Tag Archives: Gospel

A Matter of Course

How does that old saying go?  “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”  Seems that my family is entering another season of transition: Joshua is entering his Middle School years, David is off to college, Rebekah is finishing college, and we are moving (again).  As we navigate these changes over the next few months, we are seeking God’s wisdom and provision.  We are asking questions that will only be answered by some sort of divine intervention.  I write all this not to solicit advice, but rather to seek prayer for His provision and direction in the days ahead from those who are so inclined.

Transitions come in all shapes and sizes.  Everyone goes through times of relocation, recalibration and recuperation.   We cannot eliminate transitions, but we can anticipate them and appreciate them.  Transitions offer us all the opportunity to eliminate the clutter that accumulates in life and acknowledge the course corrections that every life must experience.  Transitions provide us with times to cleanse ourselves from the toxins that sap us of life and place us in environments for growth.  Transitions, like every form of change, are truly challenging, but when navigated properly they can be a blessing.

The author of Hebrews has wisdom from God for all those entering into a season change:

And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.  Hebrews 12:1-2

We need heed God’s advice to run the race of our life with perseverance.  According to Merriam-Webster, perseverance is the continued effort to do or achieve something despite difficulties, failure, or opposition.  Life is fraught with difficulties, failure, or opposition that can either frustrate us or fuel us.  God’s encouragement to all of us is to continue exerting the effort necessary to accomplish our goals.

We need to contemplate that there is a course marked out for us by the creator of the universe.  We each have a unique path, filled with peaks and valleys, that we are called to complete.  We could, I suppose, choose to run someone else’s race and reach a place that will not fully satisfy, but it would be better to remain on the road that God has established to bring us where we ought to go.

We need to fix our eyes on Jesus: He has run this race before and now waits for us at the finish line.  He is the pioneer (or author or source) of our faith – He is the one who is trustworthy and reliable.  He is the perfecter of our faith – He is the one who teaches us how to finish strong and avoid the distractions that drown our dreams.  He will lead us to the right and proper places when we trust in Him.

Would it be easier if life was absent of adversity, where we all were following the same formula and where it all works out in the end?  Sure.  But life is not like that.  Our lives are continually in flux and difficulties and detours must be expected.  Thankfully, we have a focal point, our Savior, who waits for us at our ‘forever’ home.  All we need to do is stay on course until we reach the finish line.

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Nail’d It!

Recently, I have been watching a captivating show on Netflix called “Nail’d It!”  According to the streaming service’s website, the program is described in this way: “Home bakers with a terrible track record take a crack at re-creating edible masterpieces for a $10,000 prize.  It’s part reality contest, part hot mess.”  Here is what happens during each 30-minute episode: three amateur home cooks, with limited time, resources and experience try to copy baked goods worthy of Pinterest created by professional bakers with unlimited time, resources and experience.  The facsimiles never quite match the originals, but that is what makes the show so delightful.  The home bakers work so hard and fail so often, incurring the good-natured ribbing of the diverse panel of judges.  Yes, the end-products are woefully awful in comparison, but they are also delightfully ambitious.

This show appeals to be because it turns a particular cultural fascination on its head – capturing perfection through a post on social media.  There are millions of selfies that go unposted because of some imperceptible flaw that the sole picture posted does not contain.  There are hours devoted to staging furniture and furnishings so that uploaded photos of real estate are displayed in the best light.  We rarely expose our sub-par efforts, let alone our failures, to the scrutiny of public opinion.  Unless it is perfect, we are left to assume it is without value.  Social media has created a cultural expectation of quality where ‘good’ is rarely good enough.

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.  2 Timothy 2:15

I think Paul would have a tough time adapting to our culture, replete with social media’s expectations of perfection.  When he wrote to Timothy, he encourages him to give his best effort and, therefore, never feel needless shame.  He did not say that Timothy should cover the façade of life’s messiness with a veneer of superficial perfection, pretending that he could master every aspect of life and ministry.  Perhaps there is a blessing in knowing that we cannot do everything perfectly, but that we can always do our best.  Life is not expected to look like a magazine photo-shoot.  Life is often troubling to look at and imprecise, and that should be okay.

One of the more redemptive aspects of “Nail’d It!” is that the judges place a value on presentation, but they also value taste.  If it doesn’t look pretty but is delicious, the judges may still declare that entry the winner.  Mastering the fundamentals of baking counts for something.   Mastering the fundamentals of life and living counts, too.  This is true when it comes to relationships, service, ministry, faith, communication, compassion and about a million other things.  There is something deeply biblical in that.  Life does not always look pretty but treating the ingredients of life and living properly will, at worst, make it palatable.  Handled properly, it may even be delicious.

The cake with the elevated teapot is not the norm.  The photo of the beachside sunset is not typical.  The brochure with all the smiling faces is probably not real.  But the simple cake, the salt air and the full spectrum of human emotions are what life is composed of…and often times it is delicious.

Proper Prayer

I was recently with a group of pastors where one of the participants prepared a devotional based on Acts 12.  As we discussed this portion of scripture, the topic of prayer was brought up due, in no small part, to the mention (in verse 4) of the church earnestly praying to God for Peter, who was at the time in jail, and the mention (in verse 12) of the people gathered in Mary’s home who were praying throughout the night.  Despite all this prayer, earnestly offered, the church was not prepared for Peter’s miraculous escape and were astonished when he knocked at their gate.  The dynamics of engagement with God through prayer is a wonderful mystery.

I wish I could tell you how prayer works.  I wish there was a formula where you could plug in your request and you would know the outcome.  I wish I was not like the early believers written about in Acts 12 who powerfully and persistently prayed for Peter but were unable to comprehend the answer.  It seems that we are consistently praying in one direction and the answer comes unexpectedly from another direction.  Is it possible that our faith effects our ability to anticipate the answer, or do we pray with the realization that our faith will grow through the unanticipated ways the Almighty will work the resolution?  Whatever the machinations or motivations for our prayers may be, we are called to present our requests before God.

[Jehoshaphat prayed,] “Our God, will you not judge them?  For we have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us.  We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” 2 Chronicles 20:12 (NIV)

I like Jehoshaphat’s prayer.  Here is the king of Judah, the earthly ruler of God’s people, crying out to God because of an impossible situation – a vast army from Edom was just beyond the city gates.  What would you pray for if you faced certain destruction unless the God of creation intervened?  To strengthen your forces?  To give success to your plans?  Thankfully for us who are puzzled by prayer, Jehoshaphat’s petition takes a different tack.

“For we have no power….”  It is as if Jehoshaphat is saying that God will have to do something if anything is going to be done.  We would be wise to reflect upon the truth of these words: we cannot arrest cancer, we cannot end violence, we cannot create wealth, we cannot change a human heart.  We pray because we are powerless to effect much of what we pray for.

“We do not know what to do….”  Jehoshaphat has no plans, so asking for success in the abstract is fruitless.  We would be wise to reflect upon the truth of these words as well: We are often unable to process all the details of our situation, let alone formulate action steps to bring about change.  We are much better off to leave the process to the one who holds all things in order: God.

“…our eyes are on you.”  Ultimately, Jehoshaphat determines that the only thing to do is watch for God’s movement and follow Him.  A better prayer has never been uttered: to paraphrase, “Show me where you are and enable me to remain there.”

We have no overwhelming power, but Christ does.  We have no earth-shattering plans, but Christ does.  But we do have the ability of focus our attention on the things that matter…may that singular point of focus be Christ as we make every petition and request to Him.

Bee Perfect

Last Thursday night, I was captivated by a contest televised on ESPN: the 92nd Annual Scripps National Spelling Bee.  Let me say that I am not an advocate for the cultural predilection toward presenting  “participation awards” (the ubiquitous practice of giving everyone on the team a trophy, regardless of the score); both winning and losing has the ability to build character and excellence ought to be recognized.  So, as I began watching the ‘evening finals’, beginning with round nine where sixteen children were still competing, I was very-much looking forward to seeing a champion crowned and the other 15 children cheered as they walked off the stage, defeated but undaunted.

The ninth round of words was perfectly executed – all 16 mastered the words they were given.  Then, over the next 5 rounds, eight participants misspelled their word and exited the competition.  At that point, the remaining eight spellers broke the system, correctly spelling the next 47 words.  It was announced at one point that they were running out of words and, after a few more rounds, all those still spelling would win.  After a total of 20 rounds, the directors of the bee declared all the remaining contestants the winner of the competition.  Rishik Gandhasri, age 13 (who spelled ‘auslaut’), Erin Howard, 14 (‘erysipelas’), Saketh Sundar, 13 (‘bougainvillea’), Shruthika Padhy, 13 (‘aiguillette’), Sohum Sukhatankar, 13 (‘pendeloque’), Abhijay Kodali, 12 (‘palama’) Christopher Serrao, 13 (‘cernuous’) and Rohan Raja, 13 (‘odylic’) all walked away with the $50,000 and the trophy as champions of the National Spelling Bee.

This was not, in any way, a participation award.  It was a pronouncement of excellence, as each one perfectly executed the task before them.  These eight great spellers finished the competition without error and were declared the winner.  The unfolding of this competition reminded me of the words of Paul to the church in Corinth:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize?  Run in such a way as to get the prize.  1 Corinthians 9:24

These young competitors all expected that there would be only one winner and they prepared accordingly.  They competed to win the prize and they finished the competition in first place.  They won – they all won – together, giving one another High-fives and cheering on one another’s correct (always correct) efforts.   The rules of the competition did not change, only the fact that many finished perfectly, together.

In many ways, I saw a glimpse of the heavenly in the very early moments of May 31st.  The conclusion of the spelling bee reminded me of the concluding moments of life: we are diligently competing for the prize, surrounded by our fellow competitors, when the director of the race, the Lord Almighty, states that all who cross the finish line first will be declared winner.  At that moment, we interlock elbows and all step across the finish line together, all securing the prize.  We celebrate one another, realizing that we are not competing against the other runners, but the course itself.    All those still standing at the end will receive the prize.

One last word to spell:  H-A-L-L-E-L-U-J-A-H!

Plans for the Summer

Last Monday, Memorial Day, was the cultural beginning of summer and tomorrow, June 1st, is its start, meteorologically.  While I do not consider it summer until the air conditioners are placed in the windows (alas, no central air for us), I realize that it is that time again when we ask one another if we have made our vacation plans yet.  For those of us in New England, it is the time we take the ice scrapers out of the car and replace them with beach chairs; it is the time when we begin to enjoy ice cream in cones while on a walk rather than in bowls while watching TV.  It is a time for cookouts and campouts.

I hope you have plans for the summer – going to the lake or the mountains, spending time in the nation’s capital or at the in-laws, visiting a newest theme park or watching the latest blockbuster.  I hope that these plans for the summer, whether at home or away, includes the worship of the Lord.  I hope that your summer plans at your home church and the places you visit while on vacation allow you to offer our whole selves to God in grateful praise.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship.  Romans 12:1

As Paul says to the church in Rome, this offering of ourselves is primarily a sacrificial act intended to glorify God.  The imagery he uses is one of an altar, the sacred place of righteous giving.  As a way of responding to God’s mercy, we give ourselves – our time, talent and treasure – with gifts that are of varied amounts (some can give an hour or a dollar, while others have more to give) in completely voluntary ways.  In light of all the blessings you enjoy because of God’s kindness, could you spend a bit of your summertime resources appreciating Him?

This offering, however, will have consequences.  When we agree to offer our bodies, we offer all its parts.  This act of generosity effects our talking, for our tongues have been offered.  This act of generosity effects our toiling, for our hands have been offered.  This act of generosity effects our traveling, for our legs have been offered.  There may be plans, on vacation or at home, that will need to be curtailed or delayed because we are offering our resources to Him.  The beach and the barbeque will have to wait.  It is always better to exercise your faith in flip flops than to forgo the blessing of gathering altogether.

Our rightful response to the blessings God gives us – our vacations and vocations, our purses and our purposes – is to be living sacrifices.  We are living sacrifices: continually, in every season and on every day, offering what He has given us to share.  We are holy sacrifices: set apart for His purposes.  We are pleasing sacrifices: demonstrating what is appropriate for Him.  I hope that this attitude is the highlight of your next season.

Together Together

Last week, a number of people in my family, including me, watched the series finale of “The Big Bang Theory”.  It was a fitting conclusion to the show, as we witnessed one of the main characters, Sheldon, uncharacteristically consider others more highly than he considered himself and utilize the spotlight afforded him through professional success to speak words of affirmation and appreciation to his typically disregarded friends.  It was an exceptional picture of the concept of community.  Those watching the program, 18.5 million in all, including the people in my home, were much less a demonstration of community: while we were all doing the same thing at the same time, we weren’t truly together.

‘Together’ is a word we like to use in the church.  We gather together, worship together, pray together, serve together, learn together, and rejoice together.  But is this togetherness similar to the relationships portrayed on television or to the relationships displayed in millions of homes on a Thursday night?  What does being together, from a biblical standpoint, look like?

All the believers were together and had everything in common.  They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.  Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts.  They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts….  Acts 2:44-46

The other night, as part of a Bible study on Acts 2:42-47, we were discussing the word ‘together’.  The word is used twice in the passage, but two different Greek words are utilized: ἐπί (epi) is verse 44 and ὁμοθυμαδόν (homothumadon) in verse 46.  These two Greek words mean two very different things.  ‘epi’ is a preposition meaning ‘with or upon’, used to describe location or geography: in the context of verse 42, the disciples were in the same place or were locationally close.  ‘homothumadon’ is an adverb meaning ‘having or sharing in the same strong emotion’ and is used to modify an action emotionally: the disciples were sharing the same passion or were emotionally close.

The togetherness that the church aspires to experience includes both proximity and community.  It requires both being in the same place (proximity) and having the same heart (community).  We need to be together in the same place: we must see one another and breath the same air as we hear and do the same things; we cannot help one another if we do not know one another and we cannot know one another if we are never with one another.  We need to be together in the same spirit: we must embrace the same passionate pursuit – to know Christ and to make Him known – as we practice the disciplines of faith; it is not enough to do things together if we do it individualistically.

Spiritual growth and maturity require both proximity and community.  We need to be close geographically and close emotionally.  Think about that when you are making your plans for the weekend, and perhaps choosing to get together with others and be together with others at a church in your neighborhood.

Losing After Winning

It was supposed to be the fastest two minutes in sports, but the Kentucky Derby turned out to be the longest 20 minutes in horse racing.   As a way of providing a quick recap from the race that took place a couple of weeks ago, here is what the stewards of Churchill Downs officially recorded:  the lead horse, Maximum Security, strayed from his lane and impacted the progress of another horse, War of Will, which in turn interfered with two others, Long Range Toddy and Bodexpress; because of this infraction, Maximum Security was disqualified and considered not to have participated, and the second place finisher, a horse named Country House, was declared a winner.  Earlier this week, ten days after the race, the owners of Maximum Security filed a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn the disqualification.

I have an insufficient knowledge of the rules of thoroughbred racing to posit an opinion about the merits of the disqualification or the lawsuit.  Was one horse’s veering from its path into the path of another sufficient cause to force the forfeiture of the substantial purse and the even more substantial legacy that goes with winning the Kentucky Derby?  I cannot say.  But then again, hypothetically, was my traveling ten miles over the speeding limit, along with everyone else, sufficient reason for a state police officer to cite me for speeding?  Hypothetically again, was my fabrication about a little thing like coffee consumption sufficient cause for people to question my truthfulness?

But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.  1 Corinthians 9:27 (ESV)

Call it what you will: a competitive edge, a social construct, an ethical dilemma or a way of doing business; if it is unlawful, unethical or ungodly, it ought not to be done.  Those who do these things are in danger of disqualification.  Paul’s advice: stay in your lane.  He tells us the secret to his spiritual integrity – if it takes away from the message we are telling or tarnishes our witness to the gospel, it is not worth the price.  When we step over the line, we risk everything: it is possible that we could also forfeit our reward and forgo our legacy.

The antidote for disqualification is discipline or, as other translations put it, beating our bodies.  We need the Holy Spirit to ride us like a righteous jockey, coaxing us with the crop to continue running on the right track and spurring us on to expend our greatest effort and achieve God’s goal.   We need the Word of God to be a faithful trainer, strengthening us through resistance exercises and building our endurance through running the course.  We need the Church to be a constant companion, challenging us when we are slogging through the mud and encouraging us to finish the race.

We are so much more than racehorses.  We, who know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, are children of the Almighty and we ought never do anything that might jeopardize our birthright – the crown of life reserved for the victor.  Trust the Holy Spirit, the Word of God and the Church to keep us on track and finish the race properly.

Unsung Heroes

“All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.”  Abraham Lincoln

Sunday is Mother’s Day, when three out of four of us will purchase a greeting card and over two-thirds of us will buy flowers for our mom (or our children’s mom).  It is the least we can do for those who have given us so much of themselves.  There is something in our mother’s kisses that are more therapeutic than the best medicine and something in her voice that is more comforting than the best psychotherapy.  Mom was likely the first to read to us, pray for us and cry with us.  She made sure, for most of us, that we had a birthday cake on our special day and a new outfit for the first day of school.  It is right and good to honor and remember the ones who endured painful labor and sleepless nights for her children:  God bless Mom!

As I think about Mother’s Day, my thoughts come back to a commercial I recently saw for the Portal from Facebook.  In the commercial, actor Neil Patrick Harris decides to call and celebrate his mother on Mother’s Day using the Portal from Facebook.   He sees that she’s not alone; she has company: the mothers of Serena and Venus Williams, Odell Beckham Jr., Snoop Dogg and Dwayne Johnson among others.   While Neil knows who they are, most people watching the commercial are unfamiliar with the women on the video-chat screen and are given only a clue by Neil’s references – Odell’s mom, Jonah’s mom and the like.  These women, no doubt, have done great things in their own right but are willingly recognized as someone’s mom.  We ourselves may not actually know some women’s names, only that they are so-and-so’s mom.  God bless you, Neil’s mom.

I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also.  2 Timothy 1:5 (NIV)

One of the moms of the Bible who lived a life of seemingly quiet obscurity is Lois – the mom of Eunice, who was the mom of Timothy.  All we know about this woman is what we read in the verse I have quoted.  All we have as a historical record is that a sincere faith lived in her.  There are so many unanswered questions: Did she have hobbies or a favorite story?  Where did she grow up?  How long was she married?  Was she like the Proverbs 31 woman and worked outside (as well as inside) the home?  Was she tall, attractive and wealthy or petite, plain and poor?  All we know is her name, her heart and her grandson.  But, in God’s economy, that is enough.  God has blessed us with moms like Lois.

Happy Mother’s Day to all those who are known by the world only as someone’s mom.  God knows you are much more than that: you are leaders of industry, educators, medical experts, investors, inventors and artists – and then you go out the front doors of your home and do even more.  Happy Mother’s Day!

The Lap of Luxury

The other day, an article in Relevant Magazine came to my attention.  It reported on a new Instagram© account, PreachersNSneakers, that shows influential Christian leaders wearing high priced fashion.  According to the article, the internet poster shows, among many examples, one pastor wearing SBB Jordan 1 sneakers, which cost $965, and another pastor wearing $1,045 Adam & Yves Saint Laurent boots.  With all fairness, it is unclear who paid for or provided the pictured church leaders with their footwear or clothing, whether it was a personal purchase, an unsolicited gift or a promotional perk.  Whatever the source, the pictures are shocking the sensibilities of many in the Christian community.

The article made me think about my choices, especially a few weeks ago on Easter Sunday, of dress.  I wore a new suit (purchased at a ‘Buy 1, Get 2 Free’ sale), a new shirt and tie (both acquired while on sale at Kohl’s), a pair of old, but polished shoes, and new socks.  It is these socks that give me pause: they were a gift from my daughter, who purchased them in Rome at the Vatican’s gift shop; they were produced by the tailor of the Pope.  They may be the most luxurious item I have worn in a great while.

I remember commenting on the socks throughout the morning, glowingly reflecting that my “Pope socks” were a gift.  I have no idea how much they cost my daughter – perhaps as little as $10 or as much as $50 (to which my thoughts scream, “Heavens, no!”)  I gave no thought to the challenges some in the congregation may be facing: was there a participant in worship that wondered if I had paid for socks that would have filled their car with gas or bought them a weekend’s worth of groceries?  This train of thought has subsequently been derailed as I think of the luxuries I enjoy that may come at the expense of ministry – thoughts relating to how much I spend on coffee or dining out or fashion accessories.

Better a little with the fear of the LORD than great wealth with turmoil.  Proverbs 15:16

It is easy to judge people we only read about because their sneakers are more valuable than our cars.  It is harder to correctly assess these things as they relate to our own personal spending habits.  The line between necessities and luxuries can be difficult to locate.  Most of us do not need personally tailored suits or dresses, brand name sneakers or stilettos, or homes with ten bedrooms.  But we do need shirts, shoes and shelters.  The optics of excess lie in the details, both in what we spend and the cultural surrounding in which we spend.  Manhattan has a different standard than Montgomery of what is a necessity versus a luxury .

I am choosing to continue wearing my “Pope socks” but I will graciously refuse to accept any gift which includes a pair of Yeezy Boost 350 V2s.  I will continue to try to give more to others than I luxuriously spend on myself.  Hopefully, that we keep me from appearing on Instagram in a Tesla®.

It’s How You Play the Game

The other night, I was watching a political town meeting on one of the all-news channels.  One of the candidates stated proudly that he was a soccer player, and my ears immediately perked up.  I was a soccer player, too.  I thought to myself that perhaps I should support this candidate, with our mutual enjoyment of all things relating to the pentagon-patched ball.  With the diversity of the field, it would be nice if I shared a common interest with one of them.  But, before I followed him on social media, I did a little research about his sports-related profession.

It is true that, as a child, this candidate was enrolled in an organized league and regularly participated in formal games, and it is said that he was quite the striker when he was ten.  He went to all the practices – some might say religiously – and was proficient at all the drills. However, during High School and college, those formal games and organized leagues were abandoned for more informal forms of the game.  He still participated in pick-up games and occasionally kicked the ball around, but it was always on his schedule and the rules were loosely observed.  But he was still, by definition, a soccer player.

After college, this candidate would take his soccer ball to a local park when he schedule allowed and began changing the rules of play (subtly at first but later more egregiously), so that before long, when he did play with his soccer ball, he allowed the use of hands and he tallied seven points for each goal.  In essence, he was playing a hybrid of football and soccer, if ‘foot-ccer’ was played on a boundless field.  The purist among us might argue that he was no longer playing soccer, but he was still, truth be told, kicking around a soccer ball.

At present, the candidate has not touched a soccer ball in many years, and some wonder if he even owns one any longer.  His schedule no longer permits him to go to the park, and even if it did, the ways that other soccer players play the game at the parks that he once frequented is displeasing to his sense of the game.  But he lives in a region of the country where people view soccer players more favorably than players of other sports, so he continues to profess that he still participates in the game.  But he is no longer, by definition, a soccer player.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves.  Do what it says.  James 1:22

I appreciate that some people play soccer and other people do not.  I appreciate that some people once played soccer but play the game no longer.  But I have trouble with the conception of our culture that playing soccer is anything that the player thinks that means, regardless of the rules or the history of the game.  If you are happy just kicking a ball around in the backyard, please do not call yourself a soccer player.