Recently, I had the opportunity to deliver a sermon on one of my favorite Bible passages: Mark 4:35-41. This portion of scripture recounts Jesus’ stilling of the storm. I find this section of God’s word particularly impactful because of the question someone in the boat asks of Jesus: “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” That is a question that each one of us has asked (or will ask) whoever we understand to be our Supreme Being when our lives are on the brink of shipwreck. When we come to the end of ourselves, when our brains and our brawn have been exhausted, we all want to know if God will be there to deliver us from danger.
From the very beginning of their voyage, everyone in the boat knew Jesus’ command – “Let us go over to the other side.” Their problem was that they lacked a full understanding of who was resting in the boat with them; they failed to recognize that the man who fell asleep amid the rising swells was God the Son. They did not recognize that the one who directed the disciples to cross the sea would not lie or be denied. They were unable to comprehend that, no matter how strong the storm (and even if the boat was sunk), they would make it through the wind and waves safe to the other side. They were going to survive those frightening hours because God keeps His promises. We, too, will survive the storm.
This inability to recognize Jesus as anything more than a teacher, an expert in the Law of God, is the crux of this account. It has always fascinated me that the disciples, at least four of whom had years of nautical experience as fishermen, would wake the resting Rabbi for assistance. Perhaps this question of concern was founded in their thought that a “man of God” was blessed by God and His prayers would avail much. Maybe they remembered His miraculous power expressed in healing and deliverance, thinking that maybe He could act miraculously again. The point is, someone in that boat thought that Jesus was special and wondered if He could save them. We, too, have times when we wonder if Jesus can save us.
Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. 1 Peter 5:7 (NIV)
Why did Jesus calm the sea? He did not still the waves to assure safe passage; that would have happened anyway. He did not rebuke the wind to demonstrate His power over the natural order; they already knew He could do that. He did all this to bring peace to the hearts of twelve frightened grown men; He showed that He cared for them, not just their circumstances. The danger in reading passages like this that it can lead us to assume that God will always tame the troubles that terrify us. That would miss the point that Jesus came to tame our fear, not simply take them away.
We all have anxious moment when we wonder if God cares, or even know, about us. Here is a reminder that He does. He cares enough to weather the storms with us and still the storms within us.
This Sunday we celebrate Mother’s Day. It is the day that we, as a society, honor the people in our lives who have sacrificed their sleep, their youth, their livelihoods and their plans to provide for us. We all have someone in our lives worthy of celebration – a mother (or mother-figure) who has loved, comforted, taught and trained us; a person who has given us advice, assistance and correction when we needed it; and someone who was willing to give all they had to help us achieve all we are intended to be. No human being, and therefore no mother, is perfect; they are simply closer to the ideal than the rest of us.
From last Mother’s Day to this, it has been a particularly difficult year for the three mothers in my life. The mother I was born to has been hampered by some minor health, home and hearth concerns. The mother I am married to has seen one child graduate college only to be rocked by an uncertain job market and unestablished credit, one child graduate High School only to live at a college 500 miles away, all while she was required to perform her functions as a mother in a downsized environment. The mother I gained through marriage has had the toughest year: she suffered the loss of her son in December and an extended hospitalization and rehabilitation since March. Life has not been easy for the mothers of my family.
As I witnessed how these three remarkable women coped with the challenges of life thrust upon them, it seems that I am the one who is still learning the lessons of life from these moms. Their stalwart persistence teaches me that God provides all that we need: a few dollars or a few kind words just when we are at our wits’ end. Their steadfast love teaches me that the difficulties of our day are diffused when we bear the burdens of someone else. Their sincere concern for their children teaches me that love is empowered only when it is released for the betterment of another. I am blessed by the love and care of these moms.
My son, keep your father’s command and do not forsake your mother’s teaching. Proverbs 6:20
The events of the last year, and the ways that these wonderful women navigated them, reinforces in my mind the notion that we need our moms. We also need to uplift the mothers among us. Let me encourage you to celebrate the mothers around you. If your mom is still living, acknowledge the integral role she has played in your life. If all you have is memories, share one this Sunday. Recognize the full spectrum of motherhood in your community – greet the new moms, the single moms, the empty-nested moms, the mourning moms, the expectant moms, the motherly role models, the future moms, the moms who care for others’ children and the prodigals’ moms. It is a tough world and we can use all the love and encouragement we can get. Praise God this weekend that He has given us great mothers.
Happy Mother’s Day!
As I was standing out in the schoolyard, waiting for Joshua’s dismissal, I was thinking about all the umbrellas. Did I mention it was raining? Our relationship with umbrellas is a complex one. We don’t think about our umbrella until we need it; we’d never search for one on a sunny day. They break in the wind and rain, but we don’t replace them, regretting that decision the moment a bit of inclement weather arrives. We stick them in closets or in trunks, along with the winter boots and ice scrapers, and then are unable to get our hands on them when we need them.
Some people like little, compact umbrellas that can fit in a purse or briefcase, just big enough to protect our heads from the drops (but insufficient to keep our shoes and shoulders dry). Some people prefer the big, golf-sized umbrellas that you can use as a walking stick, sufficient to protect you and a few companions from whatever may fall from the sky. As I waited in the schoolyard, every variety of umbrella converged: black umbrellas for the business types, rainbow-striped ones for the free spirited, pink parasols for the princesses and clear plastic domes for the utilitarian folks among us.
There were also people with no umbrella – these are the people I was wondering about. Did they not possess an umbrella? Did they own one at one time but lost or misplaced it? Did they have one at home, but figured that their hood or their hat or that overhang would keep them sufficiently dry? Did they have a bad experience with an umbrella in the past, perhaps a terrible wind or bout of hail, and swore to never trust an umbrella again? Did they think that the weather was something they could handle and that a little bit of water never hurt anyone?
I was also wondering if people think of God in the same ways we think of umbrellas. Are they thinking that God is good when we need Him, but unnecessary on bright and sunny days? Do they keep God in the closet and then forget about Him? Have they had a bad experience and blamed God for their discomfort? Is God little more than a fashion accessory? Well, God is not merely a cosmic or spiritual umbrella, useful only in protecting us from what may fall from the skies.
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
God cannot be relegated to the closet until we feel He could be useful; He is continually making His presence known. God does not come in a myriad of sizes and colors; He is more than we can imagine and greater than we think. God does not simply keep us dry when we find ourselves in the throes of an April shower; He can enable us to pass through floodwaters and flames. If you want to be equipped to face the challenges of life, be sure you have an umbrella in your trunk, but make sure God is by your side.
Today is Good Friday, the day in which the Church remembers and reflects upon the death of Jesus. Each year, I focus on one of the gospels as they relate the events of Palm Sunday through Easter. This year I have been reading through Luke’s account of the Lord’s final days and am struck by what the good doctor states is Jesus’ final utterance (and arguably His “famous last words”): “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” In saying this, He is quoting from Psalm 31:5 and restating the assurances that David made of God about a thousand years before the cross.
From the context of Psalm 31:5, I do not believe this is a simple statement of resignation, as if Jesus is saying, “I give up”. Rather, it is a statement of confidence in the Father. Psalm 31 tells us that David saw his strength as coming from the knowledge that God is his refuge, deliverance, rescue, rock and redemption. It is in light of all this that David places all that he was, every aspect of himself beyond his physical existence, in the hands of God. Similarly, this is the same confidence that Jesus expresses from the cross.
This phrase is akin to the words that Jesus spoke in the garden a few hours earlier, “… not My will, but Yours be done.” It conveys the confidence that Jesus had in knowing that the plans of God and the guiding hand of God can be trusted. As the agony of the cross began to overwhelm the limits of His human body, Jesus doesn’t give up, but rather gives over control of His existence to the only one who can perfectly accomplish God’s will, the Father himself. And He is faithful, releasing Jesus from His mortal coil and redeeming us, lost sinners, from the power of death and sin.
Into your hands I commit my spirit; deliver me, LORD, my faithful God. Psalm 31:5
Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last. Luke 23:46
I pray that I’d have the confidence that David expressed or that Jesus exhibited. Sadly, I often see the opposite dynamic at work: when the going gets tough, I want to take matters into my own hands. Instead of committing my spirit into God’s hands, I futilely attempt to handle my trials and troubles myself. Instead of acting like David (who just prior to committing his spirit to God asks Him to “keep me free from the trap that is set for me”), I am more likely to stumble into danger by relying on my own sense of direction. How much pain could be avoided if I committed my spirit to His hands.
It is hard to see the empty tomb when we are enduring what, for us, seems to be the cross. It is at those times that we need to trust the hand of God, which comforted the Lord, rolled away the stone and raised the Savior. It is also the hand that can comfort, strengthen and save us.
I am praying that you have a blessed Good Friday and a Happy Easter.
My mother-in-law, who turned ninety on the 28th of last month, had a fall at her home which resulted in her breaking six ribs. She is currently being cared for at a wonderful hospital in Boston, but addressing her pain, which is substantial, has proven difficult. If you were to visit her those first few days, you would hear her literally crying out to God in a loud voice; however, by all appearances, God did not reply. The extreme discomfort of those broken ribs (which cannot be immobilized) remained and the extreme fervency of her prayers (which could not be suppressed) remained unanswered.
My mother-in-law’s condition makes me think about all those who are crying out for relief – relief from the grief or anger of loss, relief from the pain or anguish of trauma and relief from the worries and doubts of the unknown – but relief does not seem to arrive. Is God silent when we seem to need to hear from Him the most? Is God distant when we have the greatest hunger for His presence? Is God uncaring when we long for the comfort that can only come from Him? By faith, I contend just the opposite.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. 2 Corinthians 1:3-4
Let me be the first to admit that I would appreciate my mother-in-law’s relief from her pain. Let me also admit that I tend to be blinded by the blessings of God when burdens are right before me. The loudest murmurs I hear are those of distress, but also present are the beeps of monitors, the hums of IV pumps and the voices of caring health professionals. My mind plays out a number of other sounds as well: the ringing of an unanswered phone which triggered concern in a daughter’s heart, the sirens of an ambulance that brought needed assistance to a woman in need and a lecture in a medical/nursing school that equipped the doctors and nurses at the hospital to provide expert care. These, too, are answers to prayer.
God is not silent, or distant or uncaring. He is speaking in our circumstances, even in the pains that are not fully relieved (which might be teaching us what we ought to avoid). He is close to us as we undergo the troubling conditions relating to our shared human nature. He cares for us, so much so that He endured every indignity that comes with life on earth and conquered everything that causes permanent damage – sin, death and damnation. While I would like the symptoms of this fallen existence to fade into solely painful memories, I accept that God usually comforts us in less obvious ways.
The good news is that Jeanine’s mother is slowly improving and pain killers are alleviating some of her discomfort. I pray that God, in time, alleviates the remaining difficulties. It is unfortunate that it takes pain to cause most of us to cry out to God. It is truly fortunate that He hears and cares, even if we cannot sense it.
Today is Saint Patrick’s Day and, thanks to my father’s recent genetic profile from ancestry.com, I will be celebrating the holy day with the newfound knowledge that I am 2% Irish. There is much to commend Maewyn Succat (thought to be Patrick’s name at birth) to all believers: he was born into a religious family, with his grandfather serving as a priest; he suffered great adversity, having been kidnapped by pirates at age 16 and then living as a slave in Ireland for 6 years; he was miraculously rescued by God, to whom he had been praying fervently for deliverance, when he was told in a dream that his ship had arrived and then walked more than 200 miles to set sail; upon reaching England, far from home, he survived starvation when a wild boar wandered into his camp; at age 40, God told him in a dream to return to Ireland with the Gospel and build His church. He gives us all a testimony of what God can do through a person committed to trusting in the Lord.
There are a number of the interesting truths about Patrick’s life. First, he rejected the beliefs of his family for many years, but the great difficulties of his early life drew him to God with a fervent faith. Second, he was not the first missionary to Ireland, as he succeeded another man who had come to Ireland five years before he returned to the island. Third, one of the Patrick’s first converts from Druidism to Christianity was Milchu, the tribal chieftain who served as his master more than 20 years earlier. Patrick was used by God in mighty ways and He utilized every aspect of Patrick’s life (both blessings and burdens) to glorify the Lord.
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28
Saint Patrick reminds me that anyone can do great things through God. Anyone can endure a horrible past when they trust in Him. Anyone can show the power of forgiveness when they know the forgiveness of God. Anyone can mightily share their faith when they have experienced the grace of the Lord. Saint Patrick reminds me that nothing is impossible with God – He is able to reach anyone through anyone by any means. So, whether you are in the ideal location or the worst place imaginable, among the most wonderful people or the dregs of society, confident in your abilities or concerned about your inabilities, know that God can still be glorified through you.
Perhaps you will enjoy a bit of green lager or some corned beef and cabbage today. Maybe you will wear green or kiss someone who is Irish. Wherever and however the day finds you, I pray that we all remember the witness of a special man who God used to reach ‘the ends of the earth’ over 1,600 years ago. And I hope in remembering his story we are reminded of our story as well. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
As we have for the previous four awards seasons, my wife and I watched, in local theaters and in our living room, the nine movies nominated for the Academy Award’s Best Picture. This year we were enchanted by a western, a musical, a science fiction thriller, a play adaption, a war epic, a biographical film, a coming-of age story, a historical narrative and a tear jerker. Each film introduced us people facing challenges different (sometime much different) than our own. Each movie gave us something to talk about and wrestle with after we viewed it. And while the process of spending twenty or so hours watching movies may not appeal to everyone, it is a treat and a blessing to my wife and me.
Invariably, when the conversation turns to our project of seeing these Best Picture nominees, I am asked the question: what do you think will win? I have some trouble answering that, in part because artistic expression (and that is ultimately what all these movies are) is so subjective, and in part because every film (well, maybe with one exception) had elements of greatness. What do I think will win? The Academy will likely choose Lalaland. What do I think is overall the best picture for 2016, from among those nominated? This is a much more complicated question.
As I answer this question, I feel that I can eliminate half the nominees from my personal best: Arrival was good, especially in its character development and the deep conversation that followed was profound, but not great; Fences, with its exceptional acting performances, was too dialogue driven for my taste; Lalaland was artistically stunning but slow and lacked a plot for about a third of the film; and I found Moonlight, despite its important story, too confusing. I appreciate all these films and the questions they produced in me: what would life be like if we were not constricted by time? How do our dreams and failures shape our lives? Can love conquer all? Can we truly escape our environment?
The other five (Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High Water, Hidden Figures, Lion and Manchester-by-the-Sea) were better stories more beautifully told with exceptional acting. These five, at any given moment, fluctuate in my mind as best. They represent characters who are each faced with challenges (trying to save lives while others are taking them, fighting foreclosure, battling racial injustice, finding a way back home and overcoming an unfair and tragic past), overcoming them, to a greater or lesser degree. There are images and elements of each of these works of art that will remain with me for quite a while – moments of extreme pain and moments of overwhelming joy. At this moment, I offer my opinion and would recommend you seeing Hacksaw Ridge, my choice for Best Picture.
For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen. Romans 11:36
I do not say this simply because it is the most “faith-based” of the nominees, but because it is the most beautifully shot and compelling story captured on film. All these films, from my personal favorite to my personal worst, have elements which provoke my pastoral side. Each one is worth seeing so that their narratives, whether true or fictitious, can enable us to walk in the shoes of another for 140 minutes or can afford us the opportunity to experience life in a way that we would never experience on our own. We are surrounded by people broken by society and bruised by circumstance, and it is good to be reminded once in a while that we can overcome poverty, tragedy, rejection, oppression, prejudice and even the occasional success. In every story our lives tell, no matter our faith system or lack thereof, God has a marvelous way of breaking in and then shining through the cracks the world inflicts upon us. We all have a story to tell, one worthy of an Academy Award.
On Tuesday morning, my wife and I watched as the Oscar© nominations were announced for the year’s best picture. As we have over the past four years, we are planning on seeing these nine films before the awards ceremony on February 26th. We are entering into this odyssey because we have found that there is a certain kind of magic that is experienced when a wonderful story is wonderfully told. Over the years, I’ve come to enjoy these tales, some based on real events and some based on pure fabrication, which transport the movie-goer to a different time or place to witness a life quite foreign to one’s own.
One such experience occurred when we watched Hidden Figures, which relates the story of three real women who worked for NASA in the early 1960s. These women, each in their own way, were brilliant, and each used their God-given gifts to be sure that the United States reached the moon before the Russians. John Glenn would never have survived his initial trip into space without the contributions of Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan or Mary Jackson. But each of these women, because they were ‘colored’, were refused access to occupational advancement, advanced education or common decency. Despite their exceptional abilities and passions, they were marginalized simply because of the color of their skin.
Perhaps it is because I was raised in the Northeast or because my earliest memories were from the early 1970s or because I am white, whatever the reason, the concept of separate bathrooms, entrances and water fountains integral to this film is completely foreign to me. It was saddening and eye-opening to be reminded again that an entire segment of our great society lived, and perhaps still lives, with blatant prejudice and disregard for universal humanity as a way of life. This reflection of our shared past serves as a stark contrast to the truth of God recorded in the Bible.
And they sang a new song, saying: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.” Revelation 5:9-10
The kingdom of God includes men and women from every culture, race and ethnicity. Our choice of words or our color of eyes have no bearing on our identity; we are all the same in all the ways that matter. We are all worthy of respect, entitled to opportunity and capable of all sorts of greatness. And because of the nature of God’s kingdom (and our desire to see His kingdom come) we ought to be the first to champion a person’s spirit over their skin color (or gender or possessions or education or health or status). We are all the same.
Going to the movies the other night reminded me that we, who have been purchased and ransomed by the blood of the lamb, are called to treat one another as fellow citizens of God’s kingdom. We ought to be the first to confront discrimination and advocate impartiality. We, as ambassadors of Christ, ought to be an encouragement to and an embracer of those around us. Then, we can all touch the heavens.
As part of a roundtable discussion group, I met with a dozen or so other ministry leaders on Wednesday to discuss a recent New York Times best-seller: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. It is a wonderful memoir of Vance’s upbringing in a dysfunctional extended family in Appalachia. At first, without going into the details, let me tell you that I resonated with the narrative Vance weaved around households riddled with abuse, addiction and hopelessness. It brought me back in time to my childhood and I immediately thought that I alone saw parallels between the author’s life and my own. It turns out that a degree of dysfunction is universal.
Few homes house perfect families. Parents argue – some quite loudly – and even use foul language. Drug and alcohol addiction cannot be restricted to particular regions of the United States. Serial divorce and remarriage is not limited to one social stratum. Nearly every family tree contains a branch (or several branches) that were established through unwed or teenage mothers. There are few families who have not been effected by mental illness, whether it is an immediate family member battling depression or a suicidal extended relation. To some degree, we all carry similar baggage, given to us in childhood and carried into adulthood.
In reading and reacting to this book, I realized that the homes in my neighborhood – as well as the pew in the churches in our community – are filled with people with baggage from their upbringing. As the saying goes, “You don’t know what you don’t know”; because almost no one shares all the challenges they are attempting to overcome, we rarely know the whole story. This requires us to treat one another with compassion, what the Greek bible writers call “splanchnizomai”. Those who have a medical education might be aware that the root ‘splanchno-’ relates to the visceral organs (the guts). So we, as human beings and as God’s people, ought to get a knot in our stomachs, an intestinal distress, as we interact with those navigating rough waters in a leaky rowboat.
Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Ephesians 4:31–32 (NIV)
Before we dismiss those who buy bottles of soda with food stamps as unfit, perhaps we ought to feel compassion for their situation, recognizing that milk and juice are often options too expensive for their budget and perhaps then offer to pick up a gallon of milk for them. Before we roll our eyes at the hopeless and jobless as we utter the words, “Get a job,” perhaps we ought to feel compassion for their situation, recognizing that education is not the same as intelligence and access to opportunity is not equally available to all classes and cultures and perhaps offer to share some social capital with those without any of their own. There are already enough people in the world willing to judge others; we could empathize instead and bring help and hope to those who need it.
We have the privilege of sharing – with those who feel unloved, those who title themselves worthless and those who have heard that they would never amount to anything – the fact that they are loved, they have worth and they can accomplish great things. We have the privilege to bring grace – unmerited favor – to those who know little more than heartache. We can share our struggles and listen to theirs, knowing that God cares for us and will comfort us in our times of need. We are all broken, at least a little. But praise God: He makes us whole.