It is incredible what can change in a week. Grade schools were still in session, restaurants were open and traffic into the city was bogged down with its usual congestion. The developments and press conferences that we’ve watched daily have given new meaning to “cancel culture”. We are now required to understand new terms like social distancing, COVID-19 and pandemic. As we, together as a global community, deal with the ramifications of all these changes, join with me in praying for those most deeply impacted: those with fragile health, that the precautions we all take will protect those most in danger; those who own, manage and/or are employed by small businesses that cannot operate ‘from home’, that the economic realities of this crisis will not lead to financial ruin; students, school staffs, educators and administrators, that the ramifications of time away will be mitigated by online community and instruction.
I am aware that some are afraid – fearful of infection, fearful of loss, fearful in uncertainty. I share your fears. I am concerned that someone in my family will get sick. I am anxious for the church and her continuing ministry should we be unable to meet for a month or more. For me, this week has been like an unending snowstorm. When it snows in greater Boston during the weekend, my anxiety level increases as I contemplate cancellations and the results of not gathering. I somehow think that the faith of God in the congregation depends upon 70 minutes of impactful worship and if we cannot get together, all hell will break loose (literally and figuratively).
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Matthew 16:18 (ESV)
The snow will stop falling. The pandemic will end. The world will go back to normal. God will still reign.
So, I am choosing to count the blessings. Blessing 1: political divisions have given way to community interest; instead of dividing over red and blue policies, we are uniting in our shared concern for one another. Blessing 2: optional fellowship has given way to intentional connecting; instead of engaging with others on our terms, I am seeing more interactions motivated by love. Blessing 3: a new appreciation for our schools and day-care providers; the creativity of emergency on-line learning, the providing of lunches and instruction and the healthy interactions of adults with our children are amazing. Blessing 4: the advancements in technology; with live-streaming, video conferencing, on-line giving, telecommuting, e-commerce and news apps, most can stay connected even when we practice social distancing. Blessing 5: free time with family for reading, recreation and rest.
As we continue to weather this storm, I encourage you to come up with your own list of unforeseen blessings this crisis has given you. I also encourage you to be a blessing to those around you – bring toilet paper to an elderly neighbor, order take-out to support a struggling establishment or call an old friend.
God will prevail.
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It will come as no surprise to those who know me that my favorite meal includes hamburgers: every birthday supper that I can remember involved hamburgers, as did nearly every recommendation I made for our dining-out options as a family. It is the perfect food, starting with a soft bun, continuing with a cool tomato and lettuce leaf, then accented with condiments and cheese, and completed with the juicy ground beef. I enjoy every kind of burger – the good at Fuddrucker’s (with more toppings than meat), the bad at McDonald’s (thin and oniony), and the messy at Red Robin (with a fried egg on top) – but I particularly enjoy a home-made grilled hamburger.
Unfortunately, for the last three years, our family remained grill-less. Sure, we had an electric ‘grill’ that griddle-fried meats outside, but (no offense to George Foreman) it was not the same. However, my grill-less condition ended when I celebrated my birthday eight weeks ago. That was the day that my family gifted me a gas/charcoal/smoker grill. It took 51 days before the weather was warm enough, but finally (with the tremendous assistance from my three boys) we assembled the grill on Sunday afternoon.
Unfortunately, the grill did not come with a propane tank. So, after waiting another day, on Monday afternoon my wife and I patronized BJ’s for a tank and 6 pounds of ground beef. We were ready to grill!
Unfortunately, the tank was empty and there are surprisingly few locations where a propane tank can be filled. We would have to wait another day. Finally, on Tuesday we went to Neponset Circle Car Wash and got 20 pounds of propane. And then, at 5:30 Tuesday afternoon, I began grilling burgers in my backyard. They were the best burgers I have consumed in quite a while; sure, they were arguably rare and perhaps more bloody than juicy, but they were delicious.
My home-made grilled burgers were definitely worth the wait. Despite my contention that I abhor waiting, I admit that the anticipation that comes with expected blessings is fantastic. If you have ever watched an unboxing video on YouTube or stirred restlessly on Christmas Eve, you know what I mean. We are rapt with what might be in the box or what might be in the present or what might be for dinner. My grill is a reminder that I can be consumed with the bitter taste that comes with waiting or content with the sweet savor of the blessings to come.
…but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint. Isaiah 40:31 (ESV)
Where is your heart today? Is it heavy and burdened because you no longer want to wait? Is it uplifted and invigorated with the sure and certain hope of things to come? There are times when we must wait – for results, for relationships, for rewards – and that waiting can be draining. At those times remember what you are waiting for and then enable God to refresh you in the process. As for me, I will think about that as I enjoy some perfectly cooked ground beef surrounded by a grilled cheese sandwich.
After watching the local news recently, I have come to the conclusion that most of us are obsessed with safety. We are willing to do whatever is required to be safe from illness, as is evident by the shortages of bottled water and hand sanitizer at our nation’s ‘big box’ retailers to prevent the spread of COVID-19. We are willing to invest significant resources to be safe from crime, installing video doorbells and high-tech security systems to prevent break-ins. Our hearts break due to our insecurities arising from natural disasters, expecting that sirens and first responders ought to keep us from the harm of tornados or wildfire. We expect that we, and those we love, ought to be safe from the dangers of life.
Despite all our sacrifices at the altar of safety, we remain at risk. Emergency rooms across the country will still be filled today with those who suffered injury. Prisons throughout the world will be filled today with people unjustly convicted to serious crimes. Homeless shelters and food banks in urban areas will be filled by individuals and families who have been ravaged by systemic poverty. We will continue to face illness and injustice. We will be overshadowed by disaster and need. We will be plagued with injury and crime. No matter what we give – offering our power, our possessions and our priorities – safety is persistently fickle.
It is for many a troubling reality that God does not promise safety for those who follow Him. However, we can be comforted by the reality that He does promise us Himself.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. Isaiah 43:2 (NIV)
“I will be with you” – through the waters and through the flames. In the Bible, references to water typically represent chaos (e.g. the creation narrative) and references to fire typically represent judgement (e.g. the book of Revelation). We all know that life can be chaotic, messy and disruptive. When it is, and we feel unsafe, we can take comfort in the truth that God is with us. We also know that life is filled with the consequences of bad acts, committed by our own hands or by the hands of others. When it is, and we feel like the world is conspiring against us for our ruin, we can have peace in the truth that God is with us through it all.
We can choose to put our faith and trust in the thoughts and plans birthed by human ingenuity or put our faith and trust in the one who designed and created every human mind. We are wise when we take precautions, refusing to be consumed by the fears that come with uncertainty and insecurity. Whatever you face this week, you should know that God goes with you. This world is a scary place, but thankfully we are never alone.
When we were vacationing last week, we spent a few hours with our nephew and his family. As we were walking through their backyard, our niece-in-law was showing us her extensive garden. She showed us the lettuce and carrots, some of which had been eaten by rascally rabbits. Then, pointing to some large leaves (which we speculated might have been collard greens or kale), she said, “Those were supposed to be beets, but I think the seeds were mislabeled.” I admit that I do not have a green thumb, but I have grown a few vegetables over the years; what I know about seeds is simple – that many of them look similar and it is not until you see their growth that you know for sure what they will produce.
This reality has reminded me of two biblical truths, one positive and one negative. First, the ‘bad news’: Jesus taught his disciples that you don’t pick figs from thornbushes. Next, the ‘good news’: God’s good creation is designed in such a way that every plant produces fruit according to its kind.
By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Matthew 7:16-18 (NIV)
You don’t pick grapes from thornbushes. You don’t pick figs from thistles. You don’t plant carrots and get apples. Cucumber seeds produce cucumbers, even when they are labeled as tomato seeds. The biblical truth (and agricultural truth) is that you get what you planted, not what you thought you planted. This is, however, not all bad news. Some of us, those who were labeled as “stupid” or “damaged” or “worthless”, need to be reminded that our envelope doesn’t determine our end. We are what we are, not what others say we are.
Every plant produces fruit according to its kind. The rosebush produces roses. The pea plant produces peas. The grapevine produces grapes. You understand my point. Even though we might be mislabeled or missorted, we all are capable of producing, and only producing, fruit in accordance with our nature. When we are properly fed, watered and pruned, we are all beneficial. This is, unequivocally, good news: God has made you, just as you are, so that you will produce your own particular kind of fruit. You can do no other task.
Susan’s garden, and the scriptural musings that those plants by the back fence have piqued, have left me with a question: what were you born to do? Whatever the answer, regardless of the ways you’ve been labeled, cultivate your core and bear fruit accordingly. Allow yourself to be fed by God over time and develop deep roots. Creatively pursue the passions of your heart, knowing that the fruit of an apple tree, for example, could be a cider, a sauce or a pie. The world needs what only you can offer.
By the time you read this, I will be finishing up my vacation (presumably in our nation’s capital). We will have seen the National Museum of African American History and Culture and The Bible Museum, as well as family in the Baltimore and DC area. I am, however, presuming all this; I am writing this post on Friday, February 14th, and we are not leaving until tomorrow. I have no idea whether or not all the things that I am saying we will have done will be what we have done. All I have done is make plans.
I am not saying that making plans is nothing. As the adage goes, “failing to plan is simply planning to fail.” Some plans have been made – I had a few people at church fill in for me on Sunday morning, we lined up beds to sleep in during our time away, and we made sure the car had an oil change. As I write these things, though, I have no idea if anything we are planning took place as planned. To be honest, my thoughts often betray me when on vacation: what if the hotel lost our reservation, what if the flight is cancelled, what if there is no one to pick us up at the train station. Plans are something, but they are not everything.
Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. James 4:13–16 (NIV)
We ought to say, “If the Lord wills….” It is clear that James is not forbidding us from making plans (otherwise he would be sinning through his teachings in other parts of his letter). He is warning us not to assume a position as the center of the universe, expecting our plans to be immutable and undeniable. We need to leave room for the possibility that God might have something else in mind. We must not be so rigid in our expectations of our infallible scheduling that we miss the movement of grace. Our plans, while impactful to us, are, in the course of history, but a movement of the morning fog.
So, we have plans. Maybe when this is appears on the digital landscape, all of what we planned will have come to fruition; but I doubt it. Most of us will never do all that we imagine we will do. Most of us, when we trust God with the directions end up doing more than we ever imagined. When I return tomorrow, ask me about it. Hopefully, I will be able to share some blessing I had never planned to enjoy…but did!
Like an estimated 102 million other people, I watched the Super Bowl a few week ago. It was a great end to the NFL season. However, what will remain with me for much longer than the play on the field was a particularly moving commercial that ran relatively early in the broadcast. Paid for by New York Life, it began by stating that the ancient Greeks had four words for love. According to the advertisement:
- “Philia is affection that grows from friendship”;
- “Storgé – the kind [of love] you have for a grandparent or a brother”;
- “Eros – the uncontrollable urge to say ‘I love you’”; and
- “Agapé, the most admirable – love as an action; it takes courage, sacrifice, and strength.”
Maybe it was the mention of ancient Greek, a language with which I wrestle for comprehension every week. Maybe it was the powerful visuals of the varied aspects of love. Whatever the reason, I was captivated by the commercial and its message: that love takes action.
Fast-forward twelve days to today, Valentine’s Day, the (inter)national holiday celebrating love. I wonder, in light of this commercial, which love we are celebrating as we exchange cards? Are we appreciating the love of our friends, or our family, or our ‘significant other’, or those who sacrifice to provide all that we require? It is likely that today will be, to some degree, a recognition of the first three loves, but especially focused on our romantic loves. Restaurants will be patronized, florists will be utilized and confectioners will be supported.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7
At the same time, there will be many celebrating Valentine’s Day in other ways and in other places. They will visit the nursing home and spoon-feed their mom supper. They will drop by a cemetery and pull the weeds around their husband’s marker. They will assist their daughter into a transport van and accompany her to physical therapy. They will sit in the hospital with their 8-year old son as he undergoes treatment for leukemia. These are the ones who will be demonstrating agapé love today, and tomorrow, not because it is Valentine’s Day, but because that is what ‘love as an action’ looks like.
I hope that everyone who is reading this has a Valentine, someone who will say to you today (with accoutrements or not), “I love you”. I hope you will enjoy a Whitman Sampler or a Reese’s heart, a nice candle-lit prix-fixe dinner, or a bouquet of lilies. I pray even more that everyone who is reading this today has someone who has shown them agapé – that sacrificial, surrendering, willful emptying of themselves for the sake of another. I am blessed to know that kind of love. I pray you are as well.
Happy St. Valentine’s Day (or in Greek, ευτυχισμένη ημέρα του Αγίου Βαλεντίνου)!
One of the joys that comes from the challenge my wife and I have given ourselves in seeing all the Best Picture nominations each year is answering the question, when someone asks, “What would you recommend?” That question invariably leads to a conversation where I am free to express my values, preferences and worldview. This year, for a number of different reasons, I would recommend any of them: some films marvelously expressed the importance of family, others wonderfully demonstrated the indomitable human spirit, and still others powerfully depicted the troubling consequences of marginalizing the outcast. If you would like a more in-depth conversation, get in touch with me and we can talk.
Making recommendations can be tricky. The points and plot-twists that I appreciate are just that, what I appreciate. Every film I watch is filtered through my own eyes, which have witnessed particular life experiences that are exclusive to myself, and you will not see things in the same exact way. There might have been aspects of the story that found deep resonance in your heart that went by unaffected to mine. When we add into the mix the complex variables of theatrical genres, directorial choices and subject matter, discussing what another person should consume can be difficult. Recommendations are, by nature, suggestive and thus require consideration of the audience.
Around this time of year, I become a ‘movie evangelist’: someone who shares the good news of cinematic perfection and encourages others to experience the joys I have come to know. I do not take this task lightly. I consider my audience (their temperaments and tastes) and convey a recommendation. Want to see a great family movie? “Little Women”; a cinematic masterpiece? “1917”; an unexpected delight? “Jo Jo Rabbit”; a cautionary tale? “The Irishman” or “Marriage Story”.
And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. Luke 24:27 (NIV)
Most of us could talk about our favorite movie for hours. I have been praying that we would be as conversational about the Gospel as we have been about cinema. I long for those around me to have the same fervor to tell others what they have been reading in the Bible and share with them how it reflects the good and bad aspects of our society. I desire a church community that sees the benefit in conversing with others about the riches that could be taken away from the truths expressed in God’s word. I wonder what would happen if we talked about Jesus the way we talk about movies or (if you are not a cinephile, i.e. a movie lover) the way we talk about sports or fashion or books.
What part of the Bible would you recommend I ‘see’ and why?
For the record, I would be happy to see “1917”, “Ford v. Ferrari”, “Jo Jo Rabbit” or “Little Women” win the Oscar on Sunday night and, for posterity, I predict “1917” will take home the statuette.
This month, as we have in previous years, my wife, Jeanine, and I are attempting to see all the movies that have been nominated for the best picture Oscar©. Due to this challenge, we watched Sam Mendes’ World War I drama 1917, which depicts a harrowing day experienced by two British soldiers. I cannot say, at this point, if I would vote for it as the best picture (we still have a few more films to see), but I will say that it has one of the most moving scenes I have watched on film in quite a while. After facing the vast variety of experiences that comes with each life – from the beauty of cherry blossoms in bloom to the gruesome ravages of war – one of the film’s protagonists hears the haunting words of a Civil War folk song called “The Wayfaring Stranger”.
I am a poor wayfaring stranger
Travelling through this world of woe.
And there’s no sickness, no toil or danger
In that fair land to which I go.
I’m going there to meet my father,
I’m going there no more to roam;
I’m only going over Jordan,
I’m only going over home.
I know dark clouds will gather round me,
I know my way will be rough and steep;
But golden fields lie out before me
Where all the saints their vigils keep.
I’m going there to meet my mother,
I’m going there no more to roam;
I’m only going over Jordan,
I’m only going over home.
I thought about that song this week, as the news cycles repeatedly reminded us of the brokenness inherent within each life – young people whose lives were taken much too soon, others who were struck by a viral epidemic, and governmental leaders accused of high crimes and misdemeanors. We are all traveling through this world of woe. I wonder how many are facing the realities of sickness, toil and danger with the perspective referenced in this song from a previous generation. Despite fifteen decades of advances in medicine, technology, education and civility, we are still “wayfaring strangers”.
Instead, they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. Hebrews 11:16 (NIV)
In those seasons of sorrow, be assured that there is a land – prepared for all who trust in the benevolence of God – that is devoid of sadness, filled with golden fields and occupied by those we love. The physical world we see every day is not all that there is or all that God has provided for us; there is a home that is awaiting all those who are aware that it is just beyond our gaze. There is a war still being waged all around us, despite the occasional glimpses of beauty. There is also a place of peace with boundless splendor awaiting those who faithfully traverse the rugged terrain of earth.
As depicted in 1917, there are circumstances in life when we are faced with exhaustion and entertain thoughts of surrender. In those moments, remember that Christ has prepared for us a home.
As a church, we have begun the new year by participating in a denominational initiative called “21 Days of Prayer”. This year our intercessory practices and our focus has been directed by a resource titled Praying the King’s Agenda. This booklet has helped us hear what Jesus has said to us in His word and then pray about it in humble obedience. Each day the participants of this program have read a command from the Lord and, after some guided reflection, prayed for a faithful response to that command.
Recently (Day 17 of the program), I was directed to ask help of the one who said, “I will make you fishers of men.” The daily command of Jesus is found in Matthew 4:19 (“And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.’”) Jesus spoke these words to the first of his disciples as he gave them a purposeful direction. He gave them direction (“Follow me”) and purpose (“I will make you fishers of men”). He gives us the same direction and purpose.
Most of us are comfortable with the idea that we are commanded to follow Jesus: to walk with him, to stay with him and to submit our plans to him. This is the first step in any walk of faith. We are called to accept Jesus as our Lord. We may not all heed the command, but we all can understand it.
Many more of us are hesitant to embrace the second half of this verse, to acknowledge his purpose for our lives. We hear about becoming “people fishers” and we shake our heads. Maybe we have an aversion to fishing or cannot relate to the metaphor. But I do not think that the significant truth is about the fishing; it is about the making. We are called to follow so that Christ can make us into what we are: for Peter, Andrew, James and John – who were fishers of fish – it was making them fishers of people; for us – who are accountants, artists, cashiers and coders – it may be making us those professions for God. This is the second step in any walk of faith. We are called to follow Jesus toward discipleship.
At once they left their nets and followed him. Matthew 4:20 (NIV)
As I was directed to pray about this command, I was struck by the response of the initial audience. They dropped their nets, their livelihoods and their preferences and went after the Lord. They followed Jesus and, over time, he reshaped their talents, training and abilities into purpose. Christ desires the same for us; to transform what we are already doing into something more glorious and fulfilling.
This is something the Lord does in us and for us; He will make us what we are intended to be. Therefore, it is in our best interest that we ask Jesus for help, help to follow and help to surrender. Those four young fishermen had no idea what wonders awaited them when they went with Jesus. Neither will we, unless we follow him and allow him to make us more than we can imagine.
A tarnished reputation is difficult to overcome. Just ask the Boston Red Sox or the New England Patriots. Along with Lance Armstrong, Rosie Ruiz and Tonya Harding, they have found themselves labeled as cheaters within our current zeitgeist. Just this week, the Red Sox field manager, Alex Cora mutually agreed to part ways after Cora’s name was linked with an elaborate sign-stealing scandal while he served as bench coach with the Houston Astros. This follows a report a few weeks ago that the Patriots were found recording the sidelines of an opposing teams during an NFL game (12 years after being punished for gaining an advantage by acting the same way). The home teams are a bunch of cheaters, calling into question the legitimacy of their championship titles.
Would the Patriots have won all those Super Bowls without that unfair advantage of knowing plays the opposition was planning before they were executed or modifying the air pressure of footballs? Would the Red Sox have won the World Series in 2018 had they not stolen signs and known the pitches they were facing before they were thrown? Sadly, sports fans in Boston can never know for sure. History is now tainted. Reputations are now tarnished. The critics are justified in questioning the integrity of the coaches and key players. The city’s sports heroes will be subject to the consequences of dishonesty for the foreseeable future.
But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Luke 19:8 (NIV)
Not surprisingly, the Bible has an ample supply of examples illustrating that cheating is wrong, whether it be swapping out an inferior sacrifice for a suitable one or moving a boundary line or tipping the scales to gain a small advantage. I would argue that Zacchaeus is a prime specimen of the ‘cheater’. Perhaps he contended that everyone was doing it, that it was acceptable to skim a bit off the top of all those tax payments he had received. But that rationale did not mean it was the right thing to do. God’s design and order for human interaction dictates our fair and equitable engagement with others.
In this way, Zacchaeus’s life story becomes a cautionary tale; if you cheat people you will be hated by nearly everyone around you. But Zacchaeus’s response to grace also becomes a template for all of us with a less-than-stellar reputation; after being confronted with his wrong-doing, he acted in repentance, showed regret and offered restitution. Almost immediately after witnessing the love of Christ, he changes the trajectory of his life; after years of focusing on selfish gain, he gives half of his accumulated wealth to others. Then he characterizes himself as a cheater, owning and admitting his sin. Finally, he compensates those he cheated sacrificially.
So, how does one overcome a tarnished reputation? Follow the biblical example of the wee and greedy tax collector. Admit your sin, change your priorities and repay what has been taken away. I hope we all can learn from the public fall from grace of our professional sports teams.