Tag Archives: Gospel

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!

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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.

Public Display of Affection

“But it was love, after all, that made the cross salvific, not the sheer torture of it.” – Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart

This year at Calvary, as we remember Holy Week, we are reflecting on the words of Mark’s gospel.  It was Mark who recorded that the crucifixion of Jesus began at the third hour (Mark 15:25) and, as a side note, we also know from Matthew’s account that it lasted until the ninth hour (Matthew 27:46).  Six hours is a long time to do anything: imagine being invited to attend the screening of a six-hour movie or enjoy a six-hour buffet; think about babysitting a three-year old for six hours or waiting for news from the ER staff for six hours.  These feats of endurance are nothing compared to what Jesus endured on the cross.

Crucifixion was a particularly ghastly method of capital punishment.  As was the case with Jesus, the victim was tied or nailed to a large wooden beam and left to hang until eventual death from exhaustion and asphyxiation.  Eventually the victim would slump due to muscular fatigue and the diaphragm would compress the lungs, depriving the vital organs of oxygen.  This macabre ‘dance’ – lifting the body with the arms and legs to breathe until they could no longer support the weight and collapse again – went on for hours, and sometimes, to speed up the process, the ones responsible for guarding the condemned would break their legs.

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  Romans 5:8

To paraphrase the words of apostle Paul:  God, in Christ, showed us the extent of his love through his death.  The fact is that thousands of people were humiliated and horribly executed by means of a cross, and none of those deaths, in and of themselves, save us from our sin.  The cross is what we call the instrument of death, but it is not its cause.  The cause of Jesus’ death was love, willful, active and limitless love.  He chose to endure the dehumanization and shameful humiliation of crucifixion  (after all, he could have been executed at any time and in any age of human history) to fulfill the will of the Father, to serve as a sacrificial substitute for our sin, and in so doing expressed his love.

I would like to say that there are a few things lasting six hours that I would do for a loved one.  I would like to say that I would wait in the wind and rain, dig a mile-long trench or drive through a blizzard.  I would like to say that, but I am not sure I would do that.  I cannot imagine the great love required to endure the cross for six hours, let alone six minutes.  I cannot fully comprehend how much Jesus loves a sinner like me.  But I can appreciate it.  In my mind, I can picture myself at the foot of the cross, staring up at my suffering savior; I ask him, “How much do you love me?” and with arms outstretched, he replies, “This much!”

Remember to remember Him this Good Friday.

Batter, Batter; Swing, Batter

Last weekend the Red Sox began their new season, exactly five months after winning the World Series, concluding their best statistical season in franchise history.  Throughout the season, they led the league in wins (108), RBIs (829) and team batting average (.286).  To top it all off, their star player, Mookie Betts, was named the AL MVP.  By all means of measuring success, the Red Sox had a historic season.  The city was blessed to enjoy a rolling rally throughout the streets and the sporting goods stores in the area sold a bunch of merchandise celebrating the team’s victory over every foe.

Last weekend the Red Sox began their new season and, as of this posting, proceeded to lose more games than they had won.  The good news in anticipating the current season is that most of the key elements in prior success is still in place for the present campaign.  The bad news in anticipating the current season is that past performance is no guarantee of success in the present.  The slate has been wiped clean and the wins of the past season no longer matter.  Every team, both winners like the Red Sox and non-winners like the Baltimore Orioles (who amassed a mere 47 wins last season), starts on Opening Day in the same place.

As I think about the Red Sox, I also think about myself.  I remember all the victories I won last season: I battled temptation and won more times than I lost.  I faced discouragement, home and away, and won the season series; I went into the stadium of sexual purity and came away with a win; I stood in ‘the box’ against the enemy’s strongest arms (hurlers with names like lying, cheating and stealing) and bested them with base hits and deep bombs.  There were days that I did not have my best stuff, but over the course of the entire season I ended up with many more wins than losses.

No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind.  And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.  But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.  1 Corinthians 10:13

But, like baseball, that was last season and while I have many of the same tools and much of the same training, I still must engage the enemy.  And, like baseball, past performance is no guarantee of success in the present.  This season, along with the regular adversaries, the measure of victory I have enjoyed has made me vulnerable to other forms of attack from things like personal pride and common complacency.  I am going to take it one day at a time, one ‘at-bat’ at a time: I will have to enjoy the success of victory only for a moment, accept the sting of loss only for an instant, and fight the good fight each and every day.

There is no spiritual World Series and the faithfully obedient will not receive a trophy at end of each season.  Still, the one who resists and remains after going nine innings with temptation is not without reward.  There is, for that one, a crown – of life, of righteousness, of glory – that will never be taken away.

Have a great season!

A Long Distance Relationship

During Sunday School last Sunday, we looked at the parable of the prodigal son.  It may be the most well-known story in the scriptures: a young man asks his  father for his share of his estate, which the father grants; upon receiving this windfall, the young man travels to a distant country and wastes the money on wine, women and song; after finding himself broke and alone, a famine struck the place where he was; in order to survive, the young man takes an awful, despicable job feeding pigs; after a while, the young man realizes how much better life was at home and determines to return hope, even if it is only as a servant; while he is travelling the road home, his father sees him far off in the distance and runs to him; the young man is fully restored and his return is celebrated.  It is a wonderful story, a reminder that every one of us (the young man) can be welcomed back by God (the father) if we come to our senses and turn back to him.

But what if that is not really the point of the parable?  What if the story is not about the young man?  In context, this story is the third part of a trilogy of stories: the first part is about the extreme measures a shepherd will take to find one lost sheep and the second part is about the extreme measures a widow will take to find a lost coin; in context, the story is about the extreme measures a father will take to find a lost son.  The actions of the sheep are unspectacular, the actions of the coin are immaterial, and (by extension) the actions of the young man are incidental.  What if the parable of the prodigal son is really about the loving father?

What if the parable is not really about coming to your senses so that you can be restored?  One of the details of the story that is often overlooked relates to a conversation between the father and the older son who remained with him:

‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.’  Luke 15:31

In the story, the father doesn’t forgive and forget; the young man doesn’t get a second chance or another share of the father’s estate.  His birth-right was gone and it was not being given back – it was all remaining with the older son.  One thing we could learn from this parable is that there are consequences to bad behavior: sin has ripple effects that could capsize relationships, ship-wreck careers and jettison treasures.  What if the parable of the prodigal son is really about the gracious reconciliation afforded by the father?

What if the most well-known story Jesus ever told was not about us, not about me?  What if it was about God, who lovingly allows us to make choices, lovingly allows us to go where we want, and watches the road so that He can be the first to welcome us home?  What if it about a father wanting to celebrate finding what was truly lost and truly found?  What if it was simply about the depths of a father’s love?

Now that would be some story, indeed!

How Do You Take It?

There is a new coffee shop in the neighborhood of the church, Ripple Cafe, which offers hot and iced coffee, free wi-fi and comfortable seating.  I visited the café last week and found their coffee and staff most pleasant.   I could easily picture myself taking my laptop and ‘working’ there on a sunny spring or summer afternoon.  I probably won’t do that, but I like to think I might; but then again, I said the same thing about the last three coffee shops that have opened in the neighborhood.  I would like to think that I am the kind of person that has deep conversations and composes thoughtful sermons in a café.

But I am more a Dunkin Donuts kind of person.  I want my coffee plain, with cream only, in a Styrofoam cup with a plastic cover.  In fact, I think I might be a coffee snob (or whatever the opposite of a snob might be, an ‘anti-slob’): I have a tiny bit of distain for those who are willing to spend a few dollars more for an inferior serving of joe in a mermaid-logo cup and I scoff at the pretension emanating from other purveyors who serve their multiply hyphenated fare that they pass off as their exclusive caffeinated blend.  I don’t need fancy titles, foamy additives or socially aware saying imprinted on cardboard sleeves; I want a good cup of coffee.

The truth is that I am not the center of the universe and not everyone shares my opinions about coffee.  All the coffee shops and all the coffee drinkers can mutually co-exist.  There might even be some positive interact with tea drinkers.  Good people drink chai lattes, as do those who are dark of heart.  Godly people consume espresso from tiny cups, as do the ungodly.  I hear that some of the morally upright even drink iced tea, through I cannot comprehend why.  There is a place for everyone, and everyone can find what they need in some place.

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  Galatians 3:28

I find it unfortunate that what is true about coffee shops is often also true about the church.  The followers of Christ tend to flock to where they are served what they prefer – there are churches that cater to the porcelain demitasse crowd and churches that cater to the 20-ounce paper cup crowd.  Occasionally, these diverse demographics are drawn together – at denominational meetings, retreat centers, funerals or weddings – and we politely sip what is offered, like it or not, but typically we stay where we get what we want.  I sometimes wonder if we could, as the church, share fellowship with those who treasure every sort of coffee concoction.

In the kingdom of God, there is neither ‘large regular’ or ‘americano’, neither ‘Sumatra single-origin’ or ‘Maxwell House’, nor is there ‘K-cup’ or ‘organic’, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.  And, for that reason, I will enjoy all the coffee my community provides, perhaps even trying something I might never choose otherwise, as I sit with my laptop at that cozy café near the church.

Sheth’s Table

After last Sunday’s sermon I had a conversation with my wife about its delivery.  It was based on Acts 16:11-24, when, among other things, Paul commands a spirit of divination to come out from a servant girl.  This was done because Paul, according to verse 18, became troubled by her incessant shouting; the word choice by Luke is one of annoyance, that she got on his nerves much more than she got to his heart.  In my message I said that this part of a ministry of compassion, service based upon sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others, but I was wrong: while the servant girl was shown sympathy or concern, Paul was seemingly only intent of keeping her quiet.

Not so with the subject of another conversation I had later last week among a group of colleagues.  My friend Bob shared some thoughts on Mephibosheth as recorded in 2 Samuel 9.  This man with the unusual name (meaning “the one who shatters shame’) was disabled – dropped by a nurse as a child causing him to be lame in both legs – and disgraced, the grandson of the conquered king.  He was living a quiet and desperate life in a place called Lo-debar (“no pasture”).  At the same time, King David (his dearly-departed father’s best friend and his casualty-of-battle grandfather’s mortal enemy) was wondering if there was anyone in Mo’s family to which he could show God’s kindness.  What David does is truly compassionate.

David asks the sympathetic question: “Where is he?”  There is no regard for why it happened, or how it happened, or when it happened.  There is no concern over the investment or the objective.  There is only a question of how quickly he could help.

David shows a sympathetic spirit: he offers for Mo to dine at the king’s table for the remainder of his life.   The king was not inviting him as a servant but as a son, with no expectations of repayment or reward.  There is only an offer of grace.

Imagine Sabbath-day dinner at the palace: Amnon, the oldest boy, strong and witty; Absalom, the good looking one; Tamar, the princess; Solomon, always talking about something he read; and let’s not forget that Mephibosheth, legs at two different angles, humble and quiet, sits in the midst of it all.  That is the picture of compassion, that kindness that originates in the heart for the sake of alleviating the suffering of another.

And Mephibosheth lived in Jerusalem, because he always ate at the king’s table; he was lame in both feet.  2 Samuel 9:13

We all know that expression of compassion, for we are all Mephibosheth.  God the king made a promise before we were born to care for us.  He searched us out while we hid in fear in a barren land.  And He blessed us with all things, allowing us to dine and recline with Him at His table.  Broken as we are, crippled as we are, humble as we are, we were given more than we deserve.  We ought to remember that the next time we come across someone who demands our pity and concern.  In that moment, may we all act compassionately from the heart, not simply appropriately so as to settle our nerves.

Necessities

I recently lost my debit card; I am pretty sure I used an ATM and forgot to retrieve it at the end of the transaction.  I discovered the loss when I went to use it the next day and realized it was not in my wallet (thankfully, I was with my wife and she was willing to pay for our lunch).  I immediately called the bank, requesting that the card be cancelled and another one issued, which they were more than happy to do…in as little as three to five business days.  True to that representative’s word, 5 business days later, the new card arrived, and all was right with the world again.  Sort of.

Those intervening nine days without a debit card showed me two things about myself: 1) I have a bunch of automatic payments linked to my bank card, many of which already emailed me and requested updated information; and 2) I rarely use or carry cash, having become fully reliant upon that little chip on a sheet of plastic for almost every purchase I make.  I had to think ahead, considering each day what needed to be paid and what resources did I need to pay it.  How will I pay for the groceries?  Will Netflix© continue to stream through our devices?  These are the kinds of thoughts that were fresh in my mind. But then, with the arrival of a plain envelope with a return address of an unknown post office box, everything was back to normal.

How did this happen?  How did I become so dependent on things (as this experience has revealed that I have difficulty when I am without the ‘necessity’ of my debit card, but also extends to things like my eye glasses and my cell phone)?  Each morning, I get up and make sure I have these items with me before I engage with the world.   All this has gotten me wrestling with another related question: Do I give God as much consideration, as I begin my day, that I give my ‘necessities’?

In the morning, LORD, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait expectantly.  Psalm 5:3

What benefit is there in an ability to pay if one’s purchases are worthless?  What benefit is there in having clear vision if what one sees is not edifying?  What benefit is there in instant access to everyone and everything if the portal is used to entertain one’s prurient interests?  What good is there in engaging with the world if one has not first had an engagement with God?

All these questions have distilled into one thought: the first (and perhaps only) thing I need to be a productive and effective member of society is God.  I am able to live without a debit card or a cell phone.  I am able to exist without eye glasses or a vehicle.  I cannot (and must not) survive without God going with me.  To neglect a few moments each morning with Him, to refuse to wait expectantly for His direction, would be as foolish as walking away from an ATM as it dings to remind you that your card is still in the machine. And who would ever do that?

And the Winner Is…

My wife, Jeanine, and I completed our annual quest to view the Best Picture Oscar® nominations before the telecast.  Each year, I have tried to predict who would win with only limited success (currently I am batting .500; 3 right predictions in 6 years).  My prediction will be revealed at the end of this post, but first I want to think about our culture as reflected in these 8 cinematic masterpieces.

This blog is not written by a movie critic; I am a minister of the gospel.  As such, it is unlikely that the Academy is considering my particular demographic in their determination of what is ‘best’.  That being said, I watch these films with the hope that I can gain a glimpse of a deeper truth embedded in these movies.  What I have come to see is that all these films include elements of systemic ‘selectivism’ within our culture:

  • The plot of Black Panther revolves around the divisions our world faces regarding race, asking the audience, in the guise of a superhero blockbuster with spectacular special effects, why wouldn’t the richest nation on the planet use its resources to deliver all the earth from societal injustice;
  • The fact-based Blackkklansman retells the story of a black officer in Colorado Springs who becomes a card-carrying member of the KKK, thwarting the ‘organization’s’ plans for violence, and, in so doing, depicts the hate-filled rhetoric some spewed against those of other races, religions and orientations;
  • The biographical Bohemian Rhapsody is largely the account of Queen front-man Freddie Mercury who feels like an outsider due to his mis-identified ethnic upbringing and his sexual orientation, culminating with him and his bandmates becoming “a group of outcasts making music for other outcasts”;
  • The Favourite, described by one critic as a ‘punk Restoration romp’, is an elaborate depiction of the court and courtesans of Queen Anne in the early 18th century where the women lead and the men waste time and money in hedonistic pursuits;
  • The true story of Green Book tells of an unlikely friendship forged by a black pianist and the white driver/muscle he hires for a road-trip concert tour through the Midwest and South in the early 1960s, enabling segregation, racism and ignorance to cast a dark shadow into the theater;
  • Roma is a slice-of-life account of the interactions between a family and some young domestic workers in Mexico in 1971, telling the movie-goer about the living in a culture of class distinction, male dominance and revolution;
  • The remake A Star is Born is about a self-destructive headlining musician and a young songwriter who fall in love, telling the story of the sacrifices we make (and refuse to make) for those we care about while championing the cause of the ‘unattractive underdog’;
  • Vice, a fact-based and speculation-filled movie about the rise to power of former Vice President Dick Cheney, pulls the curtain back so we can see the machinations and manipulations that those in power are willing to employ when seeking to increase that power.

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  Galatians 3:28 (NIV)

To a greater or lesser degree, these films all deal with what may be the greatest issue in our culture: division based on gender, race, wealth or sexual orientation.  Some do it with great skill (Blackkklansman, Green Book and Vice) while others must be on so high an artistic level that simple movie-goers like me cannot fully comprehend (Roma and The Favourite).  There is hope: the cultural zeitgeist inherent in these films seems to be reinforcing what the Bible affirms – that every human being is of equally incredible worth and that we ought to champion those who take up the cause of protecting and preserving the value of every soul.  As I watch the Oscars® on Sunday night, I will celebrate the stories of Queen Anne, the Duchess of Marlborough, Ron Stallworth, Flip Zimmerman, Don Shirley, Tony Vallelonga, and Freddie Mercury – reminders of the intrinsic value of every human being.

And the Oscar® (if I were given a vote) goes to Green Book.