Last Thursday night, I was captivated by a contest televised on ESPN: the 92nd Annual Scripps National Spelling Bee. Let me say that I am not an advocate for the cultural predilection toward presenting “participation awards” (the ubiquitous practice of giving everyone on the team a trophy, regardless of the score); both winning and losing has the ability to build character and excellence ought to be recognized. So, as I began watching the ‘evening finals’, beginning with round nine where sixteen children were still competing, I was very-much looking forward to seeing a champion crowned and the other 15 children cheered as they walked off the stage, defeated but undaunted.
The ninth round of words was perfectly executed – all 16 mastered the words they were given. Then, over the next 5 rounds, eight participants misspelled their word and exited the competition. At that point, the remaining eight spellers broke the system, correctly spelling the next 47 words. It was announced at one point that they were running out of words and, after a few more rounds, all those still spelling would win. After a total of 20 rounds, the directors of the bee declared all the remaining contestants the winner of the competition. Rishik Gandhasri, age 13 (who spelled ‘auslaut’), Erin Howard, 14 (‘erysipelas’), Saketh Sundar, 13 (‘bougainvillea’), Shruthika Padhy, 13 (‘aiguillette’), Sohum Sukhatankar, 13 (‘pendeloque’), Abhijay Kodali, 12 (‘palama’) Christopher Serrao, 13 (‘cernuous’) and Rohan Raja, 13 (‘odylic’) all walked away with the $50,000 and the trophy as champions of the National Spelling Bee.
This was not, in any way, a participation award. It was a pronouncement of excellence, as each one perfectly executed the task before them. These eight great spellers finished the competition without error and were declared the winner. The unfolding of this competition reminded me of the words of Paul to the church in Corinth:
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 1 Corinthians 9:24
These young competitors all expected that there would be only one winner and they prepared accordingly. They competed to win the prize and they finished the competition in first place. They won – they all won – together, giving one another High-fives and cheering on one another’s correct (always correct) efforts. The rules of the competition did not change, only the fact that many finished perfectly, together.
In many ways, I saw a glimpse of the heavenly in the very early moments of May 31st. The conclusion of the spelling bee reminded me of the concluding moments of life: we are diligently competing for the prize, surrounded by our fellow competitors, when the director of the race, the Lord Almighty, states that all who cross the finish line first will be declared winner. At that moment, we interlock elbows and all step across the finish line together, all securing the prize. We celebrate one another, realizing that we are not competing against the other runners, but the course itself. All those still standing at the end will receive the prize.
One last word to spell: H-A-L-L-E-L-U-J-A-H!
Last Monday, Memorial Day, was the cultural beginning of summer and tomorrow, June 1st, is its start, meteorologically. While I do not consider it summer until the air conditioners are placed in the windows (alas, no central air for us), I realize that it is that time again when we ask one another if we have made our vacation plans yet. For those of us in New England, it is the time we take the ice scrapers out of the car and replace them with beach chairs; it is the time when we begin to enjoy ice cream in cones while on a walk rather than in bowls while watching TV. It is a time for cookouts and campouts.
I hope you have plans for the summer – going to the lake or the mountains, spending time in the nation’s capital or at the in-laws, visiting a newest theme park or watching the latest blockbuster. I hope that these plans for the summer, whether at home or away, includes the worship of the Lord. I hope that your summer plans at your home church and the places you visit while on vacation allow you to offer our whole selves to God in grateful praise.
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship. Romans 12:1
As Paul says to the church in Rome, this offering of ourselves is primarily a sacrificial act intended to glorify God. The imagery he uses is one of an altar, the sacred place of righteous giving. As a way of responding to God’s mercy, we give ourselves – our time, talent and treasure – with gifts that are of varied amounts (some can give an hour or a dollar, while others have more to give) in completely voluntary ways. In light of all the blessings you enjoy because of God’s kindness, could you spend a bit of your summertime resources appreciating Him?
This offering, however, will have consequences. When we agree to offer our bodies, we offer all its parts. This act of generosity effects our talking, for our tongues have been offered. This act of generosity effects our toiling, for our hands have been offered. This act of generosity effects our traveling, for our legs have been offered. There may be plans, on vacation or at home, that will need to be curtailed or delayed because we are offering our resources to Him. The beach and the barbeque will have to wait. It is always better to exercise your faith in flip flops than to forgo the blessing of gathering altogether.
Our rightful response to the blessings God gives us – our vacations and vocations, our purses and our purposes – is to be living sacrifices. We are living sacrifices: continually, in every season and on every day, offering what He has given us to share. We are holy sacrifices: set apart for His purposes. We are pleasing sacrifices: demonstrating what is appropriate for Him. I hope that this attitude is the highlight of your next season.
Last week, a number of people in my family, including me, watched the series finale of “The Big Bang Theory”. It was a fitting conclusion to the show, as we witnessed one of the main characters, Sheldon, uncharacteristically consider others more highly than he considered himself and utilize the spotlight afforded him through professional success to speak words of affirmation and appreciation to his typically disregarded friends. It was an exceptional picture of the concept of community. Those watching the program, 18.5 million in all, including the people in my home, were much less a demonstration of community: while we were all doing the same thing at the same time, we weren’t truly together.
‘Together’ is a word we like to use in the church. We gather together, worship together, pray together, serve together, learn together, and rejoice together. But is this togetherness similar to the relationships portrayed on television or to the relationships displayed in millions of homes on a Thursday night? What does being together, from a biblical standpoint, look like?
All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts…. Acts 2:44-46
The other night, as part of a Bible study on Acts 2:42-47, we were discussing the word ‘together’. The word is used twice in the passage, but two different Greek words are utilized: ἐπί (epi) is verse 44 and ὁμοθυμαδόν (homothumadon) in verse 46. These two Greek words mean two very different things. ‘epi’ is a preposition meaning ‘with or upon’, used to describe location or geography: in the context of verse 42, the disciples were in the same place or were locationally close. ‘homothumadon’ is an adverb meaning ‘having or sharing in the same strong emotion’ and is used to modify an action emotionally: the disciples were sharing the same passion or were emotionally close.
The togetherness that the church aspires to experience includes both proximity and community. It requires both being in the same place (proximity) and having the same heart (community). We need to be together in the same place: we must see one another and breath the same air as we hear and do the same things; we cannot help one another if we do not know one another and we cannot know one another if we are never with one another. We need to be together in the same spirit: we must embrace the same passionate pursuit – to know Christ and to make Him known – as we practice the disciplines of faith; it is not enough to do things together if we do it individualistically.
Spiritual growth and maturity require both proximity and community. We need to be close geographically and close emotionally. Think about that when you are making your plans for the weekend, and perhaps choosing to get together with others and be together with others at a church in your neighborhood.
It was supposed to be the fastest two minutes in sports, but the Kentucky Derby turned out to be the longest 20 minutes in horse racing. As a way of providing a quick recap from the race that took place a couple of weeks ago, here is what the stewards of Churchill Downs officially recorded: the lead horse, Maximum Security, strayed from his lane and impacted the progress of another horse, War of Will, which in turn interfered with two others, Long Range Toddy and Bodexpress; because of this infraction, Maximum Security was disqualified and considered not to have participated, and the second place finisher, a horse named Country House, was declared a winner. Earlier this week, ten days after the race, the owners of Maximum Security filed a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn the disqualification.
I have an insufficient knowledge of the rules of thoroughbred racing to posit an opinion about the merits of the disqualification or the lawsuit. Was one horse’s veering from its path into the path of another sufficient cause to force the forfeiture of the substantial purse and the even more substantial legacy that goes with winning the Kentucky Derby? I cannot say. But then again, hypothetically, was my traveling ten miles over the speeding limit, along with everyone else, sufficient reason for a state police officer to cite me for speeding? Hypothetically again, was my fabrication about a little thing like coffee consumption sufficient cause for people to question my truthfulness?
But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. 1 Corinthians 9:27 (ESV)
Call it what you will: a competitive edge, a social construct, an ethical dilemma or a way of doing business; if it is unlawful, unethical or ungodly, it ought not to be done. Those who do these things are in danger of disqualification. Paul’s advice: stay in your lane. He tells us the secret to his spiritual integrity – if it takes away from the message we are telling or tarnishes our witness to the gospel, it is not worth the price. When we step over the line, we risk everything: it is possible that we could also forfeit our reward and forgo our legacy.
The antidote for disqualification is discipline or, as other translations put it, beating our bodies. We need the Holy Spirit to ride us like a righteous jockey, coaxing us with the crop to continue running on the right track and spurring us on to expend our greatest effort and achieve God’s goal. We need the Word of God to be a faithful trainer, strengthening us through resistance exercises and building our endurance through running the course. We need the Church to be a constant companion, challenging us when we are slogging through the mud and encouraging us to finish the race.
We are so much more than racehorses. We, who know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, are children of the Almighty and we ought never do anything that might jeopardize our birthright – the crown of life reserved for the victor. Trust the Holy Spirit, the Word of God and the Church to keep us on track and finish the race properly.
“All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.” Abraham Lincoln
Sunday is Mother’s Day, when three out of four of us will purchase a greeting card and over two-thirds of us will buy flowers for our mom (or our children’s mom). It is the least we can do for those who have given us so much of themselves. There is something in our mother’s kisses that are more therapeutic than the best medicine and something in her voice that is more comforting than the best psychotherapy. Mom was likely the first to read to us, pray for us and cry with us. She made sure, for most of us, that we had a birthday cake on our special day and a new outfit for the first day of school. It is right and good to honor and remember the ones who endured painful labor and sleepless nights for her children: God bless Mom!
As I think about Mother’s Day, my thoughts come back to a commercial I recently saw for the Portal from Facebook. In the commercial, actor Neil Patrick Harris decides to call and celebrate his mother on Mother’s Day using the Portal from Facebook. He sees that she’s not alone; she has company: the mothers of Serena and Venus Williams, Odell Beckham Jr., Snoop Dogg and Dwayne Johnson among others. While Neil knows who they are, most people watching the commercial are unfamiliar with the women on the video-chat screen and are given only a clue by Neil’s references – Odell’s mom, Jonah’s mom and the like. These women, no doubt, have done great things in their own right but are willingly recognized as someone’s mom. We ourselves may not actually know some women’s names, only that they are so-and-so’s mom. God bless you, Neil’s mom.
I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also. 2 Timothy 1:5 (NIV)
One of the moms of the Bible who lived a life of seemingly quiet obscurity is Lois – the mom of Eunice, who was the mom of Timothy. All we know about this woman is what we read in the verse I have quoted. All we have as a historical record is that a sincere faith lived in her. There are so many unanswered questions: Did she have hobbies or a favorite story? Where did she grow up? How long was she married? Was she like the Proverbs 31 woman and worked outside (as well as inside) the home? Was she tall, attractive and wealthy or petite, plain and poor? All we know is her name, her heart and her grandson. But, in God’s economy, that is enough. God has blessed us with moms like Lois.
Happy Mother’s Day to all those who are known by the world only as someone’s mom. God knows you are much more than that: you are leaders of industry, educators, medical experts, investors, inventors and artists – and then you go out the front doors of your home and do even more. Happy Mother’s Day!
The other day, an article in Relevant Magazine came to my attention. It reported on a new Instagram© account, PreachersNSneakers, that shows influential Christian leaders wearing high priced fashion. According to the article, the internet poster shows, among many examples, one pastor wearing SBB Jordan 1 sneakers, which cost $965, and another pastor wearing $1,045 Adam & Yves Saint Laurent boots. With all fairness, it is unclear who paid for or provided the pictured church leaders with their footwear or clothing, whether it was a personal purchase, an unsolicited gift or a promotional perk. Whatever the source, the pictures are shocking the sensibilities of many in the Christian community.
The article made me think about my choices, especially a few weeks ago on Easter Sunday, of dress. I wore a new suit (purchased at a ‘Buy 1, Get 2 Free’ sale), a new shirt and tie (both acquired while on sale at Kohl’s), a pair of old, but polished shoes, and new socks. It is these socks that give me pause: they were a gift from my daughter, who purchased them in Rome at the Vatican’s gift shop; they were produced by the tailor of the Pope. They may be the most luxurious item I have worn in a great while.
I remember commenting on the socks throughout the morning, glowingly reflecting that my “Pope socks” were a gift. I have no idea how much they cost my daughter – perhaps as little as $10 or as much as $50 (to which my thoughts scream, “Heavens, no!”) I gave no thought to the challenges some in the congregation may be facing: was there a participant in worship that wondered if I had paid for socks that would have filled their car with gas or bought them a weekend’s worth of groceries? This train of thought has subsequently been derailed as I think of the luxuries I enjoy that may come at the expense of ministry – thoughts relating to how much I spend on coffee or dining out or fashion accessories.
Better a little with the fear of the LORD than great wealth with turmoil. Proverbs 15:16
It is easy to judge people we only read about because their sneakers are more valuable than our cars. It is harder to correctly assess these things as they relate to our own personal spending habits. The line between necessities and luxuries can be difficult to locate. Most of us do not need personally tailored suits or dresses, brand name sneakers or stilettos, or homes with ten bedrooms. But we do need shirts, shoes and shelters. The optics of excess lie in the details, both in what we spend and the cultural surrounding in which we spend. Manhattan has a different standard than Montgomery of what is a necessity versus a luxury .
I am choosing to continue wearing my “Pope socks” but I will graciously refuse to accept any gift which includes a pair of Yeezy Boost 350 V2s. I will continue to try to give more to others than I luxuriously spend on myself. Hopefully, that we keep me from appearing on Instagram in a Tesla®.
The other night, I was watching a political town meeting on one of the all-news channels. One of the candidates stated proudly that he was a soccer player, and my ears immediately perked up. I was a soccer player, too. I thought to myself that perhaps I should support this candidate, with our mutual enjoyment of all things relating to the pentagon-patched ball. With the diversity of the field, it would be nice if I shared a common interest with one of them. But, before I followed him on social media, I did a little research about his sports-related profession.
It is true that, as a child, this candidate was enrolled in an organized league and regularly participated in formal games, and it is said that he was quite the striker when he was ten. He went to all the practices – some might say religiously – and was proficient at all the drills. However, during High School and college, those formal games and organized leagues were abandoned for more informal forms of the game. He still participated in pick-up games and occasionally kicked the ball around, but it was always on his schedule and the rules were loosely observed. But he was still, by definition, a soccer player.
After college, this candidate would take his soccer ball to a local park when he schedule allowed and began changing the rules of play (subtly at first but later more egregiously), so that before long, when he did play with his soccer ball, he allowed the use of hands and he tallied seven points for each goal. In essence, he was playing a hybrid of football and soccer, if ‘foot-ccer’ was played on a boundless field. The purist among us might argue that he was no longer playing soccer, but he was still, truth be told, kicking around a soccer ball.
At present, the candidate has not touched a soccer ball in many years, and some wonder if he even owns one any longer. His schedule no longer permits him to go to the park, and even if it did, the ways that other soccer players play the game at the parks that he once frequented is displeasing to his sense of the game. But he lives in a region of the country where people view soccer players more favorably than players of other sports, so he continues to profess that he still participates in the game. But he is no longer, by definition, a soccer player.
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. James 1:22
I appreciate that some people play soccer and other people do not. I appreciate that some people once played soccer but play the game no longer. But I have trouble with the conception of our culture that playing soccer is anything that the player thinks that means, regardless of the rules or the history of the game. If you are happy just kicking a ball around in the backyard, please do not call yourself a soccer player.
“But it was love, after all, that made the cross salvific, not the sheer torture of it.” – Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart
This year at Calvary, as we remember Holy Week, we are reflecting on the words of Mark’s gospel. It was Mark who recorded that the crucifixion of Jesus began at the third hour (Mark 15:25) and, as a side note, we also know from Matthew’s account that it lasted until the ninth hour (Matthew 27:46). Six hours is a long time to do anything: imagine being invited to attend the screening of a six-hour movie or enjoy a six-hour buffet; think about babysitting a three-year old for six hours or waiting for news from the ER staff for six hours. These feats of endurance are nothing compared to what Jesus endured on the cross.
Crucifixion was a particularly ghastly method of capital punishment. As was the case with Jesus, the victim was tied or nailed to a large wooden beam and left to hang until eventual death from exhaustion and asphyxiation. Eventually the victim would slump due to muscular fatigue and the diaphragm would compress the lungs, depriving the vital organs of oxygen. This macabre ‘dance’ – lifting the body with the arms and legs to breathe until they could no longer support the weight and collapse again – went on for hours, and sometimes, to speed up the process, the ones responsible for guarding the condemned would break their legs.
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Romans 5:8
To paraphrase the words of apostle Paul: God, in Christ, showed us the extent of his love through his death. The fact is that thousands of people were humiliated and horribly executed by means of a cross, and none of those deaths, in and of themselves, save us from our sin. The cross is what we call the instrument of death, but it is not its cause. The cause of Jesus’ death was love, willful, active and limitless love. He chose to endure the dehumanization and shameful humiliation of crucifixion (after all, he could have been executed at any time and in any age of human history) to fulfill the will of the Father, to serve as a sacrificial substitute for our sin, and in so doing expressed his love.
I would like to say that there are a few things lasting six hours that I would do for a loved one. I would like to say that I would wait in the wind and rain, dig a mile-long trench or drive through a blizzard. I would like to say that, but I am not sure I would do that. I cannot imagine the great love required to endure the cross for six hours, let alone six minutes. I cannot fully comprehend how much Jesus loves a sinner like me. But I can appreciate it. In my mind, I can picture myself at the foot of the cross, staring up at my suffering savior; I ask him, “How much do you love me?” and with arms outstretched, he replies, “This much!”
Remember to remember Him this Good Friday.
Logan Airport’s Terminal E may be the happiest place in Boston. It is where passengers of international flights arrive and where hundreds of people each hour walk through sliding glass doors to greet awaiting friends and family. We were there on Monday night, standing behind the half-wall separating the weary world-travelers from the waiting masses. My wife and I were hoping to gain our first glimpse of our daughter in the last three months, who had spent that time in Europe studying abroad. We saw impeccably clad flight attendants and uniformed flights crews, as well as men and women with heavily laden baggage carts. Then, finally, we saw the familiar face that we had come see. Our little girl was home.
While she was away, we spoke with our daughter via FaceTime, a marvelous app that allows Apple© users to video chat. Those weekly conversations were wonderful, and I praise God that she studied abroad in such a technologically advanced time in human history, but they were not the real thing. There is a vast difference between seeing someone on a 2½” x 4” screen and seeing them face-to-face, just as there was a difference for those of previous generations between reading someone’s words in a letter and hearing that same person’s voice. There is nothing quite like the real thing.
I can only imagine that this same sentiment was felt by Mary, the sister of Lazarus. Jesus was passing through the town of Bethany on his way toward Jerusalem – it was the day before what we now call Palm Sunday – and a dinner was held in his honor. Martha was cooking, Lazarus was sitting with friends and Mary suddenly appears in the midst of the group and pours perfume on Jesus’ feet. It was an act of extravagant devotion. After a moment of uproar over the resources wasted by Mary, Jesus silences the party guests with the words, “You will not always have me (among you).” Mary appreciated that Jesus had come ‘home’, and the only suitable means of expressing that joy was to perform some lavish gesture. For us, it was getting our younger boys out of the house and enduring rush hour traffic to greet our princess; for others, it was balloons or handmade signs or flowers.
That week that began with an expression of joy for sharing in His presence would end the following Sunday with an expression of love that now and forever serves as a guarantee that all those who trust in Christ will see Him again. Some great and glorious day there will be a reunion, a parting of the skies that will reunite the risen Lord with those He came to redeem, that will rival even the embraces experienced at Terminal E. The greatest of blessings afforded us through Easter is that, though Jesus has gone away, he will come back. We will see Him again. Hallelujah!
And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. John 14:3
Last weekend the Red Sox began their new season, exactly five months after winning the World Series, concluding their best statistical season in franchise history. Throughout the season, they led the league in wins (108), RBIs (829) and team batting average (.286). To top it all off, their star player, Mookie Betts, was named the AL MVP. By all means of measuring success, the Red Sox had a historic season. The city was blessed to enjoy a rolling rally throughout the streets and the sporting goods stores in the area sold a bunch of merchandise celebrating the team’s victory over every foe.
Last weekend the Red Sox began their new season and, as of this posting, proceeded to lose more games than they had won. The good news in anticipating the current season is that most of the key elements in prior success is still in place for the present campaign. The bad news in anticipating the current season is that past performance is no guarantee of success in the present. The slate has been wiped clean and the wins of the past season no longer matter. Every team, both winners like the Red Sox and non-winners like the Baltimore Orioles (who amassed a mere 47 wins last season), starts on Opening Day in the same place.
As I think about the Red Sox, I also think about myself. I remember all the victories I won last season: I battled temptation and won more times than I lost. I faced discouragement, home and away, and won the season series; I went into the stadium of sexual purity and came away with a win; I stood in ‘the box’ against the enemy’s strongest arms (hurlers with names like lying, cheating and stealing) and bested them with base hits and deep bombs. There were days that I did not have my best stuff, but over the course of the entire season I ended up with many more wins than losses.
No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it. 1 Corinthians 10:13
But, like baseball, that was last season and while I have many of the same tools and much of the same training, I still must engage the enemy. And, like baseball, past performance is no guarantee of success in the present. This season, along with the regular adversaries, the measure of victory I have enjoyed has made me vulnerable to other forms of attack from things like personal pride and common complacency. I am going to take it one day at a time, one ‘at-bat’ at a time: I will have to enjoy the success of victory only for a moment, accept the sting of loss only for an instant, and fight the good fight each and every day.
There is no spiritual World Series and the faithfully obedient will not receive a trophy at end of each season. Still, the one who resists and remains after going nine innings with temptation is not without reward. There is, for that one, a crown – of life, of righteousness, of glory – that will never be taken away.
Have a great season!