By the time you read this, I will be finishing up my vacation (presumably in our nation’s capital). We will have seen the National Museum of African American History and Culture and The Bible Museum, as well as family in the Baltimore and DC area. I am, however, presuming all this; I am writing this post on Friday, February 14th, and we are not leaving until tomorrow. I have no idea whether or not all the things that I am saying we will have done will be what we have done. All I have done is make plans.
I am not saying that making plans is nothing. As the adage goes, “failing to plan is simply planning to fail.” Some plans have been made – I had a few people at church fill in for me on Sunday morning, we lined up beds to sleep in during our time away, and we made sure the car had an oil change. As I write these things, though, I have no idea if anything we are planning took place as planned. To be honest, my thoughts often betray me when on vacation: what if the hotel lost our reservation, what if the flight is cancelled, what if there is no one to pick us up at the train station. Plans are something, but they are not everything.
Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. James 4:13–16 (NIV)
We ought to say, “If the Lord wills….” It is clear that James is not forbidding us from making plans (otherwise he would be sinning through his teachings in other parts of his letter). He is warning us not to assume a position as the center of the universe, expecting our plans to be immutable and undeniable. We need to leave room for the possibility that God might have something else in mind. We must not be so rigid in our expectations of our infallible scheduling that we miss the movement of grace. Our plans, while impactful to us, are, in the course of history, but a movement of the morning fog.
So, we have plans. Maybe when this is appears on the digital landscape, all of what we planned will have come to fruition; but I doubt it. Most of us will never do all that we imagine we will do. Most of us, when we trust God with the directions end up doing more than we ever imagined. When I return tomorrow, ask me about it. Hopefully, I will be able to share some blessing I had never planned to enjoy…but did!
Like an estimated 102 million other people, I watched the Super Bowl a few week ago. It was a great end to the NFL season. However, what will remain with me for much longer than the play on the field was a particularly moving commercial that ran relatively early in the broadcast. Paid for by New York Life, it began by stating that the ancient Greeks had four words for love. According to the advertisement:
- “Philia is affection that grows from friendship”;
- “Storgé – the kind [of love] you have for a grandparent or a brother”;
- “Eros – the uncontrollable urge to say ‘I love you’”; and
- “Agapé, the most admirable – love as an action; it takes courage, sacrifice, and strength.”
Maybe it was the mention of ancient Greek, a language with which I wrestle for comprehension every week. Maybe it was the powerful visuals of the varied aspects of love. Whatever the reason, I was captivated by the commercial and its message: that love takes action.
Fast-forward twelve days to today, Valentine’s Day, the (inter)national holiday celebrating love. I wonder, in light of this commercial, which love we are celebrating as we exchange cards? Are we appreciating the love of our friends, or our family, or our ‘significant other’, or those who sacrifice to provide all that we require? It is likely that today will be, to some degree, a recognition of the first three loves, but especially focused on our romantic loves. Restaurants will be patronized, florists will be utilized and confectioners will be supported.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7
At the same time, there will be many celebrating Valentine’s Day in other ways and in other places. They will visit the nursing home and spoon-feed their mom supper. They will drop by a cemetery and pull the weeds around their husband’s marker. They will assist their daughter into a transport van and accompany her to physical therapy. They will sit in the hospital with their 8-year old son as he undergoes treatment for leukemia. These are the ones who will be demonstrating agapé love today, and tomorrow, not because it is Valentine’s Day, but because that is what ‘love as an action’ looks like.
I hope that everyone who is reading this has a Valentine, someone who will say to you today (with accoutrements or not), “I love you”. I hope you will enjoy a Whitman Sampler or a Reese’s heart, a nice candle-lit prix-fixe dinner, or a bouquet of lilies. I pray even more that everyone who is reading this today has someone who has shown them agapé – that sacrificial, surrendering, willful emptying of themselves for the sake of another. I am blessed to know that kind of love. I pray you are as well.
Happy St. Valentine’s Day (or in Greek, ευτυχισμένη ημέρα του Αγίου Βαλεντίνου)!
One of the joys that comes from the challenge my wife and I have given ourselves in seeing all the Best Picture nominations each year is answering the question, when someone asks, “What would you recommend?” That question invariably leads to a conversation where I am free to express my values, preferences and worldview. This year, for a number of different reasons, I would recommend any of them: some films marvelously expressed the importance of family, others wonderfully demonstrated the indomitable human spirit, and still others powerfully depicted the troubling consequences of marginalizing the outcast. If you would like a more in-depth conversation, get in touch with me and we can talk.
Making recommendations can be tricky. The points and plot-twists that I appreciate are just that, what I appreciate. Every film I watch is filtered through my own eyes, which have witnessed particular life experiences that are exclusive to myself, and you will not see things in the same exact way. There might have been aspects of the story that found deep resonance in your heart that went by unaffected to mine. When we add into the mix the complex variables of theatrical genres, directorial choices and subject matter, discussing what another person should consume can be difficult. Recommendations are, by nature, suggestive and thus require consideration of the audience.
Around this time of year, I become a ‘movie evangelist’: someone who shares the good news of cinematic perfection and encourages others to experience the joys I have come to know. I do not take this task lightly. I consider my audience (their temperaments and tastes) and convey a recommendation. Want to see a great family movie? “Little Women”; a cinematic masterpiece? “1917”; an unexpected delight? “Jo Jo Rabbit”; a cautionary tale? “The Irishman” or “Marriage Story”.
And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. Luke 24:27 (NIV)
Most of us could talk about our favorite movie for hours. I have been praying that we would be as conversational about the Gospel as we have been about cinema. I long for those around me to have the same fervor to tell others what they have been reading in the Bible and share with them how it reflects the good and bad aspects of our society. I desire a church community that sees the benefit in conversing with others about the riches that could be taken away from the truths expressed in God’s word. I wonder what would happen if we talked about Jesus the way we talk about movies or (if you are not a cinephile, i.e. a movie lover) the way we talk about sports or fashion or books.
What part of the Bible would you recommend I ‘see’ and why?
For the record, I would be happy to see “1917”, “Ford v. Ferrari”, “Jo Jo Rabbit” or “Little Women” win the Oscar on Sunday night and, for posterity, I predict “1917” will take home the statuette.
This month, as we have in previous years, my wife, Jeanine, and I are attempting to see all the movies that have been nominated for the best picture Oscar©. Due to this challenge, we watched Sam Mendes’ World War I drama 1917, which depicts a harrowing day experienced by two British soldiers. I cannot say, at this point, if I would vote for it as the best picture (we still have a few more films to see), but I will say that it has one of the most moving scenes I have watched on film in quite a while. After facing the vast variety of experiences that comes with each life – from the beauty of cherry blossoms in bloom to the gruesome ravages of war – one of the film’s protagonists hears the haunting words of a Civil War folk song called “The Wayfaring Stranger”.
I am a poor wayfaring stranger
Travelling through this world of woe.
And there’s no sickness, no toil or danger
In that fair land to which I go.
I’m going there to meet my father,
I’m going there no more to roam;
I’m only going over Jordan,
I’m only going over home.
I know dark clouds will gather round me,
I know my way will be rough and steep;
But golden fields lie out before me
Where all the saints their vigils keep.
I’m going there to meet my mother,
I’m going there no more to roam;
I’m only going over Jordan,
I’m only going over home.
I thought about that song this week, as the news cycles repeatedly reminded us of the brokenness inherent within each life – young people whose lives were taken much too soon, others who were struck by a viral epidemic, and governmental leaders accused of high crimes and misdemeanors. We are all traveling through this world of woe. I wonder how many are facing the realities of sickness, toil and danger with the perspective referenced in this song from a previous generation. Despite fifteen decades of advances in medicine, technology, education and civility, we are still “wayfaring strangers”.
Instead, they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. Hebrews 11:16 (NIV)
In those seasons of sorrow, be assured that there is a land – prepared for all who trust in the benevolence of God – that is devoid of sadness, filled with golden fields and occupied by those we love. The physical world we see every day is not all that there is or all that God has provided for us; there is a home that is awaiting all those who are aware that it is just beyond our gaze. There is a war still being waged all around us, despite the occasional glimpses of beauty. There is also a place of peace with boundless splendor awaiting those who faithfully traverse the rugged terrain of earth.
As depicted in 1917, there are circumstances in life when we are faced with exhaustion and entertain thoughts of surrender. In those moments, remember that Christ has prepared for us a home.
As a church, we have begun the new year by participating in a denominational initiative called “21 Days of Prayer”. This year our intercessory practices and our focus has been directed by a resource titled Praying the King’s Agenda. This booklet has helped us hear what Jesus has said to us in His word and then pray about it in humble obedience. Each day the participants of this program have read a command from the Lord and, after some guided reflection, prayed for a faithful response to that command.
Recently (Day 17 of the program), I was directed to ask help of the one who said, “I will make you fishers of men.” The daily command of Jesus is found in Matthew 4:19 (“And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.’”) Jesus spoke these words to the first of his disciples as he gave them a purposeful direction. He gave them direction (“Follow me”) and purpose (“I will make you fishers of men”). He gives us the same direction and purpose.
Most of us are comfortable with the idea that we are commanded to follow Jesus: to walk with him, to stay with him and to submit our plans to him. This is the first step in any walk of faith. We are called to accept Jesus as our Lord. We may not all heed the command, but we all can understand it.
Many more of us are hesitant to embrace the second half of this verse, to acknowledge his purpose for our lives. We hear about becoming “people fishers” and we shake our heads. Maybe we have an aversion to fishing or cannot relate to the metaphor. But I do not think that the significant truth is about the fishing; it is about the making. We are called to follow so that Christ can make us into what we are: for Peter, Andrew, James and John – who were fishers of fish – it was making them fishers of people; for us – who are accountants, artists, cashiers and coders – it may be making us those professions for God. This is the second step in any walk of faith. We are called to follow Jesus toward discipleship.
At once they left their nets and followed him. Matthew 4:20 (NIV)
As I was directed to pray about this command, I was struck by the response of the initial audience. They dropped their nets, their livelihoods and their preferences and went after the Lord. They followed Jesus and, over time, he reshaped their talents, training and abilities into purpose. Christ desires the same for us; to transform what we are already doing into something more glorious and fulfilling.
This is something the Lord does in us and for us; He will make us what we are intended to be. Therefore, it is in our best interest that we ask Jesus for help, help to follow and help to surrender. Those four young fishermen had no idea what wonders awaited them when they went with Jesus. Neither will we, unless we follow him and allow him to make us more than we can imagine.
A tarnished reputation is difficult to overcome. Just ask the Boston Red Sox or the New England Patriots. Along with Lance Armstrong, Rosie Ruiz and Tonya Harding, they have found themselves labeled as cheaters within our current zeitgeist. Just this week, the Red Sox field manager, Alex Cora mutually agreed to part ways after Cora’s name was linked with an elaborate sign-stealing scandal while he served as bench coach with the Houston Astros. This follows a report a few weeks ago that the Patriots were found recording the sidelines of an opposing teams during an NFL game (12 years after being punished for gaining an advantage by acting the same way). The home teams are a bunch of cheaters, calling into question the legitimacy of their championship titles.
Would the Patriots have won all those Super Bowls without that unfair advantage of knowing plays the opposition was planning before they were executed or modifying the air pressure of footballs? Would the Red Sox have won the World Series in 2018 had they not stolen signs and known the pitches they were facing before they were thrown? Sadly, sports fans in Boston can never know for sure. History is now tainted. Reputations are now tarnished. The critics are justified in questioning the integrity of the coaches and key players. The city’s sports heroes will be subject to the consequences of dishonesty for the foreseeable future.
But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Luke 19:8 (NIV)
Not surprisingly, the Bible has an ample supply of examples illustrating that cheating is wrong, whether it be swapping out an inferior sacrifice for a suitable one or moving a boundary line or tipping the scales to gain a small advantage. I would argue that Zacchaeus is a prime specimen of the ‘cheater’. Perhaps he contended that everyone was doing it, that it was acceptable to skim a bit off the top of all those tax payments he had received. But that rationale did not mean it was the right thing to do. God’s design and order for human interaction dictates our fair and equitable engagement with others.
In this way, Zacchaeus’s life story becomes a cautionary tale; if you cheat people you will be hated by nearly everyone around you. But Zacchaeus’s response to grace also becomes a template for all of us with a less-than-stellar reputation; after being confronted with his wrong-doing, he acted in repentance, showed regret and offered restitution. Almost immediately after witnessing the love of Christ, he changes the trajectory of his life; after years of focusing on selfish gain, he gives half of his accumulated wealth to others. Then he characterizes himself as a cheater, owning and admitting his sin. Finally, he compensates those he cheated sacrificially.
So, how does one overcome a tarnished reputation? Follow the biblical example of the wee and greedy tax collector. Admit your sin, change your priorities and repay what has been taken away. I hope we all can learn from the public fall from grace of our professional sports teams.
There are a whole bunch of people around me who are acting like the prophet Jonah, as recorded in Jonah 4 (Jonah is despairing to the point of death over the withering of a weed as he witnesses the repentance of the people of Nineveh). Like the Old Testament prophet, they are disappointed that things did not go their way, pouting due to a perceived personal slight and an actual adversary’s blessing. These community members are distraught over the Patriots’ early exit from the NFL playoffs – not that they had a losing season (they won three times the games they lost this season) or failed to make the playoffs (unlike 20 other teams), but that they simply did not advance to the Super Bowl.
Instead of rejoicing in the blessing that the home team has appeared in nine or the last eighteen Super Bowls, they are mourning their demise; they might find partners in commiseration in fans of the Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars or Houston Texans, who have never been to the championship game. Instead of reflecting on the good times experienced in six NFL titles (and six more by the professional sports teams in the Boston area), they disparage the players and coaches; I suggest these sentiments not be shared with the fans of the Vikings, Bills, Bengals, Falcons, Panthers, Cardinals, Titans or Chargers, who have never won a single Super Bowl.
As human beings, we are susceptible to the temptation of maximizing our self-importance and minimizing the value of others. We expect our lives to be a series of progressive blessings and we resent when others are blessed besides us, or – the horror – instead of us. Jesus share a parable about it when he shared the story of a vineyard manager who paid the first workers in the field (who worked a full day) and the last workers (who worked less than an hour) the same amount. Can you imagine? Those first workers (who we naturally identify with) got what was fair; the last workers (slackers if you ask me) received way more than they deserved. Jesus concludes his object lesson with the response of the vineyard foreman:
“Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ Matthew 20:15 (NIV)
As a fan of the New England Patriots, I have been compensated handsomely over the past nineteen seasons. And the greater truth remains that God can (and does) bless others with compensation just as handsome as mine. There will be a new champion in a new town – maybe Minnesota, Nashville or Houston for the first time – and I am good with that. I am glad that God is so generous. And know this: His generosity is not limited to football games but extends to every area of life. We are wise to rejoice with those who rejoice instead of mourning that it is not our day in the sun. And who knows, maybe Duck Boats will still carry a champion (the Bruins, Celtics or Red Sox) this year!
It seems hard to believe that “Y2K” was twenty years ago. Do you remember all the troubles that were anticipated, all because experts were not sure if computers, which were programmed with a two-digit place setting for the year, would operate as normal when they registered 2000 or crash when they reverted to 1900? We were filled with anxiety as we waited to see if the utilities would continue to operate and banking software would still be running after the ball dropped. As it turned out, we worried for nothing: the world was unphased by the change in millennium as all the electronic components of 21st century life performed as required.
Much has happened over the past ten years for my family as well. We enjoyed 4 graduations, we celebrated a number of big birthdays (including both Jeanine and I turning 50 in the 2010s), we moved residences three times, and we travelled more than a hundred thousand miles. If I can be honest, I have worried about a great deal of things over the past ten years – will the kids finish High School, be accepted into a college of their choice and come home on occasion? Will we be able to find a suitable residence for our family’s needs? Will the days ahead be kind? I thank God that the previous decades have been filled with great blessing.
Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest? Luke 12:25-26 (NIV)
I have been joking with my wife and children that the Mike of 2020 is “easy, breezy” (which my youngest now has co-opted as “Covergirl Dad”), but my resolution is serious – I am consciously trying to release my inner anxiety about the things that I cannot control and release the reins on the things that I can control; thus, I will be easy and breezy. This desire to be more relaxed has made me inventory the things that I control, which turns out to be a surprisingly short list: I control my decisions, my reactions and my responses.
This year, and decade, I will make a concerted effort to make and maintain wise decisions, and not regularly revisiting the angst inherent in the process. I will try to express genuine reactions which are filled with grace and edification. I will offer thoughtful and profitable responses, refusing to delve into the bad habit of pessimism. I will not worry about whether I made the right decision, the appropriate reaction or the proper response. I will ‘go with the flow”. And in order to do this, I will seek the Spirit’s leading each new day and trust His transforming power at work within me.
If I hope to cease in my worrying, if I am dedicated to an easy, breezy disposition, I will need to place all my angst and anxiety somewhere. So I am claiming 1 Peter 5:7 as my memory verse for 2020:
Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. 1 Peter 5:7 (NIV)
During our services over the past four weeks of Advent, our church sang more than a dozen Christmas carols, those short and simple, memorable and meaningful songs of joy surrounding the birth of Jesus. But none of those carols have the depth and beauty to convey the truth and majesty of the first carol that fell upon the ears of those lowly shepherds watching their flocks by night. A great company of the heavenly host, a great army of God’s messengers, appeared before those humble workers and offered up words of praise. Their carol is compact – only 11 words in the original language – but each expression expands as we hear it.
The angels first proclaimed, “Glory to God in the highest heaven….” Their initial expression was to give glory (e.g. weight, immensity, greatness, and ‘gravitas’) to the God of the Bible. These heavenly beings were witnesses to all of God’s great acts: they saw the earth’s creation, they saw the parting of the Red Sea, they silently watched as God blessed and provided all sorts of people throughout history. Yet, this time, for this action of the Lord, they broke into creation. They declare to the shepherds that the awe-inspiring brilliance of the tabernacle and the temple now resides in human flesh. This song of the angels now serves as a reminder to us that God’s glory is perfectly expressed through arrival of Jesus in Bethlehem.
The angels next proclaimed, “…and on earth peace….” From the time of the garden, there has been an absence of peace on earth – human existence on this side of the flaming swords of the seraphic guards includes enmity, violence, wickedness, warring and a continual lack of contentment. The angels now announce that reconciliation has come. But the birth of the Christ child is God’s provision for peace; an earthly peace, complete with satisfaction and safety; and a heavenly peace, with full forgiveness and reconciliation. The angels’ carol also serves as a reminder that this promised peace is now present upon the earth, even if we do not sense it.
Finally, the angels proclaimed, “…peace to those on whom his favor rests.” These messengers are now declaring that God’s grace, His unmerited and undeserved favor, is available to all people. This grace is not a “Get Out of Jail Free” card, though. God is not excusing our sin; He is excising it. The angels are announcing that the means of restoration is revealed in Jesus. This centuries-old carol lastly serves as a reminder to us that God’s grace is available to all who come to the manger and bow before the King who sleeps on the hay.
That is what I pray we all will take away from our celebrations of Christmas, that the greatest news from God can be heard from the herald angels. Hear one last time the angels’ song:
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” Luke 2:13-14
Part of my preparations for celebrating Christmas this year is that I have been reading the novella A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. While I have seen the films and adaptations on television (my personal favorites are Mr.Magoo’s Christmas Carol and Scrooged), I had never read the relatively short story of Ebenezer Scrooge and the three visiting Spirits. On the page or on the screen, the plot is well-known: Scrooge is a successful business owner with great accumulated wealth who is inundated with charitable requests as Christmas approaches; as returns home on Christmas Eve, he is visited by the ghost of his business partner and then three Christmas Spirits; these Spirits show Scrooge his Christmases past, present and yet to come; these visions have a profound effect on his miserly and calloused heart.
We are all tempted to be a bit like Ebenezer Scrooge at Christmas. We also receive a barrage of demands for our time and our finances and our kindnesses to care for those with pressing needs. We might be inclined to think only of ourselves and not about our fellow man and woman. We might need to be reminded of what is more important than earthly gain. But where can we find three Spirits on such short notice?
There is another character in Dickens’ novella that serves as a contrast to Ebenezer Scrooge: Bob Cratchit. Cratchit is Scrooge’s clerk and he is all that Scrooge is not; despite his lack of material resources, he is generous and kind. Cratchit has his reasons for cynicism – a terrible boss, an insufficient income and a sick child – but he is continually focused on others. Cratchit is the one who goes to church and he is the one who prays for his heartless boss. He is the one who carries within himself the joy of Christmas despite having several reasons for the contrary. While Scrooge was the one who was converted to compassion, Cratchit was continually kind.
This being said, A Christmas Carol is more of a moral fable than a spiritual allegory. In Dickens’ tale, Christmas is the setting, not the story. None of us are as hardened as Scrooge and none of us are as virtuous as Cratchit. All of us can be more compassionate and all of us can share more joy. Instead of comparing ourselves to a archetypal fictional miser or milquetoast, we are better suited to reflect the character of real individuals.
The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. Luke 2:20 (NIV)
These shepherds were, in many ways, like Scrooge – driven by their vocation to sacrifice most relationships, they accumulated wealth and were ostracized by society. But one day they received a message from God and that transformed their hearts and lives. They were changed by the good news of great joy that a savior had been born, and after seeing the Christ child, returned to their workplace with gladness in their hearts. When they saw (when we see) the great gift we have been given, we shout, “Glorious” – how glorious is our God, His creation and His plan for each one of us to care for each one of us.