Seeing What Is Not There

The other morning, my mother-in-law underwent a procedure to treat her cataracts.  At ninety-one, she was hesitant to have it done (she was unwilling to endure the pain, to be anesthetized, or to have a doctor mess with her eyes).  After weeks of prayer and encouragement by a multitude of sources, she went to the surgical clinic and allowed the procedure to be done.  The surgery was a success.  Twenty-four hours later, at the follow-up appointment, two surprising developments took place: 1) she told the nurse that the experience was better than she expected, and 2) her vision test showed that her eyesight was greatly improved.

Worry is, by all appearances, a mighty adversary.  It will tell us that the costs are not worth the gains.  It will remind us of that one time, long ago, when we were mistreated and assure us it will happen again.  It will highlight the adverse effects that professionals must legally disclose and tell us that we will be the ‘one-in-a-million’ to suffer.  It will keep us up at night, make us lose our appetites and force us to pace the floor.  Few know the truth, however, that worry is a paper tiger.  Worry is only a shadow on the wall.

“Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”  Matthew 6:27 (NIV)

As I read these words of Jesus, I think to myself, “Maybe I can; I am pretty good at it.”  Despite my conviction that God’s word is true and that God grants perfect peace – complete contentment and wondrous well-being – to all who trust in Him, worry is a constant travelling companion of mine.  Its relentless whisper rings in my ears, causing me to fret about everything from car accidents to broken bones, from power outages to excessive costs.  I readily admit that this level of worry is not rational; it is nothing more than exhausting – of energy, of hope and or peace.

“So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’  For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.  But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”  Matthew 6:31-33 (NIV)

The remedy for worry is worship: to trust in the promises of our loving Heavenly Father for what we eat, what we drink and what we wear (as well as what we endure, what we await and what we hope to avoid).   Worry is silenced when we rely upon God to provide whatever we need, whether it be peace or patience or perseverance.  Worry is unmasked when we rest in God’s presence.  Worry is defeated when we occupy our thought with the goodness, kindness and love of our creator.  The paper tiger of worry is tamed by the authority of His name.

I hope that my quickly recovering mother-in-law (and I) will be able to see this truth.

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Thank You for Your Service

According to the Pew Research Center, there are more than 20.4 million veterans alive today in the United States, slightly more than one in sixteen Americans.  This weekend, we commemorate their sacrifice, and the sacrifices of their loved ones, as we observe Veteran’s Day.  We take time as a country to recognize the efforts of the members of our armed forces – Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marines and Navy – as they defended our freedom in World War II, the Korean Conflict, the Viet Nam War, the Gulf War and in peace-time service.  We recognize those who are presently serving on ships and at bases across the globe, and we recognize those who remain at home awaiting their return.

When I turned eighteen (in the winter of ’84), there were no on-going war zones and so I was not compelled to enlist or serve.  In a way, I feel that I missed out on something special.  I was not willing to endure the hardships of basic training or the rigors of living in barracks.  I also missed out on the camaraderie and support of one soldier supporting another, of one pilot protecting the back of another, of one sailor confiding in another or one marine securing the success of another.  We must respect these servicewomen and men who see the cause ahead of them as greater than all they have left behind and are willing to bear the cost that cause demands.

Join with me in suffering, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus.  2 Timothy 2:3

How does that old camp song go?  “I may never march in the infantry, ride in the cavalry, shoot the artillery.  I may never fly o’er the enemy, but I’m in the Lord’s army!”  Now, I am in no way equating the life-threatening peril faced by a veteran and the daily drudgery of a follower of Christ.  What I am thinking about is what might happen if the kingdom of God had citizens who were willing to suffer as a good soldier.  What ground could be claimed, what captives could be set free, if we, as followers of Christ, see the cause ahead of us – the redemption of souls through the furthering of the gospel – as greater than all we want to keep for ourselves.  What if we, too, were willing to bear the cost that cause demands.

There is a great debt that we all owe to all those who are willing to sacrifice everything for our freedom.  This debt extends from Jesus, who entered enemy territory to set us free from the bondage of death and sin, to every member of the military, who entered enemy territory to secure life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  We ought to be grateful for the sacrifices that secure our freedoms and recognize the costs that others have made.  May the followers of Christ have the same commitment to those around them that the veterans we celebrate on November 11th have.

For those who wore, or are wearing, the flag on their shoulder, we thank you.

Taking One for the Team

On Sunday night, the Boston Red Sox won their fourth World Series in the last fifteen years.  As I was preparing my thoughts for this post, I read my post from November 1, 2013, the last time the Red Sox won it all.  At that time, I was particularly impressed with John Lackey, who had a checkered past as a Red Sox pitcher but came up big in the playoffs, even getting the win in the Series clinching game.  He was a living example of the biblical practice of “forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead (Philippians 3:13).”

This time around it was another pitcher, in fact the pitcher who got the win in this year’s Series clinching game, with whom I was particularly enamored.  David Price, the highest paid player on the Red Sox, has always been an ace (an exceptional starting pitcher) in the regular season, but, entering the 2018 post-season, had amassed an 0-9 record in games he started in the playoffs.  It looked like it would be more of the same this year when Price lost to the Yankees in game 2 of the A.L. Divisional Series and received a no-decision in game 2 of the A.L. Championship Series.

Hope for the hometown team was flagging when Price was named the starter for game 5 of the ALCS.  However, as Price put it, he “figured something out while [warming up in the bullpen for a possible relief appearance in game 4], and it kind of just carried over” into his start the following day.  He was spectacular, earning his first win in the playoffs as a starter (and clinching the American League pennant).  He was then spectacular a few days later, in game 2 of the World Series, earning his second win, and then, a few days after that, winning his third consecutive start and securing the World Series for the Red Sox.

The amazing truth in all this is that David Price is in the middle of his contract (which, I remind you, is the highest in Red Sox history) and – win, lose or no-decision – would have been paid the same amount for the next 4 years.  Yet, Price pitched three times in the World Series (once as a reliever) and willingly sacrificed himself for he team.  Price literally did everything he could do to win, leaving everything he had on the field of play.  By doing this, he went from scapegoat to hero in the span of ten days.

And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.  Colossians 3:17

Because of David Price, I am reminded that all that I do can and should glorify God.  It is only reasonable for me to do all that I am capable of doing in building for His kingdom, expanding His gospel and expressing His love to those around me.  I am able to sacrifice more than I think so that I can accomplish more than I expect.  I thank God that our record from the past does not dictate our productivity in the future.  When we are willing to do whatever it takes, sometimes God will use that to enable us to take it all.

That Hits the (Blind)Spot

Driving in Boston can be an adventure: the streets are narrow, turn signals are for ‘the other car’ and the solid yellow lines are ignored.  I am typically the driver on family trips to the grocery store or school, with my loving wife in the front passenger seat.  As we navigate the roads around our residence, she gently reminds me on occasion of people and vehicles that are dangerously close to our car.  “Watch out for that car pulling out of the driveway,” she implores.  “Do you see that woman with the baby carriage?” she asks.  “There’s a truck on your left,” she says.

What my wife is pointing out are my blind spots.  When she says these things and asks these questions, I am quick to tell her that I am fine and that I see everything she mentions.  I am confident that I know where my blind spots are and what is contained within them.  As I write these words, I realize just how dumb they sound: am I really proposing that I can see and process the things that, by definition, I cannot see, the things to which I am blind?  What makes them blind spots is the fact that they are not seen.

We all need an extra pair of eyes, someone watching our backs, if we hope to avoid disaster.  We all need someone outside ourselves, someone with a slightly different perspective, who will tell us the hard facts that we are unable to recognize.  We all need someone who will see the trouble before it strikes and warn us (or, at least, enable us to brace for impact).  We need other people in our lives in order to avoid becoming a wreck: physically, emotionally, spiritually or relationally.   “Watch out for increased sodium levels,” they will implore.  “Do you see those red flags that your new companion is raising?”  they will ask.  “There’s a flaw in your logic,” they will say.

As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.  Proverbs 27:17 (NIV)

In order for iron to sharpen iron, in order for the hammer and anvil to shape the blade and in order for the file to hone the edge two things are needed: fire and friction.  Solomon, in all his wisdom, understood that we need the same thing, especially in the blind spots.  We need fire; the healthiest relationships include elements of passion and purification.  We need friction; the healthiest relationships include the qualities of proximity and pressure.  In order to make it from one point in life to another without damage, we need a friend who is close enough to care and strong enough to say what needs saying.

It is my firm belief that this type of friendship is a gift from God.  He blesses us with people who will point out what is in our blind spots because they love us and want the best for us.  It is in our best interest to foster those who will bring fire and friction into our life, so that we can avoid the flames.  I thank God for my wife, my second set of eyes.  I pray you have someone similar to her with whom you can ride along.

Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash

Boy to Man

Yesterday, at exactly 11:16PM, my middle son, David, turned 18 and in so doing became a legal adult.  He is able to vote for the next elected official and enter into binding contracts.  He is able to sign himself out of class if he chooses and he will now be reported by name on census forms.  He is more than a big boy; he is a man, physically and statutorily.  I wonder, as I reflect upon this momentous occasion, if he is ready for the adult world and if he has the character of an adult in the world today.

As I reflect upon his life, I pray that he will continue to develop his character of:

  • Charity – David and I had the opportunity to visit the former Charlestown Navy Yard on a regular basis. As we made our way to weekly appointments, we would walk by expired parking meters.  After a few weeks, we scoured the car for loose change (and then filled our pockets before we left the house) so that we could anonymously refill the meters.  I pray that he will continue to be that kind of man.
  • Hospitality – David regularly invited friends to our home for afternoons of video gaming. He’d ask, on their behalf, for his mom to procure snacks and soda so that his guests would be cared for (they even ate, over a week or two, a case of Vidalia-flavored potato chips).  I pray that he will continue to be that kind of man.
  • Accomplishment – As part of your participation in the scouts, I remember the courts of honor I attended, celebrating David’s advancement through the ranks and his proficiency in certain skills worthy of merit badges. He has a treasure trove of skills and abilities that he ought to be proud of.  I pray that he will continue to be that kind of man.

Similarly, encourage the young men to be self-controlled.  In everything set them an example by doing what is good.  In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us.  Titus 2:6–8

  • Adventure – Through storming through the front door like a warrior or through playing in the driveway with abandon, David receive stitches in his palm on one occasion and his leg on another. I hope my son will, forsaking recklessness, will risk something to taste life fully.  I pray that he will continue to be that kind of man.
  • Responsibility – one formative experience, as he is oft to repeat, was when his mom gave a “time-out” to David’s favorite toy (Dusty, the talking Vacuum Cleaner). With glee, he recounts that there are consequences to bad behavior (even when performed by the inanimate).  He learned that he was responsible for himself and those he leads.  I pray that he will continue to be that kind of man.
  • Whimsy – I have a picture in my office of my now adult son in a banana suit while volunteering at VBS. He also wore the suit at a recent PAX East Expo.  It was funny, quirky and unexpected.  I pray that he will continue to be that kind of man.
  • Service – David has been active in the church; as an usher, as a representative for the “Got Goat” program, working the sound board. He has utilized his skills in service to God and others.  I pray that he will continue to be that kind of man.

May we all strive to be adults of character, as I pray my middle boy will.

Happy Birthday, David.

Do You Follow?

I would say that I am an avid follower of the Boston Red Sox.  I watch the games (typically on television) and listen to all levels of commentary from sports radio.  I worry when the bases are loaded with Yankee base runners and cheer when the team pulls it out in the ninth.  I offer suggestions for lineups and complain about roster moves.  I use “we” and “us”, not “they” and “them”; I have been known to say such things as “we are going to the playoffs” and “the bullpen lost us the game”.   I may call myself an avid follower of the Red Sox, but I am not.  I am simply a fan.

Merriam-Webster defines a fan (actually, a fanatic) as ‘a person who is extremely enthusiastic about and devoted to some interest or activity’.  That is what I am as relates to the Red Sox.  Whatever the outcome might be of a single game or the entire season, my life and livelihood are never disrupted.  I will never get a million-dollar contract after a great year or cut after a poor one.  I need not save the date for the day I ride through Boston at a Duck Boat parade.  Alex Cora, the field manager, and Dave Dombrowski, the general manager, are never going to ask my opinion or consider my suggestions for the team.  I am not part of the “we”; I am not one of “us”.

Some of us have a similar sense of ‘following’ Christ as we do ‘following’ a sports team:  we can attend the game, or not; we can have strong opinions about how things ought to go, but they amount to nothing more than talk show fodder;  I can say that I am a part of the team, but never put on a uniform or play my position.  I do not attend the team meetings or do the conditioning work in the off-season.  Sometimes we act as if all we want is the glory based upon the sacrifice of another without having to do anything more than watch when I feel like it.  We mistake following Christ as nothing more than being a fan of God’s only begotten.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”   Matthew 16:24

So, are you a fan of Jesus or an actual follower?  Jesus had a completely different conception of “following”.  When we follow Jesus, it means a denial of self.  We must be willing and able to refuse ourselves: our opinions, preferences, schedules and feelings.  Then we are free to accept the Lord’s best for us.  When we follow Jesus, it means taking up our cross.  We must be willing to humble ourselves; certainly the cross of Jesus’ day was an instrument of death, but it was more than that – it was an instrument of dehumanization and disgrace (after all, Jesus could have simply said that we need to lay down our lives, but taking up our cross frames our acceptance of shame for His glory).  Following Jesus will cost us everything.

But we cannot simply leave things there.  Yes, there are costs to following Jesus, and they are dire and deep.  But, as Paul proclaims, the gains of following Jesus are so much greater.  We are shown forgiveness.  We are blessed with adoption.  We are given purpose and hope.  We are equipped to live abundantly.

Follow Jesus, not as a casual fan but as a member of His team.

Highly Favored

Being an introvert by nature, I tend to think out (in greater detail than may be healthy) scenarios that may of may not ever be founded in reality.  After this week’s Sunday School lesson on James 2, I have been fixated on what I might do if a celebrity came to Calvary to worship.  My mind conjured questions: What person of influence, wealth or status might grace us with their presence?  How would they be greeted?  What engagement might be biblically appropriate?  I follow the rabbit-trails of thought that make me reason that a new member of a local sports franchise might come to Calvary; Patriots players are out (they play on Sundays), as are Red Sox players (playoffs and all), so I think about Gordon Hayward, the Celtic star who once said in an interview that “[going to church has] always been a staple; something I try to do.”

So, what would I do if Gordon Hayward came to church on Sunday?  Would I do more than I would for a neighbor?  Would I offer him a special seat?  Would I ask him to offer a few words during the ‘announcements’ in the service of worship?  Would I ask for a photo or an autograph?  Would I post a quick update to social media, stating, ‘Guess who came to church this morning’?  Would I ask for tickets to the next game, purely for ministry purposes?  What would the Bible tell me is right and proper?

My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism.  James 2:1 (NIV)

The Scriptures tell us that we must not show favoritism, the practice of giving unfair preferential treatment to one person or group at the expense of another.  We must not give something better to some at the expense of others.  The words of James’ letter to the churches tells us that we give special attention to the rich by offering a good seat while demanding that the poor stand in a back corner.  So, if Gordon Hayward comes to Calvary this Sunday, I will treat him like anyone else: I will shake his hand and ask what brought him to church; I will seek his prayer requests and opportunities for praise as I extend the opportunity to everyone in attendance; and I will share with him the good news of Jesus Christ.

Instead of favoritism, we ought to show favor, the practice of showing kindness beyond what is due or usual.  We are expected to show favor to all those who come in the doors of the church.  So that if a visitor, whether wealthy and powerful or weak and poor, joins in worship at Calvary I will treat them all with kindness – I will speak with dignity, offer inclusion, express equity and advance grace.  If we offer preferential treatment to everyone, we are not showing favoritism but favor.  On that day, we will give the best seat to anyone who opens the door – saint or sinner – with the hope that grace will abound.

Do me a favor: visit us some Sunday morning and we will show you favor in return.

Twenty One and Wonderful

One hundred sixty-one weeks ago, my firstborn, my son, turned twenty-one.  At the time, a full three years and 30 days ago, I wrote a blog urging his responsible alcohol use.  Earlier this week a similar thing happened again: my daughter, my only daughter, turned twenty-one.  This time, however, her alcohol consumption was not my primary concern.  I am worried and afraid of so much more.  Perhaps these fears are attributable to their differing temperaments or their differing experiences.  Whatever the reason, I am more concerned, more melancholic, about Rebekah becoming a full-fledged adult than I did about Jonathan.

As I write this, I am left wondering why.  It is not as if I have ever ascribed to a double-standard; I would never say apologetically that ‘boys will be boys’, nor that ‘a woman’s place is in the home’.  Yet, in light of all that is swirling around in the world (not the least of which is the #metoo movement), I am worried about the world we have created and the environment we have fostered for the women we love.  I want my adult daughter – no, all our adult daughters – to be valued for her character and nothing else.

Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.”  Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life.  And then I will be able to boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor in vain.  Philippians 2:14-16

My hope for my adult daughter, who, with every passing birthday, moves further away from the little girl I remember, is that she will shine like a star in this warped generation.  I pray that she will be light in the darkness.  As she steps ever closer into the spheres of grown-upness, I trust that she will not let anyone but God alone define her, let no one on earth demean her and allow no man to destroy her by refusing to take no for an answer.

You have been made in the very image of God.  You are His workmanship, created to accomplish the work He wants you to do.  You are, therefore, perfectly quirky, perfectly suited to do what you do.  If anyone tells you otherwise, they are a liar.

You are a child of God.  You have a royal inheritance.  You are somebody.  Again, if anyone tells you otherwise, they are a liar.

You are precious in His sight.  You, just being you, have an inestimable value to God.  You need not do anything to prove you are worthy of love or to prove you are capable of loving.  And again, if anyone tells you otherwise…you know…liar.

I wish the world were a different place, but then again, I wish I had the riches to buy you a pony when you were eight.  The world is full of broken hurting people, some of whom are happiest making more broken hurting people: do not become one of them.  Run from those who seek you harm.  Refuse to entertain ungodly advances.  Remember that you are here to shine.  Remain as wonderful as we all know you are.

 

Photo by Aubrey Fernandez on Unsplash

Common Courtesy

I am tired of it all.  I am done with being cut off in traffic when the other car entering the flow refuses to ‘zipper’ in,  with being interrupted before I can complete a sentence, with reaching the buffet table and finding empty dishes because the guy in front of me took more than appropriate, with running out of the public park because dog owners de-leash their pets – a cannot tell by its gait that she’s friendly – and with neglecting to bag her poop, with having a door close in my face because the person in front of me sneaks passed the coffee shop door as it closes (as if they are auditioning for “Mission Impossible”) and with the general absence of please and thank you by society.  Call me a curmudgeon if you’d like, but I am desperate for some common courtesy.

In today’s vernacular ‘courtesy’ is synonymous ‘free’ or ‘extra’ – courtesy calls from a service provider, courtesy vans from the auto body shop or courtesy phones found in hotel lobbies.  But its original meaning had more to do with characteristics of politeness and manners.  It is this latter definition that I miss in today’s interactions; I miss males acting as gentlemen and females acting as ladies.  At some point in my lifetime, our culture shifted and began valuing entitlement and individual rights over mutual respect and civility.  Many of the lessons I learned in elementary school – the practices of sharing, waiting one’s turn and refraining from unkind comments – are summarily ignored by a large segment of our population.

We need to be reminded of the words of Jesus:

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.  Matthew 7:12

This sentence, commonly called “The Golden Rule”, is perhaps the second most familiar statement of Christ (the first being John 3:16).  God Incarnate told His followers nearly 2,000 years ago that we are to treat other people the way we want to be treated.  With a greater or lesser degree of success, we all have been wrestling with our obedience to this command since it was first uttered.  We attempt to work the angles, balancing our needs with the needs of others, often failing because we resolve the tension with faulty math: if I hold the door for one or two people, those two turn into an untold number; I then end up at the end of the line and face delays that no one should be required to face; therefore, I cannot hold the door for you.  My needs are paramount.

But when everyone makes similar computations, and I fear that this is our present reality, Jesus’ words are ignored and no one is treated they way they want to be treated.  Everyone does what they want and common courtesy is but a relic of the past, like hand-written letters and house calls.  All is not lost, however, and God’s word will never return empty: if a few of us choose courtesy and champion kindness, the culture can change over time.   Join me in following the golden rule; it might encourage other to do the same toward you.

Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash  

 

Jingle Jangle Jingle

As part of a discussion with my family over Sunday’s sermon, my eldest stated that he was humored by the possibility of God’s bestowal of the spiritual gift of provocation.  His comment was based on the phrase “spur one another on” in Hebrews 10:24, a peculiar Greek word (παροξυσμός) which literally means “with a point”; the only other time the word is used in the New Testament (Acts 15:39) it is translated as “a sharp disagreement”.  The writer of the book of Hebrews was inspired to tell the church to look for ways to sharply provoke our fellow believers.

The term ‘spur on’ is a wonderful word picture of this process of provocation.  It conjures images of a race horse and jockey, working together as a team, to reach the optimal outcome.  The jockey is kicking his mount in the hind quarters and the horse is increasing its efforts.  At the end of the race, the horse, which endured the sting of provocation, is the champion and the jockey, the source of the provocation is the one who drapes the victor in flowers (quick question: horseracing’s Triple Crown was won this past June: what was the horse’s name?  And who was his jockey?  More of us can remember Justify, but few would come up with jockey Mike Smith).  ‘Spurring on’ may not be pleasant for the horse in the moment, but the resulting rewards cannot be underestimated.

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds….  Hebrews 10:24

The writer of Hebrews tells us to consider (literally, to look upon) one another for the spurring on toward love and good deeds.  The Holy Spirit inspired a first century author to urge the church to look for ways to provoke one another.  This provocation, this calling forth with sharpness, propels the believer toward acts and attitudes that convey love and compassion.  It appears that these virtues – love and compassion – are not always instinctual, logical or natural.  We all have times when we revert to pettiness, anger and selfishness and need a good kick in the pants to motivate us to pursue the goal set before us.

So, perhaps there is a spiritual gift of provocation, a God-given ability to call one another forth with sharpness so that we all may glorify God to the fullest.  Perhaps there is also a need among God’s people to accept that ‘spurring’ with grace and gratitude, knowing the intent of our ‘jockey’ is the attaining of our very best effort.  No one wants to hear that they need to love the heartless or hurt for the homeless; most of us are comfortable loving who we love and helping who we help.  Then we wrestle with the truth that God’s love and mercy is greater than our expressions of them, and that we need someone to remind us that we are able to do more than we think we are capable of doing.

So, appreciate those whom God uses to spur you on.  Appreciate those whom God uses to agitate you to love deeper and provoke you to act kinder.  Appreciate those with sharp words intended to soften your heart.