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.
In recent days I have been wondering what the appropriate response might be for a follower of Christ to have in addressing the pressing concerns reported through news outlets. I have been asking myself what Jesus might do and say in the aftermath of mass shootings (and the correlated issues of gun-ownership and our cultural love of violence) or child detainment at the borders (and the correlated issues of asylum and systemic racism). My response cannot be simply adding a hashtag to social media posts or offering “thoughts and prayers” – although thinking about these issues and praying for their rightful resolution is a good first step as long as other steps follow quick behind. But where are my feet to fall?
There are two things I know: that I cannot do nothing and that I cannot rely on political powers to legislate a solution. If I have learned anything from expositing the “One Another” passages of the New Testament each Sunday this summer, it is that God commands us to care deeply for one another, so doing nothing in light of real suffering is not an option. I have also learned that soundbites and speeches rarely foster compromise, so waiting for Washington is also not an option. I have decided instead to turn to God and His word to find wisdom in this time of need.
Listen to my words, Lord, consider my lament. Hear my cry for help, my King and my God, for to you I pray. Psalm 5:1-2 (NIV)
According to the Dictionary of Bible Themes, a lament is “a song of mourning or sorrow.” The scriptures are rife with lamentation, typically taking a particular form: a crying out in sorrow, an acceptance of evil, an acknowledgement that things are not following God’s will and a trust that God will ultimately be glorified. I reckon that the right response is to offer up to God a lament, just like David, Solomon, Isaiah, Ezekiel and Amos did in their day. We, as the people of God, need to cry out in mourning, acknowledging that these acts of violence and exclusion are not part of God’s created order and accepting that God is our only hope of resolution.
“Lord, hear my cry. Weapons of war have been amassed by individuals with the sole intent of bringing havoc and harm. Small but vocal portions of Your creation are intent on dividing us through irrelevant distinctions and minimizing the intrinsic value of all those who bear Your image. This is not what You desire; our hearts are broken because Your heart breaks over our sin.
“Lord, hear my cry. I seek Your beauty and Your glory in these days. I know that You are close to the widow and the orphan, and that You have regard for the plight of the sojourner. I long for my spirit to reflect Yours. I know that You desire that Your children repent and turn away from evil. I know that we who are inhabitants of Your kingdom are aliens and strangers in this foreign land. Enable us to turn from our sinful ways and honor Your purposes for us.
Lord, hear my cry. You alone can change the human heart. You alone can turn us from hostility to hospitality. You alone are our hope. Help me to no longer rely on human strength or invention to solve what only You can make right. And while I wait for Your hand to make all things right, equip me to obediently carry out Your redemptive plan among those with whom You have blessed me. In the name of the Lord, I pray. Amen.”
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.
Recently, I have been watching a captivating show on Netflix called “Nail’d It!” According to the streaming service’s website, the program is described in this way: “Home bakers with a terrible track record take a crack at re-creating edible masterpieces for a $10,000 prize. It’s part reality contest, part hot mess.” Here is what happens during each 30-minute episode: three amateur home cooks, with limited time, resources and experience try to copy baked goods worthy of Pinterest created by professional bakers with unlimited time, resources and experience. The facsimiles never quite match the originals, but that is what makes the show so delightful. The home bakers work so hard and fail so often, incurring the good-natured ribbing of the diverse panel of judges. Yes, the end-products are woefully awful in comparison, but they are also delightfully ambitious.
This show appeals to be because it turns a particular cultural fascination on its head – capturing perfection through a post on social media. There are millions of selfies that go unposted because of some imperceptible flaw that the sole picture posted does not contain. There are hours devoted to staging furniture and furnishings so that uploaded photos of real estate are displayed in the best light. We rarely expose our sub-par efforts, let alone our failures, to the scrutiny of public opinion. Unless it is perfect, we are left to assume it is without value. Social media has created a cultural expectation of quality where ‘good’ is rarely good enough.
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. 2 Timothy 2:15
I think Paul would have a tough time adapting to our culture, replete with social media’s expectations of perfection. When he wrote to Timothy, he encourages him to give his best effort and, therefore, never feel needless shame. He did not say that Timothy should cover the façade of life’s messiness with a veneer of superficial perfection, pretending that he could master every aspect of life and ministry. Perhaps there is a blessing in knowing that we cannot do everything perfectly, but that we can always do our best. Life is not expected to look like a magazine photo-shoot. Life is often troubling to look at and imprecise, and that should be okay.
One of the more redemptive aspects of “Nail’d It!” is that the judges place a value on presentation, but they also value taste. If it doesn’t look pretty but is delicious, the judges may still declare that entry the winner. Mastering the fundamentals of baking counts for something. Mastering the fundamentals of life and living counts, too. This is true when it comes to relationships, service, ministry, faith, communication, compassion and about a million other things. There is something deeply biblical in that. Life does not always look pretty but treating the ingredients of life and living properly will, at worst, make it palatable. Handled properly, it may even be delicious.
The cake with the elevated teapot is not the norm. The photo of the beachside sunset is not typical. The brochure with all the smiling faces is probably not real. But the simple cake, the salt air and the full spectrum of human emotions are what life is composed of…and often times it is delicious.
I was recently with a group of pastors where one of the participants prepared a devotional based on Acts 12. As we discussed this portion of scripture, the topic of prayer was brought up due, in no small part, to the mention (in verse 4) of the church earnestly praying to God for Peter, who was at the time in jail, and the mention (in verse 12) of the people gathered in Mary’s home who were praying throughout the night. Despite all this prayer, earnestly offered, the church was not prepared for Peter’s miraculous escape and were astonished when he knocked at their gate. The dynamics of engagement with God through prayer is a wonderful mystery.
I wish I could tell you how prayer works. I wish there was a formula where you could plug in your request and you would know the outcome. I wish I was not like the early believers written about in Acts 12 who powerfully and persistently prayed for Peter but were unable to comprehend the answer. It seems that we are consistently praying in one direction and the answer comes unexpectedly from another direction. Is it possible that our faith effects our ability to anticipate the answer, or do we pray with the realization that our faith will grow through the unanticipated ways the Almighty will work the resolution? Whatever the machinations or motivations for our prayers may be, we are called to present our requests before God.
[Jehoshaphat prayed,] “Our God, will you not judge them? For we have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” 2 Chronicles 20:12 (NIV)
I like Jehoshaphat’s prayer. Here is the king of Judah, the earthly ruler of God’s people, crying out to God because of an impossible situation – a vast army from Edom was just beyond the city gates. What would you pray for if you faced certain destruction unless the God of creation intervened? To strengthen your forces? To give success to your plans? Thankfully for us who are puzzled by prayer, Jehoshaphat’s petition takes a different tack.
“For we have no power….” It is as if Jehoshaphat is saying that God will have to do something if anything is going to be done. We would be wise to reflect upon the truth of these words: we cannot arrest cancer, we cannot end violence, we cannot create wealth, we cannot change a human heart. We pray because we are powerless to effect much of what we pray for.
“We do not know what to do….” Jehoshaphat has no plans, so asking for success in the abstract is fruitless. We would be wise to reflect upon the truth of these words as well: We are often unable to process all the details of our situation, let alone formulate action steps to bring about change. We are much better off to leave the process to the one who holds all things in order: God.
“…our eyes are on you.” Ultimately, Jehoshaphat determines that the only thing to do is watch for God’s movement and follow Him. A better prayer has never been uttered: to paraphrase, “Show me where you are and enable me to remain there.”
We have no overwhelming power, but Christ does. We have no earth-shattering plans, but Christ does. But we do have the ability of focus our attention on the things that matter…may that singular point of focus be Christ as we make every petition and request to Him.
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.
My family and I missed church on Sunday – skipped church, actually – and did something else that morning. We all still got up early, donned our ‘Sunday best’, shared breakfast together and drive to the Matthews Arena on the campus of Northeastern University. It was there that we remained for the next four or so hours, along with the other friends and family members of the 2019 graduating class of Boston Latin Academy. After a regal processional, greetings from dignitaries, speeches and special presentations from students, and addresses from the Suffolk County District Attorney and the school’s Headmaster, we finally saw our son (and brother and grandson), David, receive his High School diploma.
While it may sound like boasting, the truth is that my children, including David, are (extremely) bright. That being said, education has not come easily for David. In second grade he was referred to and treated for dyslexia at the Massachusetts General Hospital Institute for Health Professions’ Speech, Language and Literacy Center and shortly after that was diagnosed with ADHD. Still, despite these difficulties, David showed sufficient aptitude to warrant acceptance into one of Boston Public School’s exam schools. Throughout his time at BLA, David experienced academic highs (honor roll and advanced placement) and lows (a month-long drudgery called summer school). As I watched he who has become a young man graduate from High School, my thoughts brought me back to the frequently frustrating times we endured together over the past 13 years as a result of homework or clinic work or parent-teacher conferences. Those frustrations seem to have disappeared as I witnessed him hide behind his diploma, victorious.
Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. James 1:12
The Bible says that those who withstand the trials that test us will be awarded the prize. I witnessed that, first-hand, on Sunday. I’d like to think that David’s days of testing are through (I’d like to think that about myself as well), but I know that for all of us, each day brings with it their challenges. There will continue to be peaks and valleys along his path, but now he has evidence that hard work pays off and perseverance has its rewards. He has tasted victory, and I hope that will whet his appetite for the next chapter (pursuing a BS in computer science at Fitchburg State University). I could not be prouder of David than I am right now…he is an overcomer!
We all have things that do not come easy: education, relationships, socialization, coordination, just to name a few. Fight through those things, persevere and battle with all the strength and resolve you can muster, knowing that they may never be mastered but they can be overcome. Remember that there will come a day that we will receive the just compensation for enduring the necessary struggles that accompany our successes. And, after you’ve endured and come out the other side, I hope there is someone there to witness it and cheer for you.
On behalf of my family, we say ‘thank you’ to all who helped David achieve this significant milestone.
Last Thursday night, I was captivated by a contest televised on ESPN: the 92nd Annual Scripps National Spelling Bee. Let me say that I am not an advocate for the cultural predilection toward presenting “participation awards” (the ubiquitous practice of giving everyone on the team a trophy, regardless of the score); both winning and losing has the ability to build character and excellence ought to be recognized. So, as I began watching the ‘evening finals’, beginning with round nine where sixteen children were still competing, I was very-much looking forward to seeing a champion crowned and the other 15 children cheered as they walked off the stage, defeated but undaunted.
The ninth round of words was perfectly executed – all 16 mastered the words they were given. Then, over the next 5 rounds, eight participants misspelled their word and exited the competition. At that point, the remaining eight spellers broke the system, correctly spelling the next 47 words. It was announced at one point that they were running out of words and, after a few more rounds, all those still spelling would win. After a total of 20 rounds, the directors of the bee declared all the remaining contestants the winner of the competition. Rishik Gandhasri, age 13 (who spelled ‘auslaut’), Erin Howard, 14 (‘erysipelas’), Saketh Sundar, 13 (‘bougainvillea’), Shruthika Padhy, 13 (‘aiguillette’), Sohum Sukhatankar, 13 (‘pendeloque’), Abhijay Kodali, 12 (‘palama’) Christopher Serrao, 13 (‘cernuous’) and Rohan Raja, 13 (‘odylic’) all walked away with the $50,000 and the trophy as champions of the National Spelling Bee.
This was not, in any way, a participation award. It was a pronouncement of excellence, as each one perfectly executed the task before them. These eight great spellers finished the competition without error and were declared the winner. The unfolding of this competition reminded me of the words of Paul to the church in Corinth:
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 1 Corinthians 9:24
These young competitors all expected that there would be only one winner and they prepared accordingly. They competed to win the prize and they finished the competition in first place. They won – they all won – together, giving one another High-fives and cheering on one another’s correct (always correct) efforts. The rules of the competition did not change, only the fact that many finished perfectly, together.
In many ways, I saw a glimpse of the heavenly in the very early moments of May 31st. The conclusion of the spelling bee reminded me of the concluding moments of life: we are diligently competing for the prize, surrounded by our fellow competitors, when the director of the race, the Lord Almighty, states that all who cross the finish line first will be declared winner. At that moment, we interlock elbows and all step across the finish line together, all securing the prize. We celebrate one another, realizing that we are not competing against the other runners, but the course itself. All those still standing at the end will receive the prize.
One last word to spell: H-A-L-L-E-L-U-J-A-H!
Last Monday, Memorial Day, was the cultural beginning of summer and tomorrow, June 1st, is its start, meteorologically. While I do not consider it summer until the air conditioners are placed in the windows (alas, no central air for us), I realize that it is that time again when we ask one another if we have made our vacation plans yet. For those of us in New England, it is the time we take the ice scrapers out of the car and replace them with beach chairs; it is the time when we begin to enjoy ice cream in cones while on a walk rather than in bowls while watching TV. It is a time for cookouts and campouts.
I hope you have plans for the summer – going to the lake or the mountains, spending time in the nation’s capital or at the in-laws, visiting a newest theme park or watching the latest blockbuster. I hope that these plans for the summer, whether at home or away, includes the worship of the Lord. I hope that your summer plans at your home church and the places you visit while on vacation allow you to offer our whole selves to God in grateful praise.
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship. Romans 12:1
As Paul says to the church in Rome, this offering of ourselves is primarily a sacrificial act intended to glorify God. The imagery he uses is one of an altar, the sacred place of righteous giving. As a way of responding to God’s mercy, we give ourselves – our time, talent and treasure – with gifts that are of varied amounts (some can give an hour or a dollar, while others have more to give) in completely voluntary ways. In light of all the blessings you enjoy because of God’s kindness, could you spend a bit of your summertime resources appreciating Him?
This offering, however, will have consequences. When we agree to offer our bodies, we offer all its parts. This act of generosity effects our talking, for our tongues have been offered. This act of generosity effects our toiling, for our hands have been offered. This act of generosity effects our traveling, for our legs have been offered. There may be plans, on vacation or at home, that will need to be curtailed or delayed because we are offering our resources to Him. The beach and the barbeque will have to wait. It is always better to exercise your faith in flip flops than to forgo the blessing of gathering altogether.
Our rightful response to the blessings God gives us – our vacations and vocations, our purses and our purposes – is to be living sacrifices. We are living sacrifices: continually, in every season and on every day, offering what He has given us to share. We are holy sacrifices: set apart for His purposes. We are pleasing sacrifices: demonstrating what is appropriate for Him. I hope that this attitude is the highlight of your next season.