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.

Heavenly Laughter

It was the best of plans: I had wrapped my son’s birthday present (his first cell phone) and placed it with the others on the dining room table, and then I typed up a text to the family giving out his number but was waiting until the right moment push ‘send’.  We proceeded with his party (the menu for our freshly minted 12 year-old’s festivities was Ring Dings and Wattamelon Roll), which we enjoyed before the opening of the gifts.  As we were about to get on with the gift-giving, there was a muffled ring coming from the pile.  It was the phone.  Had I mistakenly sent out the text? (I quickly checked, and I had not.)  It turns out a telemarketer had ruined our surprise, but in the process created an unexpectedly wonderful birthday memory.

“Mann Tracht, Un Gott Lacht” is a Yiddish proverb which means, “Man Plans, and God Laughs.”  No matter how much we plan, life is messy and things often do not go as imagined.  Josh’s birthday party made me think about Jesus’ birthday; the life his parents experienced was certainly not as planned.  There was an unplanned pregnancy (from their perspective), a thwarted divorce, a rejected reservation, an unexpected visit (or two) from strangers and an unforeseen move.  It was a year (or two) of chaos and confusion that neither Mary nor Joseph could have imagined.  Yet, God was with them and was creating something unexpectedly wonderful.

If ever there was a time in human history when God orchestrated a course correction in the affairs of His creation, the birth of the Messiah was that time.  God sent Gabriel to Mary to tell her, “Do not be afraid…”  God sent an angel in a dream to Joseph to tell him, “Do not be afraid….”, and another (also in a dream) to tell him to travel to Egypt to protect his family.  God sent angels to the shepherds to tell them, “Do not be afraid….”  God warned the Magi, in a dream, to return home by another way so as to avoid Herod and protect the Lord.

Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.  Proverbs 3:5-6 (NIV)

As I see it, we all have a choice to make when things do not seem to go as planned: we can scowl and think that all is ruined, or we can smile and thank God for His intercession.  Our reaction when “things don’t go our way” reveals who we think is in charge of the details of our lives.  Especially during this season, we need to face the facts that our plans may not go as expected: cookies will burn, airlines will have delays, products will be back-ordered, illnesses will invade our homes and sentimental ornaments will break.  These things might be God’s way of correcting your course, adjusting your plans and preparing you for something unexpectedly wonderful.

“Mann Tracht, Un Gott Lacht”.  I hope you hear Him.

Check Mate

Tuesday, for me, was a day of check-ups and check-ins.  First, I spent time with my new doctor at my annual physical.  Then, I spent time with my youngest child’s teachers at a series of parent-teacher conferences.  Overall, all the conversations were satisfactory: I am doing well physically and Joshua is doing very well academically.  With these appointments now concluded, we were both encouraged and challenged – encouraged to keep up the good work and build on successes, challenged to try new things and improve areas of weakness.   It is good to hear, by medical and educational professionals, that one’s hard work is bearing fruit.

What would happen if we, as followers of Christ, sat before the Great Physician for an annual examination?  What would happen if we, as the people of God, met with the Good Teacher for a routine conference?    What would happen if we regularly met with the Almighty to find encouragement and challenge in our spiritual life?  What would the One who knows all things (the Almighty knows our moves as well as our motives) direct us to maintain, for good health, or demand us to refrain from, like bad habits, to improve our health?   What if we did for our soul what we do for our bodies and our minds?

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.  Hebrews 10:24-25 (NIV)

Paul’s admonition – for us to consider how we may provoke one another – is worthy of reflection.  Contained in these verses are some clues as to what he had in mind: we ought to be meeting together and we ought to be encouraging one another.   Typically, I think about ‘meeting together’ as a reference to Sunday morning worship, but it merely means “gathering up with others’, whether it be in a formal service of in an informal assembly in the aisle of the grocery store.  We ought to be engaging in intentional interactions with one another.  We ought to be checking in with those God has surrounded us with.

And when we engage in these intentional interactions, we ought to have as a priority to encouragement of one another.  The biblical term ‘encouragement’ is picturesque, a compound word in the original language denoting ‘one being called alongside’.   God has brought us, with all our strengths and weaknesses, into relationship with others who are equally strong in some areas and scarred in others.  We then rub shoulders with one another, offering words of guidance and expressions of hope, again in formal and informal settings.  We ought to be checking up with those God has surrounded us with.

Check-ups and check-ins are inevitable.  Just like the annual physical or the performance evaluation or the dental cleaning or the parent-teacher conference, we are blessed when we routinely examine our health and well-being.  Our soul ought to be no exception.

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.

My People

Earlier this week I was in Memphis to celebrate my mother’s eightieth birthday.  One part of the days-long celebration was a gathering of my mother’s friends at her house, a collation of a dozen or so women, middle-aged and above, who spent a few hours extolling the virtues of my mom.  As I stood among them, I was delighted to see her surrounded by her people, those who are willing to share in her sorrows and stories, to stand amidst her strengths and struggles.  As the afternoon progressed, there were times of laughter and tears as the ladies retold their memories of the birthday girl.  It was a glory to witness.

I have come to realize that this, in some deep recess of my psyche, was something I needed to know that after eight years of living in a community 1,100 miles from her old neighborhood, my mother had people who cared for her.  She had church friends and development friends.  She has others to talk with or to cry with.  She has women who have taken an interest in her and she has taken an interest in them.  It was a comfort to be introduced to people who loved my mother deeply and dearly.

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.  1 Peter 2:9

It is comforting to have ‘people’.  It is glorious to know, through Christ, that we can be ‘God’s people’.  It is hard to fully comprehend that we are chosen by God to engage with Him personally.  As we contemplate this relationship we have with the Almighty creator of the universe, we begin to realize that it is less like meeting a world leader in his ostentatious office and more like my birthday party.  We ought to cower in His presence, perhaps, but instead we are warmly and joyfully embraced as we swap stories of sorrow and delight.  We have a place beside Him. We are included in the inside jokes.  We are part of ‘God’s people’.

There is no one who needs to go their way alone.  We are all sojourners and travelers; the residences we occupy are only temporary housing and the companions we make are very changing.  Yet, we are, at every turn and through every step, blessed by God with His people to make the journey more glorious.  It was a joy to meet some of His people as we celebrated Mum’s birthday.  I pray, too, that we all realize this blessing of being, and being surrounded by, God’s chosen people as we make our way through life.

Gratitude

Research has shown that practicing gratitude boosts the immune system, bolsters resilience to stress, lowers depression, increases feelings of energy, determination, and strength, and even helps you sleep better at night.  In fact, few things have been more repeatedly and empirically tested than the connection between gratitude and overall happiness and well-being.  Experts confirm, over and over again, that those who would consider themselves happy are those who also consider themselves grateful.

Even though there is a preponderance of evidence for the benefits of thankfulness, most people do not practice gratitude.  In a survey done by Janice Kaplan for her book The Gratitude Diaries, she found that while “more than 90% of people think gratitude makes you happier and gives you a more fulfilled life … less than half regularly express gratitude.”  When was the last time you said anything more than an obligatory “Thank You” to the waitstaff at a restaurant or a wave of appreciation for the kind soul who held the door open for you at the bank?  Have you experienced the benefits of a lifestyle of gratitude?

Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.  Colossians 3:16

The words of Paul tell us that those who have been transformed buy the good news of Christ will be singing to God with gratitude.  This act of singing may be figurative, or it may be a first century way of saying what the researchers of today contend: gratitude brings a melody to mind.  It is quite possible that Paul knew the same link between happiness and gratitude that Kaplan has now written about.  It is likely that the God who created us, in all our complexity, inspired the Apostle to pen the connection between singing and gratitude woven into our DNA.

Perhaps you would accept a challenge, an experiment to test the veracity of modern sociology and ancient biblical interpretation: we could practice expressing our gratitude with the objective of placing a song on our lips.  We could be thankful, to God to others, for the blessings they bring into our lives.  We could show appreciation for the acts of service friends and strangers perform on our behalf.  We could return kindness when we experience it.  We could discover whether or not these disciplines of gratitude make us happier and allow us to feel greater contentment.  We could be happier.

In this season of harvest, we have much to be thankful for: most of us have more than we need, whether it be as little as a bed instead of a dirt floor or as much as a home with as many bathrooms as inhabitants.  God has orchestrated all the functions of nature to allow our bellies to be filled and our bodies to be useful.  We, each and every one of us, have reason to express gratitude.  It is a good time to give thanks unto the Lord.

ICU (or “I See You”)

If you listened to my message on Sunday, I mentioned in passing an ordeal I had been going through regarding a prescription refill.  I had exhausted all my refills, so I called the health center to schedule a physical; I was informed that my PCP was no longer at that facility and I was reassigned; I was given the next available appointment – and a 7 week wait.  At this point, I asked if I could get my prescriptions refilled and was given assurances they were in process.  A few days later, as I ran out of one of my medications, I called the pharmacy, who was still waiting for authorization, so day after day I called and the health center marked my request as urgent.  10 days after I began the process, I determinedly walked over to the facility, talked to the receptionist, face-to-face, and she took my request to the back, returning after a while with the good news that my prescriptions were sent off to the pharmacy; a few hours later I finally received what I needed to maintain my health.

In hindsight, I have come to realize the importance of face-to-face interactions.  I have come to understand the power of looking into another person’s eyes and voicing a genuine frustration.  I have come to appreciate standing in front of another human being and receiving assurances that I have been heard and valued.  After interacting with disembodied voices for more than a week with no progress, seeing another human being and being seen by another human being was what was necessary for my issues to be resolved.   And now, because of technological conveniences, I fear that face-to-face interactions are few and far between.

I am concerned that we, as a society, are in danger of losing something important because we do not interact with one another in person.  We can maintain contact with friends through social media.  We can check in on family members with a text.  We can experience spiritual growth through an app.  We can shop for nearly all our essentials via the internet.  We can receive instruction on nearly every topic by watching YouTube.  In most areas of life (professional service calls are a singular exception), it is not required that we actually engage in human interactions…but it is desperately needed.

I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face.  Peace to you.  The friends here send their greetings.  Greet the friends there by name.  3 John 14 (NIV)

Take it from one who has recently improved his physical health by meeting with someone face-to-face, your efforts in actual engagement will be rewarded.  Take the risk and put the phone down.  Sit a spell with a friend over a cup of tea or walk together along a river.  Pop into a local hardware store and talk to the owner behind the counter about thermostats or trash cans.  Attend a Bible study, even if it is filled with strangers.  Talking to someone will benefit your relational health, learning with someone will enhance your intellectual health, worshipping with someone will develop your spiritual health.  Let’s get together, face-to-face, for your sake and mine.

Any Given Sunday, on a Thursday

I had the great privilege last Thursday of joining my oldest son in celebrating his birthday by going to Gillette Stadium in order to watch the Patriots compete against the New York Giants.   Neither of us had ever seen the Patriots play anywhere other than on television.   It was, in many ways, an unforgettable experience.  We got to see Tom Brady’s completion to Sony Michel, making him the quarterback with the second-most passing yards in NFL history; we got to see a punt blocked and passes intercepted;  we got to see a win and the team we root for remain undefeated.  We got to see it all.  And it was glorious…mostly.

The traffic getting to the game was heavy.  We followed the back roads, knowing the highways would be crammed.  As we approached Foxboro, we were greeted with brake lights and orange cones.  We crept, along with hundreds of other cars, toward the parking lots.  Finally, we arrived in Lot 50, a quarter of a mile walk from the stadium.

The costs attributable to the game (tickets, parking and concessions) were substantial.  We paid $30 for parking and much more for second-market tickets.  We walked past the concession stands and decided to take a pass of a $10 malt beverage.  There was over-priced fare at other stands as well as team merchandise at the Pro Shop kiosks.  We could have easily dropped $1,000 during the night.

The comfort level of the seating was lacking.  We had to walk to our 3rd tier seats, zigzagging along the access ramps and climbing the stairs of our section.  After we adjusted to the perspective from being so high, we crammed our legs into the plastic formed seats.  Sitting in the elements (the weather was windy but dry that night), we were surrounded by every kind of fan – everyone from the loud and obnoxious to the quiet and casual.

The quality of what was presented was spotty.  The game itself was average.  There were an equal number of good and poor plays.  The Giants are not a team of great talent, and they played as expected.  It was a good game, but not much of it would be highlighted on SportsCenter.

The time involved in participating was excessive.  We left the hose at 4:30 and returned home at 2 in the morning.  While we didn’t tailgate, we could have (the parking lots open 4 hours before kickoff).  The game was a wonderful three hours or so.  The inching along in the parking lot to get onto route 1 was a frustrating 90 minutes.  It was a long and glorious night.

The experience was wonderful.  I got to spend time with someone I love doing something we love together.

… not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.  Hebrews 10:25 (NIV)

Why is it that 65,000 people can withstand the traffic, the cost, the time and the discomfort of a mediocre football game, but cannot do the same for a worship service at a local church?  I understand that the two experiences are not the same for many – our NFL experience was a once-in-a-lifetime experience – but I am puzzled that so many (especially season ticket holders) would risk rain and snow and spend large amounts of money and time to watch men play a game instead of attending a worship service.  Why is it that some would relish the petty annoyances of traffic and parking lot gridlock while others will not tolerate a longer message and a service extended past 12:15?

Thanks for letting me rant.  If you ever choose to come to Calvary, I promise that the parking will be free.

Breaking Bread

A few days after we moved to our new neighborhood a few weeks ago, we decided to be a bit adventurous and go out to a restaurant down the street from us.  We chose to go to Yaowarat Road, an eatery named for a street in Bangkok’s Chinatown, which specializes in Thai/Chinese cuisine.  When we first arrived and read the menu, I thought about going elsewhere, as there were few dishes I understood or thought we would enjoy.  But we ordered what we comprehended (as well as some Pad Thai, which was not on the menu) and it was all delicious.  It was a wonderful meal that I could have missed if I was unwilling to take a risk.

I was reminded about my supper at Yaowarat Road as I studied about a practice the Bible calls “the breaking of bread”.  This phrase is complex: it is typically a reference to the ordinance of communion (referencing the Lord’s breaking the bread at the Passover table); it could, however, be referring to any meal shared by the people of God (as would be the case of Passover, which involves breaking bread, and the feeding of the five thousand, which also specifically states that the Lord broke the loaves).  It is this more general meaning that I have been reflecting upon.

Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves.  Then he gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people.  He also divided the two fish among them all.   Mark 6:41 (NIV)

One of the most unifying aspects of ministry is dining together, the time when the church comes together to break bread.  A fascinating dynamic is at work when we share a meal, whether it be at a pot-luck or a restaurant.  Our choices of cuisine say something about us: they show our preferences and our tolerances, they reveal our habits and our palates, and they demonstrate our knowledge and our experiences.  When we share a meal with another, we display ourselves on that plate.  Serving up jerk chicken tells us something.  Ordering dessert tells us something else.  Eating off another plate tells us yet something more.

Breaking bread also expresses our acceptance of one another.  When we eat what another person has prepared or ordered, we are saying that your traditions and tastes matter.  We might use more (or less) seasoning or another cut of meat or a different protein, if we were given the choice.  But we allow another person to build the menu and we are given a glimpse of themselves.  If we are lucky, we discover something delectable that we knew nothing about; if not, we might need an antacid for a day or two.  Either way, our culinary knowledge and our fellowship is enlarged.

So, take a risk and break bread with someone – invite them to your home or your local diner and eat a meal with a fellow saint.  If you are hesitant, I invite you to join me for dinner at the church this Wednesday night for one of my favorites.  I hope you’ll have a heaping helping of hospitality.