Category Archives: Church

Vacation Plans

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!

Defining Love

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)!

Recommendations

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.

Done on Purpose

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.

Winning While Losing

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!

The Angelic Choir

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

Raising an Ebenezer

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.

The Naughty List

For the last 85 years, our culture’s holiday playlist has contained “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town”.  For the last 50 Christmases, we, as a society, been delighted by the Rankin/Bass stop-motion special inspired by the song’s lyrics and have come to love its additions; the irritations of Burgermeister Meisterburger, the commotion in Sombertown and the transformation of the Winter Warlock have become part of our seasonal heritage.  We all can sing along – “He’s making a list, checking it twice; gonna find out who’s naughty or nice.  Santa Claus is coming to town.  He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake; he knows if you’ve been bad or good – so be good, for goodness sake.”

For the last few generations, we all have been told that Santa has made a list of who’s been “naughty” and who’s been “nice” (and untold numbers of parents have utilized the knowledge of this list to keep their children in line during the month of December).  As Christmas approaches, we have had a musical reminder that Kris Kringle knows whether we’ve been good or bad and, by extension, he will bring gifts for the good boys and girls and coal for the bad.  So, we do all we can to be good so that our names appear on the “nice” list.

For whatever reason – the close connection between the birth of Jesus and the arrival of Santa Claus or the compiling of lists of good and bad behavior or a benevolent mythical figure giving gifts – people are inclined to think of Father Christmas and God the Father in similar terms.  Surely, we suppose, that the Almighty watches over us during our waking hours as well as through our slumber.  Certainly, we expect, He keeps a list of names with all that we’ve done right and done wrong.  It is likely, we surmise, that He blesses us for our goodness and supplies rocks to those who are bad.  But God is not like Santa.

There is no difference … for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.  Romans 3:22-24

God is making a list, and maybe He is checking it twice.  He knows all are naughty and none are nice.  He sees you when you are sleeping, and He knows when you’re awake.  He knows that you’re not good but bad…but He gives us His greatest gift anyway.  God does not keep us in line by threatening to remove His favor; He grants us His favor (grace) because we cannot stay in line.  God loves us so much that He gave us the only gift that would satisfy our every longing – His presence among us in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Jesus didn’t come to earth because we were good, but because He is good.  So good that He lists all those who trust in Jesus as Lord and Savior on His “nice” list, not because of what we’ve done, but because of what He’s done for us by sending us the gift of Christ.

Giving Thanks

For the past month, as part of a reading group, I have been reading Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal.  It is a fabulously engrossing book that deals with the reality of life and death, the limits of the current medical system and the conversations that every person should have before it is too late.  One of the lasting lessons I received from Dr. Gawande’s words is to recognize what is important; it has caused me to wrestle with the reality of my own demise and to value every moment of cogency that God enables me to enjoy.

As I reflect upon these truths this morning and as I prepare for Thanksgiving next week, I am finding myself thankful for the moments I share with my family (immediate and extended, formed by blood and by friendship).  I am thankful for productivity (in my vocation and in my avocations).  I am thankful for opportunity (and the availability of the best in medicine, academia and ministry no more than a subway ride away).  I am thankful for the guidance of God since last Thanksgiving (among other things, in leading my family to a new residence and two of my boys to new schools).  I am thankful for the blessings I enjoy every day.

There is one more thing for which I am thankful, something never touched upon in the remarkable tome penned by the good doctor.  I am thankful for the Gospel.  I am thankful for the witness verified truth of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection.  I am thankful for the long-established and prophetic plan of God’s salvation through Christ.  I am thankful for the availability of the forgiveness of sin and the redemption of the disobedient which reached a wretch like me.  I am thankful that my life-steps were directed by the Almighty to hear the truth of the Lord and accept Him as my personal Savior.    I am thankful for those who shared, and continue to share, this good news with those who are dangerously unaware of their eternal destiny.  I am thankful that I will participate in blissful life after my physical death.

Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!  2 Corinthians 9:15

But the gift is not like the trespass.  For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!  Romans 5:15

Each and every one of us reading this post has something for which to give thanks (if nothing else, we all have access to the vast worldwide web).  For what things, truths and people are you thankful this year?  What moments have brought you delight since last you sat at bounty’s table?  What gifts have been bestowed upon you that have filled you with gratitude?  In whatever way you will celebrate our thoroughly North American observance of Thanksgiving, I hope you will spend some time reflecting upon and remembering all the blessings you have been given.

I wish you all the happiness of Thanksgiving!

On the Road

On Saturday, November 2nd, at 6:58PM our minivan’s odometer struck 100,000 miles.  We were a block away from the house, on our way to a local eatery when it happened.  In all truth, this anticipated occurrence was somewhat anticlimactic; having a digital odometer with six digits, we were unable to see the gears turn over to register 5 zeroes like the vehicles of my childhood and watched a group of nines change, somewhat similar to a digital clock striking midnight on New Year’s Eve.  The numbers on the odometer have brought back to my mind many of those miles we, as a family, have traveled over the past 6 ½ years.

One hundred thousand miles means that we’ve made hundreds of trips to grocery stores and workplaces.  Many of the miles were traveling up and down the eastern corridor of I-95 to visit loved ones in Maryland and D.C, not to mention trips to see friends and family in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and New Hampshire.  How many cups of coffee and orders of fries have we eaten seated in the van?    Some of these miles were traveled offering rides to others and transporting stuff around the South Shore.  The van has made quite a few jaunts to the airport to joyfully welcome those who are arriving and to colleges to drop off (with tears) those who are departing.  Upon reflection of both the spectacular and the mundane, both the sicknesses and the singing that occurred in our van, it has been a wonderful ride.

The steps of a man are established by the Lord, and He delights in his way.  Psalm 37:23 (NASB95)

In light of this verse, I wonder what David would think about the last 100,000 of minivan has traveled.  If Psalm 37 was written today, as opposed to 3,000 years ago, would he be inspired to write something like, “The miles of the family vehicle are established, or made firm, by God”?  And if the words of God might be contextualized in this fashion, what might it mean for us?  Is it possible that those 100,000 miles in our Dodge Grand Caravan were ordered and set up by God so that we may delight in his way?  Is every one of the 528,000,000 feet we’ve journeyed over the last 78 months in the family car funded in God?

There is a memory my family has relating to our van that makes me think that God was instrumental in all those miles.  We were driving through downtown Memphis after a rehearsal dinner.  We were heading back to our hotel and took a wrong turn.  Adjusting our course, we waited at a red light, the only car in the intersection, when a homeless woman hurriedly crossed four lanes of traffic to knock on my window.  After I assisted her, my family joked about the aura of compassion I must radiate.  I think God placed us there.  I think that God has placed us in a great many places.

God was with us at all those rest areas stops, gas pumps and, yes, traffic lights.  He was with us through all the conversations we had within and outside our reliable transportation.  And I have no doubt he will be with us through the next 100,000 miles.