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.
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!
Part of my preparations for celebrating Christmas this year is that I have been reading the novella A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. While I have seen the films and adaptations on television (my personal favorites are Mr.Magoo’s Christmas Carol and Scrooged), I had never read the relatively short story of Ebenezer Scrooge and the three visiting Spirits. On the page or on the screen, the plot is well-known: Scrooge is a successful business owner with great accumulated wealth who is inundated with charitable requests as Christmas approaches; as returns home on Christmas Eve, he is visited by the ghost of his business partner and then three Christmas Spirits; these Spirits show Scrooge his Christmases past, present and yet to come; these visions have a profound effect on his miserly and calloused heart.
We are all tempted to be a bit like Ebenezer Scrooge at Christmas. We also receive a barrage of demands for our time and our finances and our kindnesses to care for those with pressing needs. We might be inclined to think only of ourselves and not about our fellow man and woman. We might need to be reminded of what is more important than earthly gain. But where can we find three Spirits on such short notice?
There is another character in Dickens’ novella that serves as a contrast to Ebenezer Scrooge: Bob Cratchit. Cratchit is Scrooge’s clerk and he is all that Scrooge is not; despite his lack of material resources, he is generous and kind. Cratchit has his reasons for cynicism – a terrible boss, an insufficient income and a sick child – but he is continually focused on others. Cratchit is the one who goes to church and he is the one who prays for his heartless boss. He is the one who carries within himself the joy of Christmas despite having several reasons for the contrary. While Scrooge was the one who was converted to compassion, Cratchit was continually kind.
This being said, A Christmas Carol is more of a moral fable than a spiritual allegory. In Dickens’ tale, Christmas is the setting, not the story. None of us are as hardened as Scrooge and none of us are as virtuous as Cratchit. All of us can be more compassionate and all of us can share more joy. Instead of comparing ourselves to a archetypal fictional miser or milquetoast, we are better suited to reflect the character of real individuals.
The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. Luke 2:20 (NIV)
These shepherds were, in many ways, like Scrooge – driven by their vocation to sacrifice most relationships, they accumulated wealth and were ostracized by society. But one day they received a message from God and that transformed their hearts and lives. They were changed by the good news of great joy that a savior had been born, and after seeing the Christ child, returned to their workplace with gladness in their hearts. When they saw (when we see) the great gift we have been given, we shout, “Glorious” – how glorious is our God, His creation and His plan for each one of us to care for each one of us.
It was the best of plans: I had wrapped my son’s birthday present (his first cell phone) and placed it with the others on the dining room table, and then I typed up a text to the family giving out his number but was waiting until the right moment push ‘send’. We proceeded with his party (the menu for our freshly minted 12 year-old’s festivities was Ring Dings and Wattamelon Roll), which we enjoyed before the opening of the gifts. As we were about to get on with the gift-giving, there was a muffled ring coming from the pile. It was the phone. Had I mistakenly sent out the text? (I quickly checked, and I had not.) It turns out a telemarketer had ruined our surprise, but in the process created an unexpectedly wonderful birthday memory.
“Mann Tracht, Un Gott Lacht” is a Yiddish proverb which means, “Man Plans, and God Laughs.” No matter how much we plan, life is messy and things often do not go as imagined. Josh’s birthday party made me think about Jesus’ birthday; the life his parents experienced was certainly not as planned. There was an unplanned pregnancy (from their perspective), a thwarted divorce, a rejected reservation, an unexpected visit (or two) from strangers and an unforeseen move. It was a year (or two) of chaos and confusion that neither Mary nor Joseph could have imagined. Yet, God was with them and was creating something unexpectedly wonderful.
If ever there was a time in human history when God orchestrated a course correction in the affairs of His creation, the birth of the Messiah was that time. God sent Gabriel to Mary to tell her, “Do not be afraid…” God sent an angel in a dream to Joseph to tell him, “Do not be afraid….”, and another (also in a dream) to tell him to travel to Egypt to protect his family. God sent angels to the shepherds to tell them, “Do not be afraid….” God warned the Magi, in a dream, to return home by another way so as to avoid Herod and protect the Lord.
Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. Proverbs 3:5-6 (NIV)
As I see it, we all have a choice to make when things do not seem to go as planned: we can scowl and think that all is ruined, or we can smile and thank God for His intercession. Our reaction when “things don’t go our way” reveals who we think is in charge of the details of our lives. Especially during this season, we need to face the facts that our plans may not go as expected: cookies will burn, airlines will have delays, products will be back-ordered, illnesses will invade our homes and sentimental ornaments will break. These things might be God’s way of correcting your course, adjusting your plans and preparing you for something unexpectedly wonderful.
“Mann Tracht, Un Gott Lacht”. I hope you hear Him.
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.
A few days after we moved to our new neighborhood a few weeks ago, we decided to be a bit adventurous and go out to a restaurant down the street from us. We chose to go to Yaowarat Road, an eatery named for a street in Bangkok’s Chinatown, which specializes in Thai/Chinese cuisine. When we first arrived and read the menu, I thought about going elsewhere, as there were few dishes I understood or thought we would enjoy. But we ordered what we comprehended (as well as some Pad Thai, which was not on the menu) and it was all delicious. It was a wonderful meal that I could have missed if I was unwilling to take a risk.
I was reminded about my supper at Yaowarat Road as I studied about a practice the Bible calls “the breaking of bread”. This phrase is complex: it is typically a reference to the ordinance of communion (referencing the Lord’s breaking the bread at the Passover table); it could, however, be referring to any meal shared by the people of God (as would be the case of Passover, which involves breaking bread, and the feeding of the five thousand, which also specifically states that the Lord broke the loaves). It is this more general meaning that I have been reflecting upon.
Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. Mark 6:41 (NIV)
One of the most unifying aspects of ministry is dining together, the time when the church comes together to break bread. A fascinating dynamic is at work when we share a meal, whether it be at a pot-luck or a restaurant. Our choices of cuisine say something about us: they show our preferences and our tolerances, they reveal our habits and our palates, and they demonstrate our knowledge and our experiences. When we share a meal with another, we display ourselves on that plate. Serving up jerk chicken tells us something. Ordering dessert tells us something else. Eating off another plate tells us yet something more.
Breaking bread also expresses our acceptance of one another. When we eat what another person has prepared or ordered, we are saying that your traditions and tastes matter. We might use more (or less) seasoning or another cut of meat or a different protein, if we were given the choice. But we allow another person to build the menu and we are given a glimpse of themselves. If we are lucky, we discover something delectable that we knew nothing about; if not, we might need an antacid for a day or two. Either way, our culinary knowledge and our fellowship is enlarged.
So, take a risk and break bread with someone – invite them to your home or your local diner and eat a meal with a fellow saint. If you are hesitant, I invite you to join me for dinner at the church this Wednesday night for one of my favorites. I hope you’ll have a heaping helping of hospitality.
As I mentioned in previous posts, my family moved about a month ago, but that is not quite accurate. In all actuality, we are still in the process of moving. We are still unpacking boxes, rearranging furniture and repairing window coverings. Because of the size of the rooms and the placement of radiators and closets, we’ve been faced with making decisions about what we keep, what we shed and what we repurpose. We have had to determine whether a shelving unit is a better fit in one room or in another. We have had to experiment with the placement of dishes and bookshelves.
In the process, I have realized a few things: that we are not required to hold onto everything, that many things can have multiple uses and that a few things are non-negotiable. As we run out of shelf-space, books and baubles that we carried from our previous residence have become donations for the church’s yard sale. As we assessed our counter-space, kitchen carts were stacked and became an insert for a linen closet. Along the way, we came across pictures and memory-rich items that we had forgotten we had. We are removing what we no longer need, reshaping what we have and respecting what we cannot live without.
Our home, a work in progress, reminds me of my own soul.
He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. John 15:2
This verse from John is a snippet of a longer parable of Jesus which describes a vine, a gardener and a branch. From this story we know that Jesus is the vine, the Father is the gardener and we are the branches. We are living in connection to Jesus and the Father is regularly pruning us: we are not the ones who determine what is beneficial in keeping and what we is not, God is. He is searching our souls and determines what is best lopped off and what is best remaining.
Like our domestic situation, I am convinced that God is continually exploring our living situation and expunging the things that are no longer needed, exposing what will remain and extending our joy. He is regularly taking away our selfish attitudes and our self-interested motivations. He is regularly reshaping our spiritual activities and our spiritual gifts. He is reproducing fruit in our lives, all for His glory. At the end of the day, He enables us to enjoy the abundant life He offers to all those who accept His pruning.
With the blessing of hindsight, I am sure that old and broken parts of me have been removed by God with the skills of a surgeon, that aspects of my makeup have been reassembled and rehabilitated by God with the skills of a master craftsman, and that I have become more fruitful than I have ever imagined – all through His abiding presence in my life. As I place and replace the things in our home, I pray I remember the one who dwells in me.
On Monday, my wife and I will celebrate our thirtieth wedding anniversary. According to Hallmark.com (the worldwide source of information ‘when you care enough to send the very best’), the gift for this anniversary is pearls. I find it funny how random some of these yearly suggestions are: wood is to be given on year 5; appliances are appropriate for year 18; tools are the traditional gift for year 29. Jeanine and I are non-traditional in this regard, I guess. We tend to mark the years of marriage by enjoying more sentimental gestures, such as thoughtful cards and fancy dinners without the children.
Truth be told, the gifts of a long marriage are not given on anniversaries, but rather every day in between. Jeanine and I have been married for more that half our lives and, it can be reasonably asserted, we are not the same people who stood before a minister three decades ago. We were bright-eyed and optimistic, confident that love conquers all. Over the years, the light in our eyes has dimmed a bit and we are a touch more practical now, but with age comes the certainty that love does indeed conquer all. That certainty, that calm assurance, that we have each other and know each other is, in my opinion, more precious than pearls.
A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies. Proverbs 31:10
I do not thank God as often as I should for Jeanine, this completely different-than-me angel who has blessed my life for more than 35 years. I am so appreciative that she complements my weaknesses with her strengths and accentuates my abilities with her own. She has lovingly challenged me to be a better man, a better husband and a better father. She has willingly, with her typical encouragement, endured my career change and seven moves while raising four wonderful children without complaint. God has given me an equal partner in life who has brought comfort and cleanliness and made our house a home. Again, I do not thank God as often as I should.
As we age and mature, we change. I thank God that Jeanine and I have grown together and not apart. I thank God that we enjoy one another’s company more now than ever, appreciate one another’s voices more now than ever and savor one another’s refinement more now than ever. I could not have imagined the beauty of our union when we first met at a Friendly’s in the early 1980s. And I am not too proud to say that I have gained the most in our marriage (which compels me to strive to appreciate to an even greater degree this precious gift of my wife of noble character).
Finally, I thank God for the demonstration of sacrificial love that Christ provides which serves as a template for my wife’s and my relationship. I thank God that we have committed to do the hard work of willful submission to one another. I thank God for the challenges we have faced and the strength we have found in our bond.
My prayer is that we would all have occasion to celebrate these bonds.
Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it. Proverbs 22:6
Monday morning at 10AM, Jeanine and I will be dropping off at college our middle son, David. When we do, he will start his freshman year at Fitchburg State University. This will mark the third time we have dropped off our child at college (for those unfamiliar with our story, seven years ago we abandoned to the world of academia a defenseless boy at Gordon College and three years ago we deserted in our nation’s capital a wide-eyed girl at American University). For those wondering, repetition does not make the process of leaving a child to fend for himself any easier.
So, as David steps out of the shadows of our wings and begins to chart the course of his own flight, allow me to share a few words of wisdom for my own experiences:
- First, I would want to tell him to allow seize every opportunity to accentuate all that is good within him. I want David to use these next four years to discover and define his passions and pursue them. I’d want him to exhaust his electives with eclectic, not just easy, courses – art, drama, bocce, or women’s studies – with the intent on unearthing an unknown interest. I ask that he join a club or society outside his field of study. And, in the dining hall, I hope he expands his palate, eating more than just a backpack full of croutons.
- Next, I would want to tell him to remember why he is where he is. He is there to get an education. He is there to gain confidence in his independence. He is there to shine like the sun in a world of darkness. He is there to build life-long relationship with real people. I’d recommend to him to maintain the discipline of going to every class every time it meets, of working hard and then playing hard and of partnering with like-minded individuals to prod themselves onto good works. If his brother and sister are any indication of his future, he will return home a different, more assured, person; I’d want him to embrace that development.
- Then, I would remind him that an elephant is eaten one bite at a time. As he enters the dormitory on Monday, I am sure that there are fears and trepidations that will cloud his thinking, as well as the worry that this undertaking is too much to handle – and in the moment, it will be. But when he takes one step in the right direction, followed by another and another, before long progress will be seen. I would tell him to keep moving forward, even if it is baby steps.
As my child steps out of the car and into a world of curated independence, I’d want him to know that he is capable of more than he thinks possible and stronger than he thinks necessary.
For all those leaving for college for the first time this week, and for their families who love them, I pray God’s richest blessing and watch care be upon us as we all pursue our dreams.
For those wanting to read my thoughts seven years ago, read https://calvaryboston.wordpress.com/2012/08/24/a-parents-hope-for-freshmen/ and for my thoughts three years ago, read https://calvaryboston.wordpress.com/2016/08/19/for-freshmen/