Category Archives: Family

WWYD?

My family watches a more-than-average amount of television, and we all have our favorite shows.  There is one program that we tend to watch together that elicits a great deal of conversation – “What Would You Do?”.  For the uninitiated, “What Would You Do?” is a hidden camera show, produced by ABC news, where unsuspecting people are recorded as they witness a wide variety of moral and cultural dilemmas, eventually to be interviewed about their reactions by the program’s host, John Quiñones.  One segment might involve a bystander’s reaction to an apparently inebriated bar patron heading for their car, while another might touch on issues of a restaurant diner’s immigration status, always leaving the viewer with the question, “What Would You Do?”

As we watch the show, and in the discussions afterward, we all give our opinions about what the proper reaction should be, thinking that, if we were there, we would be one of the good folks that would talk with John Q following the scenario.  We would never be the ones who tolerate discrimination or ignore outright need.  We all conclude, by the end of each episode, that we would love to be on the broadcast.  We are looking forward to the day when we are visiting a diner in New Jersey, overhearing a conversation about the travesty of women’s professional sports, only to hear the voice of John Quiñones behind us, saying, “Excuse me, folks, those people are actors….”

It leaves me with a question: would we be better people if we thought our actions and reactions were being watched by others?  On “What Would You Do?”, they always have people who intervene, who care enough to confront the bigotry or bad behavior demonstrated by the show’s actors.  They typically also have people, often whose identities have been digitally obscured, who do nothing or, worse than inaction, are advocates for what most consider to be wrong.  Watching those strong and sensitive strangers defend the defenseless or notice the needy encourages me to do the same, whether anyone is watching or not.

Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.  1 Peter 2:12 (ESV)

If you have read this blog before, you might be expecting me to remind you that God sees what you do (which is true), but that is not my takeaway today.  Peter reminds us that those around us see what we are doing, and that every scenario depicted on “What Would You Do?” or played out in real life is an opportunity to reflect the goodness and glory of God.  When we, as followers of Christ, do the right thing – support the figurative and literal widows and orphans, care for the physically and spiritually sick, show compassion for those imprisoned by the system or by the self – we tell all those around us that God loves, and by extension we love, the broken and bruised.  Whether it is broadcast on national television or not, we are always right to address wrong.

I would still like to one day be on the show.  Until then, I will imagine that there are hidden cameras when I overhear absurdity or observe abject poverty.  What would you do?

Time for Change

It is amazing how fast time flies!  This weekend, for half of my children, will mark the end of Summer and school vacation.  My daughter will begin her new school year (teaching remotely 443 miles from her 5th grade students) on Monday and my middle son will move into his on-campus apartment for the Fall semester on Wednesday.  Our youngest son has been blessed with an academic reprieve, for his remote learning classes will not resume for another three weeks.

In many ways it seems like forever since David came home – theoretically for his freshman year’s Spring break – on March 5th, since 6th grade classes moved on-line for Joshua beginning March 16th, and since Rebekah’s truncated senior year of college and student teaching moved to remote and she drove home from Washington on March 17th.  As an added blessing, throughout the Spring and Summer we have also seen our oldest son an average of twice a week.  I cannot imagine another season of life when we will have this much shared time together.  But now, the times, they are a-changing.  The passage from August to September, for me this year, will be bitter-sweet.

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: […] a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance….   Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4 (NIV)

As I contemplate the change of season – meteorological and metaphorical – it causes me to pause and posit what the coming days may bring.  What will be the activity of this new time and season: weeping, laughing, mourning, dancing?  Are the days to be filled with disaster or delight, or some combination of both?  My guess: as it has been over the first 240 days of 2020, it will be for its remaining 126.  There have been and there will be those whose days, like mine, are filled with more laughter than tears and there are those whose days are filled with just the opposite.

Each of us have differing experiences and unique contexts in which we navigate the challenges and charms this life has to offer.  Because of this reality, we must allow empathy, the ability to feel for another without feeling as another, to be our guide when interacting with one another.  We all have grieved a loss (of life, of livelihood or of liberty) at some point this year and we all have needed compassion.  We all have enjoyed a blessing (through nature, through new life, or through neighbors) during this pandemic and we all have appreciated companionship.  Each of us will also continue to shed tears of sorrow and tears of joy in September and beyond, and we all must allow others the space to express themselves, unrestrained, before us.

The coming days, for me, will be tough as we transition from life fully together toward life beginning to move us apart.  The coming days, for you, are likely to be different emotionally.  I am glad we have each other as we rejoice together and as we grieve together.  There is a time for everything, just like the weather in New England.  If you are unhappy with what is occurring around you, just wait a minute with a friend.

Interceding Interaction

I have become a ‘fair weather fan’ when it comes to my beloved Red Sox.  I can simply no longer watch their games.  They are currently sitting in last place in the American League, due in no small part to the facts that they have no pitching, they are struggling to hit the ball and they lead the league in errors.  But it is not their record that is making this season unbearable; it is their apparent lack of heart on the part of the players.  I can only assume this malaise is evident due to the pandemic protocols – no fans in the stands, no player on-field interactions, and social distancing in the dugout – that has robbed “America’s Pastime”, at least in Boston, of its magic.

There is something special about social interaction that cannot be captured on a Zoom call or over the phone.  As much as I hate to admit it, we require human contact in order to thrive.  I wonder if things would be different were the veterans on the Red Sox allowed to embrace the younger players to encourage them, especially as things are going from bad to worse.  On a larger scale, are we, as a culture and as a planet, suffering to a greater degree because we cannot, literally and figuratively, shoulder one another’s load?  Do we, as a people, really need a hug?

Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing. 1 Thessalonians 5:11 (NIV)

This, unfortunately, is a lost season for the Red Sox.  However, it need not be the same for us.  I am confident that we are able to reclaim much of what has been taken by this virus and its consequences.  My suggestion for reclamation is that we rediscover the power of prayer.  What has prayer got to do with being physically present with one another?  I am glad you asked.

First, the language of prayer conveys physical presence.  When we pray, we are lifting one another toward God.  Offering up biblical prayers, like the Lord’s Prayer, evoke a real bonding of hearts and minds with one another and with God.  We are together when we pray.

Second, the discipline of prayer develops intimacy.  We listen more and share more when we intercede for one another.  We are willing to expose our hopes and our hurts more freely in the context of prayer.  We are tender when we pray.

Third, the practice of prayer offers avenues of reconnection.  When I pray for you, I become invested in the ‘rest of the story’ and become eager to see how things turn out.  When I pray, I am more likely to follow through and resume the conversation.  We are touching base when we pray.

Finally, the reality of prayer draws us away from the problems and draws us toward the provider.  Prayer enables us, together, to recognize that we haven’t got the answers to some of the toughest questions, and to recognize that we all, irrespective of demographics, needs God’s intervention.  We are trusting when we pray.

While we cannot embrace one another just yet, we can engage in prayer with and for one another.  That is no small thing.

Change of Plans

It has taken me 20 weeks of this pandemic, or perhaps 23 years of pastoral ministry, or maybe even 54 years of existence, to conclude that I do not handle disruption well.  I can become internally agitated when a reasonable request is made while I am preparing for Sunday’s service at my dining room table.  Prior to COVID-19, my soul may have become disturbed within me when I heard news of a weekend snowstorm.  As long as I can remember, I have had incidences of the hairs on my neck bristling when my plans were disrupted by the delays of those I dearly love.  It might be a problem.

Even those with a cursory understanding of the plot line of the Bible would know that God is frequently found disrupting the lives of people and nations for His purposes.  Moses was living large and enjoying life what God appeared to him and told him it was time to move.  Abraham was enjoying the fruits of long-delayed parenthood when God announced that it was time for a mountain-climbing trip with Isaac that would result in only one of them returning home.  Esther, David, Peter, Paul, and Timothy all were faced with disruptions.  We rarely know why, but God finds disruption necessary.

If you are like me, you have a choice: see disruptions as an attack against your ideal timetable or see disruptions as an avenue for God’s adjustments.  Is it possible that the Master of the Universe may have other plans and priorities for your productive hours?  Is it possible that the Lord Almighty may be reminding us that snowflakes, germs, and spotty Wi-Fi are not an enemy to our efficiency?  Is it possible that these disruptions are, in fact, the crucial appointments amid our chaotic days?  What if you and I were to see disruptions as blessings instead of blights?

There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.  Proverbs 14:12 & Proverbs 16:25 (ESV)

Solomon, in his words of wisdom, was compelled by the Holy Spirit to state the exact words twice.  This double dose of truth disturbs me.  I would like to think that my way (disruption-free hours of uninterrupted productivity and purpose) is right, but it is not; it is destructive.  It is destructive for at least two reasons: first, I am denying the truth that I savor disruption, if it is a distraction of my own choosing (scrolling through Facebook is healthy but that request to help bring in the groceries is a step too far); second, I am often so engrossed in what I want to be doing that I mostly unaware of what God might be wanting me to do.  I am going my ‘right way’ and lying to and limiting myself in the process.

The biblical model for so many whose stories are contained in its pages is to embrace the disruptions, without grumbling, as guidance from God.  Through hurricanes, He will give us rest.  Through traffic jams, He will teach us patience.  Through a loud neighbor just beyond the windowpane, He will drive us to compassion.  Then, perhaps, we will learn that disruptions are God’s way of directing us toward greater things.

May these words be just the disruption you needed today.

Numb and Number

The other night, we had a drive-in experience in our backyard; a video screen, projector, a VCR and an extension cord enabled us to watch “Hercules”.  All the equipment was readily available to us, but until the other night, we had not taken the time to put it together.  This is just the latest thing we have done because we have the time to do it.  We have also spent time playing board games (my personal favorite has been “Ticket to Ride”) and card games (including the ‘oldie-but-goodie’ “Pit”, which our children had never played).  We have also spent time exploring the neighborhood by foot.  This pandemic has given us the opportunity to do things that we never get around to doing.

There are other things that have remained undone.  I still have boxes which are still unpacked or stored away from our move eleven months ago.  I still have books sitting on a radiator that I am intending to read.  I still have summer clothes in the basement that I have yet to put in my bureau.  I have a craft beer maker that is unopened (granted, I would still have to buy some yeast, which I have also yet to do).   Despite the fact that this pandemic has given me a great deal of time at home to do whatever strikes my fancy, there are still things I have never gotten around to doing.

Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.  Psalm 90:12

I wonder how many times I said, prior to 2020, “I wish I had the time to __________.”   I wonder how many times I said, prior to COVID-19, “I will get around to _________ some day.”  Lord, teach me to number my days.  Lord, instruct me to calculate all twenty-four hours.  Lord, educate me on the usage of each cycle of 1,440 minutes.  Assuming I take 6 hours to sleep and 2 hours to address hunger and hygiene, that gives me 16 hours each and every day for my vocations and avocations.  What am I doing with that time?  Am I utilizing this precious resource for mindful productivity and recreation or am I wasting it on mindless amusement and entertainment?

Today is day 143 of quarantine; we have been home for 3,432 hours.  What have you been doing for the past 20 weeks?  The Psalmist has convicted me to redeem the remaining days and hours of the quarantine, however long it lasts.  I want to spend more time in constructing (building value into my life as well as the lives of others) and less in consuming (burning daylight in otherwise empty pursuits).   I want to cherish the time I have with my children and my wife.  I want to maximize this time of ‘voluntary seclusion’ so that, when I look back at this season of my life, I have no regrets.  Lord, help me to capture a moment today where I see and share just one of your many blessings.

Lord, teach us to number our (quarantined) days.

The Heat of the Matter

It has been hot in Massachusetts for the last few weeks, with heat indices approaching 100° on many days.  It has been so hot, in fact, that the new street in front of our home that I wrote about a few weeks ago has softened and now contains a good number of tire tracks.  We are fortunate; we have a few window unit air conditioners that can take the sting out of the oppressive heat and humidity.  But, under the shadow of COVID-19, there are a number of places we would have gone to beat the heat that are, this summer, unavailable.

In previous years we, as a family, might have gone to the local mall or the movie theater to escape the high temperatures and enjoy some climate-controlled coolness.  Our summers past have included visits to museums and dips in public pools to find some relief.  There is none of that this year.  The cinemas remain unopened, the malls are too crowded, the museums are not welcoming the general public and the pools are, by and large, closed.   Even the beaches, where it has also been unusually warm, are not completely safe as the sunbathers and swimmers contend with shark sightings and the lingering effects of this pandemic.

It is days like these that make a person ‘squirrelly’ – hot and bothered and itching to be somewhere else.  I imagine that most of us have had more than a few days like that.  What do we when we face times like that?  Simmer and stew?  Stomp and scream?  Toss and turn at night and pace and pout during the day?  It is not in our nature, I believe, to suffer in silence.  We need someone to know, someone to care, someone to assure us that things will improve.  Those are the days that I appreciate God’s gift of prayer, the blessing of conversation and intercession with the one who knows us best and cares for us most completely.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”   Matthew 11:28-30 (NIV)

I don’t know about you, but the heat takes something out of me, and I am weary.  With the news of the spread of COVID-19, I am burdened.  I am grateful that Jesus offers to share His yoke with me (for those unfamiliar with the term, a yoke is a farming implement that harnesses two animals, presumably of similar strength, together).  I am offered to share my load with God incarnate, who declares that my contribution to the work will be easy and light.  When can we begin?  It makes me feel like that three-year old at the grocery store in the race-car shopping cart, thinking that he is exerting all the effort to move the cart, but the reality is that his father is pushing from behind.  Our Father in Heaven is pushing us along as well.

If you are weary and burdened, due to climate or contagion or some other catastrophe, come to him.  He will give you rest.

Can It Still Be Called “Opening Day” If the Field Is Closed?

Today, 300 days after the final game of the 2019 season and 120 days later than originally scheduled, is Opening Day for the Boston Red Sox.  Much of what we experienced as sports fans in September will be different tonight: there will be a new field manager (Alex Cora was ‘let go’ after his ties to Houston’s cheating scandal), a new general manager (Dave Dombrowski was ‘let go’ after a lackluster season), new pitchers (3 of the 5 top starters from 2019 are either injured or gone) and a new center fielder (MVP winner Mookie Betts is now a Dodger).  Off-field, things will be different as well: no fans in the stands, commentators broadcasting from off-sight studios, piped-in crowd noise, and a ban on player celebrations and arguing with umpires.  Still, our national pastime is resuming and I, for one, am delighted that some things are getting back to (a new) normal.

I was asked, the other day, if I would watch the Red Sox this year, knowing that there are no reasonable expectations of a post-season and little hope of a winning season, even in its abbreviated form.  I responded that I would watch and hope for the best.  After all, anything can happen.  The team could over-perform or one of the prospects could catch fire.  Perhaps by Labor Day my optimism will wane, but for now I am anticipating big things.

In a way, what is happening at Fenway is playing out every Sunday morning at many churches around the world.  Some of the players have changed (having moved to other teams), the product on the field is a little different (with less personal interaction) and most, if not all, of the seats are empty.  The pandemic has changed the way we ‘do church’ and experience church: most of us are participating through the filter of digital distance, surrounded by the comforts of home with the ability to pause, mute and multitask.  Like watching professional baseball, where we might be tempted to consume a product and drop out if we are dissatisfied with the outcome, sometimes our digital participation with worship is more about our available options than our openness to the Spirit.

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. 1 Corinthians 10:31 (ESV)

Whether it is viewing the new baseball season or streaming a worship service or having a romantic date night, no one knows when this current reality will return to the ways of the past.  What we can do, in this present circumstance, is elevate our digital activities to reflect some pre-March practices.  Dress up for the experience before you turn on the device, turn off your phone and commit fully to what you are experiencing.  If you were going to Fenway, the movies or the church, what would you do to prepare?  Do that.  What would you bring?  Bring them.  When would you leave the event?  Don’t leave until then.  Treat the new patterns as you would normally, for they are the new normal.

I would love to go to Fenway this summer.  I would love to go to the movies with my wife.  I would love to see the church full on a Sunday morning.  God, today, seems to have other plans.  However, whatever we do, we can do what we can to glorify God by the way we do it.

Go Sox!

Discovering Grace

Every Wednesday night we, as a church gather for prayer.  I have gotten into the habit of beginning our time of intercession with the recitation of a psalm, and each week I select the Psalm corresponding with that particular day of the year.  In the case of last Wednesday, as it was the 190th day of the year, we read the 190th Psalm (for those aware of biblical content, yes,  there are only 150 psalms; we actually read Psalm 40 for the second time).   In the middle of that scriptural song are the following statements:

I do not hide your righteousness in my heart; I speak of your faithfulness and your saving help.  I do not conceal your love and your faithfulness from the great assembly.  Psalm 40:10 (NIV)

Before I comment on the truths of these words, let me tell you a little about my time of quarantine.  In the span of the last 117 days, my household has celebrated a graduation, a birthday, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.  In that time numerous packages have entered the home stealthily so as not to be detected by the person of honor.  They were literally and figuratively under wraps and covered.  This clandestine maneuvering was without malice and was momentary; we wanted these presents to be a surprise.  Eventually, the appropriate time arrived and the gifts of love were discovered, displayed and delighted in.

I wonder, as I read again the words of the Psalmist, if I am as forthcoming with the gifts God has given me.  When I receive his righteousness – being treated rightly, justly and fairly – do I declare to all who can hear me how good God is?  Do I, when someone remarks that they esteem my new appearance or appliance, give all the credit to the sensibilities of the gift giver, God Almighty?  Or do I refrain from expressing His affections for me, whether due to misplaced pride or fear of offense?  Do I cover up what God is doing in my life?  Am I guilty of the sin that the Psalmist is so sensitive to stem?

I am well aware that the last four months have been hard on all of us, perhaps the hardest season many of us have been forced to bear.  But I am also aware that God has been God in the midst of this pandemic, providing us with enough and protecting us from the rough.  It is our privilege to share this reality with those around us.  It is as simple as saying, “I could not have made it without Jesus”, or “Thank God for His many blessings.”  It is important that our hearts be full of the knowledge that God is good all the time, and it is equally as important that this truth pour forth from us and not be bottled up deep within our core.

Do not cover up or conceal what the Lord is doing in your midst; perhaps what God is doing in your life is something that someone near you needs you to speak into their life.  Be well and tell others that God is good.

Repairing the Road

As I write this post a team of workers with heavy machinery is replacing the sidewalks, curb stones and street in front of our house.  I am captivated by all the activity that is taking place: I am awestruck by the precision of the excavator operator, as he removes dirt and debris around valve covers and drains with no apparent effort; I am fascinated my those responsible for the placement of the heavy stones, leveling and tapping them expertly in a row; I have become mesmerized by the activity just outside our front windows as each person performs their role as if engaged in a synchronized dance.  While I do not appreciate the noise beginning at 7 every morning, I am thankful for the object lesson their labors have given me.

When we moved into our current residence 10 months ago, the water main had just been replaced.  Shortly after our arrival, the gas lines that run through the neighborhood were also replaced, leaving our street a mess of potholes and uneven patches.  The road surface would fill with puddles after a rainstorm and the sidewalks in spots were dangerously uneven.  This week, all that is beginning to change, as people who know what to do and have the time to do it well are restoring what has been damaged.   Assuming all the work is completed, our street will remain pristine for the next five years.

It all reminds me of what can happen when everyone does their part to build up what has been ravaged by time or trauma.  Whether it is public works or personal health, we all have a role in edification – the building up of one another – through acts of service, through words of affirmation and/or through time together.  There is no meaningless effort nor unnecessary task.  The business of building requires designers and architects, as well as vehicle operators and day laborers.  The business of edification likewise requires thinkers and planners, as will as skilled workers and heavy lifters.

From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.  Ephesians 4:16 (NIV)

The apostle Paul, in his letter to the church in Ephesus, describes the local church as a body.  This body grows when every part does its unique work.  In Paul’s analogy, the people of God are strengthened, in community, when the ‘hands’ do what the ‘hands’ can do (and only what the ‘hands’ can do), as well as every other part – eyes, ears, kidneys, and the rest – does what they are designed to do.  This imagery, for me, has two important ramifications: first, that each of us are essential for our effectiveness and health; and second, that we are effective and healthy when we only do what we are here to do.

Together, proximately or virtually, we will grow and build our body in love as each of us do what God uniquely enables us to do.  I have an asphalt, concrete and granite reminder of this reality just outside my door.

A Stranger Place

[Jesus said,] “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”  Matthew 25:35–36 (NIV)

I have been thinking about this passage for the past few weeks.  Specifically, I have been ruminating about the Lord’s self-description as a stranger.  What did Jesus mean that he was a stranger?  Isn’t he better characterized as a friend or a sibling?  Isn’t he immanently known by those who follow him?  How could we possibly engage in a relationship with the Living God and not recognize him as a stranger?

According to Walter Brueggemann, strangers are “people without a place.”[1]  Strangers are those who enter into a community devoid of basic support structures – they are separated from familial, vocational, financial, religious and political networks.   This, I believe, is the underlying truth of Jesus’ self-expression: part of the human condition is enduring times of placelessness and part of the life of the church is inviting the placeless in.

My musings about the stranger began about a month ago, when my daughter travelled to Washington D.C. to pack up her college apartment.  About 70 miles from anyone she knew and more than 100 miles from her destination, she experienced car troubles and found herself broken down on the side of a rural road.  She was placeless – alone and separated from everyone and everything she knew.  Thankfully, she had AAA and a cousin to rescue her, but she still was stranded for more than an hour.  She was placeless, a stranger.  And God is good: the hours she spent in Mullica Hill, NJ were warm and sunny and throughout the ordeal a number of women from the community inquired about her well-being.

My musings continued over the next few weeks as our city and our nation witnessed demonstrations against, among many issues, what I would call ‘systemic strangering’: the pervasive displacement of our black and brown siblings through the misuse and abuse of authority.  Because many had nowhere to go to alleviate their suffering and address their basic needs, they assembled en masse across this nation to shed light on their exclusion.  But God is good: conversations of engagement and songs of lament are now taking place among His people.

My musings also encompass our current pandemic.  As disease and death unite the world in our common crisis, we are sorrowful that there is nowhere we can go and no one to turn to find complete relief.  We are all placeless together.  Even in this, God is good:  in the midst of our strangerness, we find collective common ground in our community walks and our mutual  disappointment with those still refusing to consider the needs of the vulnerable, the real strangers in our midst.

Do you have room in your heart, or in your schedule, to invite in the stranger?  Do you recognize the divine gift we have to offer, a place of belonging (figuratively in the present and literally before long)  to those who have nothing to offer but themselves?  When you do, you are welcoming in the Lord.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation and Obedience (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991) 294.