Thirty years ago, when I was working as a teller for a local bank, we were asked to promote a new product to the customers that came to our windows: The Club 55. If memory serves, this was a fee-free account to our ‘senior’ patrons (those over 55 years of age). At the time, I thought that an account like this made sense; the bank was doing the right thing in offering those frail retirees financial benefits appropriate for their advanced ages. Now, having turned 55 this past Sunday, I take offense at the uninformed attitude borne by my 25-year-old self.
While I would not consider myself young any longer, I also would not consider myself old; my guess is that I currently find myself in the category of comfortably middle-aged – the reality is that there are a few generations before me and a few generations behind me. This contemplation of generations has caused me to give pause: what have I carried from those who have gone before me and what am I leaving for those who come after me? What have I gained from engaging with my mother-in-law (in her 90s, a member of the builder generation) or my parents (in their 80s, members of the boomer generation)? What am I handing to my children (in their teens and 20s, representing the millennial and Z generations)?
Tell it to your children, and let your children tell it to their children, and their children to the next generation. Joel 1:3 (NIV84)
And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others. 2 Timothy 2:2 (NIV84)
These two passages form a framework for our intergenerational conversations. In Joel, the word of God commands the prophet to share with those coming behind him to share the devastation which disobedience delivers while holding out the hope of God’s restoration. In 2 Timothy, Paul is encouraging his young protégé to equip the next generation of leaders with the whole counsel of Scripture that he had heard from those more mature than himself. No matter what age we are, we are expected to be a pipeline of the unvarnished truth, from one generation to another, and not a pool of stagnant and situational knowledge.
As I stand today, in a stage of life that is not fully growing and not fully grown, I am reminded that we learn through experiences shared – knowing the consequences of the sins in our past so that we need not repeat them and knowing the blessings of the faithfulness in our past so that we can emulate them. As I get older, I want to share my story and hear your story, the story of rebellion and restoration, the story of hurt and healing. I want to listen to the wisdom of the older generations and relate that wisdom to the younger generation.
Standing here, in the center of middle-age, is a blessed place to be – old enough to know better and young enough to learn. Whatever our age, we all have something to share with one another and learn from one another. What can I learn from you?
Each year at Christmastime, I lead the church in the observance of Advent. The term ‘Advent’ was adopted from Latin adventus which means ‘coming or arrival’ and it refers to the season of anticipation before the arrival of Christ, which, for our church, takes place the four Sundays before Christmas. Through our observance of Advent, we are, as a community of faith, encouraged to demonstrate and appreciate the characteristics of Christian expectancy – hope, peace, joy, and love. It is for this reason that we have been lighting candles and offering prayers since the last Sunday of November and will continue to do so through this weekend.
This year especially, I have been thinking about Advent and contemplating the arrival of what has been promised from a particularly secular perspective: I have been thinking about Advent every time I track a package. Because of the pandemic, most of my Christmas shopping has been on-line and, because of this, I am regularly checking my Amazon app and entering tracking numbers on the websites of UPS, USPS, and FedEx. Some days I am filled with elation as I see the progress of my purchases and other days I am filled with exasperation as I consider contacting customer service.
Many times, I am not in the most healthy of places. As trucks go up and down the street, I watch from the window (like a kid with a quarter waiting for the Ice Cream Man), wondering if they will stop and, if they do, will they have something for me. As the weeks turn into days before Christmas, I find that I am worrying more and more about the 3 Ds – delay, damage, or delivery to the wrong address. I have become so preoccupied with my expectations that I risk missing out on the blessings of what is to come.
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Isaiah 9:6 (NIV84)
This is why I need Advent. The words of Isaiah quoted above were written more than six centuries before the birth of Jesus. Imagine the tracking information on Isaiah’s laptop: “Expected delivery – March 7, 2638, before 9 PM”. The trouble with me is that I want things done on my time schedule; the gift of Advent is that it reminds us that all things are done on God’s perfect time schedule. Jesus arrived just when He was expected. Jesus will return just when He is expected. For that reason, we can have hope, peace, joy, and love today.
I will continue to check on the progress of my packages, confident that they will arrive when the time is right for them to arrive. I have hope that they will be before Christmas, but even if they are late, as I reckon time, they will still get here. I have peace in knowing that they are on their way or will be soon. I have joy in the anticipation, which may or may not be resolved on December 25. I have love in my heart for those receiving these packages and those carrying them to their eventual destination.
May God bless you in this season of arrival.
Yesterday, our unexpected blessing, our bonus baby – a surprise to all but God – turned thirteen. My youngest, Joshua, following the faith of His savior, is now a man. If we were contemporaries of Jesus, yesterday would have been his Bar Mitzvah (bar [בר] is a Jewish-Aramaic word meaning ‘son’ and mitzvah [מצוה] is a Jewish word meaning ‘a commandment’). Joshua would have been seen not as a seventh-grader but as a “son of the commandment” – he would be responsible for keeping the Law of God. This leaves me, as his father, with a nagging question: have I done enough to prepare him for adulthood.
Thankfully, we do not live in a non-adolescent culture and Joshua will not be an adult for another 5 years (legally) or more (culturally). That said, I have been slowly realizing that how I see this boy – as my defenseless and impressionable baby and as my child in need of protection and correction – is not the way the world outside our front door sees this young man. While I would seek to isolate him from the culture of the age, the societal gates of social media have been, with the change of a date, opened to him with its beckoning siren song. In my head, I know that all these coming changes are natural and beneficial steps in his healthy maturity, but in my heart, I worry for he is still just a boy to me and his mother.
Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it. Proverbs 22:6
The above-quoted verse is typically mentioned when the topic of parenting comes around. It makes sense since the command of training is good advice for new moms and dads and the promise of faithfulness is comforting during those rebellious stages. As my boy enters manhood, I ask, as I said before, if I did a good enough job training him? Ironically, that might not be the right question for the term Solomon uses for ‘train’ is not translated as ‘train’ anywhere else in the Scriptures; it is translated as “dedicate’. The four other times the Hebrew Bible uses the term חנך, it is in reference to the temple. This admonition is not, as I see it, to prepare my child for the world and hope that I have done enough, but to proclaim my child to the world and trust that he will remember who he is, and whose he is.
Today, I am wrestling with letting go of the precious blessing of my baby boy. Today, you may be struggling with letting go of another blessing. Can God be trusted to keep His word and continue to provide for His people? My friend, the answer is yes. As my son Joshua’s name declares, the Lord is salvation (or deliverance or redemption). The Lord will carry all of us who trust His promises and bring us safely through to the other side.
Happy Birthday, Joshua. Enjoy the beginning stages of adulthood. Remember who you are.
There is a ‘standing headline’ circulating through social and broadcast media: “Celebrating Thanksgiving to Be Quite Different This Year”. As a consequence of surging numbers of COVID-19 cases across the globe, authorities are recommending, at least in my area of the country, that our observances of Thanksgiving be limited to small – and preferably outdoor – gatherings, that our travel plans be curtailed or eliminated, and that our traditions take a hiatus. Under the circumstances, it seems to me that this is the most reasonable path to take, both for the sake of our loved ones and for the communities around us.
The requested modifications in celebrating this thoroughly North American holiday gives us an opportunity for beneficial correction. This year we will not have the chance to celebrate “Turkey Day” or “Friendsgiving” or “Football Day in America”. The Thanksgiving table may not, this year, look like the iconic Rockwell painting in its gastronomic bounty. The chairs may not, this time around, be filled with friends from work or church, or school recreating the warmth of community. The back yard or living room, this year, will not be shared by generations who enjoy tossing around the pigskin. This year we might only have the opportunity to give thanks – alone with the grantor of all good things or with those in our closest of circles.
Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song. Psalm 95:2
Earlier this month, for another purpose, I formulated my list of ‘thanks’. I have modified the entries slightly, hoping that my touchpoints might stimulate your thoughts toward thanks. Today, I am thankful for:
TIME – I give thanks to God for the gift of time. I would have never planned to spend so much time at home and share so many little moments with my family. I cannot fully express the gratitude I feel to God for the ability to unexpectedly be together for much of the last year.
HEALTH – I give thanks to God for the gift of health. I consider myself fortunate that I have the availability of protective equipment and world-class care. God has truly blessed me with the accessibility of masks and wipes, medications and medical professionals that enable me to resist much of the ailments that in other places or other times would have diminished my quality of life.
AMUSEMENT – I give thanks to God for the gift of laughter. As dire as things are, there is an abundance of resources ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous that make me laugh. I give thanks to God for giggling babies, on-line videos, satirical skits, and dog sweaters, along with another million amusing moments.
NETWORKS – I give thanks to God for the gift of connectedness. I have been awed by the creative ways God has inspired others to engage with the community around them – Zoom, Duo, Facetime, YouTube, balcony concerts, calls, letters – and I am grateful to God for enabling me to participate in things I thought would be impossible to attend last Thanksgiving.
KINDNESS – I give thanks to God for the gift of love for one another. Through signs, parades, and deliveries, we have cared for one another like no other time I can recollect. This reminds me of the grace of God each time I see these expressions. Thank you, Jesus.
SALVATION – I give thanks to God for the gift of forgiveness. Countless times over the past year, as I reflect on the above-stated gifts of God, I have messed up: failing to appreciate what I have, ignoring the opportunities granted me, selfishly pouting for the things I am denied, or blatantly disregarding the Lord’s will and word. I am so thankful to God that my sins are forgiven and that I am a new creation, saved by the free gift of His grace.
For what will you be thanks giving?
Let us all agree that we will get together a year from now for “Turkey Day” and “Friendsgiving” and “Football Day in America”. But this year, in light of all we have been through, and continue to go through, let us all give thanks.
It is amazing how fast time flies! This weekend, for half of my children, will mark the end of Summer and school vacation. My daughter will begin her new school year (teaching remotely 443 miles from her 5th grade students) on Monday and my middle son will move into his on-campus apartment for the Fall semester on Wednesday. Our youngest son has been blessed with an academic reprieve, for his remote learning classes will not resume for another three weeks.
In many ways it seems like forever since David came home – theoretically for his freshman year’s Spring break – on March 5th, since 6th grade classes moved on-line for Joshua beginning March 16th, and since Rebekah’s truncated senior year of college and student teaching moved to remote and she drove home from Washington on March 17th. As an added blessing, throughout the Spring and Summer we have also seen our oldest son an average of twice a week. I cannot imagine another season of life when we will have this much shared time together. But now, the times, they are a-changing. The passage from August to September, for me this year, will be bitter-sweet.
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: […] a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance…. Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4 (NIV)
As I contemplate the change of season – meteorological and metaphorical – it causes me to pause and posit what the coming days may bring. What will be the activity of this new time and season: weeping, laughing, mourning, dancing? Are the days to be filled with disaster or delight, or some combination of both? My guess: as it has been over the first 240 days of 2020, it will be for its remaining 126. There have been and there will be those whose days, like mine, are filled with more laughter than tears and there are those whose days are filled with just the opposite.
Each of us have differing experiences and unique contexts in which we navigate the challenges and charms this life has to offer. Because of this reality, we must allow empathy, the ability to feel for another without feeling as another, to be our guide when interacting with one another. We all have grieved a loss (of life, of livelihood or of liberty) at some point this year and we all have needed compassion. We all have enjoyed a blessing (through nature, through new life, or through neighbors) during this pandemic and we all have appreciated companionship. Each of us will also continue to shed tears of sorrow and tears of joy in September and beyond, and we all must allow others the space to express themselves, unrestrained, before us.
The coming days, for me, will be tough as we transition from life fully together toward life beginning to move us apart. The coming days, for you, are likely to be different emotionally. I am glad we have each other as we rejoice together and as we grieve together. There is a time for everything, just like the weather in New England. If you are unhappy with what is occurring around you, just wait a minute with a friend.
I have become a ‘fair weather fan’ when it comes to my beloved Red Sox. I can simply no longer watch their games. They are currently sitting in last place in the American League, due in no small part to the facts that they have no pitching, they are struggling to hit the ball and they lead the league in errors. But it is not their record that is making this season unbearable; it is their apparent lack of heart on the part of the players. I can only assume this malaise is evident due to the pandemic protocols – no fans in the stands, no player on-field interactions, and social distancing in the dugout – that has robbed “America’s Pastime”, at least in Boston, of its magic.
There is something special about social interaction that cannot be captured on a Zoom call or over the phone. As much as I hate to admit it, we require human contact in order to thrive. I wonder if things would be different were the veterans on the Red Sox allowed to embrace the younger players to encourage them, especially as things are going from bad to worse. On a larger scale, are we, as a culture and as a planet, suffering to a greater degree because we cannot, literally and figuratively, shoulder one another’s load? Do we, as a people, really need a hug?
Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing. 1 Thessalonians 5:11 (NIV)
This, unfortunately, is a lost season for the Red Sox. However, it need not be the same for us. I am confident that we are able to reclaim much of what has been taken by this virus and its consequences. My suggestion for reclamation is that we rediscover the power of prayer. What has prayer got to do with being physically present with one another? I am glad you asked.
First, the language of prayer conveys physical presence. When we pray, we are lifting one another toward God. Offering up biblical prayers, like the Lord’s Prayer, evoke a real bonding of hearts and minds with one another and with God. We are together when we pray.
Second, the discipline of prayer develops intimacy. We listen more and share more when we intercede for one another. We are willing to expose our hopes and our hurts more freely in the context of prayer. We are tender when we pray.
Third, the practice of prayer offers avenues of reconnection. When I pray for you, I become invested in the ‘rest of the story’ and become eager to see how things turn out. When I pray, I am more likely to follow through and resume the conversation. We are touching base when we pray.
Finally, the reality of prayer draws us away from the problems and draws us toward the provider. Prayer enables us, together, to recognize that we haven’t got the answers to some of the toughest questions, and to recognize that we all, irrespective of demographics, needs God’s intervention. We are trusting when we pray.
While we cannot embrace one another just yet, we can engage in prayer with and for one another. That is no small thing.
It has taken me 20 weeks of this pandemic, or perhaps 23 years of pastoral ministry, or maybe even 54 years of existence, to conclude that I do not handle disruption well. I can become internally agitated when a reasonable request is made while I am preparing for Sunday’s service at my dining room table. Prior to COVID-19, my soul may have become disturbed within me when I heard news of a weekend snowstorm. As long as I can remember, I have had incidences of the hairs on my neck bristling when my plans were disrupted by the delays of those I dearly love. It might be a problem.
Even those with a cursory understanding of the plot line of the Bible would know that God is frequently found disrupting the lives of people and nations for His purposes. Moses was living large and enjoying life what God appeared to him and told him it was time to move. Abraham was enjoying the fruits of long-delayed parenthood when God announced that it was time for a mountain-climbing trip with Isaac that would result in only one of them returning home. Esther, David, Peter, Paul, and Timothy all were faced with disruptions. We rarely know why, but God finds disruption necessary.
If you are like me, you have a choice: see disruptions as an attack against your ideal timetable or see disruptions as an avenue for God’s adjustments. Is it possible that the Master of the Universe may have other plans and priorities for your productive hours? Is it possible that the Lord Almighty may be reminding us that snowflakes, germs, and spotty Wi-Fi are not an enemy to our efficiency? Is it possible that these disruptions are, in fact, the crucial appointments amid our chaotic days? What if you and I were to see disruptions as blessings instead of blights?
There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death. Proverbs 14:12 & Proverbs 16:25 (ESV)
Solomon, in his words of wisdom, was compelled by the Holy Spirit to state the exact words twice. This double dose of truth disturbs me. I would like to think that my way (disruption-free hours of uninterrupted productivity and purpose) is right, but it is not; it is destructive. It is destructive for at least two reasons: first, I am denying the truth that I savor disruption, if it is a distraction of my own choosing (scrolling through Facebook is healthy but that request to help bring in the groceries is a step too far); second, I am often so engrossed in what I want to be doing that I mostly unaware of what God might be wanting me to do. I am going my ‘right way’ and lying to and limiting myself in the process.
The biblical model for so many whose stories are contained in its pages is to embrace the disruptions, without grumbling, as guidance from God. Through hurricanes, He will give us rest. Through traffic jams, He will teach us patience. Through a loud neighbor just beyond the windowpane, He will drive us to compassion. Then, perhaps, we will learn that disruptions are God’s way of directing us toward greater things.
May these words be just the disruption you needed today.
The other night, we had a drive-in experience in our backyard; a video screen, projector, a VCR and an extension cord enabled us to watch “Hercules”. All the equipment was readily available to us, but until the other night, we had not taken the time to put it together. This is just the latest thing we have done because we have the time to do it. We have also spent time playing board games (my personal favorite has been “Ticket to Ride”) and card games (including the ‘oldie-but-goodie’ “Pit”, which our children had never played). We have also spent time exploring the neighborhood by foot. This pandemic has given us the opportunity to do things that we never get around to doing.
There are other things that have remained undone. I still have boxes which are still unpacked or stored away from our move eleven months ago. I still have books sitting on a radiator that I am intending to read. I still have summer clothes in the basement that I have yet to put in my bureau. I have a craft beer maker that is unopened (granted, I would still have to buy some yeast, which I have also yet to do). Despite the fact that this pandemic has given me a great deal of time at home to do whatever strikes my fancy, there are still things I have never gotten around to doing.
Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. Psalm 90:12
I wonder how many times I said, prior to 2020, “I wish I had the time to __________.” I wonder how many times I said, prior to COVID-19, “I will get around to _________ some day.” Lord, teach me to number my days. Lord, instruct me to calculate all twenty-four hours. Lord, educate me on the usage of each cycle of 1,440 minutes. Assuming I take 6 hours to sleep and 2 hours to address hunger and hygiene, that gives me 16 hours each and every day for my vocations and avocations. What am I doing with that time? Am I utilizing this precious resource for mindful productivity and recreation or am I wasting it on mindless amusement and entertainment?
Today is day 143 of quarantine; we have been home for 3,432 hours. What have you been doing for the past 20 weeks? The Psalmist has convicted me to redeem the remaining days and hours of the quarantine, however long it lasts. I want to spend more time in constructing (building value into my life as well as the lives of others) and less in consuming (burning daylight in otherwise empty pursuits). I want to cherish the time I have with my children and my wife. I want to maximize this time of ‘voluntary seclusion’ so that, when I look back at this season of my life, I have no regrets. Lord, help me to capture a moment today where I see and share just one of your many blessings.
Lord, teach us to number our (quarantined) days.
It has been hot in Massachusetts for the last few weeks, with heat indices approaching 100° on many days. It has been so hot, in fact, that the new street in front of our home that I wrote about a few weeks ago has softened and now contains a good number of tire tracks. We are fortunate; we have a few window unit air conditioners that can take the sting out of the oppressive heat and humidity. But, under the shadow of COVID-19, there are a number of places we would have gone to beat the heat that are, this summer, unavailable.
In previous years we, as a family, might have gone to the local mall or the movie theater to escape the high temperatures and enjoy some climate-controlled coolness. Our summers past have included visits to museums and dips in public pools to find some relief. There is none of that this year. The cinemas remain unopened, the malls are too crowded, the museums are not welcoming the general public and the pools are, by and large, closed. Even the beaches, where it has also been unusually warm, are not completely safe as the sunbathers and swimmers contend with shark sightings and the lingering effects of this pandemic.
It is days like these that make a person ‘squirrelly’ – hot and bothered and itching to be somewhere else. I imagine that most of us have had more than a few days like that. What do we when we face times like that? Simmer and stew? Stomp and scream? Toss and turn at night and pace and pout during the day? It is not in our nature, I believe, to suffer in silence. We need someone to know, someone to care, someone to assure us that things will improve. Those are the days that I appreciate God’s gift of prayer, the blessing of conversation and intercession with the one who knows us best and cares for us most completely.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30 (NIV)
I don’t know about you, but the heat takes something out of me, and I am weary. With the news of the spread of COVID-19, I am burdened. I am grateful that Jesus offers to share His yoke with me (for those unfamiliar with the term, a yoke is a farming implement that harnesses two animals, presumably of similar strength, together). I am offered to share my load with God incarnate, who declares that my contribution to the work will be easy and light. When can we begin? It makes me feel like that three-year old at the grocery store in the race-car shopping cart, thinking that he is exerting all the effort to move the cart, but the reality is that his father is pushing from behind. Our Father in Heaven is pushing us along as well.
If you are weary and burdened, due to climate or contagion or some other catastrophe, come to him. He will give you rest.
As I write this post a team of workers with heavy machinery is replacing the sidewalks, curb stones and street in front of our house. I am captivated by all the activity that is taking place: I am awestruck by the precision of the excavator operator, as he removes dirt and debris around valve covers and drains with no apparent effort; I am fascinated my those responsible for the placement of the heavy stones, leveling and tapping them expertly in a row; I have become mesmerized by the activity just outside our front windows as each person performs their role as if engaged in a synchronized dance. While I do not appreciate the noise beginning at 7 every morning, I am thankful for the object lesson their labors have given me.
When we moved into our current residence 10 months ago, the water main had just been replaced. Shortly after our arrival, the gas lines that run through the neighborhood were also replaced, leaving our street a mess of potholes and uneven patches. The road surface would fill with puddles after a rainstorm and the sidewalks in spots were dangerously uneven. This week, all that is beginning to change, as people who know what to do and have the time to do it well are restoring what has been damaged. Assuming all the work is completed, our street will remain pristine for the next five years.
It all reminds me of what can happen when everyone does their part to build up what has been ravaged by time or trauma. Whether it is public works or personal health, we all have a role in edification – the building up of one another – through acts of service, through words of affirmation and/or through time together. There is no meaningless effort nor unnecessary task. The business of building requires designers and architects, as well as vehicle operators and day laborers. The business of edification likewise requires thinkers and planners, as will as skilled workers and heavy lifters.
From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. Ephesians 4:16 (NIV)
The apostle Paul, in his letter to the church in Ephesus, describes the local church as a body. This body grows when every part does its unique work. In Paul’s analogy, the people of God are strengthened, in community, when the ‘hands’ do what the ‘hands’ can do (and only what the ‘hands’ can do), as well as every other part – eyes, ears, kidneys, and the rest – does what they are designed to do. This imagery, for me, has two important ramifications: first, that each of us are essential for our effectiveness and health; and second, that we are effective and healthy when we only do what we are here to do.
Together, proximately or virtually, we will grow and build our body in love as each of us do what God uniquely enables us to do. I have an asphalt, concrete and granite reminder of this reality just outside my door.