There are a whole bunch of people around me who are acting like the prophet Jonah, as recorded in Jonah 4 (Jonah is despairing to the point of death over the withering of a weed as he witnesses the repentance of the people of Nineveh). Like the Old Testament prophet, they are disappointed that things did not go their way, pouting due to a perceived personal slight and an actual adversary’s blessing. These community members are distraught over the Patriots’ early exit from the NFL playoffs – not that they had a losing season (they won three times the games they lost this season) or failed to make the playoffs (unlike 20 other teams), but that they simply did not advance to the Super Bowl.
Instead of rejoicing in the blessing that the home team has appeared in nine or the last eighteen Super Bowls, they are mourning their demise; they might find partners in commiseration in fans of the Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars or Houston Texans, who have never been to the championship game. Instead of reflecting on the good times experienced in six NFL titles (and six more by the professional sports teams in the Boston area), they disparage the players and coaches; I suggest these sentiments not be shared with the fans of the Vikings, Bills, Bengals, Falcons, Panthers, Cardinals, Titans or Chargers, who have never won a single Super Bowl.
As human beings, we are susceptible to the temptation of maximizing our self-importance and minimizing the value of others. We expect our lives to be a series of progressive blessings and we resent when others are blessed besides us, or – the horror – instead of us. Jesus share a parable about it when he shared the story of a vineyard manager who paid the first workers in the field (who worked a full day) and the last workers (who worked less than an hour) the same amount. Can you imagine? Those first workers (who we naturally identify with) got what was fair; the last workers (slackers if you ask me) received way more than they deserved. Jesus concludes his object lesson with the response of the vineyard foreman:
“Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ Matthew 20:15 (NIV)
As a fan of the New England Patriots, I have been compensated handsomely over the past nineteen seasons. And the greater truth remains that God can (and does) bless others with compensation just as handsome as mine. There will be a new champion in a new town – maybe Minnesota, Nashville or Houston for the first time – and I am good with that. I am glad that God is so generous. And know this: His generosity is not limited to football games but extends to every area of life. We are wise to rejoice with those who rejoice instead of mourning that it is not our day in the sun. And who knows, maybe Duck Boats will still carry a champion (the Bruins, Celtics or Red Sox) this year!
For the past month, as part of a reading group, I have been reading Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. It is a fabulously engrossing book that deals with the reality of life and death, the limits of the current medical system and the conversations that every person should have before it is too late. One of the lasting lessons I received from Dr. Gawande’s words is to recognize what is important; it has caused me to wrestle with the reality of my own demise and to value every moment of cogency that God enables me to enjoy.
As I reflect upon these truths this morning and as I prepare for Thanksgiving next week, I am finding myself thankful for the moments I share with my family (immediate and extended, formed by blood and by friendship). I am thankful for productivity (in my vocation and in my avocations). I am thankful for opportunity (and the availability of the best in medicine, academia and ministry no more than a subway ride away). I am thankful for the guidance of God since last Thanksgiving (among other things, in leading my family to a new residence and two of my boys to new schools). I am thankful for the blessings I enjoy every day.
There is one more thing for which I am thankful, something never touched upon in the remarkable tome penned by the good doctor. I am thankful for the Gospel. I am thankful for the witness verified truth of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection. I am thankful for the long-established and prophetic plan of God’s salvation through Christ. I am thankful for the availability of the forgiveness of sin and the redemption of the disobedient which reached a wretch like me. I am thankful that my life-steps were directed by the Almighty to hear the truth of the Lord and accept Him as my personal Savior. I am thankful for those who shared, and continue to share, this good news with those who are dangerously unaware of their eternal destiny. I am thankful that I will participate in blissful life after my physical death.
Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! 2 Corinthians 9:15
But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! Romans 5:15
Each and every one of us reading this post has something for which to give thanks (if nothing else, we all have access to the vast worldwide web). For what things, truths and people are you thankful this year? What moments have brought you delight since last you sat at bounty’s table? What gifts have been bestowed upon you that have filled you with gratitude? In whatever way you will celebrate our thoroughly North American observance of Thanksgiving, I hope you will spend some time reflecting upon and remembering all the blessings you have been given.
I wish you all the happiness of Thanksgiving!
On Saturday, November 2nd, at 6:58PM our minivan’s odometer struck 100,000 miles. We were a block away from the house, on our way to a local eatery when it happened. In all truth, this anticipated occurrence was somewhat anticlimactic; having a digital odometer with six digits, we were unable to see the gears turn over to register 5 zeroes like the vehicles of my childhood and watched a group of nines change, somewhat similar to a digital clock striking midnight on New Year’s Eve. The numbers on the odometer have brought back to my mind many of those miles we, as a family, have traveled over the past 6 ½ years.
One hundred thousand miles means that we’ve made hundreds of trips to grocery stores and workplaces. Many of the miles were traveling up and down the eastern corridor of I-95 to visit loved ones in Maryland and D.C, not to mention trips to see friends and family in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and New Hampshire. How many cups of coffee and orders of fries have we eaten seated in the van? Some of these miles were traveled offering rides to others and transporting stuff around the South Shore. The van has made quite a few jaunts to the airport to joyfully welcome those who are arriving and to colleges to drop off (with tears) those who are departing. Upon reflection of both the spectacular and the mundane, both the sicknesses and the singing that occurred in our van, it has been a wonderful ride.
The steps of a man are established by the Lord, and He delights in his way. Psalm 37:23 (NASB95)
In light of this verse, I wonder what David would think about the last 100,000 of minivan has traveled. If Psalm 37 was written today, as opposed to 3,000 years ago, would he be inspired to write something like, “The miles of the family vehicle are established, or made firm, by God”? And if the words of God might be contextualized in this fashion, what might it mean for us? Is it possible that those 100,000 miles in our Dodge Grand Caravan were ordered and set up by God so that we may delight in his way? Is every one of the 528,000,000 feet we’ve journeyed over the last 78 months in the family car funded in God?
There is a memory my family has relating to our van that makes me think that God was instrumental in all those miles. We were driving through downtown Memphis after a rehearsal dinner. We were heading back to our hotel and took a wrong turn. Adjusting our course, we waited at a red light, the only car in the intersection, when a homeless woman hurriedly crossed four lanes of traffic to knock on my window. After I assisted her, my family joked about the aura of compassion I must radiate. I think God placed us there. I think that God has placed us in a great many places.
God was with us at all those rest areas stops, gas pumps and, yes, traffic lights. He was with us through all the conversations we had within and outside our reliable transportation. And I have no doubt he will be with us through the next 100,000 miles.
If you listened to my message on Sunday, I mentioned in passing an ordeal I had been going through regarding a prescription refill. I had exhausted all my refills, so I called the health center to schedule a physical; I was informed that my PCP was no longer at that facility and I was reassigned; I was given the next available appointment – and a 7 week wait. At this point, I asked if I could get my prescriptions refilled and was given assurances they were in process. A few days later, as I ran out of one of my medications, I called the pharmacy, who was still waiting for authorization, so day after day I called and the health center marked my request as urgent. 10 days after I began the process, I determinedly walked over to the facility, talked to the receptionist, face-to-face, and she took my request to the back, returning after a while with the good news that my prescriptions were sent off to the pharmacy; a few hours later I finally received what I needed to maintain my health.
In hindsight, I have come to realize the importance of face-to-face interactions. I have come to understand the power of looking into another person’s eyes and voicing a genuine frustration. I have come to appreciate standing in front of another human being and receiving assurances that I have been heard and valued. After interacting with disembodied voices for more than a week with no progress, seeing another human being and being seen by another human being was what was necessary for my issues to be resolved. And now, because of technological conveniences, I fear that face-to-face interactions are few and far between.
I am concerned that we, as a society, are in danger of losing something important because we do not interact with one another in person. We can maintain contact with friends through social media. We can check in on family members with a text. We can experience spiritual growth through an app. We can shop for nearly all our essentials via the internet. We can receive instruction on nearly every topic by watching YouTube. In most areas of life (professional service calls are a singular exception), it is not required that we actually engage in human interactions…but it is desperately needed.
I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face. Peace to you. The friends here send their greetings. Greet the friends there by name. 3 John 14 (NIV)
Take it from one who has recently improved his physical health by meeting with someone face-to-face, your efforts in actual engagement will be rewarded. Take the risk and put the phone down. Sit a spell with a friend over a cup of tea or walk together along a river. Pop into a local hardware store and talk to the owner behind the counter about thermostats or trash cans. Attend a Bible study, even if it is filled with strangers. Talking to someone will benefit your relational health, learning with someone will enhance your intellectual health, worshipping with someone will develop your spiritual health. Let’s get together, face-to-face, for your sake and mine.
As I mentioned in my previous post, we will be moving next weekend. It has been a trying three years at our most-recent residence. There have been sweet and wonderful times (three years of birthdays and Christmases, living under the same roof with a wide variety of pleasant co-renters and celebrating a graduation), but the preponderance of our memories will likely be less than stellar (terrible neighbors, ubiquitous ride-share vehicles blocking the driveway and a year-long aroma of cannabis in the stairways). Within the cookie-cutter walls of the cookie-cutter Dorchester triple-decker we had our fair share of joy and love, despite the near-constant attacks seeking to steal them.
All this is, I suppose, the facts of life. As the ‘80’s television theme song told me each week: “You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both and there you have the facts of life, the facts of life.” Those who have more cultured tastes may also know the words of a Longfellow poem: “Thy fate is the common fate of all, into each life some rain must fall….” Life is a mix of pleasantries and unpleasantries, of dreams and nightmares; our only hope is that the good outweighs the bad and the sun outlasts the clouds.
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 2 Corinthians 4:16-17
Paul tells us that our light and momentary troubles (which in the previous sentence is connected to ‘wasting away’) are achieving, or more literally working out, an all-surpassing glory. Paul is saying, in essence, that the difficulties of our earthly existence are preparing us to fully enjoy the abundant life given through Christ. Honestly, this concept frustrates me, mainly because I do not see my troubles as light and/or momentary; I see them as the contrary. Being accosted by neighbors is not a light affliction and being bombarded by the cacophony of weekend partiers is not a momentary problem.
I can only assume that Paul is speaking comparatively and not qualitatively. I can only reason that when we focus on the glorious future the Lord has secured for us, our everyday difficulties will seem insignificant. When I set my eyes on the place that Jesus has prepared for us in His Father’s house, the troubles I have with my earthly dwelling are meager and the troubles I have with my neighbors are fleeting.
I have no idea what we will find in our new habitation, so we may be jumping from the frying pan and into the fire. While I hope that is not the case, for I know that this new house will not be my final home. And while I hope that the good days far outnumber the bad, I know that some trouble will follow me, as if I had boxed them up and drove them to the new address myself. But I also know that they will never be too heavy or too long that I will be overcome, and what awaits me over the horizon, many years from now, will one day outweigh them all.
It all started with a simple exercise during our Sunday School class: write down one thing you think you need but do not have. My sweet and kind-hearted eleven-year-old boy, in tiny letters on his paper wrote two words which broke my heart – ‘less change’. Those in the class quickly offered consolation, telling one another that change is inevitable and can lead to positive things. But for at least one pre-teen, this is all too much: moving to a neighboring town, changing schools, having a life-long roommate go off to college and watching other family members transition to places of their own. It makes me sad that my son, despite the brave face, is hurting.
Yes, we are moving again. For those keeping score, this is the 7th time in our thirty year marriage that we are packing boxes and renting trucks. After 20 years (and 1 month) in Boston, we are moving 2 miles south of the city to Quincy. [As a side note: if you will be in the Boston area on Friday, August 30th, or Saturday, August 31st, we could use some help. Contact me.] For the only time in any of our lives, Jeanine and me included, one of us will be required to change school systems and make new friends and adjust to new paradigms. I am confident that God will order Joshua’s steps and that he will thrive in this new adventure, but I still worry. If you pray, would you pray for Josh?
This move has forced Jeanine and I to make necessary, but personally difficult, decisions. Certainly, we are determining what possessions we are moving, what we are donating and what we are tossing (and for all those Marie Kondo devotees out there, nothing in this process is sparking joy). But there are other decisions that have been made: we decided that our budget could only afford three bedrooms in our new living situation, and so our three oldest children, over the next month or two, are transitioning to college and beyond. In this, too, I am confident that God will guide my family into blessings I cannot yet comprehend.
The steps of a man are established by the Lord, when he delights in his way; though he fall, he shall not be cast headlong, for the Lord upholds his hand. Psalm 37:23-24 (ESV)
It should come as no surprise to anyone who has read the Bible that God uses the process of change to bring about our maturity and development. Abraham was told to move. Mary and Joseph were led to relocate. Peter was commanded to change careers. It should come as no surprise to any of us that God may lead us in similar ways. New jobs, new schools and new homes may cause worry in the strongest of hearts, but when we know it is a part of God’s way we can take delight in knowing that whatever comes, He will uphold us.
For all those who feel that they need ‘less change’, hold out hope in knowing that the Lord will be with you on the other side of whatever change you are experiencing.
At Vacation Bible School earlier this week, one of the lessons was about ‘going beyond with boldness’. As I taught the seven 3rd through 6th graders in my class about courageously trusting in the Lord, about doing and saying what is right even when it is hard, we explored the life and faith of Esther. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “Esther, the beautiful Jewish wife of the Persian king Xerxes I, and her cousin Mordecai persuade[d] the king to retract an order for the general annihilation of Jews throughout the empire.” Esther is the supreme example what God can do through a person who demonstrates boldness.
With a twenty-first century worldview, it might escape the awareness of the casual reader of the Old Testament that speaking to your husband about a decree would require extreme boldness. But the author of the book of Esther, in the first chapter, tells us what happens when a queen displeased King Xerxes: during a party with his friends, Queen Vashti was summoned in order to show her beauty; the queen refuses to go; so, the king exiles her from his presence and procures a new wife. If that is what happened to the queen after an informal request, what would happen to Esther when she decries an official proclamation? Yet, she courageously stood up for what was right.
“For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” Esther 4:14
Esther is a role-model for all the spine-deficient among us. After deciding that God, in fact, raised her to the position of queen for just this purpose, she devises a plan and musters the strength to speak of this injustice perpetrated against the people of God. But when she had an audience before the king, she buckles and only invites him to a banquet. She chickens out, reminding us all that even the strongest sometimes shiver before they shine. Then, after two days of drinking, Esther speaks up and secures the safety of her people, boldly proclaiming the truth of God. Despite the real possibility of losing everything – even her life – she courageously stands up for God.
We are not that different from Esther. We see and hear of injustice and wrongdoing every day. We, too, may have come into our position – a place of power and prosperity – for such a time as this. We could speak to the authorities of today and address the issues of today. We could go beyond what we think is possible with boldness. We need modern-day Esthers, those who are apprehensive but aware, and tentative but trusting.
One final word from the lesson plan: the name Esther means ‘star’. Just as there are stars in the night sky that have died centuries ago and their light is still reaching the earth after travelling for thousands of years, so too the examples of ‘stars of the faith’ may have died long ago, but still shine today.
Over the past few days, I have had people tell me where they were on July 20, 1969. They shared what they were doing the moment that Apollo 11 landed on the moon. I was told that I watched it on television (truth be told, I was 3½ and cannot remember; but my mother texted me the following message last Saturday: “50 years ago I sat you in front of the TV and said, ‘You may not remember this, but, I want you to be able to say you saw the first man land on the moon.’”) We all have stories of what we were doing during the watershed moments of history.
Some of these moments are global (for a previous generation it might have been D-Day or the falling of the Berlin Wall), some are national (the assassination of JFK or MLK or 9/11) and some are personal (wedding days and birth days). Some moments, like the Apollo 11 moon landing, can be anticipated; others, like attacks of 9/11, are shockingly unexpected. It all makes me realize that sometimes we recognize when our lives (and history) are going to change and sometimes we are caught completely off guard.
However, as it is written: “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived” – the things God has prepared for those who love him…. 1 Corinthians 2:9
The apostle Paul tells us that the most remarkable events of life (and history) are still to come. These events are impossible to imagine: everything we have seen in the past, however spectacular, is nothing in comparison; anything we have heard in the past, however earth-shattering, is of no significance in retrospect; whatever we might conceive in our minds, however incredible, it is nothing like what God has prepared for His beloved.
Perhaps that is what Jesus had intended us to envision when, teaching His disciples to pray, he said, ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ The appearing of God’s kingdom will be more marvelous than the moon landing and the accomplishing of God will will be more incredible than the invention of the light bulb. There will come a day when everything in heaven and on earth will pivot and all the ravages of sin will be eliminated, and there will no longer be death or destruction.
This all leads me to a question: what are you going to do with the single most life-changing moment in history; what are you going to do about the hour of Christ’s crucifixion? What were you doing when you realized that Jesus paid the price for your transgressions and the penalty for your disobedience? Where were you when you witnessed the grace and mercy of God that forgave you of your sin? These other events – wonderful and terrific – are worthy of remembering, but the cross is worthy of deep reverence. That moment at Calvary was truly when everything changed.
How does that old saying go? “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Seems that my family is entering another season of transition: Joshua is entering his Middle School years, David is off to college, Rebekah is finishing college, and we are moving (again). As we navigate these changes over the next few months, we are seeking God’s wisdom and provision. We are asking questions that will only be answered by some sort of divine intervention. I write all this not to solicit advice, but rather to seek prayer for His provision and direction in the days ahead from those who are so inclined.
Transitions come in all shapes and sizes. Everyone goes through times of relocation, recalibration and recuperation. We cannot eliminate transitions, but we can anticipate them and appreciate them. Transitions offer us all the opportunity to eliminate the clutter that accumulates in life and acknowledge the course corrections that every life must experience. Transitions provide us with times to cleanse ourselves from the toxins that sap us of life and place us in environments for growth. Transitions, like every form of change, are truly challenging, but when navigated properly they can be a blessing.
The author of Hebrews has wisdom from God for all those entering into a season change:
And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. Hebrews 12:1-2
We need heed God’s advice to run the race of our life with perseverance. According to Merriam-Webster, perseverance is the continued effort to do or achieve something despite difficulties, failure, or opposition. Life is fraught with difficulties, failure, or opposition that can either frustrate us or fuel us. God’s encouragement to all of us is to continue exerting the effort necessary to accomplish our goals.
We need to contemplate that there is a course marked out for us by the creator of the universe. We each have a unique path, filled with peaks and valleys, that we are called to complete. We could, I suppose, choose to run someone else’s race and reach a place that will not fully satisfy, but it would be better to remain on the road that God has established to bring us where we ought to go.
We need to fix our eyes on Jesus: He has run this race before and now waits for us at the finish line. He is the pioneer (or author or source) of our faith – He is the one who is trustworthy and reliable. He is the perfecter of our faith – He is the one who teaches us how to finish strong and avoid the distractions that drown our dreams. He will lead us to the right and proper places when we trust in Him.
Would it be easier if life was absent of adversity, where we all were following the same formula and where it all works out in the end? Sure. But life is not like that. Our lives are continually in flux and difficulties and detours must be expected. Thankfully, we have a focal point, our Savior, who waits for us at our ‘forever’ home. All we need to do is stay on course until we reach the finish line.
In January, as a birthday gift from my family, I received a Fitbit© fitness tracker. Because of this high tech ‘wristwatch’, I have become aware of so many aspects of my life and health: this little gizmo tracks things like my steps, my sleep, my resting heart rate and my hours of activity. I am particularly obsessed with my step count and have begun to enjoy the sensation of personal accomplishment that comes from reaching my daily goal of eight-thousand steps. Plus, when you are walking 8,000 steps, generally over the same terrain, you begin to notice things that have escaped your attention if you were driving by. As I evaluate where my steps have taken me, I realize that where I walk is how I live.
Walking gives you the time to exchange pleasantries with those you are passing on the sidewalks or front porches along the path. Walking affords you the opportunity to observe the repairs being made to gorgeous old houses and those that are still desperately needed. Walking prepares you to keep your distance from that big unfriendly dog that is always guarding his fenced front yard (the fence of which is seriously too low). Walking provides you the time to check out what others are discarding and time to think about how you could use that dresser or night table on that great and glorious day when space is no longer a concern. Walking enables you to feel the sunshine and the gentle rain, invigorating the soul.
It has given me great joy to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as the Father commanded us. … And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love. 2 John 4,6
John’s second letter to the church tells believers that we must walk (or have the lifestyle) of truth and obedience and love. These are not individual commands but a singular multi-faceted directive. Part of my daily walk involves walking in the truth, putting feet to the gospel, walking in such a way that shows that God loves the residents of Geneva Avenue as deeply as the residents of Commonwealth Avenue. Part of my daily walk involves walking in obedience, putting feet to biblical integrity, walking in such a way that shows that God’s people stay on the sidewalks and resist trespassing onto the lawn. Part of my daily walk involves walking in love, putting feet to grace and mercy, walking in such a way that shows those who I encounter a willingness to offer my assistance and my understanding.
I have been asking myself a question as I walk: does how I go and where I go project the truth, obedience and love I have in God? In order to answer that question as I should, I need to remind myself that walking is more than a means of getting from one point to another, but an opportunity to slow down and engage in the life all around us. Walking is one way we serve the community as the body of Christ. It is more than an exercise for fitness; it is an exercise of faith.