As I was following a digital ‘rabbit trail’ this week, I came across Volvo’s mission statement: “Vision 2020 is about reducing the number of people that die or are seriously injured in road traffic accidents to zero.” Volvo has embraced what business leaders call a B.H.A.G. – a big, hairy, audacious goal. They developed an emotionally compelling and strategically bold trajectory for their company. Volvo and other business who develop these B.H.A.G.s challenge themselves, their employees and their consumers to imagine a future that is bigger than their individual efforts could produce, scarier than their comfort levels would allow and bolder than their frames of reference should expect.
B.H.A.G.s are nothing new. In fact, when Jesus sent out his disciples to minister to the needs of the world around them, as recorded in Matthew 10, he commands them:
“Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.” Matthew 10:8
In my humble opinion, those are some big, hairy and audacious goals. How would it be possible for that rag-tag band of fishermen, financial agents and farmers to be able to do these things? Raise the dead? B.H.A.G.s are great, as long as they are achievable. When Jesus gave them a humanly impossible task to accomplish, thank God he also equipped them to accomplish it. Matthew tells us:
Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness. Matthew 10:1
I wonder what B.H.A.G.s the Lord may be calling us to aspire to accomplish in our communities today. Without diminishing the power of God at work through us (it seems unlikely that we’d be commanded to raise the dead), He is challenging us attempt more than our ability enables, our comfort allows and our logic expects. He may be calling us to completely love those who make different choices than we have made. He may be calling us to comprehensively care for those ravaged by the consequences of sin, regardless of whether this sin is theirs or another’s. He may be calling us consciously give away all that He has generously given us – everything from grace to garage space. He may be calling us to compassionately speak the truth that others need to hear in a way that they will hear it so that the healing of hearts and relationships may take place.
Whatever we might think God has called us to accomplish, Matthew 10 challenges us to think bigger, think hairier, and think more audaciously. If we think we can help ten people, God may be enabling us to help a hundred. If we think we can encourage someone living on our cul-de-sac, God may be enabling us to encourage someone NOT living in our neighborhood. If we think we can teach the kids at the church, God may be enabling us to teach the kids at the public school. God is the originator of B.H.A.G.s. What is He able to accomplish through ours, were we willing to give Him the opportunity?
This coming Sunday, June 3rd, our community will gather along the length of Dorchester Avenue to celebrate Dorchester Day and commemorate its incorporation on June 1, 1630 with a parade of police cars, floats and local politicians. So, after church on Sunday, we will sit on the curb with our neighbors to be (hopefully) showered with candy and treated to skilled performances by dance troupes, martial arts schools and school marching bands. Despite being firmly within the city limits, we will, for an afternoon, adopt the feel of a small town as we wave our tiny American flags and put aside our differences in order to enjoy all our community has to offer.
It is good to get together with people every once in a while. Having a sense of community is important. But, don’t take my word for it; these are the words of Vice Admiral Vivek H. Murthy, the 19th Surgeon General of the United States:
We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s. Today, over 40% of adults in America report feeling lonely, and research suggests that the real number may well be higher.
We are, despite all of our followers on Twitter and all our friends on Facebook, a bunch of lonely people.
I wish that all our neighbors – irrespective of economic, ethnic, racial or age-related distinctions – would have a parade to attend every weekend. I wish there were a regular event where we all could enjoy community. Rarely do we get together with someone somewhere outside of our well-defined demographics; that is, except for one particular occasion. God’s word has a remedy for this epidemic of loneliness: the family of God. That’s right, the church. If you are feeling isolated, attend a service of worship this weekend.
… 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
Accept the challenge to be counter-cultural. Be willing to gather for an hour to hear music that you haven’t chosen and reflect on topics you haven’t selected, surrounded by people who are not completely like you. Be willing to engage in prayer and praise with those who have more and with those who have less. Be willing to share your story with those of a different culture and with those from a different upbringing. Be willing to rejoice with those who have something to rejoice over (even when it is something you might not celebrate) and mourn with those who have something to mourn over (even if you cannot sympathize with their pain).
If you are uncomfortable around people who are not quite like you and are a little scared to enter the doors of a church and be surrounded by strangers, come to the parade and look for me (I will be the only guy standing near Ashmont station in a suit and tie). I would be blessed to celebrate the community with you and develop some community with you. Maybe we can shake the mayor’s hand as well.
Earlier this week, I felt like a was in a bad comedy routine. At 9:18AM on Tuesday my cell phone rang and a telemarketer asked for Janelle. I politely told the caller that it was a wrong number and thought nothing more about it. It happened again, from a different number, ten minutes later. And again. And again. All told, I received a total of ten calls, all from different numbers and different companies, throughout the day. I thought that surely the last call I received was going to be from Janelle, asking if she had any messages.
My life was briefly interrupted by telemarketers, each one offering some great thing to someone I never met. Ten calls throughout the day, all looking for someone else, were a major nuisance. In the end, I never got an answer to my question of where they got my number; I can only speculate that, perhaps, Janelle entered a contest at a mall or visited a time-share presentation. Whatever the reason, intentional or unintentional, ten people reached out to me, thinking me to be someone I am not.
As I was answering all these calls, it struck me that there are those in our culture that will exploit one fact about us to gain access to our lives. These telemarketers had a valid phone number and tried to take advantage of whoever would answer. They took one vital statistic, one entry point into my life, and tried to get more. I am relatively certain that these calls were benign, but in a world where identity theft and cybercrime is rampant, one can never be too cautious.
“In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. Ephesians 4:26-27
While I am in no way equating telemarketers with the satanic (after all, I was a telemarketer for a local newspaper for about three hours), these ‘wrong numbers’ did make me think about the devil and his tactics. As Paul’s letter to the Ephesians tells us, all it takes is a foothold, a crack or crevice in our stony exterior, for the enemy of our soul to scale our defenses and access our vulnerable spirits. All it takes is one truth for the father of lies to breach the doors and take our lives – an embarrassing action, a hidden temptation, a word of anger, a troubled past. The devil takes what he knows and tries to get more, just like those pesky callers to my cellphone.
The remedy to both the telemarketers and Mephistopheles is to refuse to reply. We can, empowered by the Spirit, refuse to take the bait. We can tell them, strongly and simply, that it is a wrong number, that the one they seek is not found here. We can do this because one fact about us is not our identity and one forgiven action is not our lifestyle.
Now, if I could only figure out how to end those calls informing me about an urgent public announcement regarding my energy service I would be blessed beyond measure.
I was introduced to Mike and Frankie nearly nine years ago. While their situation was different than mine (they lived in a rural middle American suburb and we lived in an urban neighborhood of Boston), our similar family dynamic made them special to me. We would spend 22 minutes together each week and they would share their lives. I would identify with their frustrations in raising their oldest through High School and college and beyond. I would sympathize with the challenges of raising an optimistic but clumsy daughter who tried everything to fit in but never quite succeeded. I would commiserate with the difficulties that come from a unique younger son, complete with quirks and tics. But next week they are departing and I will miss their stories of their ordinary life of ordinary struggles.
My favorite show, The Middle, will broadcast its series finale on Tuesday, and I feel like I am losing a friend. Something about the Hecks from Orson, Indiana always rang true for me. They didn’t have a ‘very special episode’ but instead relied on real life circumstances — a folding lawn chair at the dining room table, floating anniversaries, kids fighting in the backseat and ‘borrowing’ the church van for months. The kids made holes in their walls, their computers couldn’t access family photos and they ate fast food in front of the TV. It was a pleasure to watch a family on TV that was much, maybe too much, like my own.
There was a comfort in tuning in every week, sending that someone understood your struggle. It was a picture of life rarely seen on television today, a situation-comedy where episodes revolved around the challenges of the ordinary: living on a budget, dreading the school conferences and bake-sales and loving one another through the trials of life. There were moments of passion (for things like the Indianapolis Colts and the Wrestlerettes) but little politics. There were tears of joy and tears of sorrow. Through it all, there was an underlying theme of familial love – even in the midst of familial discord.
I urge you, brothers and sisters, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me. Romans 15:30
I believe it to be a blessing to God to be understood, to know that there is someone somewhere that ‘gets’ you. That was what God did for me through The Middle. Although they were not an actual family but a fictional clan with great writers, they were real to me. Their struggles were real. Their victories were real. I know, for their life, in many ways, is mine. Their life is the same as many in the church: those who love their kids and can’t stand their kids, those who have broken dishwashers and broken dreams but refuse to give up, those who are simply doing their best even when their best is not great. Thank you, Frankie, Mike, Axl, Sue and Brick for joining so many in the struggle.
I am sure that I will see the Hecks again as The Middle is already in syndication. I will sit and remember that there are people, real and make-believe, that share my values and concerns and dreams. Perhaps there will be another family I can befriend next season. There are the Ottos from Westport, CT that might remind me that we are never alone.
According to the National Retail Federation, the average Mother’s Day shopper will spend $180, or a total of $23.1 billion. That is a lot of flowers and jewelry. It seems that we all want to celebrate the blessing God has given us through giving us mothers. In recognition of Mother’s Day on Sunday, allow me to share the story of a remarkable mom who lived a few thousand years ago. She was poor, widowed and responsible for a child. Things have gotten so bad for her that she had given up hope. But God has other plans for her and her child.
We really know little about this mother. While we do not know her name or her lineage, we do know she was married, but her husband died and left her with no source of income: according to the scriptures, all she had to her name was a jar of flour and a pitcher of oil. We also know that she was not part of the “People of God”: she was an “unclean” Gentile. Lastly, we know that she was commanded by God to help a certain prophet of God named Elijah: she was commissioned to use that last of all she had to feed this stranger.
Before I conclude the story, allow me to digress. I am not at all surprised that God used a mother, especially a single mother, to save Elijah. Is there any other class of human being so willing to sacrifice as a mom? When there are five mouths and four slices of pie, it is the mom who says, “I’m too full from dinner for dessert; you guys have it.” When it is three AM and thundering, it is the mom who gets displaced so that her child can be comforted. She picks up the underwear, wipes up the barf and cleans up the bathroom. There is seemingly no need too demanding or distance too far to travel for a mom.
Getting back to the story, this mother prepares her last meal for herself, her son and her visitor. But the flour and oil never run out. She and her household (including the guest) were fed for three years, miraculously. Despite the fact that they were in the midst of a global famine, God was able to meet her needs. Just when one might think everything is going to get better, tragedy strikes when the son of this woman becomes ill and stops breathing. No one would blame her for her outburst:
She said to Elijah, “What do you have against me, man of God? Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?” 1 Kings 17:18
After all she had sacrificed, was this really how her story was going to end? No. Elijah immediately cries out to God and her son’s life is restored to him. Then they all lived happily ever after (though not together).
I thank God that the mothers I am most familiar with (both biological and metaphorical) have yet to lose hope. They sacrificed for the sake of those they loved, expressed outrage when something hurt those they loved and never gave up hope for those they loved. Some of that has to do with their personal resolve – they are all formidable people of character – but some of it has to do with their faith in the God who can resource and restore them as He did for a Phoenician widow, her son and her house-guest.
Happy Mother’s Day to all those who have given more than they will ever get back from their families.
There was an article in the New York Times that opined about the costs and benefits of present-day conveniences. According to columnist Time Wu, conveniences are “more efficient and easier ways of doing personal tasks”. Conveniences come in a nearly endless number of forms, everything from appliances (washers, dryers and microwaves) to technologies (digital streaming, cell phones and search engines). They save us time, toil and treasure. The world of my childhood would be foreign soil to my ten-year old son; the convenience of debit cards instead of cash or checks, the convenience of homework at home with Google and Wikipedia instead of researching at the library with the World Book Encyclopedia, the convenience of GPS and EZPass instead of glove compartment maps and a cupful of quarters. Conveniences make life better.
However, there is another side to conveniences, a less beneficial side that warrants our attention. As Wu writes, “With its promise of smooth, effortless efficiency, it threatens to erase the sort of struggles and challenges that help give meaning to life.” Ultimately, there is a benefit to inconvenience, whether it is getting lost and discovering the pathway back to civilization or baking a pie from scratch instead of ordering one online through Uber Eats. It is rewarding to toil and use reason. We might become better people because we are required to wait or, worse yet, to go without.
In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples. Luke 14:33
Discipline is never convenient. Eating healthy takes effort: making a salad takes longer than tearing the foil off a Pop Tart. Exercise takes effort: spending time at the gym will be more demanding than spending time on the couch. Education takes effort: solving a pesky equation with a pencil will take more time than watching a YouTube video of someone else solving for x. The Christian life is no different. When Jesus taught about the demands of discipleship, He told his followers to consider the costs. He called His followers to live a life which included inconvenience. He told them to give more than demanded, work longer than most and sacrifice greater than merely necessary.
Most of the things that make life easier are convenient. Most of the things that make life better are inconvenient. The question for each of us is whether we want easier or we want better. Do we want the ease of microwave turkey or the goodness of Thanksgiving dinner? Do we want the ease of hearing an explanation or the goodness of researching it ourselves? Do you want the ease of activism by hashtag or the goodness of laboring for righteousness? When we are passionate about something, the Cliff Notes will not suffice; we will want to invest our blood, sweat and tears to pursue it.
Evan Williams, a co-founder of Twitter, was quoted in Wu’s piece as saying, “Convenience decides everything.” Maybe he’s right in general. I do that hope he is wrong about us.
Last week was school vacation for our boys and I had a brilliant idea: we could do a jigsaw puzzle together. On Monday morning, in the rain, I went out to the store and bought a 1,000-piece puzzle of a beautiful winter scene and brought it home. We had the border done before lunch and began to fit together the rest. That was twelve days ago, and we still have not finished. It turns out that there is a whole lot of white – snow, roofs, mountains – and the puzzle is hard. Really hard. The boys have given up helping us finish putting all the pieces together and now I am beginning to fear that we will never be able to use our coffee table again.
What seemed at the time like a fun, family bonding activity has become exceeding difficult. As I sit in front of the unfinished puzzle, I feel the frustration well up within me: I know it all fits together, but I cannot for the life of me seem to place any of the pieces. Perhaps I am victim of an elaborate practical joke – I can hear the snickering of the worker at some jigsaw puzzle factory as she throws eighteen unrelated pieces into my box. There are pieces that seem to match the color but do not interlock and others that ‘sort of’ interlock but do not match the color. Has anyone else ever thought how easy it would be if there were numbers, differentiating columns and rows, on the backs of all the puzzle pieces?
Alas, there are no numbers. There is no cheat code. All I have between now and the puzzle’s completion is trial and error. All I have to guide me is the picture on the box (which, in this case, is extremely small of such a large puzzle and cropped on the sides so that it offers no help toward the edges). In my pursuit of my goal I have resorted to a game I like to call, “Is This Right? No. Is This Right? No.” But I am tenacious (a more virtuous word than stubborn) and will one day finish this puzzle, enabling my family to eat once again in the living room.
This puzzle is a lot like my life. It has easily recognizable boundaries. It has a cohesive whole. It is made up of tiny, incomplete glimpses of colors and voids. It is designed so that all the pieces will fit together eventually. It is at times frustrating and at times fabulous. For those blessed enough to realize it, we are given a picture to the finished product for reference. And it is, when completed, a work of art.
While I may not know how all the pieces fit together yet, the one who created the puzzle (and the one who created me) does. I am confident that my God will form my life into a masterpiece, a stunning work of art full of light and shadow. Perhaps He is even using this infernal puzzle to do it.
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11
No one would have thought less of her had she dropped out. It was cold. It was windy. It was pouring rain. It was the Boston Marathon. It was a place she’d been before, including 2011 when she ran a personal best and still finished two seconds behind the winner. Nearly thirty minutes into the race, Desiree Linden tapped fellow American marathoner Shalane Flanagan and said:
“Hey, I think I’m going to drop out today, so if you need any help with anything, let me know. I’m happy to block the wind, whatever it may be.”
But she persisted. She and Flanagan continued to put one foot in front of the other. The weather conditions sufficiently slowed down the pace of the elite runners and she continued to run. She remained with the pack for the next 15 miles and then thought that this might in fact be her day. With a burst of breakaway speed, she separated from the rest of the runners and ran the final five miles alone, crossing the finish line more than four minutes before any other woman.
Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. – Luke 18:1 (NIV)
While most of us will not run the Boston Marathon, we are all required to run the race of life. And there are days when the course conditions will cause us to contemplate dropping out and to think about giving up on our dreams or giving in to our difficulties. In numerous places, the Scriptures encourage us to not give up.
Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. – Galatians 6:9 (NIV)
We can benefit from persisting. We need not give up praying, even when our prayers seem to us like we are hounding God with our pressing needs. We need not give up doing good, even when our efforts seem to us unproductive and fruitless. We need not give up doing what is right, even when our faith seems to us as stagnant and stale. We need not give up going to church, even when our gathering seems to us as irrelevant or pointless. There is a blessing from tenacity that only those who endure can enjoy.
Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers. – 1 Timothy 4:16 (NIV)
The performance of Des Linden ought to serve as a reminder of the rewards for those who persist. We may still win the race. We will have our prayers heard and our needs will be met. We will reap a harvest of good in the world. We will save ourselves and those around us. We will encourage one another and equip one another for the difficulties inherent in life. We will finish because we did not quit. We might even finish first.
…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)
May we all see the laurel and medal as we have waiting for us at the finish line.
There is a person in my social circle (I will not divulge their identity) who regularly calls me by something other than my name. This person calls me “Rev.”. I appreciate the title as an acknowledgment of my years of schooling and my professional standing. I do not appreciate it as a nickname. I have tried everything to get this person to cease using this nomenclature – asking nicely (and then not as nicely), calling them by an equally clever occupational title, ignoring their solicitations when addressed in this manner – and, as yet, nothing has worked. So, I grin and bear this salutation.
While I am confident that the person I am speaking of will not read this post, allow me the time to offer my rationale for why I am upset by the nickname “Rev.”. First, I am more complex as a person than is represented through being addressed by what I do. Second, I struggle with sin too greatly to be entitled with calling myself someone who ought to be revered. Lastly, I do not wish others to address me in a way that conveys that I will be the spiritual, moral or biblical expert at all times. So, please, I prefer that you call me something other than “Rev.”.
As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence. But Peter made him get up. “Stand up,” he said, “I am only a man myself.” Acts 10:25-26
Let me take my last reason for averting this title first. Just as a doctor would not like every conversation to be relating to her profession (as in, “Hey, you’re a doctor; let me show you something weird”), I prefer not to “work” at every social gathering I attend. I am not simply present to pray or evangelize or compete in an informal game of Bible Jeopardy. I am so much more (and so much less) than a cultural touchpoint representing godliness in the world.
This brings me to the second reason: I am not as good or mature as this title reflects. The term “Reverend” is believed to be the anglicization of a Latin verb (revereri) meaning “to be revered or respected.” I am not proud to admit it, but if you were able to hear my thoughts or to stand by my side for 24 hours, “Reverend” would not be the word you would use to describe me. We all face the same struggle to keep the faith and I would be disingenuous to say I deserve the nickname I’ve been given.
I am so much more than what I do. Yes, I am an ordained minister. But I am also a crossword and game show enthusiast, a burger lover and an observer of Oscar®-worthy films. I am a fan of Boston-area professional sports and a foe of strawberries and bowling. I am a husband, parent and child. I have strong opinions about politics, condiments and manatees. I am, like you, more of a human being than a human doing.
Like it or not, all of us are too complex to be called by our job title. So, let’s keep the use of “Rev.” to Sunday mornings, when I am ‘on the job’. Most other times, I prefer to be called Michael (or “Skippy”, since I am so smooth).
If you were to look outside my office window, you would see that the forsythia bushes are currently in bloom. Over the next few days, little yellow flowers will cover the ‘brown sticks’ protruding from the ground. These flowers will be around for a few weeks and then will then disappear. In our nation’s capital, the cherry blossoms are expected to reach peak bloom over the weekend, lasting just a few days. I am also reminded of the excitement around the city in September, when Fester, the corpse plant cultivated by the Franklin Park Zoo, was expected to bloom – it’s flower lasts only a day or two – but, alas, it never flowered. That is the nature of flowers – here today and gone tomorrow.
What could possibly be the benefit of something that only lasts but a moment? While the flowers that adorned the sanctuary on Easter morning were beautiful and fragrant, they will likely be only a memory in a few weeks. While arrangements of cut flowers and funeral sprays can be pressed and saved, they will wilt and wither far too quickly. Still, with such an ephemeral inventory, floral shops and nurseries accounted for more than $26 billion in annual sales last year. To put that figure in perspective, it is more than twice the income of the National Football League.
Flowers are not an experience, like a vacation in Cancun. Flowers are not a consumable, like a dinner at Top of the Hub. Flowers are frivolous, a bit of whimsy in the world. Perhaps that is why we value them so greatly. They have little utility or function. They are just pretty to look at. Jesus put it this way:
“Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.” Luke 12:27
Flowers serve as a reminder of the limitless imagination of God. There are over 400,000 plant species across the world (which is more than the number of bird, butterfly and bee species combined) which have been conceptualized and created by God. 400,000 species – with multiple varieties – of something unnecessary for our existence. Isn’t God amazing?
The flowers all around us ought to remind us of God’s love for us. Our landscapes could be covered with green leaves (taking for granted that we need the plants’ chlorophyll to complete the process of photosynthesis which, in turn, scrubs our atmosphere of carbon dioxide and replenishes it with oxygen), but splashes of violet, rose, lilac, goldenrod and periwinkle dazzle our eyes. This is simply because God wanted to give us colors. This is because God loves us so much that He wanted us to enjoy and not simply exist. This is because God is greater than we can imagine.
God created delight in our world for no purpose other than our enjoyment. Yes, flowers will wither. But in time, others will take their place, bringing beauty and blithe spirits to those who notice them. Sometimes, the function of an item in God’s creation is nothing more than to bring joy. May we all appreciate the unnecessary diversity of the Almighty’s design this spring and always.