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.
Today is Good Friday, the day on the Christian calendar when we remember and reflect upon the crucifixion of the Lord. Some of us will get together at a local church and hear the Gospel account of the cross. Others of us will spend some time alone reflecting on the death of Jesus. In whatever way you choose to recognize this pivotal moment in human history, I pray that you will appreciate the awesome transaction that took place on the Palestinian hillside nearly two millennia ago. I hope you will rejoice over that moment when Jesus cried out, “It is finished”, and gave up His spirit (as John 19:30 tells us), that moment when every member of the human race was offered reconciliation.
We are offered reconciliation with God, since we know that the cross resulted in the full forgiveness of sin, pardon from our willfully disobedient nature that separates us from our creator. Jesus (who committed no sin) gave His life for us (who are sinful) to completely satisfy the wrath of God. Instead of suffering the appropriate consequences for our actions, Jesus paid the price with His life and enabled us to reunite with God. Through the death of Jesus – the public, ghastly and humiliating death of Jesus – we are declared forgiven and allowed entrance into the heavenly realms.
This is wonderfully good news, but there’s more. We are also offered reconciliation with one another. As Paul wrote:
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. Ephesians 2:14-16 (NIV)
Before Good Friday, all people were separated by a wall of hostility into two camps – those who were under God’s covenant and those who were not. This separation is a symptom of our sin and caused people then, as it causes people now, to divide one another into two distinct groups: us and them. We like us and we hate them. Today’s divisions are no longer about rabbinical interpretations of Old Testament law, but of gender and politics and class and ethnicity. The cross has destroyed the dividing wall of hostility.
Rejoice today that we are reconciled with our Creator and with our fellow-created through the cross of Jesus Christ. We need never be alienated from God or from our neighbor because of Christ’s sacrifice on Good Friday. When we stand before the cross today, literally or figuratively, let us all remember that through His death we gain peace with God and unity with all those who stand beside us. I pray you will accept His offer of reconciliation and receive the peace that passes all understanding.
I wish you all a happy and healthy Easter.
I am sure that some of you are not basketball fans, let alone college basketball fans. To be honest, I am, at best, a casual observer of the college game. However, every once in a while something happens on the court that makes it beyond the sports update and into the ‘regular’ news. Such an occurrence happened last Thursday when the University of Maryland – Baltimore County Retrievers defeated the University of Virginia Cavaliers in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. The win marked the first time a 16-seed (the lowest seeding that the tournament gives) had ever defeated a 1-seed in the tournament (there had been 135 previous match-ups over the past 34 years). Ultimately, that is where the good news ends, as two days later the Retrievers exited the tournament with a loss to Kansas State.
There is just something about the underdog, the long shot and the dark horse: that competitor thought to have little chance of winning a fight or contest. Our human nature roots for David as he battles Goliath and cheers for Buster Douglas as he contends against Mike Tyson. We want to believe that in any fight anyone could win. We want to live in a world where the little guy could catch a break and beat the big guy at his own game. Even if it has never happened before, a major league baseball team could win a playoff series even when it is down three games to none and a nation football league team could win the championship even when it is down by 25 points with little more than 17 minutes left in the game. We all want to live in a world where anything is possible.
In so many areas of life, you and I are the underdog. Cancer is the 1-seed and we are the 16-seed with little chance for victory. Poverty has a three-game lead over us and we remain winless. Sin is ahead by 25 points and time is running out. All is not lost, however, as we can rest in the promise of our Lord in scripture:
Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Matthew 19:26
“…With God all things are possible.” Not inevitable, but possible. Not probable, but possible. With God, anyone can enjoy victory over any seemingly undefeatable thing.
This weekend we enter Passion Week as the church, the eight days leading up to the world-changing victory of Easter over a previously unbeatable foe. I hope that you will engage with the body of Christ as Christians of every tradition observe the misunderstood and vastly underestimated challenger enters the court in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, share in the pre-contest meal with his teammates on Maundy Thursday and participate in the main event on Good Friday. I hope that you will rejoice with others as we celebrate the devastating defeat of the previously undefeated sin and the once all-conquering death. Join us, as a local church or as the universal representation of God’s kingdom, as we declare that ‘with God all things are possible’, that the tomb is empty and the slate is wiped clean. The underdog, the least and the lowest, will one day be victorious.
Family members disagree. They argue. They fight. They feud. I witnessed this as a middle child and as a father of four. I could share stories of fighting with my younger brother or of my boys fighting over something or other. Sibling rivalry is nothing new; it is as old as history itself. The first siblings, Cain and Abel, did not get along and fought, with terrible results. Sibling rivalry also rears its ugly head among the followers of Jesus, as is evident in the interaction between siblings Mary and Martha that is recorded in Luke 10:38-42.
It all began with these sisters disagreeing over the proper etiquette in entertaining guests: one sister gave priority to hospitality and the other to conversation. These two women had a difference of focus. Martha focused on serving – Jesus was coming over for dinner and she wanted everything to come together properly. Mary was focused on engaging with Jesus – sitting at his feet listening to everything He was saying. Neither of these women were wrong in their attention, but not everything that holds our focus is necessary.
When our focus is fixed, it becomes difficult to see the periphery clearly. Mary’s sole focus was Jesus and everything else was inconsequential. Martha’s scattered focus was on many things and everything became distracting and disturbing. I cannot recount the number of times I have been troubled with all the details: is the dinner going to be done at the right time, are their any food allergies I am unaware of, is there something I am forgetting? If that happens on a typical Tuesday, what would I be like if the Savior of all people were to visit my home?
Mary had no such turmoil. She was blessed with peace. As Jesus stated,
“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10:41–42 (ESV)
She chose the necessary, the good portion, and that enabled her to have peace. In saying this, Jesus is not diminishing all the things that are important – service, school, socializing and more – but elevating the essential. Time with God is necessary. It is as essential as sleep, food, water and shelter. These are the things we cannot function without. We cannot survive without a relationship with Jesus, for that relationship is the source of our salvation, direction and righteousness.
This complex conversation between an aggravated sister and her Lord prompts me to ask about my own priorities and whether I am distracted and disturbed or at peace. Do I have a lack of focus on what is necessary? Do I have a lack of fellowship with God because I am so busy doing what is important but not essential? Am I consumed by the worries of this world that I am in danger of fruitlessly withering? Am I more like Martha or more like Mary? I wish there was a verse 43 in Luke 10 which stated that later in the evening Mary did the dishes and Martha sat at the Lord’s feet. While the scriptures are silent, I hope it to be true. Maybe we all could be both.
Serving, like Martha did, is a wonderful gift to those around us, but it may or may not have anything to do with our relationship with God. Building a relationship with God, like Mary did, will lead us to serve and be a blessing to those around us and a glory to God. Focusing on the necessary will give us all we need.
As I am sure you are aware, Rev. William (Billy) Franklin Graham reunited with His Savior on February 21st. Although I never met him, nor heard him speak in person, he was a co-founder and trustee emeritus of my alma mater, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (and I have his signature on my degree). Billy Graham was instrumental in shaping evangelicalism in the 20th century: thousands heard and accepted the Gospel through the crusades he conducted across the globe, thousands more have been encouraged through his writings (including the co-founding of Christianity Today Magazine), and untold numbers of national and world leaders had sought his advice and counsel. He was a giant not only in the church, but in our culture. That being said, when I mentioned his passing at our dinner table, my 10-year old son, Joshua, had no idea who Billy Graham was.
Jump ahead a week. It is the night before the Oscars® and our family is watching what would ultimately be given the award for Best Animated Feature, Coco. The film’s storyline is simple (albeit contradictory to biblical truth): a boy, Miguel, raids a mausoleum to steal a guitar from his hero on Día de Muertos (The Day of the Dead) and is brought to the land of the dead, where he meets his ancestors and discovers a secret. One interesting aspect of the ‘other side’ that Miguel finds out as he is interacting with those who have passed is that you disappear when there is no one left who remembers your stories. According to the movie, when no one remains to remember your name, you cease to exist.
As great as Billy Graham (the man, the preacher, the writer or the friend) was, within a generation or two, he will be largely forgotten. And as harsh as that seems, the Bible concurs:
Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. James 4:14 (NIV)
So, what does this say for me or for you? Maybe we are like lightbulbs – we shine for a while, but eventually we will cease to give light and we will be discarded. Maybe some of you are like lamps – useful for many cycles of lightbulbs, but still subject to the ravages of time and eventually replaced by a cheaper lamp from Ikea©. Whether a lightbulb or a lamp, we are merely a conduit for the electricity. Lightbulbs and lamps (like us) come and go, but the electricity (in this metaphor, the Lord God Almighty) remains.
Billy Graham was somewhat like a lighthouse lamp: strong, powerful, and steady in its purpose; but that light has gone. I pray another light will rise to take his place. While I, in comparison, may be a night light, I still can be strong, powerful, and steady in my purpose until I have been fully spent. Within a generation or two, I will likely be forgotten – a name on a list or a letter, an unfamiliar face in a yellowed photograph – but for now, let me make some impact and shed some light. Perhaps I could guide the next world-changer to avoid stumbling in the dark long enough to see the true Light of the world.
photo found on billygraham.org
Tomorrow is my father’s 80th birthday. Happy birthday, Dad!
Sunday is Oscar® day, when the Academy Awards are presented. Hooray for Hollywood!
The above-stated occasions may seem to most as two random calendar entries, but to me, they are inextricably linked. For those who are unaware of my upbringing, my parents separated and divorced when I was in grade school. While the intervening years have dulled my memory, I do recall a number of weekend matinees that my dad took us to see: “Robin Hood”, “Pete’s Dragon”, “Superman”, “Star Trek” and more. I remember the hours in the dark at the General Cinema Theater at Westgate Mall and the Brockton East Twin Cinema. It was in those moments that I gained a love for movies – good movies, bad movies, all movies.
In thinking about these memories, some more than four decades old, I am reminded of the love my dad had (and has) for my siblings and me, and the love I have for him. While we spent few nights under the same roof, we spent hours together every weekend. I remember waiting for him to pick us up (making a game of counting cars of a randomly particular color) and I cannot recall ever being disappointed when he never arrived. We had inside jokes (ordering “pine tree floats” at MerMac’s and trying to spell the name one of his old bosses, S. Gunnar Myrbeck), ate hundreds of hamburgers and watched dozens of movies.
A wise son brings joy to his father, but a foolish son brings grief to his mother. – Proverbs 10:1
As the years have passed and the miles have grown between us, my meetings with my dad have grew more infrequent, but my love for my dad and my love for the movies have remained. I appreciate all those afternoons, with or without popcorn, that we shared watching the silver screen. I think about that as I take my children to the movies, tell the same corny jokes and buy the same fast food. I love you, Dad.
Thinking about my dad taking me to the movies all those years ago makes me wonder why I love the movies so much. I am sure it has something to do with those deep-seated emotions of my childhood. It also has something to do with the escape the darkened theater provides: a diversion from the daily grind to exotic and fantastic places. Mostly, I reckon, it has to do with the story – dozens of accounts of love and loss, risk and rescue, life and death. Thank you, Dad, for giving me all that. I carry a part of you every time I buy a ticket. Happy Birthday! Maybe one day soon we can catch one more movie together.
For what it is worth, after seeing most of the nominated films (there’s still time to finish the challenge), I would give the Oscars to “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri”, Gary Oldman, Frances McDormand, Allison Janney and Sam Rockwell. Knowing my track-record, I’m due to be right.
As we have for the previous few years, my wife and I have endeavored to see the nine movies nominated for the Best Picture Oscar®. With ten days remaining and only two movies yet to view, I am confident that we will complete our task. Reflecting on the films we have already seen, a theme seems to be emerging: the power of words. In these films, I am reminded that a well-chosen word or a turn-of-phrase at the appropriate time has the power to uplift or destroy, the force sufficient to motivate a nation or crush a spirit.
Of particular impact were the words Sheriff Bill Willoughby (portrayed by Woody Harrelson in Three Billboard Outside Ebbing, MO), British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (portrayed by Gary Oldman in The Darkest Hour and referenced in Dunkirk), and fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis in The Phantom Thread). Without giving away the plot, the theater-goer will be gripped by the redemptive and encouraging nature of the words contained in Willoughby’s letters, the motivating influence upon a nation to continue the struggle through Churchill’s “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech before Parliament, and the damaging and demoralizing destruction caused by Woodcock’s cutting comments.
Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. James 3:10
The last few weeks of movie-going have caused me to consider anew the wisdom of James and the power of the tongue. How is that the same function can exalt or eviscerate? How intentional am I with my words? Have I learned the truth regarding the power of speech and the wisdom to wield that ‘sword’ beneficially? Ultimately, am I utilizing my glossary to glorify myself or give gravitas to others? While I would not to presume to be as loquacious as Churchill, neither do I want to be as self-absorbed as Woodcock.
Perhaps preparation is key (and a Hollywood screenwriter would help, too). Churchill labored over his speeches, editing and reediting his message even to the final moments before delivery. Willoughby wrote letters, which experience tells us is a slower form of communication – our thoughts race faster than our pens, allowing us to shape and shade our words as we go. I wonder how our words might change if we gave ourselves as little as a moment to collect our thoughts. That might be enough time to enable us to refrain from that angry retort and share something edifying instead.
Words contain an immense power – a power that could be positive or negative. A single word (“mistake”) can destroy the fragile soul of an impressionable youth and a single word (“gift”) can develop the formidable soul of that same impressionable youth. Words can be ugly or beautiful, can be used to build up or tear down and therefore requires our attention. I wouldn’t let youngest juggle chainsaws, even if he told me he was confident in his ability to harness to power of the tools. Perhaps I should have the same concern about his (and my) use of the many tools we find in the dictionary.
With careful preparation and attention, may we use our words to build up one another.
Whoo-hoo-hoo, look who knows so much. It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive. – Miracle Max in The Princess Bride
This past Wednesday was both Valentine’s Day (a celebration of romantic love) and Ash Wednesday (an observance marked by sacrifice). The juxtaposition of these seemingly diverse concepts got me thinking about one of my favorite movies, The Princess Bride. This 1987 film directed by Rob Reiner has everything a romantic date might want: maidens and pirates, swordfights and acts of revenge, rivalries and true love. Without giving away all the plot points of this 30-year-old cinematic gem, I will say that, with great sacrifice, love conquers all. Love and sacrifice, the perfect combination for those celebrating the full range of experiences observed on February 14, 2018.
One of the pivotal scenes is quoted above: our hero is tortured to death and all hope is lost, unless Miracle Max, a village magician, can bring him back to life. Needless to say, it works and Wesley, the movie’s Prince Charming, is given new life. It works because the hero was only mostly dead, not completely dead; he was still slightly alive. Death and life, the same combination that forms the tension found in the New Testament Scriptures. Those who lose their lives will gain it and those who want to save their lives will lose it, or so the Good Book says.
For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin – because anyone who has died has been set free from sin. Romans 6:6-7
In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul tells believers that we have crucified – painfully killed – our old nature to do away with our bondage to sin. Unfortunately, many of us think that God is a bit like Miracle Max and that we can come to the God of creation in the state of “mostly dead” or “slightly alive” and think that we can be restored to wholeness. But that is simply not true. The prisoner with a life sentence does not receive a pardon because he is sick or because she is at death’s door. Our sin is not fully dealt with when we “mostly” remove it from our lives. We cannot fully enjoy our new life if we continue to hold onto a bit of our old one. Why would we want to try?
As we prepare for Easter with a season of sacrifice, allow me to remind all those who claim Christ as Lord to consider yourself dead to sin: have nothing to do with that old life, with its passions, powers and prizes. Consider yourself alive with new life in Him: embrace fully the pardon you have received, the gifts with which you have been graced and the peace you now enjoy. God is not Miracle Max; He is so much more, not only able to give us our lives back from the grave, but to transform us to be our greatest self.
They are called ‘spoilers’ and I have been battling them for the last week. For those who are unaware of the term, the urban dictionary defines ‘spoiler’ as when someone reveals a previously unknown aspect of something which you likely would have rather learned on your own. Spoilers take all forms: giving away the ending of movies (like the twists in the plots of “The Usual Suspects, “Fight Club” or “The Sixth Sense”) to revealing the killer of an Agatha Christie novel to talking about the details of television show you are waiting to watch on DVR.
My barrage of spoilers began while watching the Super Bowl™ on Sunday. We were watching the game via a streaming service, which meant that there was a delay of a minute or so between the live action and the broadcast. So, cell phones would relate information that I would have rather learned on my own, like if that field goal was made or that extra point was successful. Then, beginning on Monday morning, through social media posts, I learned things about one of my favorite television shows (“This Is Us”) that I wish I had learned on my own. Finally, on Monday night my wife and I saw the movie “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” and there are parts of this wonderful piece of cinema that I would love to reveal, but there are just some things others need to learn on their own.
Now to him who is able to establish you in accordance with my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all the Gentiles might come to the obedience that comes from faith – to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen. Romans 16:25-27
The Bible, extrapolating from the above passage, contains a ‘spoiler’. It includes a mystery that has been revealed. What needs to be understood is that when the Bible speaks of ‘mystery’, it is not referring to something that cannot be known, but rather something that was once hidden, but can be known. But unlike other spoilers, I am not uncomfortable revealing the previously unknown aspect of God’s plan of salvation which many may learn, eventually, on their own. The mystery of the Scriptures is the identity of the Christ, the promised Messiah – the one who has been anointed and appointed by God to satisfy His wrath against all sin and to fulfill His law. Spoiler alert: This Messiah is Jesus of Nazareth.
As I reflect on the nature of spoilers, I realize that there are ‘spoilers’ that are shared to benefit the revealer and others that are shared to benefit the hearer. There is power (for the individual) in secrets and some want to capitalize on that power by revealing what they know, like the final score of the big game or the identity of Keyser Söze. There is also power (for all) in casting light on the mysteries of life so that everyone might know the truth, like sharing the Gospel with a lost and dying world.
It is hard to keep important, exciting or life-changing news to ourselves. If you have the opportunity to share a ‘spoiler’, just be sure it benefits those who listen.
It all began with a conversation around the dinner table. I had mentioned an incident of public confession at a church we had visited a few years ago. This then led to a question from my 17-year old son: “We’re not supposed to do that; doesn’t the Bible say that the right hand shouldn’t know what the left one does?” This then turned into a discussion about the natures of pride and humility. There we sat, with a table full dirty dishes between us, engaging in a conversation about the revolutionary demands of following Christ.
My son was right. The Bible does say:
But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing…. Matthew 6:3
We shouldn’t let one hand know what the other is doing. However, the context of this verse is explicit: we do this when we give to the needy. Jesus, as part of his Sermon on the Mount, commanded his followers to maintain no memory of the good things we do. We must not let ourselves know what we’ve done, let alone others. We are to practice humility when it comes to acts of good will.
My son was also mistaken. The Bible also says:
Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. James 5:16
We should be confessing our sins to each other, in proportion to the breadth of the offense and the depth of our relationship. James commands Christ’s followers to maintain accountability for the bad things we do, otherwise we are in danger of damaging our souls and dropping into prideful arrogance. We need to practice humility when it comes to acts of ill will.
All this caused my son, in resignation, to say that what we were saying was messed up. But the fact remains that the ways of the world – celebrating our altruism publicly and covering our mistakes privately – are diametrically opposed to the ways of the Lord – admitting our mistakes publicly and allowing our acts of kindness to remain private. All who follow Jesus cannot follow the patterns of the culture, and instead of ‘cleaners’ and ‘plausible deniability’ we must embrace confession and transparency.
This is truly a revolutionary lifestyle. While everyone around us might tell us to take pride in our positive accomplishments, we need to remain humble. While everyone around us might tell us not to dwell on our mistakes, we need to deal with our sin. This requires us to rely on God’s Spirit to lead us – to trust that He sees the good that we do (even when no one else does) and will reward us and to know that He sees the bad that we do (even though no one else might) and will forgive us.
So, we who know Jesus as Lord and Savior must admit our weaknesses to someone and expect no one to know our goodness. In a world drenched in abuse and aggression, a posture of humility like this would go a long way to addressing some of the pain.