Yesterday, Valentine’s Day, I missed the small pink boxes of tiny hearts that used to be made by Necco. The good news is that, although the Revere institution filed for bankruptcy and shuttered the factory last year, Spangler Candy Co. (the company that took over the rights to Necco’s iconic brands) confirmed Conversation Hearts would return in 2020. While I am not a great fan of the product (they tasted like chalk and were always lagging behind the cultural vernacular), they were a good and inexpensive gift to hand to the kids. Because these confections are a rarely-consumed tradition in my home (like that bowl of mixed nuts at Thanksgiving or those ‘stocking oranges’ at Christmas) I did buy some second-tier Brach’s© Hearts yesterday.
These little hearts that say “BE MINE” or “TEXT ME” or “PUPPY LOVE” or “DREAM BIG”, which may have little or no taste, are not tasteless. They are simple expressions of affection, comfort and encouragement. In a world of incessant honking in the streets and ubiquitous trolling on the internet, a tiny piece of pressed sugar with the words “I (HEART) YOU” might be just what the doctor ordered. We all have times when we need that short and sweet interaction with someone who cares; at those crucial moments we do not want a poem or a lecture – we want a hug, a call or a smile.
“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” Deuteronomy 31:6
Imagine if God produced a box of “Conversation Hearts” for you. Perhaps you would read “BE STRONG”, “BE COURAGEOUS”, “NO FEAR”, “I’LL GO WITH U”, “NEVER LEAVE U” and “NEVER FORSAKE U” (and those are from just one verse from one book in the Bible). Imagine you could place the hundreds of promises contained in the Scriptures, condensed to a dozen or so characters, in a pocket-sized box. Imagine taking one out in those discouraging moments and digesting it – chewing on it, enjoying its sweetness and reflecting on all the sentiment includes – and savoring the moment.
Whatever the date on the calendar, you have someone who loves you more than can be imagined: the God of the universe, as demonstrated in the death of Jesus Christ. It would take a lifetime to apprehend the incomprehensible fullness of this love, but it all begins with a sentiment that can be contained on one of those little hearts. “I (HEART) U”. This expression is something like the emotions contained in those crayon and construction paper cards that mothers keep in a special place. It is not simply what is said but what said by what is said.
It might be a good idea to swing by the grocery store and pick up a bag of discounted hearts, to open them up and read them as if written by God, and to act on them as if certain they are true. Then, literally or figuratively, hug, text and encourage the body of Christ…and wait for next year to get a pink box of chalky affection.
For the twelfth time in the last eighteen years, the team from New England has been crowned the World Champion of a professional sports league. On Sunday night, the New England Patriots defeated the Los Angeles Rams (13-3) to win the Super Bowl©, causing great delight in this writer’s household and neighborhood. I completely understand the animus – the hostility – others in regions outside New England feel for the sports fans of greater Boston (after all, this is the second World Championship our rooting interests have captured in the last 100 days, lest we forget the Red Sox’s World Series performance of October). These are heady times in the hometown, to be sure!
Many have said that, while the Lombardi Trophy will reside at Gillette Stadium, the Patriots won no style points in victory – some have gone so far as to say that this was the most boring Super Bowl in its fifty-three years. While I understand my opinion might be skewed, allow be to rebut this claim: I concede that if you are a fan of offense, this game (with a single touchdown scored on a two-yard running play late in the contest) was less than spectacular; but football is not one-sided, and the other two dimensions of the game (defense and special teams) were incredible and, with only a few penalties and no reviewed, challenged or reversed plays, both teams made plays worthy of a world champion.
I am glad that the Patriots won, if for no other reason than the shared camaraderie among the diverse demographic over the celebration of the superiority of Brady and Belichick and the best football team evah! I am also glad that the season is over: there will be fewer people remaining home or leaving immediately after church each Sunday at noon; there will be a cessation of the idol-worship of great (though mostly morally flawed) athletes; and there will be a few weeks before the perceived superiority expressed by some rabid fans over other parts of the country will resurface (when the Celtics and Bruins look to enter the playoffs). Perhaps in these intervening weeks we can celebrate a biblical truth witnessed by millions watching the big game from Atlanta.
No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. 1 Corinthians 9:27 (NIV)
What would happen if the followers of Christ were willing to engage the opponent with a similar attitude toward discipline that the players in the Super Bowl maintained? What if we were willing to take the blows, in accordance with the rules, to advance the Gospel that National Football League endure to move the ball toward the goal line? As the game on Sunday night vividly made evident, much of the gains are hard fought and much of the actions of the opponent are difficult to defend. Nearly two hundred years ago, a New York Senator, William L. Marcy, said, “To the victor belong the spoils”; I think a better expression might be that, win or lose, the spoils (the goods or benefits taken from one’s competitor) belong to the disciplined.
Happily, that was my home team this year. In the end, win or lose, they all played a great game, and that is something to celebrate… and emulate.
More often than I care to admit or recognize, the disparate portions of scripture that read relating to different parts of my life that (whether it be through sermon preparation, prayer, or devotional readings) intersect to illuminate a truth that my thick skull would not have comprehended had it not been bombarded from diverse angles. This week, a verse from Proverbs (from a devotional), a verse from Psalms (through our church’s participation in “21 Days of Prayer”) and a verse from Acts (from last week’s sermon) have gotten me thinking. They all were used by the Holy Spirit to connect some dots, producing a picture of life that includes discernment, disappointment, and direction.
Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance…. Proverbs 1:5 (ESV)
I cry out to God Most High, to God who fulfills his purpose for me. Psalm 57:2 (ESV)
[Herod] had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. Acts 12:2 (NIV)
Initially, God directed me to the above passage in Proverbs and to a devotional where Tim Keller examined the difference between knowledge and discernment as they relate to the pursuit of wisdom. We must be ever increasing in our learning, gaining factual and practical knowledge from a variety of healthy sources. We must also seek understanding of this knowledge. We need to know what the truth is, as well as what the truth means in practice.
Next, God directed me to the passage in the Psalms, which states the truth that God fulfills His purposes for us. But what does that mean in practice? In context, David recited this plea as he was running for his life from Saul. It means that God uses all our experiences (times of joy and times of sorrow) as a means of fulfilling His purposes for us. Whether we comprehend God’s rationale for our situation, we must live with the understanding that He has a plan.
This leads to the final passage, which recorded the martyrdom of one the first disciples at the hands of Herod. Unlike His deliverance of Peter a few verses later, this passage appears to reflect that God did nothing to spare James’ life. That is what knowledge of the truth would tell me, anyways. But understanding of the passage tells me more: first, that Jesus secured James’ life after his physical death, delivering him from harm and granting him passage into His presence; and second, His purpose (whatever that may be) for James and the people James know was fulfilled.
Ultimately, the life of faith is found in the confluence of these verses (as well as thousands more). Whether it is budget meetings or bond hearings, weddings or funerals, winning the lottery or losing a job, God has a purpose for you. We can get a glimpse of this purpose through studying His word and seeking His guidance. But, whether we “get” what God is doing or not, we can trust that He will give us all we need to trust Him in the darker hours. We need only remember that God all things work together for good for those who are called according to His purpose. But that is a verse for another day.
I have a simple question for all those reading this: when do we stop celebrating our “Season’s Greetings”? When the radio and television stations return to their regular programming? When the last Christmas cookies have been eaten? When the tree and decorations are taken down? When the final greeting card, initially misdirected by the Post Office, arrives? Until the next holiday is celebrated? Until the children return to school after their Winter Break? Once all the exterior lights have been boxed and stored away? I suppose we all must move on from all of those special gatherings with family and friends filled with all sorts of special traditions and resume the mundane schedule of everyday life, but when?
But what if I do not want to move on from Christmas? What if I still want to reflect on the gifts of advent – the hope, peace, joy and love that comes through the appearing of Christ? What if the remembrance of the 1st advent at Bethlehem, has whet my appetite for the 2nd advent when Christ shall descend from the clouds? While I can dispense with the carols and the cookies, I would like to retain the warmth of the manger, the worship of the shepherds, the hospitality of the city of David and the generosity of God, the Father.
When [the shepherds] had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child…. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. Luke 2:17-20
I want to be like those shepherds, so impacted by the facts and sensations of Christmas that they were undeniably transformed. Because of the advent, these blue-collar laborers went from sheep herders shaking in fear to pastors leading lost sheep to verdant fields. They went back to their ordinary schedules with an understanding of the extraordinary sights and sounds of the Savior born in a Bethlehem manger. They were changed by Christmas, as is evidenced by their propensity for giving glory and praise to God. They had no special carols or cards or casseroles – they had the Christ and He was sufficient to sustain them.
I will, in the days ahead, put everything that symbolizes Christmas into boxes or, in the case of our tree, onto the curb – all the external stimuli that reminds me of that blessed event two thousand years ago. But, like the shepherds, I will continue to carry inside me all the sounds, scents and sights that make Christmas special. My hope is that the inward prompts of these sensational sensations will stimulate my soul to maintain a spirit of glory and praise every day in every place as I interact with everyone. Instead of celebrating Christmas throughout the year, perhaps I can communicate the hope, peace, joy and love of Immanuel – God with us – for a while longer.
Lord, help me to remember that on every day that ends with ‘y’ that Christ came to inaugurate “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
On Wednesday night, a group of us from the church walked down the hill to the Ashmont T station and sang carols for the commuters. While we were there, I could not help but notice that Ashmont station is a hub of activity. There were people using every form of transportation: cars, cabs, busses, trains, bicycles and walking. There was a steady stream of busy people, some rushing past our makeshift choir and others lingering for a moment but ultimately moving onto other matters. And there were so many noises: car alarms, public address announcements, stray musical sounds and digital voices from cell phone speakers.
Yet, in the midst of all the hustle and bustle, there we were, proclaiming the joy, hope, peace and love of the Savior and handing out candy canes to those who would take them. As Philips Brooks wrote 150 years ago, “Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light….” While the rest of the neighborhood was moving about, accomplishing the things of their “To Do” lists, we were being used by God to provide a gentle reminder of the reason we celebrate. Above the din of humanity, the soft sounds of the baby born in the manger, the angels and Magi who visited, and the good tidings for all people could be heard.
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. Luke 2:1-4
Is our experience at the Ashmont T station a few nights ago what it was like in Bethlehem all those years ago? While it is unclear how many were living in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth (some scholars suggest as few as 300 or as many as 1,000), the biblical account of the events that occurred in Bethlehem are clear: so many people flooded this small village outside Jerusalem because of a governmentally decreed census that living space was at a premium. There were travelers, noises and activity aplenty and few, if any, stopped to notice the world changing couple that came to town. The urgency of the moment overwhelmed the importance of the advent, the appearing, of the Savior of humankind.
We, too, can get wrapped up in all that still needs doing that we overlook what has been done. We need to purchase gifts, wrap gifts, bake cookies, consume wassail, attend parties, visit family, connect with friends, worship on Christmas Eve, stuff stockings and settle down for a long winter’s nap. We can, like subway commuters and census participants, lose track of what is important as we engage in the things that are urgent. I pray that, in the midst of all the people, noise and activity of the next few days, you hear the angels’ song and delight in the birth of our Lord.
One of my favorite parts of celebrating Christmas is watching the Christmas specials on TV with the family (and if we are unavailable for the network broadcasts, we have most, if not all, the best on DVD). I am sure everyone has a list of their preferences: “The Year Without a Santa Claus”, “Frosty the Snowman”, “Prep and Landing”, or “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer”. They are all wonderful in their own right, but my personal choice for the greatest Christmas special would be a tie between “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”. These marvelous stories, regularly broadcast since 1965 and 1966 respectively, hold a special place in my heart.
At first blush, these two stories have very little in common. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” tells the story of a boy seeking the real meaning of Christmas while preparing for a traditional Christmas pageant which emphasizes, in a pivotal scene, a reference to the biblical account of Jesus’ birth. “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” recounts the happenings of a fantastic location known as Whoville and the mean resident of Mount Crumpet who is seeking to rob the Whos of their Christmas joy. One has overtly Christian themes and the other has overly secular themes, seemingly the two opposites of the celebratory spectrum.
But these two masterpieces have more in common than you might think. Both the authors grew up in Lutheran homes. Both were based on works intended for children. Most significantly, both, at their cores, deal with the dangers of consumerism. “Charlie Brown”’s animated landscape is riddled with aluminum Christmas trees and its dialogue is filled with gift suggestions, leaving the protagonist with the zigzag shirt longing for more. “The Grinch”’s narrative couplets tell of jingtinglers and games like zoozittacarzay, and decry the noises of the season, all of which cause consternation within the titular green meanie. Both Charlie Brown and the Grinch want to stop the celebration of a consumption-centered Christmas.
Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. Luke 2:11 (NIV)
If you have not watched these specials at least once in the last 50 years, stop reading and watch them on Youtube© here and here. Both these Christmas specials come to the conclusion that the meaning and significance of Christmas is not the stuff under the tree, but the relationships we cherish while gathering around the tree. It is the relationships – for “Charlie Brown” it is Jesus and for “The Grinch” it is family – that makes Christmas matter. These relationships bring the school children around a tiny tree to sing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and bring the Whos around the spot where the village tree was placed to sing “Fah Who Foraze, Dah Who Doraze, Welcome, Christmas, Come This Way.”
My prayer this Christmas is that we can all come to the same realization that the Grinch reaches: that Christmas can come without ribbons, without tags, without packages, boxes or bags. My hope this Christmas is that when we reach our breaking point and cry out, as Charlie did, whether anyone knows what Christmas is all about, some kind soul reminds you about the marvelous events that took place just outside Bethlehem. It is not about presents…it is all about presence.
For many, the Christmas season means spending a great deal of time traveling: a dozen trips in the car battling the traffic to the mall, the annual airline flight to visit the grandparents, or the 10-hour bus ride home from college. Time on the road or waiting in a terminal is synonymous with celebrating Christmas. It makes sense, since travelling has always been a part of Jesus’ birth. I am thinking about a young couple named Mary and Joseph, who were required to travel roughly ninety miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. To put it in perspective, it would be like walking from Dorchester to Hartford.
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. Luke 2:1-3
Sometimes, we might think that the demands upon us to travel are beyond our control and we chafe at the expectation. That may have been how Mary and Joseph felt. Caesar Augustus thought he had a good idea in counting everyone in his realm and raise taxes to increase his kingdom. Because he was the dictator of the entire Rome world, he could do anything he wanted. So they went, on foot, despite the fact that Mary was ‘heavy laden with child’. God had a plan for them, and God often has a plan for us.
Sometimes, we might think that the destination of our travel plans are outside our comfort zone. That could have been how Joseph and Mary felt as they awkwardly advanced toward Bethlehem together. It was an uncomfortable situation: they were pledged to be married but had yet to have the ceremony when it was obvious that they were expecting. Mary was in an uncomfortable condition: can you imagine walking 15 miles a day for 6 days while 9 months pregnant? God was guiding their every step, and God is also guiding ours.
God may be leading us to places out of our control and beyond our comfort because there are people in those places that need the hope, the joy and the love that appeared in its fulness for the first time in Bethlehem. There are people in parking lots and registers who need a smile and a warm greeting. There are people frustrated by missed connections or missing luggage that could benefit from an act of kindness and a candy cane. The roads and airways are filled with inconsiderate and self-centered travelers; perhaps God could use you to offer those around you common courtesy and Christmas cheer.
Wherever God has you travelling this month, whether it be across the room, across the street or across the country, know that God has a purpose in your journey – to bring forth a witness to God’s grace, mercy and love to those who may not experience it otherwise. We could choose to follow Mary and Joseph’s example and remain faithful to God wherever He may lead us. We could choose to share the delight of knowing the light that shines in the darkness, the hope of nations, the King of Kings and the prince of peace.
May we go wherever we go with gladness and may the gifts arrive unbroken.
Last Sunday, I spent part of my vacation visiting a church not far from home. The fact that I went to church on vacation is not my point in this posting. Where we went is also not my point, nor is my point the fact that it was a wonderful service. What I felt as I sat there, on the other side of the pulpit, can be summed up in one word: distracted. I was distracted by the worship leader’s broken guitar string (and how he was going to handle the set-back). I was distracted by the graphics on the screen (and the exceptional quality of said images that the church projected through two large television screens). I was distracted by those sitting next to me (my boys have nothing softer than a stage whisper) and those sitting a few rows in front of me (who were shifting in their seats randomly and consistently).
My point is this: we all, even when we have the best of intentions, get distracted by the things that bombard our senses every Sunday. Perhaps, like me, you hear the radiator hiss or the bench squeak. Perhaps, like me, you see the head three rows ahead bob back and forth or the lamp on the platform flicker off and on. Perhaps, like me, you smell the lip balm of your wife or the phantom aromas of pot-lucks past. Perhaps, like me, you feel an odd breeze or sense your leg falling asleep. Before you know it, like me, you are missing what the Spirit is saying.
A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. Luke 7:37
As I think about my distracted mind last Sunday, I think about the Pharisee who invited Jesus to his house for dinner. In those days, eating a meal with someone was a big deal: it represented the importance of the relationship. As Jesus and the Pharisee were discussing any number of pressing matters, a woman comes in and proceeds to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears. The Pharisee (and apparently Luke) are fascinated by this woman, wetting His feet with her weeping, wiping them away with her hair and anointing them with perfume and kisses. Quite the spectacle.
At some point Jesus, knowing the Pharisee’s thoughts and his distracted condition, breaks through and tells the Pharisee a parable about forgiveness. This serves as a good reminder to all of us: Jesus knows our thoughts and how we are easily distracted, and He is willing and able to capture (and recapture) our attention to show us what we need to see. Jesus is faithful to His adopted siblings, pulling us away from our daydreams and off our rabbit trails and redirecting our thoughts toward His counsel. That is what I needed last Sunday, a nudge to ignore the behavior of that woman in front of me and focus (if only for a moment) on the Lord before me.
We all get distracted at times (even on Sunday mornings at 11:40 in Dorchester). It is good to know that God not only understands, but assists us in catching what we need to hear even when we are not listening.
Now, our God, we give you thanks, and praise your glorious name. 1 Chronicles 29:13 (NIV)
I give thanks for the things God has provided me. Knowing that I could have lived at any time and in any place, I thank God that I live now. I thank God for the combustion engine that enables me to travel, via automobile, more than a mile a minute. I thank God for cellular service that enables me to contact anyone anywhere nearly instantaneously. I thank God for sensible shoes, frivolous ties and (literally) a million other inventions – the ball point pen, the coffee maker and dulce de leche.
I give thanks for the health with which God has blessed me. Living in the midst of the greatest medical centers in the world, I thank God that I live in Boston. I thank God for neighborhood clinics and physician assistants. I thank God for blood tests and blood pressure meds. I thank God for access to good foods and the willpower to avoid junk foods.
I give thanks for abilities with which God has equipped me. Working in Dorchester, I thank God that I am using my talents to accomplish some good. I thank God that I have a mind that processes biblical texts logically and creatively. I thank God that I have a strong enough back to mow the lawn. I thank God for the experiences (personally and professionally) to shape me in such a way that I can be useful.
I give thanks for the nature God has placed all around me. To quote Mark Twain, “If you don’t like the weather in New England now, just wait a few minutes.” I thank God for the colors of the seasons – white snows, green grasses, red roses and yellow leaves – and the fluctuations in temperature. I thank God for the mighty oceans, the babbling brooks, the majestic mountains and the vast skies. I thank God for the variety and diversity of life all around me.
I give thanks for the kindred God has given me. There are so many people with whom God has enabled me to share my life. I thank God for my immediate family, who are the five most incredible people I know. I thank God for my family of origin, another five amazing people God has given me. I thank God for all the relatives these family bonds have created – those who are part of my tribe through marriage and birth. I thank God for my church family, past and present, who have shaped my expression of faith. I thank God for fifty years of friendships, some of whom have become as close as blood.
I give thanks for the Savior God has become for me. Ultimately, I thank God for doing what no one else could have ever done for me: sacrificing everything to suffer and die to satisfy the price and penalty for my sin. I thank God that He condescended to live among us and endured crucifixion to confer eternal life to all who confess Him as Lord and Savior.
Yesterday may have been Thanksgiving. Today and every day is given to us to express thanks to God.
The other morning, my mother-in-law underwent a procedure to treat her cataracts. At ninety-one, she was hesitant to have it done (she was unwilling to endure the pain, to be anesthetized, or to have a doctor mess with her eyes). After weeks of prayer and encouragement by a multitude of sources, she went to the surgical clinic and allowed the procedure to be done. The surgery was a success. Twenty-four hours later, at the follow-up appointment, two surprising developments took place: 1) she told the nurse that the experience was better than she expected, and 2) her vision test showed that her eyesight was greatly improved.
Worry is, by all appearances, a mighty adversary. It will tell us that the costs are not worth the gains. It will remind us of that one time, long ago, when we were mistreated and assure us it will happen again. It will highlight the adverse effects that professionals must legally disclose and tell us that we will be the ‘one-in-a-million’ to suffer. It will keep us up at night, make us lose our appetites and force us to pace the floor. Few know the truth, however, that worry is a paper tiger. Worry is only a shadow on the wall.
“Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” Matthew 6:27 (NIV)
As I read these words of Jesus, I think to myself, “Maybe I can; I am pretty good at it.” Despite my conviction that God’s word is true and that God grants perfect peace – complete contentment and wondrous well-being – to all who trust in Him, worry is a constant travelling companion of mine. Its relentless whisper rings in my ears, causing me to fret about everything from car accidents to broken bones, from power outages to excessive costs. I readily admit that this level of worry is not rational; it is nothing more than exhausting – of energy, of hope and or peace.
“So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Matthew 6:31-33 (NIV)
The remedy for worry is worship: to trust in the promises of our loving Heavenly Father for what we eat, what we drink and what we wear (as well as what we endure, what we await and what we hope to avoid). Worry is silenced when we rely upon God to provide whatever we need, whether it be peace or patience or perseverance. Worry is unmasked when we rest in God’s presence. Worry is defeated when we occupy our thought with the goodness, kindness and love of our creator. The paper tiger of worry is tamed by the authority of His name.
I hope that my quickly recovering mother-in-law (and I) will be able to see this truth.