Today is Saint Patrick’s Day and, thanks to my father’s recent genetic profile from ancestry.com, I will be celebrating the holy day with the newfound knowledge that I am 2% Irish. There is much to commend Maewyn Succat (thought to be Patrick’s name at birth) to all believers: he was born into a religious family, with his grandfather serving as a priest; he suffered great adversity, having been kidnapped by pirates at age 16 and then living as a slave in Ireland for 6 years; he was miraculously rescued by God, to whom he had been praying fervently for deliverance, when he was told in a dream that his ship had arrived and then walked more than 200 miles to set sail; upon reaching England, far from home, he survived starvation when a wild boar wandered into his camp; at age 40, God told him in a dream to return to Ireland with the Gospel and build His church. He gives us all a testimony of what God can do through a person committed to trusting in the Lord.
There are a number of the interesting truths about Patrick’s life. First, he rejected the beliefs of his family for many years, but the great difficulties of his early life drew him to God with a fervent faith. Second, he was not the first missionary to Ireland, as he succeeded another man who had come to Ireland five years before he returned to the island. Third, one of the Patrick’s first converts from Druidism to Christianity was Milchu, the tribal chieftain who served as his master more than 20 years earlier. Patrick was used by God in mighty ways and He utilized every aspect of Patrick’s life (both blessings and burdens) to glorify the Lord.
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28
Saint Patrick reminds me that anyone can do great things through God. Anyone can endure a horrible past when they trust in Him. Anyone can show the power of forgiveness when they know the forgiveness of God. Anyone can mightily share their faith when they have experienced the grace of the Lord. Saint Patrick reminds me that nothing is impossible with God – He is able to reach anyone through anyone by any means. So, whether you are in the ideal location or the worst place imaginable, among the most wonderful people or the dregs of society, confident in your abilities or concerned about your inabilities, know that God can still be glorified through you.
Perhaps you will enjoy a bit of green lager or some corned beef and cabbage today. Maybe you will wear green or kiss someone who is Irish. Wherever and however the day finds you, I pray that we all remember the witness of a special man who God used to reach ‘the ends of the earth’ over 1,600 years ago. And I hope in remembering his story we are reminded of our story as well. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
On Monday, some details of my life caused me to become discouraged. I rarely become discouraged: while I am not what some would call an optimistic person (I have joked that my personal motto is “Expect the worst: either you’ll be right or pleasantly surprised”), but I am tenacious. I am not in the habit of giving up. As a sports fan, if I commit, I stay true until the final score – I will not leave a baseball game until the final out has been recorded or turn off the Super Bowl even if my rooting interest is 25 points behind. As a home cook, I find comfort in following the recipe, even if it requires a trip to the grocery store for select ingredients. As the pastor of a small church, I am persistent in proclaiming the truth of God’s word anticipating that on any given (Sun)day another soul will meet the Savior. This tenacity has served to foster within me a spirit of encouragement.
But life has a way of eroding encouragement, as when mistakes (or sin) on my part conspire with unsavory elements in our society and detoured my heart and mind toward despair. You will find no details here of what happened on Monday, only an echo of how a day of darkness made me aware of the value of seeking the light. I have come to the conclusion that God IS with those who travel through the valley of the shadow of death. He was with me through the loving acts of my sympathetic wife: she made sure I was eating and staying productive when all I could see was an insurmountable obstacle. He was with me through the providence of Tuesday’s men’s Bible study on Elijah. He brought me encouragement through His children and through His word.
“…for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.” Psalm 103:14
It is deeply comforting to know that God knows our physical form and remembers our physical frailties. He knows we are not invincible, indestructible or indefatigable. He knows we are subject to discouragement, depression and despair. He remembers that we are weak in body, mind and spirit. He remembers our general inability to resist the worldly and our general disinterest with the heavenly. He knows and remembers all this…and ministers to all our needs graciously without finding fault. He promises to give us wisdom when we lack it. He promises to give us rest when we about to falter. He promises to give us counsel and guidance when we are walking in darkness. He promises to encourage those who are discouraged.
I am thankful that my times of discouragement are rare. I am aware, also, that this is not the case for many. If you are struggling with discouragement or depression, please take comfort in knowing that God knows how you have been formed and He cares for you. Seek His provision, through His word and His people, to lessen your despair. Reach out to those around you to hold you accountable in maintaining proper levels of rest, nourishment and productivity. He will give hope to the hopeless, and He can help you.
I did not go to church on Sunday. For those who know me, I am sure this comes as a bit of a shock (honestly, my own children voiced some concern over my choice of activities on the Lord’s Day). In my defense, we spent the day traveling back from the Baltimore area, hoping to get home by 8PM because our younger boys had to get up early for school the next day. We felt we couldn’t wait until after noon and therefore church was out of the question. Despite the fact that I have not missed church in nearly five years, I do not feel an ounce of guilt for not attending worship last week.
Before anyone says that a Pastor is teaching that we ought not feel guilty for not going to church, let me tell you why I feel no guilt – I consider attendance at church a blessing and not an obligation. Some who are reading this, I am sure, think that going to church is something we have to do (whether we want to or not) to be right with God, sort of like taking cough medicine so that you can eliminate your chest congestion. Instead, I think that going to church is something I need to do, sort of like going to a gas station so that I can fill up on what I need so that I will not get stranded in the middle of nowhere.
It is through corporate gatherings for worship (going to “church”) that we sing familiar and foreign tunes that remind us of our lineage of faith and doctrine. It is through going to “church” that we catch-up with our spiritual siblings through prayer and intercession. It is through going to “church” that we hear the word of God so that we may glorify our great Savior and be encouraged, equipped, challenged and convicted through the shared experience of receiving His grace and mercy. It is through going to “church” that we can interact with people who God places in our lives who could be quite different, in multiple ways, than we are. It is a gift of God that we must not take for granted.
I rejoiced with those who said to me, “Let us go to the house of the LORD.” Psalm 122:1
While I felt no guilt for my absence from church last Sunday, I did miss being there. It is the same feeling I get when I am invited to a party that I cannot attend, knowing that I am not going to be a part of the joyful celebration and the jovial conversation. I missed the comradery, the communion and the compassion of our little flock of followers. I cannot wait to catch up next Sunday.
I say all this not so those who haven’t darkened the doors of a church would feel badly, but rather to share the joys I have in getting together with people of faith as frequently as possible. No one has been barred from heaven solely because of their church attendance record (nor has that ever been the basis for entrance). Our passage to the heavenly places comes from Christ alone. Going to church helps to remind us of what we have to look forward to when we get there.
As part of a roundtable discussion group, I met with a dozen or so other ministry leaders on Wednesday to discuss a recent New York Times best-seller: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. It is a wonderful memoir of Vance’s upbringing in a dysfunctional extended family in Appalachia. At first, without going into the details, let me tell you that I resonated with the narrative Vance weaved around households riddled with abuse, addiction and hopelessness. It brought me back in time to my childhood and I immediately thought that I alone saw parallels between the author’s life and my own. It turns out that a degree of dysfunction is universal.
Few homes house perfect families. Parents argue – some quite loudly – and even use foul language. Drug and alcohol addiction cannot be restricted to particular regions of the United States. Serial divorce and remarriage is not limited to one social stratum. Nearly every family tree contains a branch (or several branches) that were established through unwed or teenage mothers. There are few families who have not been effected by mental illness, whether it is an immediate family member battling depression or a suicidal extended relation. To some degree, we all carry similar baggage, given to us in childhood and carried into adulthood.
In reading and reacting to this book, I realized that the homes in my neighborhood – as well as the pew in the churches in our community – are filled with people with baggage from their upbringing. As the saying goes, “You don’t know what you don’t know”; because almost no one shares all the challenges they are attempting to overcome, we rarely know the whole story. This requires us to treat one another with compassion, what the Greek bible writers call “splanchnizomai”. Those who have a medical education might be aware that the root ‘splanchno-’ relates to the visceral organs (the guts). So we, as human beings and as God’s people, ought to get a knot in our stomachs, an intestinal distress, as we interact with those navigating rough waters in a leaky rowboat.
Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Ephesians 4:31–32 (NIV)
Before we dismiss those who buy bottles of soda with food stamps as unfit, perhaps we ought to feel compassion for their situation, recognizing that milk and juice are often options too expensive for their budget and perhaps then offer to pick up a gallon of milk for them. Before we roll our eyes at the hopeless and jobless as we utter the words, “Get a job,” perhaps we ought to feel compassion for their situation, recognizing that education is not the same as intelligence and access to opportunity is not equally available to all classes and cultures and perhaps offer to share some social capital with those without any of their own. There are already enough people in the world willing to judge others; we could empathize instead and bring help and hope to those who need it.
We have the privilege of sharing – with those who feel unloved, those who title themselves worthless and those who have heard that they would never amount to anything – the fact that they are loved, they have worth and they can accomplish great things. We have the privilege to bring grace – unmerited favor – to those who know little more than heartache. We can share our struggles and listen to theirs, knowing that God cares for us and will comfort us in our times of need. We are all broken, at least a little. But praise God: He makes us whole.
When you spend more than twelve hours on the road, driving from Maryland to Massachusetts, you have a great deal of time to think. Because of the weather conditions last Saturday, our 382 miles trip took much longer than I anticipated. It was a challenging and stressful drive over snowy and slushy highways. The satellite radio and the DVDs from Redbox© made the travelling a bit more bearable while I focused on the road ahead. Throughout the journey, my thoughts turned to lessons about life and living, some superficial and some profound.
The first lesson I learned was that I ought not trust forecasts. We live in a society saturated in information, including phone apps that will show you live weather radar and predictions for storm patterns. As we were anticipating our trip home from Jeanine’s brother’s funeral, I watched and listened to meteorologists in Baltimore (via television) and Boston (via phone app) predicting that the storm was expected to move beneath us and travel out to sea before blowing into Massachusetts via the Cape. New Jersey, Westchester County and Western Connecticut were supposed to be spared more than a dusting. No such luck was to fall upon us. The computers were wrong and the storm took a more western course, forcing us to face light but accumulating snow every minute of our trip. Experts are not always correct.
I also learned that there are times, rare but right, that staying with others while disregarding the letter of the law is the proper course of action. Most of the highways we traveled (The New Jersey Turnpike, Garden State Parkway and Interstates 87, 287, 84 and 90) were three lanes in either direction. In the worst of conditions, these throughways became two sets of ruts travelling along the divided white lines. At times there was a series of 15 or so cars, all moving at 45 mph, all illegally crossing over their lanes and maintaining the safety of the roads. Obedience to the law is not always best.
There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death. Proverbs 14:12
The biggest lesson I learned was that I could stand to be more humble. Early on in the process, I made the decision to return to work on Sunday. We made our plans based on my choice to be home Saturday night. Throughout our time away I saw weather reports and I remained resolute. I received texts from people in the church advising me to reconsider and I remained resolute. My wife wanted me to change our plans and I remained resolute. I unnecessarily risked everything to show that I was right, but I was wrong. I feel that needs to be stated again: I was wrong. I was proud. I have since apologized to my wife and children for my arrogance. I am not always right.
Thank God that we, despite my own foolishness, arrived safely at home. In hindsight, I should have listened to those around me, led by the Spirt, instead of listening only to myself. There was a way that appeared to me to be right, and it certainly could have led to disaster. I am fortunate that I had the opportunity to learn these lessons and not harmed by the consequences of my unwise haughtiness. Let’s hope that you and I can all learn from my stupidity.
For reasons I do not quite understand (something about licensing and ownership), our local NBC affiliation is changing channels – from channel 7 to channel 10 – on January 1st. For a few weeks I will, by instinct, tune into the wrong station and then remember that things have changed. It is a reminder that things are constantly changing. Life is continually in a state of flux, shifting like waves in the ocean. I have seen this in my own circumstances in 2016: our oldest son graduating from college and moving back home, our daughter graduating from High School and attending college in Washington, DC, spending 3 weeks at home over the past four months, our whole family moving from one apartment to another.
Some changes are simple (like television stations or finding new locations for Christmas trees), while others are more challenging (dealing with new medication regimens and moving everything you own), but every change impacts life. Some changes we make are restorative (such as eating healthier or improving our sleeping patterns) and others are destructive (such as picking up bad habits or ending a relationship). As this year ends and another begins, many will be thinking about making changes, or resolutions, as a means of improving their everyday lives. Seek to make the changes that are restorative.
My concern for myself, as well as those I love and serve beside, are not the changes I initiate, but the changes that come through uninvited means. About a year ago, I made some resolutions, preferring to call them intentions, about trusting God more and praying more. I had no idea that 366 days later I’d be in a different home with slightly different decor or that I’d be dealing with hypertension for my remaining days on earth. I had little idea what it would feel like having a child living so far away or worrying about colonoscopies. My concern is that I have no idea what lies ahead in 2017.
Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. James 1:17 (NIV)
My hope, for the years that have passed and the year to come, is that God alone never changes. Everything good in my life (and yours) comes from the immutable Father in heaven. There is nothing that surprises or flusters the Lord of all creation. While my circumstances (as well as my weight, my address and my blood pressure) may change, the one who knows my needs and desires will never change. He will, as I follow Him and His word, continue to shower good and perfect gifts upon me, whether I understand them as gifts or not. My hope is in God, no matter how my life may change.
Allow me to wish you all a very happy new year. Whether you are a person who makes resolutions or not, I pray that all who are reading this will find the changes that the coming year brings redemptive and restorative. And I pray that the God who never changes will grant you every good and perfect gift He has purposed for your enjoyment.
“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.” Luke 2:8 (NIV)
Of all the people involved in the Christmas narrative, I find myself identifying most with the shepherds. While I am not a rugged outdoorsman with an extensive knowledge of ovine behavior, there are a few touchpoints with their lives that intrigue me. These men, and perhaps women, were hard working – braving the weather of ancient Palestine, warding off the dangers that surrounded them, satisfying the needs of those placed in their care – and strong willed. They were likely underappreciated by those around them (performing a necessary task but smelling like the livestock) and underestimated in their hometowns (battling the assumptions that they were simple-minded and poorly groomed). They were the “little people” that most of us pass by unnoticed.
But that all changed when God interrupted their lives. According to Luke, these shepherds were living out in the fields with their sheep, taking care of business, when suddenly a messenger of God appeared in the nighttime sky. Many others, before and since, have a similar experience; they were living their lives, doing their best, when suddenly, God breaks through the “business as usual” with His spectacular presence. Praise God that the shepherds realized what was happening and responded with reverence. They listened and believed. Interestingly, at least on this occasion, God didn’t interrupt the prayers of the temple or the plans of the king; He announced the miraculous to the common man.
What happened to that common man, what happened to those shepherds, is equally astounding. Those who lived out in the fields and smelled like the sheep they tended became the spokespeople for God. After seeing the child, just the way he was promised, they began telling those around them the good news – that the Savior has been born and the promised one has arrived. The Bible says that the people who heard the shepherds’ story were amazed, perhaps by the message and perhaps by the messengers. God broke through into the lives of ordinary people and allowed them to do something extraordinary.
The wonderful truth connected with the shepherds at Christmas is that God is the same yesterday, today and forever. The one who shattered the darkness near Bethlehem with His brilliant glory is still doing the same thing today. He is still sending messengers to ordinary people, announcing the arrival of Christ the Lord. I know this because He broke into my life with His glorious light, albeit not with literal brilliance. I was happily seeking out an ordinary life after being raised in an ordinary household. In one moment, I changed from an unremarkable banker to a reflection of Him. It wasn’t when I first trusted Him or when I was baptized, but rather when I saw and heard the truth and know I couldn’t keep it to myself.
My story led me to become a youth leader and a pastor, but I could have, like those shepherds of long ago, returned to my field with praise and glory to God. No matter where life finds us, we are all surrounded by God’s glory; we simply need to recognize it. Especially at Christmas, embrace the enchantment of the Nativity. Let those songs in the background become a beacon for Him. Allow those lights on the tree serve as a taste of the light of the Lord. And when God breaks through, listen.
My wife, Jeanine, has been spending the last 10 days with family in Baltimore. In her absence, I have come to realize all the details of life that need to be tended to in order for the house to run smoothly: the alarm clock needs to be heeded, lest the children are late for school; the calendar needs to be checked daily, lest we miss out on an important event; laundry, cleaning and showers need to be regularly performed, lest we begin to reek. I am blessed that a number of women from the church provided ample meals for us to enjoy and that the boys – ages 22, 16 and 9 – were able to care for one another when necessary. That being said, I am so glad that Jeanine is coming home tomorrow.
These last ten days have given me a new appreciation for single parents, especially at Christmas. I have the privilege of knowing that soon my better half will return and help with the meals, the mornings and the mess – many don’t have such reinforcements coming. There are single moms, dads, grandmas, grandpas and aunts or uncles that must balance work and home, shopping for Christmas trees and paying electric bills, checking homework and Christmas lists. They must do it all, with little or no help. My heart goes out to those who “go it alone”.
Many of us are blessed with what our culture calls a ‘support system”. Some find support through family and others find it through friends; some support comes through the church and some comes through agencies. Our support systems are what carries us when we cannot seem to manage alone. These are the people who come into our lives who, sometimes publicly and some anonymously, and encourage or console, equip or supply us in our time of need. I praise God for all those who support those I love and I pray God gives strength to those who have inadequate support.
It seems to me that Mary and Joseph could have used a support system. They were called to go through so much alone: angels visited each of them solitarily, telling them that God would enable them to endure great challenges; they were forced by the government to travel miles from home at the time of their child’s birth and were met with indifference when arriving to Bethlehem; soon after delivering the promised child, they were commanded to leave everything and move to a foreign country; and eventually Mary is forced to “go it alone” after the passing of her husband some time after Jesus turned twelve.
But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. Luke 2:19
As we celebrate Christmas, enjoying time with family and friends, remember those who have little or no support system. Talk to the single mother you know from work and offer to watch the kids so she can finish her shopping. Text that single dad you know from school pick-up and encourage him to keep up the good work. Drop by the house of the single grandmother in your neighborhood and deliver a gift card for the local fast food restaurant. Support those who have no support; give them something wonderful to ponder this Christmas.
We all enjoy a ‘guilty pleasure’ or two during the holidays. For some of us, it has to do with baked goods; we cannot resist the buttery, sugary Christmas cookies. For others of us, it has to do with questionable music choices; we are delighted when “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” or “Dominick the Donkey” plays on the radio. There are also those whose fashion choices are the issue; we find enjoyment in wearing gaudy and garish ‘ugly’ sweaters, complete with sequins and blinking lights. One of my guilty pleasures is a stop-motion Christmas special produced by Rankin and Bass, “The Year Without a Santa Claus”.
Don’t get me wrong, I like all the Rankin/Bass Christmas specials. As a pastor, I enjoy the reference to Jesus’ birth in “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and the extra-biblical tales told through “The Little Drummer Boy” and “Nestor, the Long-eared Donkey”. But despite its completely secular storyline, I love “The Year without a Santa Claus”. I love Mother Nature (with her birdhouse dwelling in the sky) and her boys, Heat Miser and Snow Miser. I love the mayor of Southtown, dancing and singing about snow in Dixie. I love Ignatius Thistlewhite and his family around the kitchen table, unknowingly talking to St. Nick. I love that the ‘socks over the antlers’ trick can fool a dog catcher into thinking a reindeer is a pooch. I love the little girl that sings “Blue Christmas” near the end of the hour-long show. I love it all.
This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 1 John 4:9 (NIV)
I have no trouble confessing that, “I believe in Santa Claus, like I believe in love…just like love, I know he’s there, waiting to be missed.” I have no problem having a belief in Santa Claus (a transliteration of Saint Nicholas – a real man who sacrificially shared the love of Christ with those around him) and I have no dispute with those who, unaware of the greatest truth of Christmas, personifies the loving Christmas spirit as a ‘jolly old elf’. I enjoy songs and specials about the magical workshop at the North Pole, where the dreams and wishes of the young (and young at heart) are made true.
But stop-motion Christmas specials about flying reindeer and a living snowman – and that Christmas before we were born when Santa needed a holiday – are still ‘guilty pleasures’. They are flights of fancy that must not distract us from reality, but accentuate it. We seek out figures like Santa, Rudolph and Frosty because we want to live in a world of unconditional love and grace. These secular symbols serve to identify the need we have – an emptiness in our hearts – and not to fill it. That void can only be filled by the gift of God that 1st Christmas – the incarnate word and presence of God, Jesus Christ.
I hope you have the opportunity to indulge in your guilty pleasures over the next two weeks. However, I pray that these differing ways of celebrating Christmas are not an end unto themselves, but rather a means to appreciating the true joys of Emmanuel’s birth. As for me, I’m looking forward to a little time with Jingle and Jangle…and getting ready for Jesus.