singing and gratitude woven into our DNA.

Perhaps you would accept a challenge, an experiment to test the veracity of modern sociology and ancient biblical interpretation: we could practice expressing our gratitude with the objective of placing a song on our lips.  We could be thankful, to God to others, for the blessings they bring into our lives.  We could show appreciation for the acts of service friends and strangers perform on our behalf.  We could return kindness when we experience it.  We could discover whether or not these disciplines of gratitude make us happier and allow us to feel greater contentment.  We could be happier.

In this season of harvest, we have much to be thankful for: most of us have more than we need, whether it be as little as a bed instead of a dirt floor or as much as a home with as many bathrooms as inhabitants.  God has orchestrated all the functions of nature to allow our bellies to be filled and our bodies to be useful.  We, each and every one of us, have reason to express gratitude.  It is a good time to give thanks unto the Lord.

ICU (or “I See You”)

If you listened to my message on Sunday, I mentioned in passing an ordeal I had been going through regarding a prescription refill.  I had exhausted all my refills, so I called the health center to schedule a physical; I was informed that my PCP was no longer at that facility and I was reassigned; I was given the next available appointment – and a 7 week wait.  At this point, I asked if I could get my prescriptions refilled and was given assurances they were in process.  A few days later, as I ran out of one of my medications, I called the pharmacy, who was still waiting for authorization, so day after day I called and the health center marked my request as urgent.  10 days after I began the process, I determinedly walked over to the facility, talked to the receptionist, face-to-face, and she took my request to the back, returning after a while with the good news that my prescriptions were sent off to the pharmacy; a few hours later I finally received what I needed to maintain my health.

In hindsight, I have come to realize the importance of face-to-face interactions.  I have come to understand the power of looking into another person’s eyes and voicing a genuine frustration.  I have come to appreciate standing in front of another human being and receiving assurances that I have been heard and valued.  After interacting with disembodied voices for more than a week with no progress, seeing another human being and being seen by another human being was what was necessary for my issues to be resolved.   And now, because of technological conveniences, I fear that face-to-face interactions are few and far between.

I am concerned that we, as a society, are in danger of losing something important because we do not interact with one another in person.  We can maintain contact with friends through social media.  We can check in on family members with a text.  We can experience spiritual growth through an app.  We can shop for nearly all our essentials via the internet.  We can receive instruction on nearly every topic by watching YouTube.  In most areas of life (professional service calls are a singular exception), it is not required that we actually engage in human interactions…but it is desperately needed.

I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face.  Peace to you.  The friends here send their greetings.  Greet the friends there by name.  3 John 14 (NIV)

Take it from one who has recently improved his physical health by meeting with someone face-to-face, your efforts in actual engagement will be rewarded.  Take the risk and put the phone down.  Sit a spell with a friend over a cup of tea or walk together along a river.  Pop into a local hardware store and talk to the owner behind the counter about thermostats or trash cans.  Attend a Bible study, even if it is filled with strangers.  Talking to someone will benefit your relational health, learning with someone will enhance your intellectual health, worshipping with someone will develop your spiritual health.  Let’s get together, face-to-face, for your sake and mine.

Any Given Sunday, on a Thursday

I had the great privilege last Thursday of joining my oldest son in celebrating his birthday by going to Gillette Stadium in order to watch the Patriots compete against the New York Giants.   Neither of us had ever seen the Patriots play anywhere other than on television.   It was, in many ways, an unforgettable experience.  We got to see Tom Brady’s completion to Sony Michel, making him the quarterback with the second-most passing yards in NFL history; we got to see a punt blocked and passes intercepted;  we got to see a win and the team we root for remain undefeated.  We got to see it all.  And it was glorious…mostly.

The traffic getting to the game was heavy.  We followed the back roads, knowing the highways would be crammed.  As we approached Foxboro, we were greeted with brake lights and orange cones.  We crept, along with hundreds of other cars, toward the parking lots.  Finally, we arrived in Lot 50, a quarter of a mile walk from the stadium.

The costs attributable to the game (tickets, parking and concessions) were substantial.  We paid $30 for parking and much more for second-market tickets.  We walked past the concession stands and decided to take a pass of a $10 malt beverage.  There was over-priced fare at other stands as well as team merchandise at the Pro Shop kiosks.  We could have easily dropped $1,000 during the night.

The comfort level of the seating was lacking.  We had to walk to our 3rd tier seats, zigzagging along the access ramps and climbing the stairs of our section.  After we adjusted to the perspective from being so high, we crammed our legs into the plastic formed seats.  Sitting in the elements (the weather was windy but dry that night), we were surrounded by every kind of fan – everyone from the loud and obnoxious to the quiet and casual.

The quality of what was presented was spotty.  The game itself was average.  There were an equal number of good and poor plays.  The Giants are not a team of great talent, and they played as expected.  It was a good game, but not much of it would be highlighted on SportsCenter.

The time involved in participating was excessive.  We left the hose at 4:30 and returned home at 2 in the morning.  While we didn’t tailgate, we could have (the parking lots open 4 hours before kickoff).  The game was a wonderful three hours or so.  The inching along in the parking lot to get onto route 1 was a frustrating 90 minutes.  It was a long and glorious night.

The experience was wonderful.  I got to spend time with someone I love doing something we love together.

… not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.  Hebrews 10:25 (NIV)

Why is it that 65,000 people can withstand the traffic, the cost, the time and the discomfort of a mediocre football game, but cannot do the same for a worship service at a local church?  I understand that the two experiences are not the same for many – our NFL experience was a once-in-a-lifetime experience – but I am puzzled that so many (especially season ticket holders) would risk rain and snow and spend large amounts of money and time to watch men play a game instead of attending a worship service.  Why is it that some would relish the petty annoyances of traffic and parking lot gridlock while others will not tolerate a longer message and a service extended past 12:15?

Thanks for letting me rant.  If you ever choose to come to Calvary, I promise that the parking will be free.

Breaking Bread

A few days after we moved to our new neighborhood a few weeks ago, we decided to be a bit adventurous and go out to a restaurant down the street from us.  We chose to go to Yaowarat Road, an eatery named for a street in Bangkok’s Chinatown, which specializes in Thai/Chinese cuisine.  When we first arrived and read the menu, I thought about going elsewhere, as there were few dishes I understood or thought we would enjoy.  But we ordered what we comprehended (as well as some Pad Thai, which was not on the menu) and it was all delicious.  It was a wonderful meal that I could have missed if I was unwilling to take a risk.

I was reminded about my supper at Yaowarat Road as I studied about a practice the Bible calls “the breaking of bread”.  This phrase is complex: it is typically a reference to the ordinance of communion (referencing the Lord’s breaking the bread at the Passover table); it could, however, be referring to any meal shared by the people of God (as would be the case of Passover, which involves breaking bread, and the feeding of the five thousand, which also specifically states that the Lord broke the loaves).  It is this more general meaning that I have been reflecting upon.

Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves.  Then he gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people.  He also divided the two fish among them all.   Mark 6:41 (NIV)

One of the most unifying aspects of ministry is dining together, the time when the church comes together to break bread.  A fascinating dynamic is at work when we share a meal, whether it be at a pot-luck or a restaurant.  Our choices of cuisine say something about us: they show our preferences and our tolerances, they reveal our habits and our palates, and they demonstrate our knowledge and our experiences.  When we share a meal with another, we display ourselves on that plate.  Serving up jerk chicken tells us something.  Ordering dessert tells us something else.  Eating off another plate tells us yet something more.

Breaking bread also expresses our acceptance of one another.  When we eat what another person has prepared or ordered, we are saying that your traditions and tastes matter.  We might use more (or less) seasoning or another cut of meat or a different protein, if we were given the choice.  But we allow another person to build the menu and we are given a glimpse of themselves.  If we are lucky, we discover something delectable that we knew nothing about; if not, we might need an antacid for a day or two.  Either way, our culinary knowledge and our fellowship is enlarged.

So, take a risk and break bread with someone – invite them to your home or your local diner and eat a meal with a fellow saint.  If you are hesitant, I invite you to join me for dinner at the church this Wednesday night for one of my favorites.  I hope you’ll have a heaping helping of hospitality.

At War with Words

The other day, as part of my Sunday School preparation, I came across a word that I had no idea what it meant: remonstration.  It turns out that remonstration is the act or process of saying or pleading in protest, objection, or disapproval.  It is a good word, a word whose definition I never would have guessed on my own; I would have proposed that it meant “a repeated demonstration”, which we now know would be wrong, thus incurring an aware reader’s remonstration.   It is a good reminder that words have meaning and the words we utter must be treated with respect.

Anthropologists contend that words are the containers of culture.  We frame our communities by our words.  My geographic community is shaped by words like rotary, bureau and cellar.  My religious community is shaped by words like sin, savior and faith.  My social community is shaped by words like gender, inclusion and sanctuary.  The same is true for my financial community, my educational community and my familial community; each has its own words with their own nuanced meanings that those in my community understand like inside jokes.  Therefore, the words we use in very conversation have both conventional definitions and cultural meanings.

The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.  Proverbs 12:18

The wisdom of Solomon, recorded nearly three thousand years ago, stands in stark opposition to the present-day adage about sticks and stones.  Words, improperly handled, can hurt us.  Words, properly handed, can heal us.  This requires that when we communicate with others, we use our words accurately (conveying the correct definition) and contextually (conveying the cultural meaning).   That means we need to be careful about our word choices and our audience’s perceptions.   That means we need to pay attention to what we are saying as well as what is being heard.  We need to be reminded every once in a while that it is a lie when we say that words can never hurt us.

Every Sunday, I wrestle with words – both with what I want to say and what the congregation will hear – as I seek to share the truth of scripture.  The Bible is filled with terms that can be troublesome: what is heard when we utter words like slave, miracle, submission, murder, sin, church, prophesy, tongues, evil or perfect.  It is a constant battle to be accurate with the biblical text and be relevant with the listening culture.  We need to be careful that we know what we are saying and that we know what we are being understood as saying.  I encourage you to grapple with words, too.

This brings me back to remonstration, or what I would classify as the contact sport of the internet.  We certainly owe those we hold dear the responsibility of voicing our opposition to wrongdoing.  But we owe them the respect of remonstrating without injury.  We need to choose our words carefully, making sure we know what we are saying and what is being said.

The Repurposed Life

As I mentioned in previous posts, my family moved about a month ago, but that is not quite accurate.  In all actuality, we are still in the process of moving.  We are still unpacking boxes, rearranging furniture and repairing window coverings.  Because of the size of the rooms and the placement of radiators and closets, we’ve been faced with making decisions about what we keep, what we shed and what we repurpose.  We have had to determine whether a shelving unit is a better fit in one room or in another.  We have had to experiment with the placement of dishes and bookshelves.

In the process, I have realized a few things: that we are not required to hold onto everything, that many things can have multiple uses and that a few things are non-negotiable.  As we run out of shelf-space, books and baubles that we carried from our previous residence have become donations for the church’s yard sale.  As we assessed our counter-space, kitchen carts were stacked and became an insert for a linen closet.  Along the way, we came across pictures and memory-rich items that we had forgotten we had.  We are removing what we no longer need, reshaping what we have and respecting what we cannot live without.

Our home, a work in progress, reminds me of my own soul.

He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.  John 15:2

This verse from John is a snippet of a longer parable of Jesus which describes a vine, a gardener and a branch.  From this story we know that Jesus is the vine, the Father is the gardener and we are the branches.  We are living in connection to Jesus and the Father is regularly pruning us: we are not the ones who determine what is beneficial in keeping and what we is not, God is.  He is searching our souls and determines what is best lopped off and what is best remaining.

Like our domestic situation, I am convinced that God is continually exploring our living situation and expunging the things that are no longer needed, exposing what will remain and extending our joy.  He is regularly taking away our selfish attitudes and our self-interested motivations.  He is regularly reshaping our spiritual activities and our spiritual gifts.  He is reproducing fruit in our lives, all for His glory.  At the end of the day, He enables us to enjoy the abundant life He offers to all those who accept His pruning.

With the blessing of hindsight, I am sure that old and broken parts of me have been removed by God with the skills of a surgeon, that aspects of my makeup have been reassembled and rehabilitated by God with the skills of a master craftsman, and that I have become more fruitful than I have ever imagined – all through His abiding presence in my life.  As I place and replace the things in our home, I pray I remember the one who dwells in me.

The Watering Whole

Last week Jeanine and I went to the Open House at our son’s school.  At that time, we met all his teachers and sat in all his classrooms.  Throughout the night, we listened to each teacher share her grading policies and educational expectations.  We exchanged contact information and were apprised of the school-wide disciplinary structure.  All in all, it was pretty much what we’ve heard every other year.  There was one thing, however, that struck me as curious: Joshua’s math teacher pointed us to two websites (www.khanacademy.org and www.ixl.com) which would provide instruction and exercises for those students (or parents) needing extra help.  I was struck at that moment that this teacher had put the needs of her students above her own expertise.

As I thought about those two websites, I thought about all the avenues of instruction available to anyone with an internet connection.  There are websites that can improve family recipes, Youtube videos that can equip the viewer in anything from auto repair to graphic design and podcasts that inform us in nearly every school of thought.  Those two websites also made me question my willingness to share, or curate, electronic resources within the church.  Am I as willing as Josh’s math teacher to share duly vetted and beneficial resources so that those needing spiritual instruction and exercises can get additional help without me?

The scripture our church read the Sunday following that Open House was Acts 18:23-28, a passage that deals with an eloquent Bible teacher named Apollos.  These verses conclude with the statement that Apollos traveled to the city of Corinth and strengthened the church there.  The Apostle Paul was also ministering in Corinth and eventually the question of who to listen to arose among the believers.  Here is Paul’s response to that inquiry:

For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings?  What, after all, is Apollos?  And what is Paul?  Only servants, through whom you came to believe – as the Lord has assigned to each his task.  I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.  1 Corinthians 3:4-6

If the best Bible teacher in history is willing to forego the credit so that God may be exalted, who am I to resist doing the same?  So, following the lead of Ms. Corbo, allow me to recommend a few resources for extra help in spiritual development.  I would recommend every smartphone user download the YouVersion Bible App – so that you have the Bible with you everywhere, complete with reading plans and study tools.  I would also recommend The YouTube videos produced through www.thebibleproject.com, which has short (5 minutes or so) animations about a great many biblical themes.  Finally, if you are interested in thought-provoking interviews with a variety of godly voices, I recommend the weekly Vox Podcast with Mike Erre.

These are simply a few of my suggestions.  What e-resources would you recommend for spiritual enrichment?  Is there a devotional or an online study that edifies your soul?  Is there a newsletter or blog that you find beneficial?    Perhaps if we share our resources, God will make it grow.

Thirty Years

On Monday, my wife and I will celebrate our thirtieth wedding anniversary.  According to Hallmark.com (the worldwide source of information ‘when you care enough to send the very best’), the gift for this anniversary is pearls.  I find it funny how random some of these yearly suggestions are: wood is to be given on year 5; appliances are appropriate for year 18; tools are the traditional gift for year 29.  Jeanine and I are non-traditional in this regard, I guess.   We tend to mark the years of marriage by enjoying more sentimental gestures, such as thoughtful cards and fancy dinners without the children.

Truth be told, the gifts of a long marriage are not given on anniversaries, but rather every day in between.  Jeanine and I have been married for more that half our lives and, it can be reasonably asserted, we are not the same people who stood before a minister three decades ago.  We were bright-eyed and optimistic, confident that love conquers all.  Over the years, the light in our eyes has dimmed a bit and we are a touch more practical now, but with age comes the certainty that love does indeed conquer all.  That certainty, that calm assurance, that we have each other and know each other is, in my opinion, more precious than pearls.

A wife of noble character who can find?  She is worth far more than rubies.  Proverbs 31:10

I do not thank God as often as I should for Jeanine, this completely different-than-me angel who has blessed my life for more than 35 years.  I am so appreciative that she complements my weaknesses with her strengths and accentuates my abilities with her own.  She has lovingly challenged me to be a better man, a better husband and a better father.  She has willingly, with her typical encouragement, endured my career change and seven moves while raising four wonderful children without complaint.  God has given me an equal partner in life who has brought comfort and cleanliness and made our house a home.  Again, I do not thank God as often as I should.

As we age and mature, we change.  I thank God that Jeanine and I have grown together and not apart.  I thank God that we enjoy one another’s company more now than ever, appreciate one another’s voices more now than ever and savor one another’s refinement more now than ever.  I could not have imagined the beauty of our union when we first met at a Friendly’s in the early 1980s.  And I am not too proud to say that I have gained the most in our marriage (which compels me to strive to appreciate to an even greater degree this precious gift of my wife of noble character).

Finally, I thank God for the demonstration of sacrificial love that Christ provides which serves as a template for my wife’s and my relationship.  I thank God that we have committed to do the hard work of willful submission to one another.  I thank God for the challenges we have faced and the strength we have found in our bond.

My prayer is that we would all have occasion to celebrate these bonds.

The Long Way Home

For me and my family, the last 6 weeks have been a lesson in trust.  It included answering a Craig’s List ad for an apartment rental, reserving a truck from U-Haul during their busiest weekend of the year, taking one son to freshman orientation 50 miles away and registering another son for Middle school in a new town.  At every step along the way I worried that I was just building what amounted to sandcastles as I waited for the tide to come in and wash our plans away.  My mind ran through every negative scenario that would leave us without a truck or a roof or an address necessary for school enrollment.

While my thoughts spiraled downward, every single detail relative to all these moving parts of our life had positive outcomes; truth be told, most of the details were actually more favorable than I could have anticipated.  The realtor handling our new apartment offered (without provocation) to reduce both his fee and the monthly rent.  The representative at U-Haul made available (with little provocation) the truck for an additional 18 hours.  The college orientation was so well-structured that David was moved in about 15 minutes after we arrived on campus.  The placement exam and enrollment process for Joshua was flawless.  At every turn, we found blessing where I was fearing barriers.

The LORD had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.”  Genesis 12:1 (NIV)

Looking back over what has transpired over the past few months, I am yet again confronted with my own weaknesses: that I trust God too little and fear uncertainty too much.  This is all in direct contradiction to what I have experienced over and over again: God continually allows my feet to fall in favorable places – through the lights and through the shadows – and consistently teaches me that I am wasting too much energy worrying about things I ought not contemplate.  God is faithful even when I have little faith.  God is trustworthy even if I have trouble trusting anyone but myself.

God is good, whether I know it or not.  He knows where we are, He knows where we are going and He knows how He will get us there.  He knows our worries and concerns and provides comforts and consolations.  My trouble is that I trust what I can see.  I am a master of the short game and I think that life is a sprint.  If it is right in front of me, I can accept it.  But God plays a long game and life is a marathon.   There are aspects of my life that I know nothing about (things that are miles down the road and years from materializing) but that are perfectly ordered by our omniscient and almighty God.

I thank the Lord for the lessons I have learned in recent days: that I am woefully inadequate to attend to all the details of life, that God has unfathomable blessings in store for those who obey Him and that I need to trust Him more.  O Lord, help my little faith.