Tag Archives: discipline

Keep from Spoiling

They are called ‘spoilers’ and I have been battling them for the last week.  For those who are unaware of the term, the urban dictionary defines ‘spoiler’ as when someone reveals a previously unknown aspect of something which you likely would have rather learned on your own.  Spoilers take all forms: giving away the ending of movies (like the twists in the plots of “The Usual Suspects, “Fight Club” or “The Sixth Sense”) to revealing the killer of an Agatha Christie novel to talking about the details of television show you are waiting to watch on DVR.

My barrage of spoilers began while watching the Super Bowl™ on Sunday.  We were watching the game via a streaming service, which meant that there was a delay of a minute or so between the live action and the broadcast.  So, cell phones would relate information that I would have rather learned on my own, like if that field goal was made or that extra point was successful.   Then, beginning on Monday morning, through social media posts, I learned things about one of my favorite television shows (“This Is Us”) that I wish I had learned on my own.  Finally, on Monday night my wife and I saw the movie “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” and there are parts of this wonderful piece of cinema that I would love to reveal, but there are just some things others need to learn on their own.

Now to him who is able to establish you in accordance with my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all the Gentiles might come to the obedience that comes from faith – to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ!  Amen.  Romans 16:25-27

The Bible, extrapolating from the above passage, contains a ‘spoiler’.  It includes a mystery that has been revealed.   What needs to be understood is that when the Bible speaks of ‘mystery’, it is not referring to something that cannot be known, but rather something that was once hidden, but can be known.  But unlike other spoilers, I am not uncomfortable revealing the previously unknown aspect of God’s plan of salvation which many may learn, eventually, on their own.   The mystery of the Scriptures is the identity of the Christ, the promised Messiah – the one who has been anointed and appointed by God to satisfy His wrath against all sin and to fulfill His law.  Spoiler alert: This Messiah is Jesus of Nazareth.

As I reflect on the nature of spoilers, I realize that there are ‘spoilers’ that are shared to benefit the revealer and others that are shared to benefit the hearer.  There is power (for the individual) in secrets and some want to capitalize on that power by revealing what they know, like the final score of the big game or the identity of Keyser Söze.  There is also power (for all) in casting light on the mysteries of life so that everyone might know the truth, like sharing the Gospel with a lost and dying world.

It is hard to keep important, exciting or life-changing news to ourselves.  If you have the opportunity to share a ‘spoiler’, just be sure it benefits those who listen.

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Tell the Truth

It all began with a conversation around the dinner table.  I had mentioned an incident of public confession at a church we had visited a few years ago.  This then led to a question from my 17-year old son: “We’re not supposed to do that; doesn’t the Bible say that the right hand shouldn’t know what the left one does?”  This then turned into a discussion about the natures of pride and humility.  There we sat, with a table full dirty dishes between us, engaging in a conversation about the revolutionary demands of following Christ.

My son was right.  The Bible does say:

But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing….   Matthew 6:3

We shouldn’t let one hand know what the other is doing.  However, the context of this verse is explicit: we do this when we give to the needy.  Jesus, as part of his Sermon on the Mount, commanded his followers to maintain no memory of the good things we do.  We must not let ourselves know what we’ve done, let alone others.  We are to practice humility when it comes to acts of good will.

My son was also mistaken.  The Bible also says:

Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.  James 5:16

We should be confessing our sins to each other, in proportion to the breadth of the offense and the depth of our relationship.  James commands Christ’s followers to maintain accountability for the bad things we do, otherwise we are in danger of damaging our souls and dropping into prideful arrogance.  We need to practice humility when it comes to acts of ill will.  

All this caused my son, in resignation, to say that what we were saying was messed up.  But the fact remains that the ways of the world – celebrating our altruism publicly and covering our mistakes privately – are diametrically opposed to the ways of the Lord – admitting our mistakes publicly and allowing our acts of kindness to remain private.  All who follow Jesus cannot follow the patterns of the culture, and instead of ‘cleaners’ and ‘plausible deniability’ we must embrace confession and transparency.

This is truly a revolutionary lifestyle.  While everyone around us might tell us to take pride in our positive accomplishments, we need to remain humble.  While everyone around us might tell us not to dwell on our mistakes, we need to deal with our sin.  This requires us to rely on God’s Spirit to lead us – to trust that He sees the good that we do (even when no one else does) and will reward us and to know that He sees the bad that we do (even though no one else might) and will forgive us.

So, we who know Jesus as Lord and Savior must admit our weaknesses to someone and expect no one to know our goodness.  In a world drenched in abuse and aggression, a posture of humility like this would go a long way to addressing some of the pain.

No Waiting Room

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.  James 4:14

Let me start by stating that everyone in our family is happy and healthy.  That being said, I am writing this post after a member of my family spent a night in the emergency room and a day in the hospital.  Let me repeat: everyone is perfectly fine and nothing has changed, except for one thing – my perspective.  No one begins their day planning to endure a car accident (not what happened) or a falling anvil (also not what happened) or a series of chest pains (well, there it is).  But this post is not about electrocardiograms or blood enzyme tests; this post is about me and my futile desire to preserve this mortal frame.

All this has got me thinking.  Make no mistake, I would be grateful to enter The Guinness Book of World Records by replacing Jeanne Louise Calment and becoming the longest living human (she died at 122).   I would like to see my children’s weddings and my grandchildren’s graduations.  I would like to see the Grand Canyon and the mighty redwoods.  My brain repeats the same refrain: “I still have time.”  But if this week is any indication of the realities of earthly existence, I cannot put off until tomorrow what I can do today since tomorrow is not guaranteed.

I am now left reflecting on how I spend my life (or waste it).  I work on my ‘day off’ and allow my vacation days to remain unspent.  I watch TV when I could have conversations.  When I do have conversations, my words are a lot like the last ten minutes of the late-night news (weather and sports).  I spend more time pursuing recreation and not enough time pursuing relationships.  I am stingy with my words of encouragement, my offerings of forgiveness and my displays of affection.  And now I worry that what I am saving for tomorrow I will not get a chance to spend.

“I will deal with that later.”  I will call later.”  “I will see you later.”   “I will take a break later.”  Later.  What is it about that word and the power it contains?  We all can agree that putting off making a payment or scheduling an appointment does not magically make the discomfort go away.  We all suffer regret for forgetting to make that call or neglecting to put down that project.  Even when spoken with the best of intentions, in many cases ‘later’ means ‘never’.

After the ‘health scare’ earlier this week, I am grateful for the gift of a few more tomorrows.  Yet, there is a nagging truth resonating deep within me that the gift of tomorrow is not guaranteed and that all we have is today.  This means that a must not delay the decisions or withhold the hugs that are meant for today.   I appreciate the reminder that there are some things that cannot wait until tomorrow, for that may never come.

Lasting Legacy

What do you hope your legacy will be?  More specifically, how do you hope to be remembered five or ten years after your retirement, or what do you hope people will say about you five or ten years after your passing?  On Wednesday, which also happened to be my birthday, I spent a few hours with a dozen or so pastors discussing a collection of essays about the connection between faith and biblical scholarship (compiled in a book titled I (Still) Believe) and these questions of legacy were part of our conversation.

The conversation made me think about an aspect of the scripture reading from Sunday that never made it into my sermon, the legacy (or non-legacy) of Joseph, the man not chosen.  Joseph’s complete mark on history is found in the following single verse:

So they nominated two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias.  Acts 1:23

This is what we know about Joseph:

  • He was called Barsabbas – meaning either literally ‘the son of Sabbas’ or figuratively ‘the child of rest or return (i.e. the Sabbath)’;
  • He was known as ‘the Just’ – he had a character of righteousness;
  • He was continually present with Jesus from the time of His baptism by John through His ascension – he spent more than three years following the Lord and hearing His teachings;
  • He was passed over for the promotion to apostle when God chose Matthias instead.

That is Joseph Barsabbas’ legacy: a good man who was ever-present to witness the words and ways of Jesus and was called by God to a secondary role.  The Bible is filled with “secondary characters” like Joseph Barsabbas: Mordecai, Esther’s cousin; Ehud, the left-handed judge who delivered Israel from the Moabites; and Onesiphorus, a care-taker of Paul’s.  Few people in the Scriptures are remembered in history.  Most of the names we read in the Old or New Testament are mentioned not for their legacy but for their lifestyle: to encourage our faithful obedience or to warn against our continued disobedience.

So, what do I hope my legacy will be?  I hope that I will be remembered not for the history I make but for the footprints that I leave.   I hope that I can leave big enough tracks in the muck of this earth that my children will remain on the course of faithfulness.  I hope that the map that I have drawn over my career in pastoral ministry will assist those I leave behind to avoid the perilous cliffs of despair.  I would be satisfied as a footnote, as a nameless face in a photograph, as a present-day Joseph Barsabbas; a good man who was there to witness all the wonders of Christ.

But ultimately, my legacy is largely inconsequential compared to the Lord’s.  Jesus alone is the one who has changed history.  World and military leaders fade from our memories, but the life of Christ alone remains.  Whether we are the star in life’s motion picture or only performing a supporting role, we all are precious in God’ sight and useful in accomplishing His purposes, whether we are remembered or not.

Drifting Off Course

As I was shoveling last week, I lost something amidst the snow for a moment.  I was not immediately aware of what happened at that moment, but thankfully, I quickly recognized what was happened and was able to restore, mostly, what had been lost.  The troubling fact about this encounter with nature was that it was not my keys or my phone that I lost; it was my character.  Through an interaction with a cranky neighbor, my fleshly nature was revealed and my witness as a follower of Christ was trampled.  In a moment, I went from being a light to the world to being dim-witted.

All I remember about the interaction is his question: “Would you like it if they threw snow onto your property?  You think you’re entitled.”  Aside from the fact that I have no property to speak of, he exposed my lapse of judgement.  I was justifying myself with the thought that this other neighbor, whose space I was piling my shoveling onto, did not have a car.  I was rationalizing my actions as a response to the fact that the street had yet to be plowed and my small increase in the drift would be addressed by the city’s plow.  Still, my neighbor was right.

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.   Matthew 7:12

I was not treating my neighbor the way I would want to be treated.  I was not reflecting the nature that the Spirit of God had given me when Christ saved my sorry state and transformed my selfish soul.  Fortunately, in the midst of the interaction, I realized my error and removed my additions to the drift and, as an act of contrition, enlarged my neighbor’s walkway.  It did not go unnoticed by my cranky neighbor; we swapped apologies (turns out he was unable to get an oil delivery and temporarily lost his heat) and I offered him a space-heater (which he appreciated but declined).  He was gracious enough to repair my reputation, for which I praise God.

This whole episode has served as a reminder that a single moment of weakness can demolish a structure that took years to build.  An angry word or a thoughtless action can compromise anyone’s integrity; our inner strength – our character – can be damaged and, if not addressed promptly, ultimately destroyed.   We, who are commissioned by Christ to be His witnesses in the world, must routinely assess our actions and attitudes and perform the hard work of confession when our testimony is tarnished and about to be torn down.

As I stood outside the other night, in the snow, I thought about ‘doubling-down’: I thought about defending myself by deflecting my bad behavior with (justifiable) excuses for ignoring the “Golden Rule”.  I would have felt better in the moment, but would have felt regret for a long time after.  I thank God that He guides me, even when I stray, so that I can return to the path that leads me, and others, into His presence.  And I thank God that I found that path the other night in the snow.

Any Day Now

The observance of New Year’s Day (I suppose like so many other observances) is both arbitrary and random.  The fact that we record dates with January as the first month, instead of May or August, and December as the last is illogical.  There is no magical or material difference between 11:59PM on New Year’s Eve and 12:00AM on New Year’s Day.  Nothing truly changes when the ball drops in Times Square.  As my children would say, celebrating the new year on January 1 is just a ‘social construct’, and the ‘new year’ is just a structure that shapes our culture and maintains a standard for our practices. 

That being said, we do measure our days by the calendar.  We do, collectively, think about the day when one year is ending and another year is beginning.  We do make resolutions to think or eat or behave differently because the year is new.  There will be year-end reviews, year-end memorials, year-end sales and year-end parties.  I suppose that we do need to change the calendars at some time, so why not December 31st?  It is a good practice to take stock of our lives at some point and say, “Out with the old, in with the new”; it is a good time to make resolutions.

On the subject of resolutions, these were the top 10 of 2017, according to Harper’s Bazaar:

  1. Diet, exercise and weight loss.
  2. Read more.
  3. Learn something new.
  4. Save money.
  5. Be nicer, kinder and more patient.
  6. Get a new job.
  7. Volunteer and donate more to charity.
  8. Drink less alcohol.
  9. Get more sleep and relax more.
  10. Make new friends and be a better friend.

I could certainly benefit from some, if not most, of these.  I have scrutinized this list and begun to formulate a plan to live a healthier, fuller and richer life.  I will, however, likely give up when my birthday comes around (which is in a little less than three weeks).  This is all because New Year’s Day is not as magical or mystical as we think.  What I need is January 2nd resolutions, January 3rd resolutions, and every day resolutions.  I must maintain a discipline of thinking every day about living a healthier, fuller and richer life.  I also need those around me to ask about my resolutions (or commitments to discipline) regularly throughout the year.

One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike.  Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind.  Romans 14:5

I am going to keep this list (excepting a few that are not pertinent to my lifestyle) near me for the next few months, as a reminder of how I want to improve my health and wellness.  I am going to resolve, as a contract between myself and my creator, to cultivate the physical, mental, social and emotional blessings He’s given me.  I am going to attempt to do this every day, not just on the special days that this type of talk is fashionable.  And I will pray with you that you reach whatever goals you and God have set for your life as well.  Happy New Year.

A Great Light

For those of you living in Boston, today you will experience the earliest sunset of the year (4:11:38pm).  This is both good news and bad news, since the length of your daylight will continue to decrease until December 20.  Astronomically, we could say that these are dark days: for the next month, we will experience nearly 15 hours of ‘night’.  Metaphorically, we can also say that these are dark days: everyday, through every media source, we witness incidences marked by a lack of direction, a lack of warmth or a lack of morality. 

The Bible has much to say about darkness.  It was the penultimate plague that was inflicted upon Egypt (Exodus 10:21).  It is the dwelling place of God, as witnessed by Moses on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 20:11), by Solomon in the temple (1 Kings 8:12) and through the psalmist (Psalm 97:2).  It was what overshadowed the cross of Christ for three hours during His crucifixion.  It is the place of chaos (Genesis 1:2), temptation (Ephesians 5:11), ignorance (Matthew 6:23) and death (Job 10:21).  It is the place of sinful desires (John 3:19) and the place without light (Acts 2:20) – lifeless, cold and confusing.

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.   Isaiah 9:2

It seems that every day another man in authority is accused of harassment or abuse.  It seems that every week there is another account of mass violence.  The fact is that every moment is filled with an immoral act (a lie, a theft, an assault or an infidelity) somewhere in the world.  There is no shortage of crimes suitable for the local and national news outlets, and those reported on at 6 and 11 are just the tip of the iceberg of what Robert Burns wrote as “man’s inhumanity to man”.   We are people walking in darkness, shivering and stumbling in sin.

But in that darkness a light has dawned.  This is not the flicker of a candle or a 100-watt lightbulb; it is more than the flashlight on your smartphone or a lighthouse on the coast.  It is a great light, like the sun; it is the light of the world, which the Gospel of John tells us is the light of life.  This light is Jesus, who has entered the darkness and overcome it.  He is the source of life, purpose and power.  He has destroyed the secrecy of temptation, the strangeness of confusion and the sting of death.  Because of Christmas, the light has overwhelmed the darkness.

I hope that you delight in all the lights of Christmas – those on the trees, in candleholders, woven into sweaters, at church, on lawns and in the sky – and rejoice that the light of the world, the great light, has come into our world and has illumined our darkness.  Perhaps this truth will enable us all to focus on the joy of this light and, perhaps, seek the goodwill of all those who walk with us during these dark days.

Childhood

Our baby turns ten this weekend.  Our youngest, our last, our smallest is growing up and before we know it, he will be a young man.  I wonder how much longer we have before he is an adolescent.  How many more times will we walk home from school (me on the sidewalk and Josh on the retaining walls) and he will use a stick as a sword?  How many more unsolicited hugs will my wife and I receive?  How many more nights will he choose to wear Minions© pajamas?  Having been through this process of watching my child grow up three times before, I know that when the ‘last time’ for all these activities will come, and we will not recognize what is happening or what we will be losing.

I still have time.  Josh still wants toys and games as gifts for his birthday and Christmas.  He still likes to color and play board games (frequently asking to have a F.G.N. – family game night).  But one day all that will have changed.  It will not happen overnight, but one day it will all be gone; the snuggling, the wild imagination and the carefree play will be replaced with tacit acknowledgment, pragmatism and smart phone usage.  So, this week I will celebrate my youngest child’s childhood.  We will have a party (with cake and ice cream) with games around his chosen Pokemon© theme, and we will appreciate our boy.

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.  When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.    1 Corinthians 13:11

I have to admit that I have a tough time accepting the reality that my children are getting older.  I still worry (just a bit) when one of my children is not at home.  I still want to offer fatherly advice and get a laugh from dad jokes.  I still want the unsolicited hugs and the early morning raids into my bedroom.  They are my kids, even though they are 23, 20, 17 and (on Sunday) 10.

So, excuse me if I encourage my youngest to continue to wear the one-piece pajamas that are too small.  Forgive me if I let him sit in my lap in the recliner as we watch Wheel of Fortune (and let him think that he solved one of the puzzles before me).  Apologies if I laugh at his jokes, which may have been shared three (or three hundred) times before, as if it were the first time I had heard them.  Mea culpa if I let him swing that stick (or rake or bat or broom) and allow him to pretend for a while.  Let me say, for just a little longer, “He’s just a boy.”

Before I know it, my youngest son will be a man and the days of childhood things will have passed.  That is not a day I look forward to seeing anytime soon.  Happy 10th birthday, Joshua.

Abundance

Happy belated Thanksgiving.  There is just something special about spending this holiday with loved ones.  One of the things that make the fourth Thursday in November Thanksgiving is tradition.  We all have traditions: some prepare a fresh turkey and others roast a frozen one (or, God forbid, a ham); some will eat white meat while others will choose dark meat; for many families, it is anathema to make anything other than cracker stuffing, oyster stuffing, bread stuffing or dressing (whether it is in the bird, in a casserole dish or by stove top); even the vegetables are traditional, with a specific assortment of corn, turnips, pearl onions, green beans, squashes or peas; we will have cornbread, rolls or breads, but never all three; desserts are equally particular, with some preferring apple, blueberry, or squash pie and others wanting pumpkin or mince – and that is just questions about the food.  Is it your tradition to play football or watch the parade before dinner or watch football or take a nap afterward?

No matter what we enjoy at the table (as well the joys of companionship before or after), there is something different about Thanksgiving and that difference is categorized by one word: abundance.  When I was growing up, I was raised by a single parent who could afford few luxuries.  We always had sufficient, but rarely had more … except on Thanksgiving.   We always had a large fresh turkey with mounds of mashed potatoes and bowls of veggies.   There were pies for dessert and ample leftovers for sandwiches later in the day.  I have vivid memories of the bounty that my mother provided on a fixed budget.

You crown the year with your bounty, and your carts overflow with abundance.  Psalm 65:11

As we think of the abundance we have experienced, it is fitting to express gratitude to God.  While our culture celebrates abundance once a year, God bounteous goodness is presence every day.  The psalmist declares that at His table our cup overflows.  One of the prophets declared that the heavens contain greater blessings than we could ever store.  In his parables, He tells of a wedding feast where there is no shortage of food.    One of Christ’s most treasured promises is that he came to us to give us a life of abundance.  One aspect of God’s divine nature is His grace, His unmerited favor, abundant and free.   And because of His abundance, we respond with gratitude.

Give thanks to God for His provisional abundance, we who live in the wealthiest region in the world.  Give thanks to God for His spiritual abundance, we who have His word as near as our smartphone and His Spirit even nearer.  Give thanks to God for His sensational abundance, we who have a richness of experiences in sound and sight rivaling any other time in history.  Give thanks to God for His informational abundance, we who are blessed with the digital super highway and the best scholars at our fingertips.

Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow!

My Goodness

All my life I have been encouraged to be a good boy (or a good man).  Growing up, I must have heard the command to “be good” a thousand times, whether it was just before visiting a friend’s house or the local library.  After I was particularly incorrigible as a child, I was warned that I might be dropped off at the “bad boy store” by my frustrated mother – in hindsight, I recognize the absurdity of the reality of this establishment, but at the time the notion that I could be chattel for this nefarious business worked well in keeping me on the straight and narrow.  However, I was not always a good boy.

As I grew up into manhood, I have tried to be a good man.  I think I have succeeded, to a greater of lesser degree.  However, “the bad man store” may have a new item for sale.  In my defense, the event I am about to describe occurred during the Patriots game on Sunday.  As I was watching the game (the outcome of which at the time was still in question), trouble came to our house.  As she was making sure our youngest was ready for bed, my wife hit her head – hard – on the upper bunk of the boys’ bed.  While there was no blood, there was a bump.  It least that is what I was told.  I had little compassion and provided no care.  I was not a good husband or a good father.  I was wrong, and I sincerely apologize to my wife for my lapse in judgement.   I am not always a good man.

When I became a follower of Christ, I tried to be a good Christian.  I have a long list of good and godly behaviors – with appropriate measures of church attendance, charitable giving and acts of service – but I am not a good Christian.  I am in danger of being shipped off to the “bad Christian store” because my practice of the faith is incomplete, my priority of Christ’s lordship is inconsistent and my passion for the gospel is anemic.  I continue to sin.  I continue to fail.  I do not pray as much as I should nor share my faith as frequently as I should.  I am not always a good Christian.

But who can discern their own errors?  Forgive my hidden faults.    Psalm 19:12

My problem is that I am lulled into believing that I am (overall) good.  I compare myself to others and I see myself as measuring up pretty well against the competition.  But, as the Psalm above states, I am unable to rightly evaluate my own goodness.  I need forgiveness for the things I cannot see in myself.  I need the truth of God to be my standard and not my own heightened sense of self.   In comparison to the standards of the Scriptures (which are beneficial for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness), I am, by nature, a bad boy, a bad man and a bad Christian.

But that is not how God sees me: because I have trusted Jesus as Lord and Savior, I have been justified (declared not guilty by God through His acceptance of Christ’s sacrificial satisfaction of God’s wrath) and sanctified (anointed, appointed and equipped to accomplish His will).   I am seen by God as good, and that motivates me to demonstrate this divinely imbued goodness.  It also motivates me to remember that this goodness is not from me, but from the one who redeemed me so that I might do some good.  I thank God that He enables me to be a good person, a sinner saved by His grace.