I did not go to church on Sunday. For those who know me, I am sure this comes as a bit of a shock (honestly, my own children voiced some concern over my choice of activities on the Lord’s Day). In my defense, we spent the day traveling back from the Baltimore area, hoping to get home by 8PM because our younger boys had to get up early for school the next day. We felt we couldn’t wait until after noon and therefore church was out of the question. Despite the fact that I have not missed church in nearly five years, I do not feel an ounce of guilt for not attending worship last week.
Before anyone says that a Pastor is teaching that we ought not feel guilty for not going to church, let me tell you why I feel no guilt – I consider attendance at church a blessing and not an obligation. Some who are reading this, I am sure, think that going to church is something we have to do (whether we want to or not) to be right with God, sort of like taking cough medicine so that you can eliminate your chest congestion. Instead, I think that going to church is something I need to do, sort of like going to a gas station so that I can fill up on what I need so that I will not get stranded in the middle of nowhere.
It is through corporate gatherings for worship (going to “church”) that we sing familiar and foreign tunes that remind us of our lineage of faith and doctrine. It is through going to “church” that we catch-up with our spiritual siblings through prayer and intercession. It is through going to “church” that we hear the word of God so that we may glorify our great Savior and be encouraged, equipped, challenged and convicted through the shared experience of receiving His grace and mercy. It is through going to “church” that we can interact with people who God places in our lives who could be quite different, in multiple ways, than we are. It is a gift of God that we must not take for granted.
I rejoiced with those who said to me, “Let us go to the house of the LORD.” Psalm 122:1
While I felt no guilt for my absence from church last Sunday, I did miss being there. It is the same feeling I get when I am invited to a party that I cannot attend, knowing that I am not going to be a part of the joyful celebration and the jovial conversation. I missed the comradery, the communion and the compassion of our little flock of followers. I cannot wait to catch up next Sunday.
I say all this not so those who haven’t darkened the doors of a church would feel badly, but rather to share the joys I have in getting together with people of faith as frequently as possible. No one has been barred from heaven solely because of their church attendance record (nor has that ever been the basis for entrance). Our passage to the heavenly places comes from Christ alone. Going to church helps to remind us of what we have to look forward to when we get there.
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.
When you spend more than twelve hours on the road, driving from Maryland to Massachusetts, you have a great deal of time to think. Because of the weather conditions last Saturday, our 382 miles trip took much longer than I anticipated. It was a challenging and stressful drive over snowy and slushy highways. The satellite radio and the DVDs from Redbox© made the travelling a bit more bearable while I focused on the road ahead. Throughout the journey, my thoughts turned to lessons about life and living, some superficial and some profound.
The first lesson I learned was that I ought not trust forecasts. We live in a society saturated in information, including phone apps that will show you live weather radar and predictions for storm patterns. As we were anticipating our trip home from Jeanine’s brother’s funeral, I watched and listened to meteorologists in Baltimore (via television) and Boston (via phone app) predicting that the storm was expected to move beneath us and travel out to sea before blowing into Massachusetts via the Cape. New Jersey, Westchester County and Western Connecticut were supposed to be spared more than a dusting. No such luck was to fall upon us. The computers were wrong and the storm took a more western course, forcing us to face light but accumulating snow every minute of our trip. Experts are not always correct.
I also learned that there are times, rare but right, that staying with others while disregarding the letter of the law is the proper course of action. Most of the highways we traveled (The New Jersey Turnpike, Garden State Parkway and Interstates 87, 287, 84 and 90) were three lanes in either direction. In the worst of conditions, these throughways became two sets of ruts travelling along the divided white lines. At times there was a series of 15 or so cars, all moving at 45 mph, all illegally crossing over their lanes and maintaining the safety of the roads. Obedience to the law is not always best.
There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death. Proverbs 14:12
The biggest lesson I learned was that I could stand to be more humble. Early on in the process, I made the decision to return to work on Sunday. We made our plans based on my choice to be home Saturday night. Throughout our time away I saw weather reports and I remained resolute. I received texts from people in the church advising me to reconsider and I remained resolute. My wife wanted me to change our plans and I remained resolute. I unnecessarily risked everything to show that I was right, but I was wrong. I feel that needs to be stated again: I was wrong. I was proud. I have since apologized to my wife and children for my arrogance. I am not always right.
Thank God that we, despite my own foolishness, arrived safely at home. In hindsight, I should have listened to those around me, led by the Spirt, instead of listening only to myself. There was a way that appeared to me to be right, and it certainly could have led to disaster. I am fortunate that I had the opportunity to learn these lessons and not harmed by the consequences of my unwise haughtiness. Let’s hope that you and I can all learn from my stupidity.
This morning we will be attending the funeral of my brother-in-law, Stephen V. Silva. Last Friday, in the early morning hours, Steve lost his battle with cancer at the age of fifty-four. He was a wonderful son, brother, husband, father, uncle and grandfather. He was a good man and he will be missed – he was warm and loving, considerate and caring toward those around him. Today is a day of great sorrow for all those who knew Stephen. There is a small bit of solace in knowing that his physical suffering, ever increasing for the last thirty-seven months, has ceased.
A few months ago, I wrote that the three toughest words I am forced to utter are “I don’t know.” Occasionally, I feel the need to defend God – when tragedy strikes or suffering comes to call – from the charge that He is unloving or uncaring or unfair. Honestly, especially on a day like today, I am immensely inadequate to the task. I cannot explain to my mother-in-law why she is called upon to bury a second child. I cannot give reason which makes sense of this loss to my sister-in-law or my wife. I am at a loss to rationalize why some cancers enter remission and others do not. I simply do not have all (or even most of) the answers.
I do know that God comforts those who mourn. There is not a single tear that falls from a single cheek that He is not mindful of. While I cannot explain the problem of pain, I am certain of God’s promise to be near those who are sorrowful.
I do know that God promises an end to suffering. There will come a day when all things will be made right and sin, death and disease will vanish. While I cannot tell you when the pain will cease, I do know that God promises it will.
I do know that God has conquered death through His son. All those who trust in Jesus as Lord and Savior will never truly die and we will see them again in glory. I cannot state with certainty when death will be ultimately vanquished, I know it will happen.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” Revelation 21:3-4
Today, Stephen’s family, co-workers, neighbors and friends will share in their collective grief. Tomorrow, many tears will be shed. For many days ahead, the pain of loss will be palpable. I trust that God will be with those mourn and, eventually, there will be a sense of ‘new’ normalcy. Until that day comes, I ask for your prayers for my wife’s family. I ask that you’d remember Bohuska, Stephen’s wife of over 30 years; Michael, Anthony, Stephanie, and Jonathan, his children; Lilly, Gionni, and Sage, his grandchildren; Pauline, his mother; and Natalie and Jeanine, his sisters.
For reasons I do not quite understand (something about licensing and ownership), our local NBC affiliation is changing channels – from channel 7 to channel 10 – on January 1st. For a few weeks I will, by instinct, tune into the wrong station and then remember that things have changed. It is a reminder that things are constantly changing. Life is continually in a state of flux, shifting like waves in the ocean. I have seen this in my own circumstances in 2016: our oldest son graduating from college and moving back home, our daughter graduating from High School and attending college in Washington, DC, spending 3 weeks at home over the past four months, our whole family moving from one apartment to another.
Some changes are simple (like television stations or finding new locations for Christmas trees), while others are more challenging (dealing with new medication regimens and moving everything you own), but every change impacts life. Some changes we make are restorative (such as eating healthier or improving our sleeping patterns) and others are destructive (such as picking up bad habits or ending a relationship). As this year ends and another begins, many will be thinking about making changes, or resolutions, as a means of improving their everyday lives. Seek to make the changes that are restorative.
My concern for myself, as well as those I love and serve beside, are not the changes I initiate, but the changes that come through uninvited means. About a year ago, I made some resolutions, preferring to call them intentions, about trusting God more and praying more. I had no idea that 366 days later I’d be in a different home with slightly different decor or that I’d be dealing with hypertension for my remaining days on earth. I had little idea what it would feel like having a child living so far away or worrying about colonoscopies. My concern is that I have no idea what lies ahead in 2017.
Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. James 1:17 (NIV)
My hope, for the years that have passed and the year to come, is that God alone never changes. Everything good in my life (and yours) comes from the immutable Father in heaven. There is nothing that surprises or flusters the Lord of all creation. While my circumstances (as well as my weight, my address and my blood pressure) may change, the one who knows my needs and desires will never change. He will, as I follow Him and His word, continue to shower good and perfect gifts upon me, whether I understand them as gifts or not. My hope is in God, no matter how my life may change.
Allow me to wish you all a very happy new year. Whether you are a person who makes resolutions or not, I pray that all who are reading this will find the changes that the coming year brings redemptive and restorative. And I pray that the God who never changes will grant you every good and perfect gift He has purposed for your enjoyment.
My wife, Jeanine, has been spending the last 10 days with family in Baltimore. In her absence, I have come to realize all the details of life that need to be tended to in order for the house to run smoothly: the alarm clock needs to be heeded, lest the children are late for school; the calendar needs to be checked daily, lest we miss out on an important event; laundry, cleaning and showers need to be regularly performed, lest we begin to reek. I am blessed that a number of women from the church provided ample meals for us to enjoy and that the boys – ages 22, 16 and 9 – were able to care for one another when necessary. That being said, I am so glad that Jeanine is coming home tomorrow.
These last ten days have given me a new appreciation for single parents, especially at Christmas. I have the privilege of knowing that soon my better half will return and help with the meals, the mornings and the mess – many don’t have such reinforcements coming. There are single moms, dads, grandmas, grandpas and aunts or uncles that must balance work and home, shopping for Christmas trees and paying electric bills, checking homework and Christmas lists. They must do it all, with little or no help. My heart goes out to those who “go it alone”.
Many of us are blessed with what our culture calls a ‘support system”. Some find support through family and others find it through friends; some support comes through the church and some comes through agencies. Our support systems are what carries us when we cannot seem to manage alone. These are the people who come into our lives who, sometimes publicly and some anonymously, and encourage or console, equip or supply us in our time of need. I praise God for all those who support those I love and I pray God gives strength to those who have inadequate support.
It seems to me that Mary and Joseph could have used a support system. They were called to go through so much alone: angels visited each of them solitarily, telling them that God would enable them to endure great challenges; they were forced by the government to travel miles from home at the time of their child’s birth and were met with indifference when arriving to Bethlehem; soon after delivering the promised child, they were commanded to leave everything and move to a foreign country; and eventually Mary is forced to “go it alone” after the passing of her husband some time after Jesus turned twelve.
But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. Luke 2:19
As we celebrate Christmas, enjoying time with family and friends, remember those who have little or no support system. Talk to the single mother you know from work and offer to watch the kids so she can finish her shopping. Text that single dad you know from school pick-up and encourage him to keep up the good work. Drop by the house of the single grandmother in your neighborhood and deliver a gift card for the local fast food restaurant. Support those who have no support; give them something wonderful to ponder this Christmas.
We all enjoy a ‘guilty pleasure’ or two during the holidays. For some of us, it has to do with baked goods; we cannot resist the buttery, sugary Christmas cookies. For others of us, it has to do with questionable music choices; we are delighted when “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” or “Dominick the Donkey” plays on the radio. There are also those whose fashion choices are the issue; we find enjoyment in wearing gaudy and garish ‘ugly’ sweaters, complete with sequins and blinking lights. One of my guilty pleasures is a stop-motion Christmas special produced by Rankin and Bass, “The Year Without a Santa Claus”.
Don’t get me wrong, I like all the Rankin/Bass Christmas specials. As a pastor, I enjoy the reference to Jesus’ birth in “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and the extra-biblical tales told through “The Little Drummer Boy” and “Nestor, the Long-eared Donkey”. But despite its completely secular storyline, I love “The Year without a Santa Claus”. I love Mother Nature (with her birdhouse dwelling in the sky) and her boys, Heat Miser and Snow Miser. I love the mayor of Southtown, dancing and singing about snow in Dixie. I love Ignatius Thistlewhite and his family around the kitchen table, unknowingly talking to St. Nick. I love that the ‘socks over the antlers’ trick can fool a dog catcher into thinking a reindeer is a pooch. I love the little girl that sings “Blue Christmas” near the end of the hour-long show. I love it all.
This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 1 John 4:9 (NIV)
I have no trouble confessing that, “I believe in Santa Claus, like I believe in love…just like love, I know he’s there, waiting to be missed.” I have no problem having a belief in Santa Claus (a transliteration of Saint Nicholas – a real man who sacrificially shared the love of Christ with those around him) and I have no dispute with those who, unaware of the greatest truth of Christmas, personifies the loving Christmas spirit as a ‘jolly old elf’. I enjoy songs and specials about the magical workshop at the North Pole, where the dreams and wishes of the young (and young at heart) are made true.
But stop-motion Christmas specials about flying reindeer and a living snowman – and that Christmas before we were born when Santa needed a holiday – are still ‘guilty pleasures’. They are flights of fancy that must not distract us from reality, but accentuate it. We seek out figures like Santa, Rudolph and Frosty because we want to live in a world of unconditional love and grace. These secular symbols serve to identify the need we have – an emptiness in our hearts – and not to fill it. That void can only be filled by the gift of God that 1st Christmas – the incarnate word and presence of God, Jesus Christ.
I hope you have the opportunity to indulge in your guilty pleasures over the next two weeks. However, I pray that these differing ways of celebrating Christmas are not an end unto themselves, but rather a means to appreciating the true joys of Emmanuel’s birth. As for me, I’m looking forward to a little time with Jingle and Jangle…and getting ready for Jesus.