Last week, I had a conversation with my doctor as part of a routine follow-up (just one of the perks of surviving another birthday). I am proud to say that all my numbers are improving, thanks to a nutritional plan that he recommended I follow. Part of the conversation included my continued craving for the doughnut I had been denying myself. The doctor then stated, “Don’t think about these things as things that you are denying yourself of enjoying; instead, think of all the things you are providing for yourself by your restraint.” As I think about what he said, I remember that I would rather enjoy cardiac health and longer life than three minutes of refined sugar and saturated fat, however delightful those three minutes may be.
I am a big proponent of delayed gratification (the practice of foregoing instant, but temporary, pleasure with the hope of receiving a permanent, and greater, blessing). There is a problem that I see as I exercise discretion through delayed gratification: I tend to focus on what I am refusing and neglect to fix my gaze on what I am gaining. I know that I am skipping dessert when everyone else is indulging; what I need to know is that these tiny steps of obedience are enabling me to spend time with my theoretical four-year-old granddaughter drinking imaginary tea at her make-believe soiree. These are the thoughts that make baked goods (even the always delicious hermits) resistible.
Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” Luke 9:23 (NIV)
Yesterday, as I celebrated my birthday, I spent a few moments reflecting on my past 53 years and all the things I wish I had accomplished by now. I spent time ruing some of the choices of my youth (refusing to limit my spending in order to afford some savings, allowing myself to take shortcuts which lessened both my workload and my stamina) and regretted the nevers of my middle-age (never owning my own home, never travelling to Europe). These moments of reflection upon my dalliances with instant gratification have not discouraged me; they increase my resolve to engage in the sacrifices I must make to seize the future God desires for me.
So, as get up early to spend some time in Bible reading, I pray that I will not focus on the sleep that I am missing but rather upon the deep well of scripture that I am drilling for the day of spiritual dryness. As I spend time in concerted prayer, I pray that I will not dwell on the television show I am missing but rather the conversations with God and the concerns for others that I am finding. As I limit my daily caloric intake, I pray that I will not fixate on the dietary restrictions but rather the increased days that discipline will add to my life.
The only way I can remain ‘on track’ for the long haul is not by thinking about each painful step, but by thinking of the finish line. May we all finish strong the race set before us through self-denial and seeking the greater joy.
I have a simple question for all those reading this: when do we stop celebrating our “Season’s Greetings”? When the radio and television stations return to their regular programming? When the last Christmas cookies have been eaten? When the tree and decorations are taken down? When the final greeting card, initially misdirected by the Post Office, arrives? Until the next holiday is celebrated? Until the children return to school after their Winter Break? Once all the exterior lights have been boxed and stored away? I suppose we all must move on from all of those special gatherings with family and friends filled with all sorts of special traditions and resume the mundane schedule of everyday life, but when?
But what if I do not want to move on from Christmas? What if I still want to reflect on the gifts of advent – the hope, peace, joy and love that comes through the appearing of Christ? What if the remembrance of the 1st advent at Bethlehem, has whet my appetite for the 2nd advent when Christ shall descend from the clouds? While I can dispense with the carols and the cookies, I would like to retain the warmth of the manger, the worship of the shepherds, the hospitality of the city of David and the generosity of God, the Father.
When [the shepherds] had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child…. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. Luke 2:17-20
I want to be like those shepherds, so impacted by the facts and sensations of Christmas that they were undeniably transformed. Because of the advent, these blue-collar laborers went from sheep herders shaking in fear to pastors leading lost sheep to verdant fields. They went back to their ordinary schedules with an understanding of the extraordinary sights and sounds of the Savior born in a Bethlehem manger. They were changed by Christmas, as is evidenced by their propensity for giving glory and praise to God. They had no special carols or cards or casseroles – they had the Christ and He was sufficient to sustain them.
I will, in the days ahead, put everything that symbolizes Christmas into boxes or, in the case of our tree, onto the curb – all the external stimuli that reminds me of that blessed event two thousand years ago. But, like the shepherds, I will continue to carry inside me all the sounds, scents and sights that make Christmas special. My hope is that the inward prompts of these sensational sensations will stimulate my soul to maintain a spirit of glory and praise every day in every place as I interact with everyone. Instead of celebrating Christmas throughout the year, perhaps I can communicate the hope, peace, joy and love of Immanuel – God with us – for a while longer.
Lord, help me to remember that on every day that ends with ‘y’ that Christ came to inaugurate “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
Last Sunday, I spent part of my vacation visiting a church not far from home. The fact that I went to church on vacation is not my point in this posting. Where we went is also not my point, nor is my point the fact that it was a wonderful service. What I felt as I sat there, on the other side of the pulpit, can be summed up in one word: distracted. I was distracted by the worship leader’s broken guitar string (and how he was going to handle the set-back). I was distracted by the graphics on the screen (and the exceptional quality of said images that the church projected through two large television screens). I was distracted by those sitting next to me (my boys have nothing softer than a stage whisper) and those sitting a few rows in front of me (who were shifting in their seats randomly and consistently).
My point is this: we all, even when we have the best of intentions, get distracted by the things that bombard our senses every Sunday. Perhaps, like me, you hear the radiator hiss or the bench squeak. Perhaps, like me, you see the head three rows ahead bob back and forth or the lamp on the platform flicker off and on. Perhaps, like me, you smell the lip balm of your wife or the phantom aromas of pot-lucks past. Perhaps, like me, you feel an odd breeze or sense your leg falling asleep. Before you know it, like me, you are missing what the Spirit is saying.
A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. Luke 7:37
As I think about my distracted mind last Sunday, I think about the Pharisee who invited Jesus to his house for dinner. In those days, eating a meal with someone was a big deal: it represented the importance of the relationship. As Jesus and the Pharisee were discussing any number of pressing matters, a woman comes in and proceeds to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears. The Pharisee (and apparently Luke) are fascinated by this woman, wetting His feet with her weeping, wiping them away with her hair and anointing them with perfume and kisses. Quite the spectacle.
At some point Jesus, knowing the Pharisee’s thoughts and his distracted condition, breaks through and tells the Pharisee a parable about forgiveness. This serves as a good reminder to all of us: Jesus knows our thoughts and how we are easily distracted, and He is willing and able to capture (and recapture) our attention to show us what we need to see. Jesus is faithful to His adopted siblings, pulling us away from our daydreams and off our rabbit trails and redirecting our thoughts toward His counsel. That is what I needed last Sunday, a nudge to ignore the behavior of that woman in front of me and focus (if only for a moment) on the Lord before me.
We all get distracted at times (even on Sunday mornings at 11:40 in Dorchester). It is good to know that God not only understands, but assists us in catching what we need to hear even when we are not listening.
According to the Pew Research Center, there are more than 20.4 million veterans alive today in the United States, slightly more than one in sixteen Americans. This weekend, we commemorate their sacrifice, and the sacrifices of their loved ones, as we observe Veteran’s Day. We take time as a country to recognize the efforts of the members of our armed forces – Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marines and Navy – as they defended our freedom in World War II, the Korean Conflict, the Viet Nam War, the Gulf War and in peace-time service. We recognize those who are presently serving on ships and at bases across the globe, and we recognize those who remain at home awaiting their return.
When I turned eighteen (in the winter of ’84), there were no on-going war zones and so I was not compelled to enlist or serve. In a way, I feel that I missed out on something special. I was not willing to endure the hardships of basic training or the rigors of living in barracks. I also missed out on the camaraderie and support of one soldier supporting another, of one pilot protecting the back of another, of one sailor confiding in another or one marine securing the success of another. We must respect these servicewomen and men who see the cause ahead of them as greater than all they have left behind and are willing to bear the cost that cause demands.
Join with me in suffering, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. 2 Timothy 2:3
How does that old camp song go? “I may never march in the infantry, ride in the cavalry, shoot the artillery. I may never fly o’er the enemy, but I’m in the Lord’s army!” Now, I am in no way equating the life-threatening peril faced by a veteran and the daily drudgery of a follower of Christ. What I am thinking about is what might happen if the kingdom of God had citizens who were willing to suffer as a good soldier. What ground could be claimed, what captives could be set free, if we, as followers of Christ, see the cause ahead of us – the redemption of souls through the furthering of the gospel – as greater than all we want to keep for ourselves. What if we, too, were willing to bear the cost that cause demands.
There is a great debt that we all owe to all those who are willing to sacrifice everything for our freedom. This debt extends from Jesus, who entered enemy territory to set us free from the bondage of death and sin, to every member of the military, who entered enemy territory to secure life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We ought to be grateful for the sacrifices that secure our freedoms and recognize the costs that others have made. May the followers of Christ have the same commitment to those around them that the veterans we celebrate on November 11th have.
For those who wore, or are wearing, the flag on their shoulder, we thank you.
Driving in Boston can be an adventure: the streets are narrow, turn signals are for ‘the other car’ and the solid yellow lines are ignored. I am typically the driver on family trips to the grocery store or school, with my loving wife in the front passenger seat. As we navigate the roads around our residence, she gently reminds me on occasion of people and vehicles that are dangerously close to our car. “Watch out for that car pulling out of the driveway,” she implores. “Do you see that woman with the baby carriage?” she asks. “There’s a truck on your left,” she says.
What my wife is pointing out are my blind spots. When she says these things and asks these questions, I am quick to tell her that I am fine and that I see everything she mentions. I am confident that I know where my blind spots are and what is contained within them. As I write these words, I realize just how dumb they sound: am I really proposing that I can see and process the things that, by definition, I cannot see, the things to which I am blind? What makes them blind spots is the fact that they are not seen.
We all need an extra pair of eyes, someone watching our backs, if we hope to avoid disaster. We all need someone outside ourselves, someone with a slightly different perspective, who will tell us the hard facts that we are unable to recognize. We all need someone who will see the trouble before it strikes and warn us (or, at least, enable us to brace for impact). We need other people in our lives in order to avoid becoming a wreck: physically, emotionally, spiritually or relationally. “Watch out for increased sodium levels,” they will implore. “Do you see those red flags that your new companion is raising?” they will ask. “There’s a flaw in your logic,” they will say.
As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another. Proverbs 27:17 (NIV)
In order for iron to sharpen iron, in order for the hammer and anvil to shape the blade and in order for the file to hone the edge two things are needed: fire and friction. Solomon, in all his wisdom, understood that we need the same thing, especially in the blind spots. We need fire; the healthiest relationships include elements of passion and purification. We need friction; the healthiest relationships include the qualities of proximity and pressure. In order to make it from one point in life to another without damage, we need a friend who is close enough to care and strong enough to say what needs saying.
It is my firm belief that this type of friendship is a gift from God. He blesses us with people who will point out what is in our blind spots because they love us and want the best for us. It is in our best interest to foster those who will bring fire and friction into our life, so that we can avoid the flames. I thank God for my wife, my second set of eyes. I pray you have someone similar to her with whom you can ride along.
Being an introvert by nature, I tend to think out (in greater detail than may be healthy) scenarios that may of may not ever be founded in reality. After this week’s Sunday School lesson on James 2, I have been fixated on what I might do if a celebrity came to Calvary to worship. My mind conjured questions: What person of influence, wealth or status might grace us with their presence? How would they be greeted? What engagement might be biblically appropriate? I follow the rabbit-trails of thought that make me reason that a new member of a local sports franchise might come to Calvary; Patriots players are out (they play on Sundays), as are Red Sox players (playoffs and all), so I think about Gordon Hayward, the Celtic star who once said in an interview that “[going to church has] always been a staple; something I try to do.”
So, what would I do if Gordon Hayward came to church on Sunday? Would I do more than I would for a neighbor? Would I offer him a special seat? Would I ask him to offer a few words during the ‘announcements’ in the service of worship? Would I ask for a photo or an autograph? Would I post a quick update to social media, stating, ‘Guess who came to church this morning’? Would I ask for tickets to the next game, purely for ministry purposes? What would the Bible tell me is right and proper?
My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. James 2:1 (NIV)
The Scriptures tell us that we must not show favoritism, the practice of giving unfair preferential treatment to one person or group at the expense of another. We must not give something better to some at the expense of others. The words of James’ letter to the churches tells us that we give special attention to the rich by offering a good seat while demanding that the poor stand in a back corner. So, if Gordon Hayward comes to Calvary this Sunday, I will treat him like anyone else: I will shake his hand and ask what brought him to church; I will seek his prayer requests and opportunities for praise as I extend the opportunity to everyone in attendance; and I will share with him the good news of Jesus Christ.
Instead of favoritism, we ought to show favor, the practice of showing kindness beyond what is due or usual. We are expected to show favor to all those who come in the doors of the church. So that if a visitor, whether wealthy and powerful or weak and poor, joins in worship at Calvary I will treat them all with kindness – I will speak with dignity, offer inclusion, express equity and advance grace. If we offer preferential treatment to everyone, we are not showing favoritism but favor. On that day, we will give the best seat to anyone who opens the door – saint or sinner – with the hope that grace will abound.
Do me a favor: visit us some Sunday morning and we will show you favor in return.
I am tired of it all. I am done with being cut off in traffic when the other car entering the flow refuses to ‘zipper’ in, with being interrupted before I can complete a sentence, with reaching the buffet table and finding empty dishes because the guy in front of me took more than appropriate, with running out of the public park because dog owners de-leash their pets – a cannot tell by its gait that she’s friendly – and with neglecting to bag her poop, with having a door close in my face because the person in front of me sneaks passed the coffee shop door as it closes (as if they are auditioning for “Mission Impossible”) and with the general absence of please and thank you by society. Call me a curmudgeon if you’d like, but I am desperate for some common courtesy.
In today’s vernacular ‘courtesy’ is synonymous ‘free’ or ‘extra’ – courtesy calls from a service provider, courtesy vans from the auto body shop or courtesy phones found in hotel lobbies. But its original meaning had more to do with characteristics of politeness and manners. It is this latter definition that I miss in today’s interactions; I miss males acting as gentlemen and females acting as ladies. At some point in my lifetime, our culture shifted and began valuing entitlement and individual rights over mutual respect and civility. Many of the lessons I learned in elementary school – the practices of sharing, waiting one’s turn and refraining from unkind comments – are summarily ignored by a large segment of our population.
We need to be reminded of the words of Jesus:
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
This sentence, commonly called “The Golden Rule”, is perhaps the second most familiar statement of Christ (the first being John 3:16). God Incarnate told His followers nearly 2,000 years ago that we are to treat other people the way we want to be treated. With a greater or lesser degree of success, we all have been wrestling with our obedience to this command since it was first uttered. We attempt to work the angles, balancing our needs with the needs of others, often failing because we resolve the tension with faulty math: if I hold the door for one or two people, those two turn into an untold number; I then end up at the end of the line and face delays that no one should be required to face; therefore, I cannot hold the door for you. My needs are paramount.
But when everyone makes similar computations, and I fear that this is our present reality, Jesus’ words are ignored and no one is treated they way they want to be treated. Everyone does what they want and common courtesy is but a relic of the past, like hand-written letters and house calls. All is not lost, however, and God’s word will never return empty: if a few of us choose courtesy and champion kindness, the culture can change over time. Join me in following the golden rule; it might encourage other to do the same toward you.
We had an interesting visitor to the church the other day: a location scout. It seems that there are plans for a major motion picture to film in Boston this fall and they were looking for a church to shoot a scene. The scout told me they were looking for a place to film a sparsely attended funeral and she came by to take a few pictures of our sanctuary. In the ten minutes that the location scout was taking her shots of the building, my thoughts went on a flight of fancy: what if our church was selected and we had Hollywood heavyweights filling our pews; what if our sanctuary made it into a movie; what if it were nominated for an Academy Award?
Whether or not we are chosen as a location for this movie, our church will not be captured on film. The truth is that the church is not the building. The building is a beautiful composition of plaster, wood, metal, asphalt and glass. The church, on the other hand, is an even more glorious composition of personalities, abilities, experiences and passions. The building is a specific place, but the church is a specific people. While the building, with its carpeting and lighting, might be viewed on the big screen, our church, with its emotions and affections, cannot be experienced as entertainment.
Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house. Colossians 4:15
The above-referenced passage reveals an important truth found in numerous other passages in Scripture: there is a distinction between the church and the place where it meets (in this case “in her house”). The early believers did not ‘go to church’ but went to a place to be with the church, to gather with sisters and brothers of faith to worship, to pray, to educate and to minister. Church is not where the Bible tells us to go or what the Bible tells us to do, but who the Bible tells us to be. The church is the family of God, the body and bride of Christ, and temple of the Holy Spirit. So, maybe our building will be in the movies, but the church is too great to be preserved on celluloid.
For most, this weekend represents the end of summer and the beginning of autumn, the time when schools and colleges resume their classes. It is also the time when churches resume their regular schedules and programs. It would be a great time to think about gathering with the church and share your gifts, strengths and passions in ways that foster growth and increase His kingdom. For most of us, that will mean going to a ‘house of worship’ – I dare not say going to ‘church’ – and getting together with the church – what the Greek calls ekklesia, “the ones called out”. Join others as we celebrate that we are more than a special place on the map; we are the one whom God has called out of the culture of this world and brought together as a family of faith.
That cannot be contained in any camera’s lens.
We have a mouse in our apartment. At least, we hope we have a mouse in our apartment and not multiple mice living among us. On the bright side, it is a small mouse; however, small as it may be, it still has the power to startle my wife and family at will. It has been seen dashing under the hinges of open doors and scurrying across the floor into a gap between the dishwasher and the cabinet. This little mouse is, more or less, a nuisance, diverting our attention from the television or from conversation when it is seen out of the corner of our eyes. That said, this little mouse may be an indication of a larger ‘infestation’ and must be dealt with.
Metaphorically, I have a great deal of little mice in my house: they are the seemingly inconsequential things called temptations. They distract and derail my mind if they are not properly addressed as the damaging dangers they are. They reveal themselves during the idle times of my life since I do have instant access to those little graphic images of a prurient nature or an app on my phone that enables me to procure doughnuts at a moment’s notice. But, unlike the pesky mus musculus that might chew through an electrical wire or contaminate your cookie supply, temptation will (if unchecked) drag you off and destroy your life.
… but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. James 1:14-15
Unlike the house mouse, which infiltrates the boundaries of our abodes and then wreaks havoc, temptation is formed within the walls of our soul through the development of a desire for immediate gratification through the things of the world. That desire becomes an obsession, that obsession becomes a sinful act and that sinful act becomes a sinful pattern, which leads to spiritual death. While I can tolerate the presence of a little rodent without much concern for the repercussions, it would be foolhardy to allow temptation of any type to take up residence in my heart because the consequences are so dire.
To deal with the issue, I must ask: what is the mouse trap for temptation or the rat poison for desire? I believe the remedy to temptation has three aspects: recognize the truth about you, remember the provision of God and resist any inferior substitutes. First, recognize the truth about you – your weaknesses, your strengths and your blind spots – so that you are aware of the dangers before they surface. Then, remember the provision of God – the abundance of life, truth and love – and trust His will for you. Finally, resist the innate desire to accept anything inferior – what is quicker, easier or cheaper – to God’s very best. If we know, for example, that we are tempted to bear false witness (i.e., lie), we can resist that temptation by being aware of our inclination, remember God’s equipping us to share the truth and reject the temporary comfort through ‘gilding the lily’.
We all have things we need to deal with in order to keep our home healthy and whole … whether it be a (hu)man or a mouse.
Earlier this week, my family went to see Disney’s latest movie, “Christopher Robin”. It was a sweet, if somewhat simple, story of a grown man remembering the importance of family and friends. As I watched, I was transported to my childhood, through the recollection of familiar songs and sayings of a bear and his friends, and my early adulthood, as I remembered watching on VHS these same stories with my children. For me (and those my age), it was a trip down memory lane and into the hundred-acre wood, making me long for simpler times.
These thoughts I am having are ‘nostalgia’, which is defined as ‘a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition’. The term comes from the Greek word nostos (home) and algia (pain): it is literally ‘home-sickness’. Nostalgia is all about feelings: longing for the good old days or the hoping that we can make America great again. But nostalgia (like all feelings) is not necessarily anchored in reality, for the good old days may not have been all that good for some in our society and the America of generations past may not have been as great as we recall.
Instead of embracing sentimentality based on feelings, the Bible commands us to elicit memories based on facts. The last few weeks, at Vacation Bible School and through Sunday morning messages, I have read in the scriptures what we are commanded to remember: as the Israelites were crossing the Jordan River and entering the Promised Land they were commanded to erect a tower of 12 stones from the riverbed (an Ebenezer, a ‘stone of remembrance’) to remind future generations of the deliverance Lord had granted them; and through the letters Jesus dictated to the churches in Asia Minor they were commanded to remember the great height from which they had fallen. They were commanded to remember the facts of God’s gracious and merciful interactions with them, not the emotions of the moment.
Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent. Revelation 3:3
The church is commanded to remember what we have received (tangible blessings and actual gifts) and what we have heard (reliable teachings and sworn testimonies). We are not commanded to commemorate how we felt about what we have received or heard. In fact, an argument could be made that nostalgia emotions and feelings are man-made idols which could take the place of God if we are not careful. Instead of worshiping the God who has revealed Himself in the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, we are tempted to offer our sacrifices to the gods of happiness and comfort. Unfortunately, those who choose feelings over facts end up with nothing.
It is good to remember what has happened in the past – what God has done and said – but it might not be best to wish we went back. May the source of our joy in the present be what is real and not simply what we feel.