One of my favorite parts of celebrating Christmas is watching the Christmas specials on TV with the family (and if we are unavailable for the network broadcasts, we have most, if not all, the best on DVD). I am sure everyone has a list of their preferences: “The Year Without a Santa Claus”, “Frosty the Snowman”, “Prep and Landing”, or “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer”. They are all wonderful in their own right, but my personal choice for the greatest Christmas special would be a tie between “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”. These marvelous stories, regularly broadcast since 1965 and 1966 respectively, hold a special place in my heart.
At first blush, these two stories have very little in common. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” tells the story of a boy seeking the real meaning of Christmas while preparing for a traditional Christmas pageant which emphasizes, in a pivotal scene, a reference to the biblical account of Jesus’ birth. “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” recounts the happenings of a fantastic location known as Whoville and the mean resident of Mount Crumpet who is seeking to rob the Whos of their Christmas joy. One has overtly Christian themes and the other has overly secular themes, seemingly the two opposites of the celebratory spectrum.
But these two masterpieces have more in common than you might think. Both the authors grew up in Lutheran homes. Both were based on works intended for children. Most significantly, both, at their cores, deal with the dangers of consumerism. “Charlie Brown”’s animated landscape is riddled with aluminum Christmas trees and its dialogue is filled with gift suggestions, leaving the protagonist with the zigzag shirt longing for more. “The Grinch”’s narrative couplets tell of jingtinglers and games like zoozittacarzay, and decry the noises of the season, all of which cause consternation within the titular green meanie. Both Charlie Brown and the Grinch want to stop the celebration of a consumption-centered Christmas.
Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. Luke 2:11 (NIV)
If you have not watched these specials at least once in the last 50 years, stop reading and watch them on Youtube© here and here. Both these Christmas specials come to the conclusion that the meaning and significance of Christmas is not the stuff under the tree, but the relationships we cherish while gathering around the tree. It is the relationships – for “Charlie Brown” it is Jesus and for “The Grinch” it is family – that makes Christmas matter. These relationships bring the school children around a tiny tree to sing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and bring the Whos around the spot where the village tree was placed to sing “Fah Who Foraze, Dah Who Doraze, Welcome, Christmas, Come This Way.”
My prayer this Christmas is that we can all come to the same realization that the Grinch reaches: that Christmas can come without ribbons, without tags, without packages, boxes or bags. My hope this Christmas is that when we reach our breaking point and cry out, as Charlie did, whether anyone knows what Christmas is all about, some kind soul reminds you about the marvelous events that took place just outside Bethlehem. It is not about presents…it is all about presence.
For many, the Christmas season means spending a great deal of time traveling: a dozen trips in the car battling the traffic to the mall, the annual airline flight to visit the grandparents, or the 10-hour bus ride home from college. Time on the road or waiting in a terminal is synonymous with celebrating Christmas. It makes sense, since travelling has always been a part of Jesus’ birth. I am thinking about a young couple named Mary and Joseph, who were required to travel roughly ninety miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. To put it in perspective, it would be like walking from Dorchester to Hartford.
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. Luke 2:1-3
Sometimes, we might think that the demands upon us to travel are beyond our control and we chafe at the expectation. That may have been how Mary and Joseph felt. Caesar Augustus thought he had a good idea in counting everyone in his realm and raise taxes to increase his kingdom. Because he was the dictator of the entire Rome world, he could do anything he wanted. So they went, on foot, despite the fact that Mary was ‘heavy laden with child’. God had a plan for them, and God often has a plan for us.
Sometimes, we might think that the destination of our travel plans are outside our comfort zone. That could have been how Joseph and Mary felt as they awkwardly advanced toward Bethlehem together. It was an uncomfortable situation: they were pledged to be married but had yet to have the ceremony when it was obvious that they were expecting. Mary was in an uncomfortable condition: can you imagine walking 15 miles a day for 6 days while 9 months pregnant? God was guiding their every step, and God is also guiding ours.
God may be leading us to places out of our control and beyond our comfort because there are people in those places that need the hope, the joy and the love that appeared in its fulness for the first time in Bethlehem. There are people in parking lots and registers who need a smile and a warm greeting. There are people frustrated by missed connections or missing luggage that could benefit from an act of kindness and a candy cane. The roads and airways are filled with inconsiderate and self-centered travelers; perhaps God could use you to offer those around you common courtesy and Christmas cheer.
Wherever God has you travelling this month, whether it be across the room, across the street or across the country, know that God has a purpose in your journey – to bring forth a witness to God’s grace, mercy and love to those who may not experience it otherwise. We could choose to follow Mary and Joseph’s example and remain faithful to God wherever He may lead us. We could choose to share the delight of knowing the light that shines in the darkness, the hope of nations, the King of Kings and the prince of peace.
May we go wherever we go with gladness and may the gifts arrive unbroken.
Last Sunday, I spent part of my vacation visiting a church not far from home. The fact that I went to church on vacation is not my point in this posting. Where we went is also not my point, nor is my point the fact that it was a wonderful service. What I felt as I sat there, on the other side of the pulpit, can be summed up in one word: distracted. I was distracted by the worship leader’s broken guitar string (and how he was going to handle the set-back). I was distracted by the graphics on the screen (and the exceptional quality of said images that the church projected through two large television screens). I was distracted by those sitting next to me (my boys have nothing softer than a stage whisper) and those sitting a few rows in front of me (who were shifting in their seats randomly and consistently).
My point is this: we all, even when we have the best of intentions, get distracted by the things that bombard our senses every Sunday. Perhaps, like me, you hear the radiator hiss or the bench squeak. Perhaps, like me, you see the head three rows ahead bob back and forth or the lamp on the platform flicker off and on. Perhaps, like me, you smell the lip balm of your wife or the phantom aromas of pot-lucks past. Perhaps, like me, you feel an odd breeze or sense your leg falling asleep. Before you know it, like me, you are missing what the Spirit is saying.
A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. Luke 7:37
As I think about my distracted mind last Sunday, I think about the Pharisee who invited Jesus to his house for dinner. In those days, eating a meal with someone was a big deal: it represented the importance of the relationship. As Jesus and the Pharisee were discussing any number of pressing matters, a woman comes in and proceeds to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears. The Pharisee (and apparently Luke) are fascinated by this woman, wetting His feet with her weeping, wiping them away with her hair and anointing them with perfume and kisses. Quite the spectacle.
At some point Jesus, knowing the Pharisee’s thoughts and his distracted condition, breaks through and tells the Pharisee a parable about forgiveness. This serves as a good reminder to all of us: Jesus knows our thoughts and how we are easily distracted, and He is willing and able to capture (and recapture) our attention to show us what we need to see. Jesus is faithful to His adopted siblings, pulling us away from our daydreams and off our rabbit trails and redirecting our thoughts toward His counsel. That is what I needed last Sunday, a nudge to ignore the behavior of that woman in front of me and focus (if only for a moment) on the Lord before me.
We all get distracted at times (even on Sunday mornings at 11:40 in Dorchester). It is good to know that God not only understands, but assists us in catching what we need to hear even when we are not listening.
Now, our God, we give you thanks, and praise your glorious name. 1 Chronicles 29:13 (NIV)
I give thanks for the things God has provided me. Knowing that I could have lived at any time and in any place, I thank God that I live now. I thank God for the combustion engine that enables me to travel, via automobile, more than a mile a minute. I thank God for cellular service that enables me to contact anyone anywhere nearly instantaneously. I thank God for sensible shoes, frivolous ties and (literally) a million other inventions – the ball point pen, the coffee maker and dulce de leche.
I give thanks for the health with which God has blessed me. Living in the midst of the greatest medical centers in the world, I thank God that I live in Boston. I thank God for neighborhood clinics and physician assistants. I thank God for blood tests and blood pressure meds. I thank God for access to good foods and the willpower to avoid junk foods.
I give thanks for abilities with which God has equipped me. Working in Dorchester, I thank God that I am using my talents to accomplish some good. I thank God that I have a mind that processes biblical texts logically and creatively. I thank God that I have a strong enough back to mow the lawn. I thank God for the experiences (personally and professionally) to shape me in such a way that I can be useful.
I give thanks for the nature God has placed all around me. To quote Mark Twain, “If you don’t like the weather in New England now, just wait a few minutes.” I thank God for the colors of the seasons – white snows, green grasses, red roses and yellow leaves – and the fluctuations in temperature. I thank God for the mighty oceans, the babbling brooks, the majestic mountains and the vast skies. I thank God for the variety and diversity of life all around me.
I give thanks for the kindred God has given me. There are so many people with whom God has enabled me to share my life. I thank God for my immediate family, who are the five most incredible people I know. I thank God for my family of origin, another five amazing people God has given me. I thank God for all the relatives these family bonds have created – those who are part of my tribe through marriage and birth. I thank God for my church family, past and present, who have shaped my expression of faith. I thank God for fifty years of friendships, some of whom have become as close as blood.
I give thanks for the Savior God has become for me. Ultimately, I thank God for doing what no one else could have ever done for me: sacrificing everything to suffer and die to satisfy the price and penalty for my sin. I thank God that He condescended to live among us and endured crucifixion to confer eternal life to all who confess Him as Lord and Savior.
Yesterday may have been Thanksgiving. Today and every day is given to us to express thanks to God.
The other morning, my mother-in-law underwent a procedure to treat her cataracts. At ninety-one, she was hesitant to have it done (she was unwilling to endure the pain, to be anesthetized, or to have a doctor mess with her eyes). After weeks of prayer and encouragement by a multitude of sources, she went to the surgical clinic and allowed the procedure to be done. The surgery was a success. Twenty-four hours later, at the follow-up appointment, two surprising developments took place: 1) she told the nurse that the experience was better than she expected, and 2) her vision test showed that her eyesight was greatly improved.
Worry is, by all appearances, a mighty adversary. It will tell us that the costs are not worth the gains. It will remind us of that one time, long ago, when we were mistreated and assure us it will happen again. It will highlight the adverse effects that professionals must legally disclose and tell us that we will be the ‘one-in-a-million’ to suffer. It will keep us up at night, make us lose our appetites and force us to pace the floor. Few know the truth, however, that worry is a paper tiger. Worry is only a shadow on the wall.
“Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” Matthew 6:27 (NIV)
As I read these words of Jesus, I think to myself, “Maybe I can; I am pretty good at it.” Despite my conviction that God’s word is true and that God grants perfect peace – complete contentment and wondrous well-being – to all who trust in Him, worry is a constant travelling companion of mine. Its relentless whisper rings in my ears, causing me to fret about everything from car accidents to broken bones, from power outages to excessive costs. I readily admit that this level of worry is not rational; it is nothing more than exhausting – of energy, of hope and or peace.
“So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Matthew 6:31-33 (NIV)
The remedy for worry is worship: to trust in the promises of our loving Heavenly Father for what we eat, what we drink and what we wear (as well as what we endure, what we await and what we hope to avoid). Worry is silenced when we rely upon God to provide whatever we need, whether it be peace or patience or perseverance. Worry is unmasked when we rest in God’s presence. Worry is defeated when we occupy our thought with the goodness, kindness and love of our creator. The paper tiger of worry is tamed by the authority of His name.
I hope that my quickly recovering mother-in-law (and I) will be able to see this truth.
According to the Pew Research Center, there are more than 20.4 million veterans alive today in the United States, slightly more than one in sixteen Americans. This weekend, we commemorate their sacrifice, and the sacrifices of their loved ones, as we observe Veteran’s Day. We take time as a country to recognize the efforts of the members of our armed forces – Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marines and Navy – as they defended our freedom in World War II, the Korean Conflict, the Viet Nam War, the Gulf War and in peace-time service. We recognize those who are presently serving on ships and at bases across the globe, and we recognize those who remain at home awaiting their return.
When I turned eighteen (in the winter of ’84), there were no on-going war zones and so I was not compelled to enlist or serve. In a way, I feel that I missed out on something special. I was not willing to endure the hardships of basic training or the rigors of living in barracks. I also missed out on the camaraderie and support of one soldier supporting another, of one pilot protecting the back of another, of one sailor confiding in another or one marine securing the success of another. We must respect these servicewomen and men who see the cause ahead of them as greater than all they have left behind and are willing to bear the cost that cause demands.
Join with me in suffering, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. 2 Timothy 2:3
How does that old camp song go? “I may never march in the infantry, ride in the cavalry, shoot the artillery. I may never fly o’er the enemy, but I’m in the Lord’s army!” Now, I am in no way equating the life-threatening peril faced by a veteran and the daily drudgery of a follower of Christ. What I am thinking about is what might happen if the kingdom of God had citizens who were willing to suffer as a good soldier. What ground could be claimed, what captives could be set free, if we, as followers of Christ, see the cause ahead of us – the redemption of souls through the furthering of the gospel – as greater than all we want to keep for ourselves. What if we, too, were willing to bear the cost that cause demands.
There is a great debt that we all owe to all those who are willing to sacrifice everything for our freedom. This debt extends from Jesus, who entered enemy territory to set us free from the bondage of death and sin, to every member of the military, who entered enemy territory to secure life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We ought to be grateful for the sacrifices that secure our freedoms and recognize the costs that others have made. May the followers of Christ have the same commitment to those around them that the veterans we celebrate on November 11th have.
For those who wore, or are wearing, the flag on their shoulder, we thank you.
On Sunday night, the Boston Red Sox won their fourth World Series in the last fifteen years. As I was preparing my thoughts for this post, I read my post from November 1, 2013, the last time the Red Sox won it all. At that time, I was particularly impressed with John Lackey, who had a checkered past as a Red Sox pitcher but came up big in the playoffs, even getting the win in the Series clinching game. He was a living example of the biblical practice of “forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead (Philippians 3:13).”
This time around it was another pitcher, in fact the pitcher who got the win in this year’s Series clinching game, with whom I was particularly enamored. David Price, the highest paid player on the Red Sox, has always been an ace (an exceptional starting pitcher) in the regular season, but, entering the 2018 post-season, had amassed an 0-9 record in games he started in the playoffs. It looked like it would be more of the same this year when Price lost to the Yankees in game 2 of the A.L. Divisional Series and received a no-decision in game 2 of the A.L. Championship Series.
Hope for the hometown team was flagging when Price was named the starter for game 5 of the ALCS. However, as Price put it, he “figured something out while [warming up in the bullpen for a possible relief appearance in game 4], and it kind of just carried over” into his start the following day. He was spectacular, earning his first win in the playoffs as a starter (and clinching the American League pennant). He was then spectacular a few days later, in game 2 of the World Series, earning his second win, and then, a few days after that, winning his third consecutive start and securing the World Series for the Red Sox.
The amazing truth in all this is that David Price is in the middle of his contract (which, I remind you, is the highest in Red Sox history) and – win, lose or no-decision – would have been paid the same amount for the next 4 years. Yet, Price pitched three times in the World Series (once as a reliever) and willingly sacrificed himself for he team. Price literally did everything he could do to win, leaving everything he had on the field of play. By doing this, he went from scapegoat to hero in the span of ten days.
And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. Colossians 3:17
Because of David Price, I am reminded that all that I do can and should glorify God. It is only reasonable for me to do all that I am capable of doing in building for His kingdom, expanding His gospel and expressing His love to those around me. I am able to sacrifice more than I think so that I can accomplish more than I expect. I thank God that our record from the past does not dictate our productivity in the future. When we are willing to do whatever it takes, sometimes God will use that to enable us to take it all.
Driving in Boston can be an adventure: the streets are narrow, turn signals are for ‘the other car’ and the solid yellow lines are ignored. I am typically the driver on family trips to the grocery store or school, with my loving wife in the front passenger seat. As we navigate the roads around our residence, she gently reminds me on occasion of people and vehicles that are dangerously close to our car. “Watch out for that car pulling out of the driveway,” she implores. “Do you see that woman with the baby carriage?” she asks. “There’s a truck on your left,” she says.
What my wife is pointing out are my blind spots. When she says these things and asks these questions, I am quick to tell her that I am fine and that I see everything she mentions. I am confident that I know where my blind spots are and what is contained within them. As I write these words, I realize just how dumb they sound: am I really proposing that I can see and process the things that, by definition, I cannot see, the things to which I am blind? What makes them blind spots is the fact that they are not seen.
We all need an extra pair of eyes, someone watching our backs, if we hope to avoid disaster. We all need someone outside ourselves, someone with a slightly different perspective, who will tell us the hard facts that we are unable to recognize. We all need someone who will see the trouble before it strikes and warn us (or, at least, enable us to brace for impact). We need other people in our lives in order to avoid becoming a wreck: physically, emotionally, spiritually or relationally. “Watch out for increased sodium levels,” they will implore. “Do you see those red flags that your new companion is raising?” they will ask. “There’s a flaw in your logic,” they will say.
As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another. Proverbs 27:17 (NIV)
In order for iron to sharpen iron, in order for the hammer and anvil to shape the blade and in order for the file to hone the edge two things are needed: fire and friction. Solomon, in all his wisdom, understood that we need the same thing, especially in the blind spots. We need fire; the healthiest relationships include elements of passion and purification. We need friction; the healthiest relationships include the qualities of proximity and pressure. In order to make it from one point in life to another without damage, we need a friend who is close enough to care and strong enough to say what needs saying.
It is my firm belief that this type of friendship is a gift from God. He blesses us with people who will point out what is in our blind spots because they love us and want the best for us. It is in our best interest to foster those who will bring fire and friction into our life, so that we can avoid the flames. I thank God for my wife, my second set of eyes. I pray you have someone similar to her with whom you can ride along.
Yesterday, at exactly 11:16PM, my middle son, David, turned 18 and in so doing became a legal adult. He is able to vote for the next elected official and enter into binding contracts. He is able to sign himself out of class if he chooses and he will now be reported by name on census forms. He is more than a big boy; he is a man, physically and statutorily. I wonder, as I reflect upon this momentous occasion, if he is ready for the adult world and if he has the character of an adult in the world today.
As I reflect upon his life, I pray that he will continue to develop his character of:
- Charity – David and I had the opportunity to visit the former Charlestown Navy Yard on a regular basis. As we made our way to weekly appointments, we would walk by expired parking meters. After a few weeks, we scoured the car for loose change (and then filled our pockets before we left the house) so that we could anonymously refill the meters. I pray that he will continue to be that kind of man.
- Hospitality – David regularly invited friends to our home for afternoons of video gaming. He’d ask, on their behalf, for his mom to procure snacks and soda so that his guests would be cared for (they even ate, over a week or two, a case of Vidalia-flavored potato chips). I pray that he will continue to be that kind of man.
- Accomplishment – As part of your participation in the scouts, I remember the courts of honor I attended, celebrating David’s advancement through the ranks and his proficiency in certain skills worthy of merit badges. He has a treasure trove of skills and abilities that he ought to be proud of. I pray that he will continue to be that kind of man.
Similarly, encourage the young men to be self-controlled. In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us. Titus 2:6–8
- Adventure – Through storming through the front door like a warrior or through playing in the driveway with abandon, David receive stitches in his palm on one occasion and his leg on another. I hope my son will, forsaking recklessness, will risk something to taste life fully. I pray that he will continue to be that kind of man.
- Responsibility – one formative experience, as he is oft to repeat, was when his mom gave a “time-out” to David’s favorite toy (Dusty, the talking Vacuum Cleaner). With glee, he recounts that there are consequences to bad behavior (even when performed by the inanimate). He learned that he was responsible for himself and those he leads. I pray that he will continue to be that kind of man.
- Whimsy – I have a picture in my office of my now adult son in a banana suit while volunteering at VBS. He also wore the suit at a recent PAX East Expo. It was funny, quirky and unexpected. I pray that he will continue to be that kind of man.
- Service – David has been active in the church; as an usher, as a representative for the “Got Goat” program, working the sound board. He has utilized his skills in service to God and others. I pray that he will continue to be that kind of man.
May we all strive to be adults of character, as I pray my middle boy will.
Happy Birthday, David.
I would say that I am an avid follower of the Boston Red Sox. I watch the games (typically on television) and listen to all levels of commentary from sports radio. I worry when the bases are loaded with Yankee base runners and cheer when the team pulls it out in the ninth. I offer suggestions for lineups and complain about roster moves. I use “we” and “us”, not “they” and “them”; I have been known to say such things as “we are going to the playoffs” and “the bullpen lost us the game”. I may call myself an avid follower of the Red Sox, but I am not. I am simply a fan.
Merriam-Webster defines a fan (actually, a fanatic) as ‘a person who is extremely enthusiastic about and devoted to some interest or activity’. That is what I am as relates to the Red Sox. Whatever the outcome might be of a single game or the entire season, my life and livelihood are never disrupted. I will never get a million-dollar contract after a great year or cut after a poor one. I need not save the date for the day I ride through Boston at a Duck Boat parade. Alex Cora, the field manager, and Dave Dombrowski, the general manager, are never going to ask my opinion or consider my suggestions for the team. I am not part of the “we”; I am not one of “us”.
Some of us have a similar sense of ‘following’ Christ as we do ‘following’ a sports team: we can attend the game, or not; we can have strong opinions about how things ought to go, but they amount to nothing more than talk show fodder; I can say that I am a part of the team, but never put on a uniform or play my position. I do not attend the team meetings or do the conditioning work in the off-season. Sometimes we act as if all we want is the glory based upon the sacrifice of another without having to do anything more than watch when I feel like it. We mistake following Christ as nothing more than being a fan of God’s only begotten.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Matthew 16:24
So, are you a fan of Jesus or an actual follower? Jesus had a completely different conception of “following”. When we follow Jesus, it means a denial of self. We must be willing and able to refuse ourselves: our opinions, preferences, schedules and feelings. Then we are free to accept the Lord’s best for us. When we follow Jesus, it means taking up our cross. We must be willing to humble ourselves; certainly the cross of Jesus’ day was an instrument of death, but it was more than that – it was an instrument of dehumanization and disgrace (after all, Jesus could have simply said that we need to lay down our lives, but taking up our cross frames our acceptance of shame for His glory). Following Jesus will cost us everything.
But we cannot simply leave things there. Yes, there are costs to following Jesus, and they are dire and deep. But, as Paul proclaims, the gains of following Jesus are so much greater. We are shown forgiveness. We are blessed with adoption. We are given purpose and hope. We are equipped to live abundantly.
Follow Jesus, not as a casual fan but as a member of His team.