Twenty One and Wonderful

One hundred sixty-one weeks ago, my firstborn, my son, turned twenty-one.  At the time, a full three years and 30 days ago, I wrote a blog urging his responsible alcohol use.  Earlier this week a similar thing happened again: my daughter, my only daughter, turned twenty-one.  This time, however, her alcohol consumption was not my primary concern.  I am worried and afraid of so much more.  Perhaps these fears are attributable to their differing temperaments or their differing experiences.  Whatever the reason, I am more concerned, more melancholic, about Rebekah becoming a full-fledged adult than I did about Jonathan.

As I write this, I am left wondering why.  It is not as if I have ever ascribed to a double-standard; I would never say apologetically that ‘boys will be boys’, nor that ‘a woman’s place is in the home’.  Yet, in light of all that is swirling around in the world (not the least of which is the #metoo movement), I am worried about the world we have created and the environment we have fostered for the women we love.  I want my adult daughter – no, all our adult daughters – to be valued for her character and nothing else.

Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.”  Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life.  And then I will be able to boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor in vain.  Philippians 2:14-16

My hope for my adult daughter, who, with every passing birthday, moves further away from the little girl I remember, is that she will shine like a star in this warped generation.  I pray that she will be light in the darkness.  As she steps ever closer into the spheres of grown-upness, I trust that she will not let anyone but God alone define her, let no one on earth demean her and allow no man to destroy her by refusing to take no for an answer.

You have been made in the very image of God.  You are His workmanship, created to accomplish the work He wants you to do.  You are, therefore, perfectly quirky, perfectly suited to do what you do.  If anyone tells you otherwise, they are a liar.

You are a child of God.  You have a royal inheritance.  You are somebody.  Again, if anyone tells you otherwise, they are a liar.

You are precious in His sight.  You, just being you, have an inestimable value to God.  You need not do anything to prove you are worthy of love or to prove you are capable of loving.  And again, if anyone tells you otherwise…you know…liar.

I wish the world were a different place, but then again, I wish I had the riches to buy you a pony when you were eight.  The world is full of broken hurting people, some of whom are happiest making more broken hurting people: do not become one of them.  Run from those who seek you harm.  Refuse to entertain ungodly advances.  Remember that you are here to shine.  Remain as wonderful as we all know you are.

 

Photo by Aubrey Fernandez on Unsplash

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Common Courtesy

I am tired of it all.  I am done with being cut off in traffic when the other car entering the flow refuses to ‘zipper’ in,  with being interrupted before I can complete a sentence, with reaching the buffet table and finding empty dishes because the guy in front of me took more than appropriate, with running out of the public park because dog owners de-leash their pets – a cannot tell by its gait that she’s friendly – and with neglecting to bag her poop, with having a door close in my face because the person in front of me sneaks passed the coffee shop door as it closes (as if they are auditioning for “Mission Impossible”) and with the general absence of please and thank you by society.  Call me a curmudgeon if you’d like, but I am desperate for some common courtesy.

In today’s vernacular ‘courtesy’ is synonymous ‘free’ or ‘extra’ – courtesy calls from a service provider, courtesy vans from the auto body shop or courtesy phones found in hotel lobbies.  But its original meaning had more to do with characteristics of politeness and manners.  It is this latter definition that I miss in today’s interactions; I miss males acting as gentlemen and females acting as ladies.  At some point in my lifetime, our culture shifted and began valuing entitlement and individual rights over mutual respect and civility.  Many of the lessons I learned in elementary school – the practices of sharing, waiting one’s turn and refraining from unkind comments – are summarily ignored by a large segment of our population.

We need to be reminded of the words of Jesus:

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.  Matthew 7:12

This sentence, commonly called “The Golden Rule”, is perhaps the second most familiar statement of Christ (the first being John 3:16).  God Incarnate told His followers nearly 2,000 years ago that we are to treat other people the way we want to be treated.  With a greater or lesser degree of success, we all have been wrestling with our obedience to this command since it was first uttered.  We attempt to work the angles, balancing our needs with the needs of others, often failing because we resolve the tension with faulty math: if I hold the door for one or two people, those two turn into an untold number; I then end up at the end of the line and face delays that no one should be required to face; therefore, I cannot hold the door for you.  My needs are paramount.

But when everyone makes similar computations, and I fear that this is our present reality, Jesus’ words are ignored and no one is treated they way they want to be treated.  Everyone does what they want and common courtesy is but a relic of the past, like hand-written letters and house calls.  All is not lost, however, and God’s word will never return empty: if a few of us choose courtesy and champion kindness, the culture can change over time.   Join me in following the golden rule; it might encourage other to do the same toward you.

Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash  

 

Jingle Jangle Jingle

As part of a discussion with my family over Sunday’s sermon, my eldest stated that he was humored by the possibility of God’s bestowal of the spiritual gift of provocation.  His comment was based on the phrase “spur one another on” in Hebrews 10:24, a peculiar Greek word (παροξυσμός) which literally means “with a point”; the only other time the word is used in the New Testament (Acts 15:39) it is translated as “a sharp disagreement”.  The writer of the book of Hebrews was inspired to tell the church to look for ways to sharply provoke our fellow believers.

The term ‘spur on’ is a wonderful word picture of this process of provocation.  It conjures images of a race horse and jockey, working together as a team, to reach the optimal outcome.  The jockey is kicking his mount in the hind quarters and the horse is increasing its efforts.  At the end of the race, the horse, which endured the sting of provocation, is the champion and the jockey, the source of the provocation is the one who drapes the victor in flowers (quick question: horseracing’s Triple Crown was won this past June: what was the horse’s name?  And who was his jockey?  More of us can remember Justify, but few would come up with jockey Mike Smith).  ‘Spurring on’ may not be pleasant for the horse in the moment, but the resulting rewards cannot be underestimated.

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds….  Hebrews 10:24

The writer of Hebrews tells us to consider (literally, to look upon) one another for the spurring on toward love and good deeds.  The Holy Spirit inspired a first century author to urge the church to look for ways to provoke one another.  This provocation, this calling forth with sharpness, propels the believer toward acts and attitudes that convey love and compassion.  It appears that these virtues – love and compassion – are not always instinctual, logical or natural.  We all have times when we revert to pettiness, anger and selfishness and need a good kick in the pants to motivate us to pursue the goal set before us.

So, perhaps there is a spiritual gift of provocation, a God-given ability to call one another forth with sharpness so that we all may glorify God to the fullest.  Perhaps there is also a need among God’s people to accept that ‘spurring’ with grace and gratitude, knowing the intent of our ‘jockey’ is the attaining of our very best effort.  No one wants to hear that they need to love the heartless or hurt for the homeless; most of us are comfortable loving who we love and helping who we help.  Then we wrestle with the truth that God’s love and mercy is greater than our expressions of them, and that we need someone to remind us that we are able to do more than we think we are capable of doing.

So, appreciate those whom God uses to spur you on.  Appreciate those whom God uses to agitate you to love deeper and provoke you to act kinder.  Appreciate those with sharp words intended to soften your heart.

I Will Be Candid

Yesterday was my son David’s last 1st day of school.  I was hoping to post on social media a pair of pictures: one of his 1st day in kindergarten and one on his 1st day of 12th grade.  I thought we had digital images from 2006, but, alas, our digital camera was purchased just prior to the birth of our youngest in December of 2007.  I am sure that I have a physical photo in a presently unavailable box somewhere, but it would not be found on my laptop.  However, in the midst of the search, Jeanine and I laughed and cried over ten years of captured moments.

We began with the 1st day of school pictures of the last ten years, then moved on to birthdays and Christmas.  We saw pictures of vacations and awards ceremonies.  We clicked through church events and graduations.  Some of the images were posed and prepared, but many were candid and spontaneous.   It is the candid shots that are the most delightful.  They are the ones that represent what is real.

There were images of that holiday when everyone cried at dinner, of the birthday where the kids were fighting over cake and ice cream, and of the random day where one of the children played with the camera.  It is these stolen moments, when raw emotions like love, joy or rage are on full display.  They are genuine: small faces with squinting or swollen eyes, mouths agape or lips pursed; they are goofy and gawky, slightly blurred by motion or misfocus.  They are life.  That is what elicited our titters and tears.  The beauty of those candid photos on my computer is that they enable us to gain a glimpse of the inner self – my (and my family’s) true fragile, flawed, fool-hearty, frail and fabulous nature.

Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.  1 Peter 3:4 (NIV)

While the above-mentioned verse relates primarily to women, the truth it contains, in context is that there is a difference between the outward appearance and the inner self.  The world celebrates the outward appearance but the Lord values to inner person.  The selfies and pictures of perfect foods and vacations on social media are a charade; they are staged and stylized.  They capture the ideal of outward appearance.  I would rather hold onto the unfading beauty of my family’s inner selves.  I want to value their gentle and quiet spirit, warts and all.

A few weeks ago, I posted about my family portrait experience.  These portraits are essential to capture a moment.  But I will hold onto those fuzzy candids of my precious children, even though the images make my children cringe, because that is how I capture and hold onto what we are.  I love those little beauties standing on porches for the past 20 years and I appreciate the technology that allows me to remember how blessed I am through all the realities of life.

What We Are

We had an interesting visitor to the church the other day: a location scout.  It seems that there are plans for a major motion picture to film in Boston this fall and they were looking for a church to shoot a scene.  The scout told me they were looking for a place to film a sparsely attended funeral and she came by to take a few pictures of our sanctuary.  In the ten minutes that the location scout was taking her shots of the building, my thoughts went on a flight of fancy: what if our church was selected and we had Hollywood heavyweights filling our pews; what if our sanctuary made it into a movie; what if it were nominated for an Academy Award?

Whether or not we are chosen as a location for this movie, our church will not be captured on film.  The truth is that the church is not the building.  The building is a beautiful composition of plaster, wood, metal, asphalt and glass.  The church, on the other hand, is an even more glorious composition of personalities, abilities, experiences and passions.  The building is a specific place, but the church is a specific people.  While the building, with its carpeting and lighting, might be viewed on the big screen, our church, with its emotions and affections, cannot be experienced as entertainment.

Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house.  Colossians 4:15

The above-referenced passage reveals an important truth found in numerous other passages in Scripture: there is a distinction between the church and the place where it meets (in this case “in her house”).  The early believers did not ‘go to church’ but went to a place to be with the church, to gather with sisters and brothers of faith to worship, to pray, to educate and to minister.  Church is not where the Bible tells us to go or what the Bible tells us to do, but who the Bible tells us to be.  The church is the family of God, the body and bride of Christ, and temple of the Holy Spirit.  So, maybe our building will be in the movies, but the church is too great to be preserved on celluloid.

For most, this weekend represents the end of summer and the beginning of autumn, the time when schools and colleges resume their classes.  It is also the time when churches resume their regular schedules and programs.  It would be a great time to think about gathering with the church and share your gifts, strengths and passions in ways that foster growth and increase His kingdom.  For most of us, that will mean going to a ‘house of worship’ – I dare not say going to ‘church’ – and getting together with the church – what the Greek calls ekklesia, “the ones called out”.  Join others as we celebrate that we are more than a special place on the map; we are the one whom God has called out of the culture of this world and brought together as a family of faith.

That cannot be contained in any camera’s lens.

The Uninvited Roommate

We have a mouse in our apartment.  At least, we hope we have a mouse in our apartment and not multiple mice living among us.  On the bright side, it is a small mouse; however, small as it may be, it still has the power to startle my wife and family at will.  It has been seen dashing under the hinges of open doors and scurrying across the floor into a gap between the dishwasher and the cabinet.  This little mouse is, more or less, a nuisance, diverting our attention from the television or from conversation when it is seen out of the corner of our eyes.  That said, this little mouse may be an indication of a larger ‘infestation’ and must be dealt with.

Metaphorically, I have a great deal of little mice in my house: they are the seemingly inconsequential things called temptations.  They distract and derail my mind if they are not properly addressed as the damaging dangers they are.  They reveal themselves during the idle times of my life since I do have instant access to those little graphic images of a prurient nature or an app on my phone that enables me to procure doughnuts at a moment’s notice.  But, unlike the pesky mus musculus that might chew through an electrical wire or contaminate your cookie supply, temptation will (if unchecked) drag you off and destroy your life.

… but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed.  Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.  James 1:14-15

Unlike the house mouse, which infiltrates the boundaries of our abodes and then wreaks havoc, temptation is formed within the walls of our soul through the development of a desire for immediate gratification through the things of the world.  That desire becomes an obsession, that obsession becomes a sinful act and that sinful act becomes a sinful pattern, which leads to spiritual death.  While I can tolerate the presence of a little rodent without much concern for the repercussions, it would be foolhardy to allow temptation of any type to take up residence in my heart because the consequences are so dire.

To deal with the issue, I must ask: what is the mouse trap for temptation or the rat poison for desire?  I believe the remedy to temptation has three aspects: recognize the truth about you, remember the provision of God and resist any inferior substitutes.  First, recognize the truth about you – your weaknesses, your strengths and your blind spots – so that you are aware of the dangers before they surface.  Then, remember the provision of God – the abundance of life, truth and love – and trust His will for you.  Finally, resist the innate desire to accept anything inferior – what is quicker, easier or cheaper – to God’s very best.   If we know, for example, that we are tempted to bear false witness (i.e., lie), we can resist that temptation by being aware of our inclination, remember God’s equipping us to share the truth and reject the temporary comfort through ‘gilding the lily’.

We all have things we need to deal with in order to keep our home healthy and whole … whether it be a (hu)man or a mouse.

Picture This!

On Monday, our whole family went to the local mall and sat for a family portrait.  My wife, Jeanine, had wanted us all to take a new picture for some time, but with college schedules and work schedules, there never seemed to be the time.  But thanks to Groupon© and the wonderful people at Portrait Simple©, we were able to capture the spirit of the family on film (well, whatever digital images are captured upon).  In hindsight, I am so glad we had it done, since it had been six years since our last family portrait was taken and we all have changed so much.

As we were preparing for the appointment, there was a great deal of pushback from at least one of the children.  There were questions asked about the necessity of picture-taking and the costs attributable to said picture-taking.  Why do we take pictures?  Why do we, in ever increasing measure in this age of the smart phone, seek to capture every memory and moment with pictures?  What is it that we hope to keep?  What is it that we long to preserve?  These are the things that I think about as I watch a stranger style my daughter’s hair through his fingers and adjust my son’s head to frame the perfect image.

We take pictures because we want to remember who we were.  One of the secondary joys of this photo-taking process is, as I place the new photos in their frames, that I get to take a look at all the photos of the past sandwiched in the frames.  I get the chance to see when we had one, then two, then three and now four cherubs.  I get to recall snapshots of our beautiful family.  It is pictures that enable us to think back to who we once were

We take pictures because we want to remember where we have been.  I have hundreds of digital files of vacations, holidays and birthdays, all to capture those moments.  Some are fuzzy, others are messy, but all of them reflect our life together.  It is pictures that ring back the sounds, smells and sight of special times.

We take pictures because we want to remember what we have overcome.  Our family pictures have children with broken bones and missing teeth.  We have candids taken in cruddy apartments while children are crying.  But it is what is contained in these pictures that enables us to see how far we’ve come – from awkward and gangly to radiant and strong.

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.  Colossians 1:15

Pictures – photographic images – enable us to capture a moment in time, albeit a retouched and carefully selected moment in time, which serve as reference points to earlier, simpler or happier times.  They represent the ideal, not real but not false either.  They are intended to elicit emotions and trigger memories.  For this reason, we will continue to take family portraits: some years there may be more in the frame and some years there may be less, but every time they will represent who we are (or who we could be).

What a Feeling

Earlier this week, my family went to see Disney’s latest movie, “Christopher Robin”.  It was a sweet, if somewhat simple, story of a grown man remembering the importance of family and friends.  As I watched, I was transported to my childhood, through the recollection of familiar songs and sayings of a bear and his friends, and my early adulthood, as I remembered watching on VHS these same stories with my children.  For me (and those my age), it was a trip down memory lane and into the hundred-acre wood, making me long for simpler times.

These thoughts I am having are ‘nostalgia’, which is defined as ‘a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition’.  The term comes from the Greek word nostos (home) and algia (pain): it is literally ‘home-sickness’.  Nostalgia is all about feelings: longing for the good old days or the hoping that we can make America great again.  But nostalgia (like all feelings) is not necessarily anchored in reality, for the good old days may not have been all that good for some in our society and the America of generations past may not have been as great as we recall.

Instead of embracing sentimentality based on feelings, the Bible commands us to elicit memories based on facts.  The last few weeks, at Vacation Bible School and through Sunday morning messages, I have read in the scriptures what we are commanded to remember: as the Israelites were crossing the Jordan River and entering the Promised Land they were commanded to erect a tower of 12 stones from the riverbed (an Ebenezer, a ‘stone of remembrance’) to remind future generations of the deliverance Lord had granted them; and through the letters Jesus dictated to the churches in Asia Minor they were commanded to remember the great height from which they had fallen.  They were commanded to remember the facts of God’s gracious and merciful interactions with them, not the emotions of the moment.

Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent.  Revelation 3:3

The church is commanded to remember what we have received (tangible blessings and actual gifts) and what we have heard (reliable teachings and sworn testimonies).  We are not commanded to commemorate how we felt about what we have received or heard.  In fact, an argument could be made that nostalgia emotions and feelings are man-made idols which could take the place of God if we are not careful.  Instead of worshiping the God who has revealed Himself in the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, we are tempted to offer our sacrifices to the gods of happiness and comfort.   Unfortunately, those who choose feelings over facts end up with nothing.

It is good to remember what has happened in the past – what God has done and said – but it might not be best to wish we went back.  May the source of our joy in the present be what is real and not simply what we feel.

Hunger Games

My children tell me I have a lot of strange rules (e.g. I do not allow random singing at the kitchen table during meals).  At one time, I used to demand that there would be no snacking after 4PM, with the rationale being that I wanted the kids to eat their supper when it was time for dinner.  However, after years of hungry kids disregarding my wishes, I have given up the fight and silently tolerate the consumption of chips, croutons and trail mix at 5:47, thirteen minutes before mealtime.  There is no stopping someone when they are hungry, and, with laser-like focus, my children will find something to eat whenever those hunger pangs strike.

Hunger, the pain that comes when an appetite is not satisfied, is a powerful force.  It breaks our focus and drains our strength.  It weakens our will and halts our productivity.  It is the reason why parents everywhere load granola bars into their children’s backpack when the time for standardized testing rolls around.  It is the reason why breakfast is the most important meal of the day.  It is the reason why we should never shop for groceries on an empty stomach.  One of our most primal urges, one of our basest instincts, is to satiate our hunger.

I will be fully satisfied as with the richest of foods; with singing lips my mouth will praise you.    Psalm 63:5

We all know what to do when we experience physical hunger: we find something to eat – sometimes healthy and sometimes not.  But, are we aware that we do the same things with our other hungers?  We satisfy our emotional hunger at times with emotional burgers (cat videos) and at other times with emotional salads (writing poems).  We satisfy our mental hunger occasionally with intellectual ring dings (“Fifty Shades of Grey”) and occasionally with educational cantaloupe (“Hannah Coulter”).  We satisfy our relational hunger with doughnuts (Facebook) and egg whites (face-to-face conversations).  The good news is that, according to the Psalmist, God satisfies our hunger; the bad news is that we all have times when we choose to consume what is not on His menu.

Nowhere is this more evident than when it comes to our spiritual hunger.  Throughout the scriptures we are promised the lavish abundance of the Lamb’s marriage supper.  When we feast upon the blessings of Christ, we are given forgiveness, eternal life, spiritual giftedness and spiritual fruit.  There are times when we choose spiritual celery (which has no nutritional value) or spiritual caramel corn (which is not good for us).  We hunger for forgiveness, for example, but instead of receiving satisfaction from God we seek justification from the culture.  We substitute the good for the good enough.

These hungers we experience are necessary.  It is in our best interest to listen to them.  Our focus, strength, will and productivity will suffer if we neglect to keep watch over our appetites.  Appreciate the banquet table the Lord has prepared for you and accept no lesser substitute. Allow your satisfaction to come from God and you need not spoil your appetite on what the world has to offer.

A Small But Significant “Splash”

Today is the final day of my annual week of craziness and sleep deprivation, otherwise known as VBS week.  This year we went to “Splash Canyon” and heard some amazing stories of God’s fulfillment of His promises: He protected Moses as he floated down the Nile in a basket; He provided the Israelites access to the promised land as they walked between heaps of water on the dry Jordan River bed; He healed Naaman by as he washed in the Jordan; He saved 276 men, including Paul, as they were shipwrecked in the Mediterranean; and He established our salvation as Jesus was baptized in the Jordan.  While I am exhausted due to the activity, I feel blessed by God that I could be a part of it all.

Every year that I direct a Vacation Bible School program, I am humbled by the responsibility that parent’s place in us.  They allow their most precious treasures, their children, to participate with our church in hearing Bible stories, playing games, making crafts, eating snacks, singing songs and picking out handfuls of candy each day.  They trust us with their child’s physical well being, moral character development, spiritual formation and social interaction.   With so many other options available to families (summer camps, sports  programs, community center day programs or other Vacation Bible Schools), I am grateful for the parent’s that chose to join us for “Splash Canyon”.

According to Lifeway Kids , in 2016, more than 2.5 million children attended VBS (with over 70,000 making a profession of faith) and $6.5 million was raised for missionary causes.  That is quite an impact for about 30 hours of ministry.  While our church’s impact is quite a bit smaller, it must not be dismissed as insignificant.  I wonder what God might do through the seeds that have been planted this week.  Are we, through these five days of fun activities, building up the elders, pastors and missionaries of the mid-twenty first century?  Are we, through playing duck-duck-goose and making necklaces with pony beads and remembrance stones, creating lasting memories of God’s goodness which will serve as anchors for these kids when the storms of life hit?  I would like to think the answer is, “Yes”.

For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ.  And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God.  1 Corinthians 2:20

I want to thank everyone who enabled us to conduct this year’s Vacation Bible School, who volunteered their time and resources to glorify God and bless the lives of more than two dozen children.  I also want to thank all those who are praying for the children who attended.   It was a great week and, God willing, just the beginning of something great in the lives of all who participated.