I was introduced to Mike and Frankie nearly nine years ago. While their situation was different than mine (they lived in a rural middle American suburb and we lived in an urban neighborhood of Boston), our similar family dynamic made them special to me. We would spend 22 minutes together each week and they would share their lives. I would identify with their frustrations in raising their oldest through High School and college and beyond. I would sympathize with the challenges of raising an optimistic but clumsy daughter who tried everything to fit in but never quite succeeded. I would commiserate with the difficulties that come from a unique younger son, complete with quirks and tics. But next week they are departing and I will miss their stories of their ordinary life of ordinary struggles.
My favorite show, The Middle, will broadcast its series finale on Tuesday, and I feel like I am losing a friend. Something about the Hecks from Orson, Indiana always rang true for me. They didn’t have a ‘very special episode’ but instead relied on real life circumstances — a folding lawn chair at the dining room table, floating anniversaries, kids fighting in the backseat and ‘borrowing’ the church van for months. The kids made holes in their walls, their computers couldn’t access family photos and they ate fast food in front of the TV. It was a pleasure to watch a family on TV that was much, maybe too much, like my own.
There was a comfort in tuning in every week, sending that someone understood your struggle. It was a picture of life rarely seen on television today, a situation-comedy where episodes revolved around the challenges of the ordinary: living on a budget, dreading the school conferences and bake-sales and loving one another through the trials of life. There were moments of passion (for things like the Indianapolis Colts and the Wrestlerettes) but little politics. There were tears of joy and tears of sorrow. Through it all, there was an underlying theme of familial love – even in the midst of familial discord.
I urge you, brothers and sisters, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me. Romans 15:30
I believe it to be a blessing to God to be understood, to know that there is someone somewhere that ‘gets’ you. That was what God did for me through The Middle. Although they were not an actual family but a fictional clan with great writers, they were real to me. Their struggles were real. Their victories were real. I know, for their life, in many ways, is mine. Their life is the same as many in the church: those who love their kids and can’t stand their kids, those who have broken dishwashers and broken dreams but refuse to give up, those who are simply doing their best even when their best is not great. Thank you, Frankie, Mike, Axl, Sue and Brick for joining so many in the struggle.
I am sure that I will see the Hecks again as The Middle is already in syndication. I will sit and remember that there are people, real and make-believe, that share my values and concerns and dreams. Perhaps there will be another family I can befriend next season. There are the Ottos from Westport, CT that might remind me that we are never alone.
According to the National Retail Federation, the average Mother’s Day shopper will spend $180, or a total of $23.1 billion. That is a lot of flowers and jewelry. It seems that we all want to celebrate the blessing God has given us through giving us mothers. In recognition of Mother’s Day on Sunday, allow me to share the story of a remarkable mom who lived a few thousand years ago. She was poor, widowed and responsible for a child. Things have gotten so bad for her that she had given up hope. But God has other plans for her and her child.
We really know little about this mother. While we do not know her name or her lineage, we do know she was married, but her husband died and left her with no source of income: according to the scriptures, all she had to her name was a jar of flour and a pitcher of oil. We also know that she was not part of the “People of God”: she was an “unclean” Gentile. Lastly, we know that she was commanded by God to help a certain prophet of God named Elijah: she was commissioned to use that last of all she had to feed this stranger.
Before I conclude the story, allow me to digress. I am not at all surprised that God used a mother, especially a single mother, to save Elijah. Is there any other class of human being so willing to sacrifice as a mom? When there are five mouths and four slices of pie, it is the mom who says, “I’m too full from dinner for dessert; you guys have it.” When it is three AM and thundering, it is the mom who gets displaced so that her child can be comforted. She picks up the underwear, wipes up the barf and cleans up the bathroom. There is seemingly no need too demanding or distance too far to travel for a mom.
Getting back to the story, this mother prepares her last meal for herself, her son and her visitor. But the flour and oil never run out. She and her household (including the guest) were fed for three years, miraculously. Despite the fact that they were in the midst of a global famine, God was able to meet her needs. Just when one might think everything is going to get better, tragedy strikes when the son of this woman becomes ill and stops breathing. No one would blame her for her outburst:
She said to Elijah, “What do you have against me, man of God? Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?” 1 Kings 17:18
After all she had sacrificed, was this really how her story was going to end? No. Elijah immediately cries out to God and her son’s life is restored to him. Then they all lived happily ever after (though not together).
I thank God that the mothers I am most familiar with (both biological and metaphorical) have yet to lose hope. They sacrificed for the sake of those they loved, expressed outrage when something hurt those they loved and never gave up hope for those they loved. Some of that has to do with their personal resolve – they are all formidable people of character – but some of it has to do with their faith in the God who can resource and restore them as He did for a Phoenician widow, her son and her house-guest.
Happy Mother’s Day to all those who have given more than they will ever get back from their families.
There was an article in the New York Times that opined about the costs and benefits of present-day conveniences. According to columnist Time Wu, conveniences are “more efficient and easier ways of doing personal tasks”. Conveniences come in a nearly endless number of forms, everything from appliances (washers, dryers and microwaves) to technologies (digital streaming, cell phones and search engines). They save us time, toil and treasure. The world of my childhood would be foreign soil to my ten-year old son; the convenience of debit cards instead of cash or checks, the convenience of homework at home with Google and Wikipedia instead of researching at the library with the World Book Encyclopedia, the convenience of GPS and EZPass instead of glove compartment maps and a cupful of quarters. Conveniences make life better.
However, there is another side to conveniences, a less beneficial side that warrants our attention. As Wu writes, “With its promise of smooth, effortless efficiency, it threatens to erase the sort of struggles and challenges that help give meaning to life.” Ultimately, there is a benefit to inconvenience, whether it is getting lost and discovering the pathway back to civilization or baking a pie from scratch instead of ordering one online through Uber Eats. It is rewarding to toil and use reason. We might become better people because we are required to wait or, worse yet, to go without.
In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples. Luke 14:33
Discipline is never convenient. Eating healthy takes effort: making a salad takes longer than tearing the foil off a Pop Tart. Exercise takes effort: spending time at the gym will be more demanding than spending time on the couch. Education takes effort: solving a pesky equation with a pencil will take more time than watching a YouTube video of someone else solving for x. The Christian life is no different. When Jesus taught about the demands of discipleship, He told his followers to consider the costs. He called His followers to live a life which included inconvenience. He told them to give more than demanded, work longer than most and sacrifice greater than merely necessary.
Most of the things that make life easier are convenient. Most of the things that make life better are inconvenient. The question for each of us is whether we want easier or we want better. Do we want the ease of microwave turkey or the goodness of Thanksgiving dinner? Do we want the ease of hearing an explanation or the goodness of researching it ourselves? Do you want the ease of activism by hashtag or the goodness of laboring for righteousness? When we are passionate about something, the Cliff Notes will not suffice; we will want to invest our blood, sweat and tears to pursue it.
Evan Williams, a co-founder of Twitter, was quoted in Wu’s piece as saying, “Convenience decides everything.” Maybe he’s right in general. I do that hope he is wrong about us.
Last week was school vacation for our boys and I had a brilliant idea: we could do a jigsaw puzzle together. On Monday morning, in the rain, I went out to the store and bought a 1,000-piece puzzle of a beautiful winter scene and brought it home. We had the border done before lunch and began to fit together the rest. That was twelve days ago, and we still have not finished. It turns out that there is a whole lot of white – snow, roofs, mountains – and the puzzle is hard. Really hard. The boys have given up helping us finish putting all the pieces together and now I am beginning to fear that we will never be able to use our coffee table again.
What seemed at the time like a fun, family bonding activity has become exceeding difficult. As I sit in front of the unfinished puzzle, I feel the frustration well up within me: I know it all fits together, but I cannot for the life of me seem to place any of the pieces. Perhaps I am victim of an elaborate practical joke – I can hear the snickering of the worker at some jigsaw puzzle factory as she throws eighteen unrelated pieces into my box. There are pieces that seem to match the color but do not interlock and others that ‘sort of’ interlock but do not match the color. Has anyone else ever thought how easy it would be if there were numbers, differentiating columns and rows, on the backs of all the puzzle pieces?
Alas, there are no numbers. There is no cheat code. All I have between now and the puzzle’s completion is trial and error. All I have to guide me is the picture on the box (which, in this case, is extremely small of such a large puzzle and cropped on the sides so that it offers no help toward the edges). In my pursuit of my goal I have resorted to a game I like to call, “Is This Right? No. Is This Right? No.” But I am tenacious (a more virtuous word than stubborn) and will one day finish this puzzle, enabling my family to eat once again in the living room.
This puzzle is a lot like my life. It has easily recognizable boundaries. It has a cohesive whole. It is made up of tiny, incomplete glimpses of colors and voids. It is designed so that all the pieces will fit together eventually. It is at times frustrating and at times fabulous. For those blessed enough to realize it, we are given a picture to the finished product for reference. And it is, when completed, a work of art.
While I may not know how all the pieces fit together yet, the one who created the puzzle (and the one who created me) does. I am confident that my God will form my life into a masterpiece, a stunning work of art full of light and shadow. Perhaps He is even using this infernal puzzle to do it.
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11
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).
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.
Family members disagree. They argue. They fight. They feud. I witnessed this as a middle child and as a father of four. I could share stories of fighting with my younger brother or of my boys fighting over something or other. Sibling rivalry is nothing new; it is as old as history itself. The first siblings, Cain and Abel, did not get along and fought, with terrible results. Sibling rivalry also rears its ugly head among the followers of Jesus, as is evident in the interaction between siblings Mary and Martha that is recorded in Luke 10:38-42.
It all began with these sisters disagreeing over the proper etiquette in entertaining guests: one sister gave priority to hospitality and the other to conversation. These two women had a difference of focus. Martha focused on serving – Jesus was coming over for dinner and she wanted everything to come together properly. Mary was focused on engaging with Jesus – sitting at his feet listening to everything He was saying. Neither of these women were wrong in their attention, but not everything that holds our focus is necessary.
When our focus is fixed, it becomes difficult to see the periphery clearly. Mary’s sole focus was Jesus and everything else was inconsequential. Martha’s scattered focus was on many things and everything became distracting and disturbing. I cannot recount the number of times I have been troubled with all the details: is the dinner going to be done at the right time, are their any food allergies I am unaware of, is there something I am forgetting? If that happens on a typical Tuesday, what would I be like if the Savior of all people were to visit my home?
Mary had no such turmoil. She was blessed with peace. As Jesus stated,
“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10:41–42 (ESV)
She chose the necessary, the good portion, and that enabled her to have peace. In saying this, Jesus is not diminishing all the things that are important – service, school, socializing and more – but elevating the essential. Time with God is necessary. It is as essential as sleep, food, water and shelter. These are the things we cannot function without. We cannot survive without a relationship with Jesus, for that relationship is the source of our salvation, direction and righteousness.
This complex conversation between an aggravated sister and her Lord prompts me to ask about my own priorities and whether I am distracted and disturbed or at peace. Do I have a lack of focus on what is necessary? Do I have a lack of fellowship with God because I am so busy doing what is important but not essential? Am I consumed by the worries of this world that I am in danger of fruitlessly withering? Am I more like Martha or more like Mary? I wish there was a verse 43 in Luke 10 which stated that later in the evening Mary did the dishes and Martha sat at the Lord’s feet. While the scriptures are silent, I hope it to be true. Maybe we all could be both.
Serving, like Martha did, is a wonderful gift to those around us, but it may or may not have anything to do with our relationship with God. Building a relationship with God, like Mary did, will lead us to serve and be a blessing to those around us and a glory to God. Focusing on the necessary will give us all we need.
Tomorrow is my father’s 80th birthday. Happy birthday, Dad!
Sunday is Oscar® day, when the Academy Awards are presented. Hooray for Hollywood!
The above-stated occasions may seem to most as two random calendar entries, but to me, they are inextricably linked. For those who are unaware of my upbringing, my parents separated and divorced when I was in grade school. While the intervening years have dulled my memory, I do recall a number of weekend matinees that my dad took us to see: “Robin Hood”, “Pete’s Dragon”, “Superman”, “Star Trek” and more. I remember the hours in the dark at the General Cinema Theater at Westgate Mall and the Brockton East Twin Cinema. It was in those moments that I gained a love for movies – good movies, bad movies, all movies.
In thinking about these memories, some more than four decades old, I am reminded of the love my dad had (and has) for my siblings and me, and the love I have for him. While we spent few nights under the same roof, we spent hours together every weekend. I remember waiting for him to pick us up (making a game of counting cars of a randomly particular color) and I cannot recall ever being disappointed when he never arrived. We had inside jokes (ordering “pine tree floats” at MerMac’s and trying to spell the name one of his old bosses, S. Gunnar Myrbeck), ate hundreds of hamburgers and watched dozens of movies.
A wise son brings joy to his father, but a foolish son brings grief to his mother. – Proverbs 10:1
As the years have passed and the miles have grown between us, my meetings with my dad have grew more infrequent, but my love for my dad and my love for the movies have remained. I appreciate all those afternoons, with or without popcorn, that we shared watching the silver screen. I think about that as I take my children to the movies, tell the same corny jokes and buy the same fast food. I love you, Dad.
Thinking about my dad taking me to the movies all those years ago makes me wonder why I love the movies so much. I am sure it has something to do with those deep-seated emotions of my childhood. It also has something to do with the escape the darkened theater provides: a diversion from the daily grind to exotic and fantastic places. Mostly, I reckon, it has to do with the story – dozens of accounts of love and loss, risk and rescue, life and death. Thank you, Dad, for giving me all that. I carry a part of you every time I buy a ticket. Happy Birthday! Maybe one day soon we can catch one more movie together.
For what it is worth, after seeing most of the nominated films (there’s still time to finish the challenge), I would give the Oscars to “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri”, Gary Oldman, Frances McDormand, Allison Janney and Sam Rockwell. Knowing my track-record, I’m due to be right.
Whoo-hoo-hoo, look who knows so much. It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive. – Miracle Max in The Princess Bride
This past Wednesday was both Valentine’s Day (a celebration of romantic love) and Ash Wednesday (an observance marked by sacrifice). The juxtaposition of these seemingly diverse concepts got me thinking about one of my favorite movies, The Princess Bride. This 1987 film directed by Rob Reiner has everything a romantic date might want: maidens and pirates, swordfights and acts of revenge, rivalries and true love. Without giving away all the plot points of this 30-year-old cinematic gem, I will say that, with great sacrifice, love conquers all. Love and sacrifice, the perfect combination for those celebrating the full range of experiences observed on February 14, 2018.
One of the pivotal scenes is quoted above: our hero is tortured to death and all hope is lost, unless Miracle Max, a village magician, can bring him back to life. Needless to say, it works and Wesley, the movie’s Prince Charming, is given new life. It works because the hero was only mostly dead, not completely dead; he was still slightly alive. Death and life, the same combination that forms the tension found in the New Testament Scriptures. Those who lose their lives will gain it and those who want to save their lives will lose it, or so the Good Book says.
For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin – because anyone who has died has been set free from sin. Romans 6:6-7
In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul tells believers that we have crucified – painfully killed – our old nature to do away with our bondage to sin. Unfortunately, many of us think that God is a bit like Miracle Max and that we can come to the God of creation in the state of “mostly dead” or “slightly alive” and think that we can be restored to wholeness. But that is simply not true. The prisoner with a life sentence does not receive a pardon because he is sick or because she is at death’s door. Our sin is not fully dealt with when we “mostly” remove it from our lives. We cannot fully enjoy our new life if we continue to hold onto a bit of our old one. Why would we want to try?
As we prepare for Easter with a season of sacrifice, allow me to remind all those who claim Christ as Lord to consider yourself dead to sin: have nothing to do with that old life, with its passions, powers and prizes. Consider yourself alive with new life in Him: embrace fully the pardon you have received, the gifts with which you have been graced and the peace you now enjoy. God is not Miracle Max; He is so much more, not only able to give us our lives back from the grave, but to transform us to be our greatest self.
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.