As we have for the previous few years, my wife and I have endeavored to see the nine movies nominated for the Best Picture Oscar®. With ten days remaining and only two movies yet to view, I am confident that we will complete our task. Reflecting on the films we have already seen, a theme seems to be emerging: the power of words. In these films, I am reminded that a well-chosen word or a turn-of-phrase at the appropriate time has the power to uplift or destroy, the force sufficient to motivate a nation or crush a spirit.
Of particular impact were the words Sheriff Bill Willoughby (portrayed by Woody Harrelson in Three Billboard Outside Ebbing, MO), British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (portrayed by Gary Oldman in The Darkest Hour and referenced in Dunkirk), and fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis in The Phantom Thread). Without giving away the plot, the theater-goer will be gripped by the redemptive and encouraging nature of the words contained in Willoughby’s letters, the motivating influence upon a nation to continue the struggle through Churchill’s “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech before Parliament, and the damaging and demoralizing destruction caused by Woodcock’s cutting comments.
Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. James 3:10
The last few weeks of movie-going have caused me to consider anew the wisdom of James and the power of the tongue. How is that the same function can exalt or eviscerate? How intentional am I with my words? Have I learned the truth regarding the power of speech and the wisdom to wield that ‘sword’ beneficially? Ultimately, am I utilizing my glossary to glorify myself or give gravitas to others? While I would not to presume to be as loquacious as Churchill, neither do I want to be as self-absorbed as Woodcock.
Perhaps preparation is key (and a Hollywood screenwriter would help, too). Churchill labored over his speeches, editing and reediting his message even to the final moments before delivery. Willoughby wrote letters, which experience tells us is a slower form of communication – our thoughts race faster than our pens, allowing us to shape and shade our words as we go. I wonder how our words might change if we gave ourselves as little as a moment to collect our thoughts. That might be enough time to enable us to refrain from that angry retort and share something edifying instead.
Words contain an immense power – a power that could be positive or negative. A single word (“mistake”) can destroy the fragile soul of an impressionable youth and a single word (“gift”) can develop the formidable soul of that same impressionable youth. Words can be ugly or beautiful, can be used to build up or tear down and therefore requires our attention. I wouldn’t let youngest juggle chainsaws, even if he told me he was confident in his ability to harness to power of the tools. Perhaps I should have the same concern about his (and my) use of the many tools we find in the dictionary.
With careful preparation and attention, may we use our words to build up one another.
It all began with a conversation around the dinner table. I had mentioned an incident of public confession at a church we had visited a few years ago. This then led to a question from my 17-year old son: “We’re not supposed to do that; doesn’t the Bible say that the right hand shouldn’t know what the left one does?” This then turned into a discussion about the natures of pride and humility. There we sat, with a table full dirty dishes between us, engaging in a conversation about the revolutionary demands of following Christ.
My son was right. The Bible does say:
But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing…. Matthew 6:3
We shouldn’t let one hand know what the other is doing. However, the context of this verse is explicit: we do this when we give to the needy. Jesus, as part of his Sermon on the Mount, commanded his followers to maintain no memory of the good things we do. We must not let ourselves know what we’ve done, let alone others. We are to practice humility when it comes to acts of good will.
My son was also mistaken. The Bible also says:
Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. James 5:16
We should be confessing our sins to each other, in proportion to the breadth of the offense and the depth of our relationship. James commands Christ’s followers to maintain accountability for the bad things we do, otherwise we are in danger of damaging our souls and dropping into prideful arrogance. We need to practice humility when it comes to acts of ill will.
All this caused my son, in resignation, to say that what we were saying was messed up. But the fact remains that the ways of the world – celebrating our altruism publicly and covering our mistakes privately – are diametrically opposed to the ways of the Lord – admitting our mistakes publicly and allowing our acts of kindness to remain private. All who follow Jesus cannot follow the patterns of the culture, and instead of ‘cleaners’ and ‘plausible deniability’ we must embrace confession and transparency.
This is truly a revolutionary lifestyle. While everyone around us might tell us to take pride in our positive accomplishments, we need to remain humble. While everyone around us might tell us not to dwell on our mistakes, we need to deal with our sin. This requires us to rely on God’s Spirit to lead us – to trust that He sees the good that we do (even when no one else does) and will reward us and to know that He sees the bad that we do (even though no one else might) and will forgive us.
So, we who know Jesus as Lord and Savior must admit our weaknesses to someone and expect no one to know our goodness. In a world drenched in abuse and aggression, a posture of humility like this would go a long way to addressing some of the pain.
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. James 4:14
Let me start by stating that everyone in our family is happy and healthy. That being said, I am writing this post after a member of my family spent a night in the emergency room and a day in the hospital. Let me repeat: everyone is perfectly fine and nothing has changed, except for one thing – my perspective. No one begins their day planning to endure a car accident (not what happened) or a falling anvil (also not what happened) or a series of chest pains (well, there it is). But this post is not about electrocardiograms or blood enzyme tests; this post is about me and my futile desire to preserve this mortal frame.
All this has got me thinking. Make no mistake, I would be grateful to enter The Guinness Book of World Records by replacing Jeanne Louise Calment and becoming the longest living human (she died at 122). I would like to see my children’s weddings and my grandchildren’s graduations. I would like to see the Grand Canyon and the mighty redwoods. My brain repeats the same refrain: “I still have time.” But if this week is any indication of the realities of earthly existence, I cannot put off until tomorrow what I can do today since tomorrow is not guaranteed.
I am now left reflecting on how I spend my life (or waste it). I work on my ‘day off’ and allow my vacation days to remain unspent. I watch TV when I could have conversations. When I do have conversations, my words are a lot like the last ten minutes of the late-night news (weather and sports). I spend more time pursuing recreation and not enough time pursuing relationships. I am stingy with my words of encouragement, my offerings of forgiveness and my displays of affection. And now I worry that what I am saving for tomorrow I will not get a chance to spend.
“I will deal with that later.” I will call later.” “I will see you later.” “I will take a break later.” Later. What is it about that word and the power it contains? We all can agree that putting off making a payment or scheduling an appointment does not magically make the discomfort go away. We all suffer regret for forgetting to make that call or neglecting to put down that project. Even when spoken with the best of intentions, in many cases ‘later’ means ‘never’.
After the ‘health scare’ earlier this week, I am grateful for the gift of a few more tomorrows. Yet, there is a nagging truth resonating deep within me that the gift of tomorrow is not guaranteed and that all we have is today. This means that a must not delay the decisions or withhold the hugs that are meant for today. I appreciate the reminder that there are some things that cannot wait until tomorrow, for that may never come.
What do you hope your legacy will be? More specifically, how do you hope to be remembered five or ten years after your retirement, or what do you hope people will say about you five or ten years after your passing? On Wednesday, which also happened to be my birthday, I spent a few hours with a dozen or so pastors discussing a collection of essays about the connection between faith and biblical scholarship (compiled in a book titled I (Still) Believe) and these questions of legacy were part of our conversation.
The conversation made me think about an aspect of the scripture reading from Sunday that never made it into my sermon, the legacy (or non-legacy) of Joseph, the man not chosen. Joseph’s complete mark on history is found in the following single verse:
So they nominated two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. Acts 1:23
This is what we know about Joseph:
- He was called Barsabbas – meaning either literally ‘the son of Sabbas’ or figuratively ‘the child of rest or return (i.e. the Sabbath)’;
- He was known as ‘the Just’ – he had a character of righteousness;
- He was continually present with Jesus from the time of His baptism by John through His ascension – he spent more than three years following the Lord and hearing His teachings;
- He was passed over for the promotion to apostle when God chose Matthias instead.
That is Joseph Barsabbas’ legacy: a good man who was ever-present to witness the words and ways of Jesus and was called by God to a secondary role. The Bible is filled with “secondary characters” like Joseph Barsabbas: Mordecai, Esther’s cousin; Ehud, the left-handed judge who delivered Israel from the Moabites; and Onesiphorus, a care-taker of Paul’s. Few people in the Scriptures are remembered in history. Most of the names we read in the Old or New Testament are mentioned not for their legacy but for their lifestyle: to encourage our faithful obedience or to warn against our continued disobedience.
So, what do I hope my legacy will be? I hope that I will be remembered not for the history I make but for the footprints that I leave. I hope that I can leave big enough tracks in the muck of this earth that my children will remain on the course of faithfulness. I hope that the map that I have drawn over my career in pastoral ministry will assist those I leave behind to avoid the perilous cliffs of despair. I would be satisfied as a footnote, as a nameless face in a photograph, as a present-day Joseph Barsabbas; a good man who was there to witness all the wonders of Christ.
But ultimately, my legacy is largely inconsequential compared to the Lord’s. Jesus alone is the one who has changed history. World and military leaders fade from our memories, but the life of Christ alone remains. Whether we are the star in life’s motion picture or only performing a supporting role, we all are precious in God’ sight and useful in accomplishing His purposes, whether we are remembered or not.
As I was shoveling last week, I lost something amidst the snow for a moment. I was not immediately aware of what happened at that moment, but thankfully, I quickly recognized what was happened and was able to restore, mostly, what had been lost. The troubling fact about this encounter with nature was that it was not my keys or my phone that I lost; it was my character. Through an interaction with a cranky neighbor, my fleshly nature was revealed and my witness as a follower of Christ was trampled. In a moment, I went from being a light to the world to being dim-witted.
All I remember about the interaction is his question: “Would you like it if they threw snow onto your property? You think you’re entitled.” Aside from the fact that I have no property to speak of, he exposed my lapse of judgement. I was justifying myself with the thought that this other neighbor, whose space I was piling my shoveling onto, did not have a car. I was rationalizing my actions as a response to the fact that the street had yet to be plowed and my small increase in the drift would be addressed by the city’s plow. Still, my neighbor was right.
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
I was not treating my neighbor the way I would want to be treated. I was not reflecting the nature that the Spirit of God had given me when Christ saved my sorry state and transformed my selfish soul. Fortunately, in the midst of the interaction, I realized my error and removed my additions to the drift and, as an act of contrition, enlarged my neighbor’s walkway. It did not go unnoticed by my cranky neighbor; we swapped apologies (turns out he was unable to get an oil delivery and temporarily lost his heat) and I offered him a space-heater (which he appreciated but declined). He was gracious enough to repair my reputation, for which I praise God.
This whole episode has served as a reminder that a single moment of weakness can demolish a structure that took years to build. An angry word or a thoughtless action can compromise anyone’s integrity; our inner strength – our character – can be damaged and, if not addressed promptly, ultimately destroyed. We, who are commissioned by Christ to be His witnesses in the world, must routinely assess our actions and attitudes and perform the hard work of confession when our testimony is tarnished and about to be torn down.
As I stood outside the other night, in the snow, I thought about ‘doubling-down’: I thought about defending myself by deflecting my bad behavior with (justifiable) excuses for ignoring the “Golden Rule”. I would have felt better in the moment, but would have felt regret for a long time after. I thank God that He guides me, even when I stray, so that I can return to the path that leads me, and others, into His presence. And I thank God that I found that path the other night in the snow.
As I write this post, it is heavily snowing outside. I am fortunate that I, through the ‘miracle’ of digital technology, can work from virtually anywhere with an electrical outlet and a wi-fi connection. So, here I sit at my kitchen table, with my family in the next room, enjoying the ‘day off’. While the flakes fly, we are following the recommendation the Governor and Mayor that people stay off the road, reveling at home over the cancelation of school and work for ‘non-essential personnel’. While there will be shoveling and clearing to be done later, right now there is nothing that needs to be done (other than look out the window occasionally and query as the amount of accumulation).
In many ways, the ‘snow day’ of the present is like the Sabbath of the past. God created us with a need for time away from our labors. According to the scriptures:
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. Exodus 20:8-11
Rarely do we, in today’s culture, find a day when no work is being done. Retail establishments and restaurants are open nearly every day. Many movie theaters and convenience stores welcome patrons even on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Service providers provide services at all hours of the day and night. We, as a society, rarely take a day off – if we are not working for our employer, we are checking work-related e-mail or laboring at home or serving in volunteer positions. So, occasionally God, who knows exactly what we need for our health and well-being, allows the weather to slow us down and cease our work.
We are given a snow day (or, in other parts of the country, a heat day, a tornado day, or an ice day) as a blessing or gift for our souls. It is a day to do something other than work – to break out the puzzle, the board game or the cookbook. It is a day of creation or recreation: a day spent building a snowman or a strudel, an afternoon of binge-watching “Parks and Recreation” or binge-reading War and Peace. I am going to cherish the time to do something truly productive – build memories with my family. As the wind howls and the snow drifts outside, I will be enjoying the ‘down-time’ God has given me.
Besides, I am going to need all the rest I gain today for my work tomorrow, when I will be required to move all of this blessed precipitation off the sidewalks and stairways.
The observance of New Year’s Day (I suppose like so many other observances) is both arbitrary and random. The fact that we record dates with January as the first month, instead of May or August, and December as the last is illogical. There is no magical or material difference between 11:59PM on New Year’s Eve and 12:00AM on New Year’s Day. Nothing truly changes when the ball drops in Times Square. As my children would say, celebrating the new year on January 1 is just a ‘social construct’, and the ‘new year’ is just a structure that shapes our culture and maintains a standard for our practices.
That being said, we do measure our days by the calendar. We do, collectively, think about the day when one year is ending and another year is beginning. We do make resolutions to think or eat or behave differently because the year is new. There will be year-end reviews, year-end memorials, year-end sales and year-end parties. I suppose that we do need to change the calendars at some time, so why not December 31st? It is a good practice to take stock of our lives at some point and say, “Out with the old, in with the new”; it is a good time to make resolutions.
On the subject of resolutions, these were the top 10 of 2017, according to Harper’s Bazaar:
- Diet, exercise and weight loss.
- Read more.
- Learn something new.
- Save money.
- Be nicer, kinder and more patient.
- Get a new job.
- Volunteer and donate more to charity.
- Drink less alcohol.
- Get more sleep and relax more.
- Make new friends and be a better friend.
I could certainly benefit from some, if not most, of these. I have scrutinized this list and begun to formulate a plan to live a healthier, fuller and richer life. I will, however, likely give up when my birthday comes around (which is in a little less than three weeks). This is all because New Year’s Day is not as magical or mystical as we think. What I need is January 2nd resolutions, January 3rd resolutions, and every day resolutions. I must maintain a discipline of thinking every day about living a healthier, fuller and richer life. I also need those around me to ask about my resolutions (or commitments to discipline) regularly throughout the year.
One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Romans 14:5
I am going to keep this list (excepting a few that are not pertinent to my lifestyle) near me for the next few months, as a reminder of how I want to improve my health and wellness. I am going to resolve, as a contract between myself and my creator, to cultivate the physical, mental, social and emotional blessings He’s given me. I am going to attempt to do this every day, not just on the special days that this type of talk is fashionable. And I will pray with you that you reach whatever goals you and God have set for your life as well. Happy New Year.
As much as I try to maintain the ‘true meaning of Christmas’ (through the images I choose to reflect on Christmas cards and wrapping paper, the musical selections of carols in the midst of secular songs and our participation in Advent), one trapping of the ‘holiday’ season that I cannot seem to eliminate is the Christmas stocking. I recognize the secular source of these socks hung over the hearth – I have seen the documentary “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”, which cogently gives the history of the holiday hosiery as a means of Kris Kringle avoiding the mandates of the mean-spirited Burgermeister Meisterburger so that the children of Sombertown could receive ‘outlawed’ toys.
There is another possible origin story involving the real Saint Nicholas. It seems that there was a once wealthy nobleman who had three daughters. This nobleman fell upon hard times and could not afford a dowry to enable his girls to be married. This inability to accept proposals filled the family with shame. Nicholas heard of this man’s misfortune and, having riches from an inheritance, secretly gave the young women bags of gold, throwing them inside the house through an open window. One of these bags made its way into a stocking. As religious and pious as the story sounds, it is as dubious and as unlikely as the imaginative plotline of stop-motion animators Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass.
Whatever the source, stockings have always been a tradition in my family. We are (okay, it is probably more me than anyone else) peculiar in our practice of ‘stuffing’: the trinkets are never wrapped or labeled (everyone knows they are filled by Santa), there is always at least one toy (since that is what Santa brings from his workshop) and there is always at least one piece of fruit (it is anyone’s guess why). The stocking is the first thing that is ‘opened’. While it may contain small, inexpensive and ordinary items, it is an important part of our family’s Christmas.
The stocking is a sort of microcosm for the nativity. In both, there are a number of ordinary things grouped together to make a whole that is so much greater than the parts. There is the humility of Mary, the righteousness of Joseph and the simplicity of the shepherds. There is a single star, a meager manger and some common cloth. The ‘real’ gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh – arrived days (if not weeks) later. Yet, when combined, they amount to so much more than a simple, albeit rustic, arrival of a first-born child. It becomes the greatest gift the world has ever received.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:14
My hope and prayer for you this Christmas is that you will see the glory of the one and only Son. Whether your stockings are hung by the chimney with care (in hopes that St. Nicholas soon will be there) or you enjoy some other Christmas tradition, may the ordinary aspects of your celebration accumulate to much more than you can imagine.
Last week, I was intrigued by the following tweet:
My wife and I regularly, when their birthdays come around, share with our children the events of the day they came into the world. The details of each birth had certain peculiarities – the smell of chocolate chip cookies, the speed (or the slowness) of the labor, the lateness of the hour, the travelling to the hospital as snow was falling at rush hour. I remember quite a bit about those four days, but a mother’s recollection is even greater. I can only imagine that Mary’s memory was no different and she must have recounted the birth of her first-born child on occasion.
“Dad and I had to go to Bethlehem just before you were born. We were there with a bunch of distant relatives, mom and dad’s cousins and their children, sort of like a big family reunion. There were so many people there! When we got there, there were no rooms left in the inn for us, but your dad found us a small cave where some animals were kept, and we sat in there so that I could rest for a bit. When the time came, you arrived, right in front of some goats and a cow. You were so small, so beautiful. We counted your little toes and your little fingers, and we were so happy that you had ten of each.
“You and I fell asleep for a bit, you in a feeding trough on some hay and me lying next to you. Your dad handed me a scarf, the one I had been wearing on my head, and we wrapped you up in it to keep you warm. One thing that was special about that night was that a little after you were born we had some visitors – shepherds from the fields nearby. Daddy woke me up and the first thing I saw was the nose of one of their sheep. They told your dad and I a wonderful thing about you: they said that angels came to them, in a blinding light, and told them that you had been born and that they could find you in that manger. They were so happy to see you. I think they told everyone in the entire town that you were born.
“Speaking of visitors, a little while later, while you were still itty-bitty, we were at a friend’s house when men from the east came to see you. They brought you special gifts – frankincense, myrrh and GOLD! You kept looking at the sparkles on the wall that the gold was making. They also knew you were a special baby, my little king. They told us that saw a star in the sky and spent months following it…right to you! Just like your dad and I, they knew you were God’s greatest blessing.”
But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. Luke 2:19
Mind you, this narrative is mostly speculation. The place (a manger in Bethlehem) and the people (shepherds and stargazers) were recorded in Scriptures. It might have happened this way. We cannot imagine all the things that Mary pondered, but I can imagine she shared some of it with Jesus – even though He probably knew more of the story than she did. As you catch view of the nativity scenes that populate mantels and town greens, let your imagination soar as you, too, ponder the birth of Christ the Lord.
Our baby turns ten this weekend. Our youngest, our last, our smallest is growing up and before we know it, he will be a young man. I wonder how much longer we have before he is an adolescent. How many more times will we walk home from school (me on the sidewalk and Josh on the retaining walls) and he will use a stick as a sword? How many more unsolicited hugs will my wife and I receive? How many more nights will he choose to wear Minions© pajamas? Having been through this process of watching my child grow up three times before, I know that when the ‘last time’ for all these activities will come, and we will not recognize what is happening or what we will be losing.
I still have time. Josh still wants toys and games as gifts for his birthday and Christmas. He still likes to color and play board games (frequently asking to have a F.G.N. – family game night). But one day all that will have changed. It will not happen overnight, but one day it will all be gone; the snuggling, the wild imagination and the carefree play will be replaced with tacit acknowledgment, pragmatism and smart phone usage. So, this week I will celebrate my youngest child’s childhood. We will have a party (with cake and ice cream) with games around his chosen Pokemon© theme, and we will appreciate our boy.
When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 1 Corinthians 13:11
I have to admit that I have a tough time accepting the reality that my children are getting older. I still worry (just a bit) when one of my children is not at home. I still want to offer fatherly advice and get a laugh from dad jokes. I still want the unsolicited hugs and the early morning raids into my bedroom. They are my kids, even though they are 23, 20, 17 and (on Sunday) 10.
So, excuse me if I encourage my youngest to continue to wear the one-piece pajamas that are too small. Forgive me if I let him sit in my lap in the recliner as we watch Wheel of Fortune (and let him think that he solved one of the puzzles before me). Apologies if I laugh at his jokes, which may have been shared three (or three hundred) times before, as if it were the first time I had heard them. Mea culpa if I let him swing that stick (or rake or bat or broom) and allow him to pretend for a while. Let me say, for just a little longer, “He’s just a boy.”
Before I know it, my youngest son will be a man and the days of childhood things will have passed. That is not a day I look forward to seeing anytime soon. Happy 10th birthday, Joshua.