Tag Archives: Dorchester

Another Runner in the Night

There is a person in my social circle (I will not divulge their identity) who regularly calls me by something other than my name.  This person calls me “Rev.”.  I appreciate the title as an acknowledgment of my years of schooling and my professional standing.  I do not appreciate it as a nickname.  I have tried everything to get this person to cease using this nomenclature – asking nicely (and then not as nicely), calling them by an equally clever occupational title, ignoring their solicitations when addressed in this manner – and, as yet, nothing has worked.   So, I grin and bear this salutation.

While I am confident that the person I am speaking of will not read this post, allow me the time to offer my rationale for why I am upset by the nickname “Rev.”.   First, I am more complex as a person than is represented through being addressed by what I do.  Second, I struggle with sin too greatly to be entitled with calling myself someone who ought to be revered.  Lastly, I do not wish others to address me in a way that conveys that I will be the spiritual, moral or biblical expert at all times.  So, please, I prefer that you call me something other than “Rev.”.

As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence.  But Peter made him get up.  “Stand up,” he said, “I am only a man myself.”  Acts 10:25-26

Let me take my last reason for averting this title first.  Just as a doctor would not like every conversation to be relating to her profession (as in, “Hey, you’re a doctor; let me show you something weird”), I prefer not to “work” at every social gathering I attend.  I am not simply present to pray or evangelize or compete in an informal game of Bible Jeopardy.  I am so much more (and so much less) than a cultural touchpoint representing godliness in the world.

This brings me to the second reason: I am not as good or mature as this title reflects.  The term “Reverend” is believed to be the anglicization of a Latin verb (revereri) meaning “to be revered or respected.”   I am not proud to admit it, but if you were able to hear my thoughts or to stand by my side for 24 hours, “Reverend” would not be the word you would use to describe me.  We all face the same struggle to keep the faith and I would be disingenuous to say I deserve the nickname I’ve been given.

I am so much more than what I do.  Yes, I am an ordained minister.  But I am also a crossword and game show enthusiast, a burger lover and an observer of Oscar®-worthy films.  I am a fan of Boston-area professional sports and a foe of strawberries and bowling.  I am a husband, parent and child.  I have strong opinions about politics, condiments and manatees.   I am, like you, more of a human being than a human doing.

Like it or not, all of us are too complex to be called by our job title.  So, let’s keep the use of “Rev.” to Sunday mornings, when I am ‘on the job’.   Most other times, I prefer to be called Michael (or “Skippy”, since I am so smooth).

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A World of Whimsy

If you were to look outside my office window, you would see that the forsythia bushes are currently in bloom.  Over the next few days, little yellow flowers will cover the ‘brown sticks’ protruding from the ground.  These flowers will be around for a few weeks and then will then disappear.  In our nation’s capital, the cherry blossoms are expected to reach peak bloom over the weekend, lasting just a few days.  I am also reminded of the excitement around the city in September, when Fester, the corpse plant cultivated by the Franklin Park Zoo, was expected to bloom – it’s flower lasts only a day or two – but, alas, it never flowered.  That is the nature of flowers – here today and gone tomorrow.

What could possibly be the benefit of something that only lasts but a moment?   While the flowers that adorned the sanctuary on Easter morning were beautiful and fragrant, they will likely be only a memory in a few weeks.  While arrangements of cut flowers and funeral sprays can be pressed and saved, they will wilt and wither far too quickly.  Still, with such an ephemeral inventory, floral shops and nurseries accounted for more than $26 billion in annual sales last year.  To put that figure in perspective, it is more than twice the income of the National Football League.

Flowers are not an experience, like a vacation in Cancun.  Flowers are not a consumable, like a dinner at Top of the Hub.  Flowers are frivolous, a bit of whimsy in the world.  Perhaps that is why we value them so greatly.  They have little utility or function.  They are just pretty to look at.  Jesus put it this way:

“Consider how the wild flowers grow.  They do not labor or spin.  Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.”  Luke 12:27

Flowers serve as a reminder of the limitless imagination of God.  There are over 400,000 plant species across the world (which is more than the number of bird, butterfly and bee species combined) which have been conceptualized and created by God.  400,000 species – with multiple varieties – of something unnecessary for our existence.  Isn’t God amazing?

The flowers all around us ought to remind us of God’s love for us.  Our landscapes could be covered with green leaves (taking for granted that we need the plants’ chlorophyll to complete the process of photosynthesis which, in turn, scrubs our atmosphere of carbon dioxide and replenishes it with oxygen), but splashes of violet, rose, lilac, goldenrod and periwinkle dazzle our eyes.  This is simply because God wanted to give us colors.  This is because God loves us so much that He wanted us to enjoy and not simply exist.  This is because God is greater than we can imagine.

God created delight in our world for no purpose other than our enjoyment.  Yes, flowers will wither.  But in time, others will take their place, bringing beauty and blithe spirits to those who notice them.  Sometimes, the function of an item in God’s creation is nothing more than to bring joy.  May we all appreciate the unnecessary diversity of the Almighty’s design this spring and always.

Meeting at the Cross

Today is Good Friday, the day on the Christian calendar when we remember and reflect upon the crucifixion of the Lord.  Some of us will get together at a local church and hear the Gospel account of the cross.  Others of us will spend some time alone reflecting on the death of Jesus.  In whatever way you choose to recognize this pivotal moment in human history, I pray that you will appreciate the awesome transaction that took place on the Palestinian hillside nearly two millennia ago.  I hope you will rejoice over that moment when Jesus cried out, “It is finished”, and gave up His spirit (as John 19:30 tells us), that moment when every member of the human race was offered reconciliation.

We are offered reconciliation with God, since we know that the cross resulted in the full forgiveness of sin, pardon from our willfully disobedient nature that separates us from our creator.  Jesus (who committed no sin) gave His life for us (who are sinful) to completely satisfy the wrath of God.  Instead of suffering the appropriate consequences for our actions, Jesus paid the price with His life and enabled us to reunite with God.  Through the death of Jesus – the public, ghastly and humiliating death of Jesus – we are declared forgiven and allowed entrance into the heavenly realms.

This is wonderfully good news, but there’s more.  We are also offered reconciliation with one another.  As Paul wrote:

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations.  His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.   Ephesians 2:14-16 (NIV)

Before Good Friday, all people were separated by a wall of hostility into two camps – those who were under God’s covenant and those who were not.  This separation is a symptom of our sin and caused people then, as it causes people now, to divide one another into two distinct groups: us and them.  We like us and we hate them.  Today’s divisions are no longer about rabbinical interpretations of Old Testament law, but of gender and politics and class and ethnicity.  The cross has destroyed the dividing wall of hostility.

Rejoice today that we are reconciled with our Creator and with our fellow-created through the cross of Jesus Christ.  We need never be alienated from God or from our neighbor because of Christ’s sacrifice on Good Friday.  When we stand before the cross today, literally or figuratively, let us all remember that through His death we gain peace with God and unity with all those who stand beside us.   I pray you will accept His offer of reconciliation and receive the peace that passes all understanding.

I wish you all a happy and healthy Easter.

There’s No Need to Fear! Underdog Is Here!

I am sure that some of you are not basketball fans, let alone college basketball fans.  To be honest, I am, at best, a casual observer of the college game.  However, every once in a while something happens on the court that makes it beyond the sports update and into the ‘regular’ news.  Such an occurrence happened last Thursday when the University of Maryland – Baltimore County Retrievers defeated the University of Virginia Cavaliers in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.  The win marked the first time a 16-seed (the lowest seeding that the tournament gives) had ever defeated a 1-seed in the tournament (there had been 135 previous match-ups over the past 34 years).  Ultimately, that is where the good news ends, as two days later the Retrievers exited the tournament with a loss to Kansas State.

There is just something about the underdog, the long shot and the dark horse: that competitor thought to have little chance of winning a fight or contest.  Our human nature roots for David as he battles Goliath and cheers for Buster Douglas as he contends against Mike Tyson.  We want to believe that in any fight anyone could win.  We want to live in a world where the little guy could catch a break and beat the big guy at his own game.   Even if it has never happened before, a major league baseball team could win a playoff series even when it is down three games to none and a nation football league team could win the championship even when it is down by 25 points with little more than 17 minutes left in the game.  We all want to live in a world where anything is possible.

In so many areas of life, you and I are the underdog.  Cancer is the 1-seed and we are the 16-seed with little chance for victory.  Poverty has a three-game lead over us and we remain winless.  Sin is ahead by 25 points and time is running out.   All is not lost, however, as we can rest in the promise of our Lord in scripture:

Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”  Matthew 19:26

“…With God all things are possible.”  Not inevitable, but possible.  Not probable, but possible.  With God, anyone can enjoy victory over any seemingly undefeatable thing.

This weekend we enter Passion Week as the church, the eight days leading up to the world-changing victory of Easter over a previously unbeatable foe.   I hope that you will engage with the body of Christ as Christians of every tradition observe the misunderstood and vastly underestimated challenger enters the court in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, share in the pre-contest meal with his teammates on Maundy Thursday and participate in the main event on Good Friday.  I hope that you will rejoice with others as we celebrate the devastating defeat of the previously undefeated sin and the once all-conquering death.   Join us, as a local church or as the universal representation of God’s kingdom, as we declare that ‘with God all things are possible’, that the tomb is empty and the slate is wiped clean.  The underdog, the least and the lowest, will one day be victorious.

May I Have A Word?

As we have for the previous few years, my wife and I have endeavored to see the nine movies nominated for the Best Picture Oscar®.  With ten days remaining and only two movies yet to view, I am confident that we will complete our task.  Reflecting on the films we have already seen, a theme seems to be emerging: the power of words.  In these films, I am reminded that a well-chosen word or a turn-of-phrase at the appropriate time has the power to uplift or destroy, the force sufficient to motivate a nation or crush a spirit.

Of particular impact were the words Sheriff Bill Willoughby (portrayed by Woody Harrelson in Three Billboard Outside Ebbing, MO), British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (portrayed by Gary Oldman in The Darkest Hour and referenced in Dunkirk), and fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis in The Phantom Thread).  Without giving away the plot, the theater-goer will be gripped by the redemptive and encouraging nature of the words contained in Willoughby’s letters, the motivating influence upon a nation to continue the struggle through Churchill’s “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech before Parliament, and the damaging and demoralizing destruction caused by Woodcock’s cutting comments.

Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing.  My brothers and sisters, this should not be. James 3:10

The last few weeks of movie-going have caused me to consider anew the wisdom of James and the power of the tongue.  How is that the same function can exalt or eviscerate?  How intentional am I with my words?  Have I learned the truth regarding the power of speech and the wisdom to wield that ‘sword’ beneficially?  Ultimately, am I utilizing my glossary to glorify myself or give gravitas to others?   While I would not to presume to be as loquacious as Churchill, neither do I want to be as self-absorbed as Woodcock.

Perhaps preparation is key (and a Hollywood screenwriter would help, too).  Churchill labored over his speeches, editing and reediting his message even to the final moments before delivery.  Willoughby wrote letters, which experience tells us is a slower form of communication – our thoughts race faster than our pens, allowing us to shape and shade our words as we go.  I wonder how our words might change if we gave ourselves as little as a moment to collect our thoughts.   That might be enough time to enable us to refrain from that angry retort and share something edifying instead.

Words contain an immense power – a power that could be positive or negative.  A single word (“mistake”) can destroy the fragile soul of an impressionable youth and a single word (“gift”) can develop the formidable soul of that same impressionable youth.  Words can be ugly or beautiful, can be used to build up or tear down and therefore requires our attention.  I wouldn’t let youngest juggle chainsaws, even if he told me he was confident in his ability to harness to power of the tools.  Perhaps I should have the same concern about his (and my) use of the many tools we find in the dictionary.

With careful preparation and attention, may we use our words to build up one another.

 

 

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.

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.

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.

Snow-bbath Day

As I write this post, it is heavily snowing outside.  I am fortunate that I, through the ‘miracle’ of digital technology, can work from virtually anywhere with an electrical outlet and a wi-fi connection.  So, here I sit at my kitchen table, with my family in the next room, enjoying the ‘day off’.  While the flakes fly, we are following the recommendation the Governor and Mayor that people stay off the road, reveling at home over the cancelation of school and work for ‘non-essential personnel’.  While there will be shoveling and clearing to be done later, right now there is nothing that needs to be done (other than look out the window occasionally and query as the amount of accumulation).

In many ways, the ‘snow day’ of the present is like the Sabbath of the past.  God created us with a need for time away from our labors.  According to the scriptures:

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God.  On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns.  For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day.  Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.   Exodus 20:8-11

Rarely do we, in today’s culture, find a day when no work is being done.  Retail establishments and restaurants are open nearly every day.  Many movie theaters and convenience stores welcome patrons even on Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Service providers provide services at all hours of the day and night.  We, as a society, rarely take a day off – if we are not working for our employer, we are checking work-related e-mail or laboring at home or serving in volunteer positions.  So, occasionally God, who knows exactly what we need for our health and well-being, allows the weather to slow us down and cease our work.

We are given a snow day (or, in other parts of the country, a heat day, a tornado day, or an ice day) as a blessing or gift for our souls.  It is a day to do something other than work – to break out the puzzle, the board game or the cookbook.  It is a day of creation or recreation: a day spent building a snowman or a strudel, an afternoon of binge-watching “Parks and Recreation” or binge-reading War and Peace.  I am going to cherish the time to do something truly productive – build memories with my family.  As the wind howls and the snow drifts outside, I will be enjoying the ‘down-time’ God has given me.

Besides, I am going to need all the rest I gain today for my work tomorrow, when I will be required to move all of this blessed precipitation off the sidewalks and stairways.

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.