On Monday, our whole family went to the local mall and sat for a family portrait. My wife, Jeanine, had wanted us all to take a new picture for some time, but with college schedules and work schedules, there never seemed to be the time. But thanks to Groupon© and the wonderful people at Portrait Simple©, we were able to capture the spirit of the family on film (well, whatever digital images are captured upon). In hindsight, I am so glad we had it done, since it had been six years since our last family portrait was taken and we all have changed so much.
As we were preparing for the appointment, there was a great deal of pushback from at least one of the children. There were questions asked about the necessity of picture-taking and the costs attributable to said picture-taking. Why do we take pictures? Why do we, in ever increasing measure in this age of the smart phone, seek to capture every memory and moment with pictures? What is it that we hope to keep? What is it that we long to preserve? These are the things that I think about as I watch a stranger style my daughter’s hair through his fingers and adjust my son’s head to frame the perfect image.
We take pictures because we want to remember who we were. One of the secondary joys of this photo-taking process is, as I place the new photos in their frames, that I get to take a look at all the photos of the past sandwiched in the frames. I get the chance to see when we had one, then two, then three and now four cherubs. I get to recall snapshots of our beautiful family. It is pictures that enable us to think back to who we once were
We take pictures because we want to remember where we have been. I have hundreds of digital files of vacations, holidays and birthdays, all to capture those moments. Some are fuzzy, others are messy, but all of them reflect our life together. It is pictures that ring back the sounds, smells and sight of special times.
We take pictures because we want to remember what we have overcome. Our family pictures have children with broken bones and missing teeth. We have candids taken in cruddy apartments while children are crying. But it is what is contained in these pictures that enables us to see how far we’ve come – from awkward and gangly to radiant and strong.
The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. Colossians 1:15
Pictures – photographic images – enable us to capture a moment in time, albeit a retouched and carefully selected moment in time, which serve as reference points to earlier, simpler or happier times. They represent the ideal, not real but not false either. They are intended to elicit emotions and trigger memories. For this reason, we will continue to take family portraits: some years there may be more in the frame and some years there may be less, but every time they will represent who we are (or who we could be).
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.
My children tell me I have a lot of strange rules (e.g. I do not allow random singing at the kitchen table during meals). At one time, I used to demand that there would be no snacking after 4PM, with the rationale being that I wanted the kids to eat their supper when it was time for dinner. However, after years of hungry kids disregarding my wishes, I have given up the fight and silently tolerate the consumption of chips, croutons and trail mix at 5:47, thirteen minutes before mealtime. There is no stopping someone when they are hungry, and, with laser-like focus, my children will find something to eat whenever those hunger pangs strike.
Hunger, the pain that comes when an appetite is not satisfied, is a powerful force. It breaks our focus and drains our strength. It weakens our will and halts our productivity. It is the reason why parents everywhere load granola bars into their children’s backpack when the time for standardized testing rolls around. It is the reason why breakfast is the most important meal of the day. It is the reason why we should never shop for groceries on an empty stomach. One of our most primal urges, one of our basest instincts, is to satiate our hunger.
I will be fully satisfied as with the richest of foods; with singing lips my mouth will praise you. Psalm 63:5
We all know what to do when we experience physical hunger: we find something to eat – sometimes healthy and sometimes not. But, are we aware that we do the same things with our other hungers? We satisfy our emotional hunger at times with emotional burgers (cat videos) and at other times with emotional salads (writing poems). We satisfy our mental hunger occasionally with intellectual ring dings (“Fifty Shades of Grey”) and occasionally with educational cantaloupe (“Hannah Coulter”). We satisfy our relational hunger with doughnuts (Facebook) and egg whites (face-to-face conversations). The good news is that, according to the Psalmist, God satisfies our hunger; the bad news is that we all have times when we choose to consume what is not on His menu.
Nowhere is this more evident than when it comes to our spiritual hunger. Throughout the scriptures we are promised the lavish abundance of the Lamb’s marriage supper. When we feast upon the blessings of Christ, we are given forgiveness, eternal life, spiritual giftedness and spiritual fruit. There are times when we choose spiritual celery (which has no nutritional value) or spiritual caramel corn (which is not good for us). We hunger for forgiveness, for example, but instead of receiving satisfaction from God we seek justification from the culture. We substitute the good for the good enough.
These hungers we experience are necessary. It is in our best interest to listen to them. Our focus, strength, will and productivity will suffer if we neglect to keep watch over our appetites. Appreciate the banquet table the Lord has prepared for you and accept no lesser substitute. Allow your satisfaction to come from God and you need not spoil your appetite on what the world has to offer.
Today is the final day of my annual week of craziness and sleep deprivation, otherwise known as VBS week. This year we went to “Splash Canyon” and heard some amazing stories of God’s fulfillment of His promises: He protected Moses as he floated down the Nile in a basket; He provided the Israelites access to the promised land as they walked between heaps of water on the dry Jordan River bed; He healed Naaman by as he washed in the Jordan; He saved 276 men, including Paul, as they were shipwrecked in the Mediterranean; and He established our salvation as Jesus was baptized in the Jordan. While I am exhausted due to the activity, I feel blessed by God that I could be a part of it all.
Every year that I direct a Vacation Bible School program, I am humbled by the responsibility that parent’s place in us. They allow their most precious treasures, their children, to participate with our church in hearing Bible stories, playing games, making crafts, eating snacks, singing songs and picking out handfuls of candy each day. They trust us with their child’s physical well being, moral character development, spiritual formation and social interaction. With so many other options available to families (summer camps, sports programs, community center day programs or other Vacation Bible Schools), I am grateful for the parent’s that chose to join us for “Splash Canyon”.
According to Lifeway Kids , in 2016, more than 2.5 million children attended VBS (with over 70,000 making a profession of faith) and $6.5 million was raised for missionary causes. That is quite an impact for about 30 hours of ministry. While our church’s impact is quite a bit smaller, it must not be dismissed as insignificant. I wonder what God might do through the seeds that have been planted this week. Are we, through these five days of fun activities, building up the elders, pastors and missionaries of the mid-twenty first century? Are we, through playing duck-duck-goose and making necklaces with pony beads and remembrance stones, creating lasting memories of God’s goodness which will serve as anchors for these kids when the storms of life hit? I would like to think the answer is, “Yes”.
For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God. 1 Corinthians 2:20
I want to thank everyone who enabled us to conduct this year’s Vacation Bible School, who volunteered their time and resources to glorify God and bless the lives of more than two dozen children. I also want to thank all those who are praying for the children who attended. It was a great week and, God willing, just the beginning of something great in the lives of all who participated.
There is a place in my neighborhood that is a microcosm of my neighborhood. As the noontime hour approaches, you can see every demographic: there are police officers in uniform, fire fighters in Blue BFD T-shirts, DCR lifeguards from Malibu Beach, grandchildren dressed in Vineyard Vines pants (pegged at the ankle) visiting their grandparents, National Grid workers in safety vests, lawyers in business suits, moms with strollers, politicians and fast-food clerks. It is there where every ethnicity and lifestyle of Dorchester is represented, and men and women of every age are present. Where is this perfect melting pot that includes everyone, from Boston Brahmin to the denizen of the triple-deckers? As a pastor, I would like to say that I am talking about the church, but, alas, I am not. The place that I am talking about is the deli counter at Lamberts. At lunchtime, the line for sandwiches includes everyone that calls Dorchester home.
Ah, Lamberts, where you can get the finest sandwich eight bucks can buy. All you have to do is hand the meat slicer your choice of roll and a list (either verbally or in writing) of ingredients, and a few minutes later, you are handed a piece of heaven wrapped in butcher paper. But it is in that long line leading to the counter that you can brush shoulders with literally anyone and everyone. As I wait for my turn, I wonder if this is what heaven will be like, complete with the distinct sound of dropped ‘r’s and the obligatory ‘wicked’.
“Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” Colossians 3:11 (NIV)
The original design for what we call the local church, according to the apostle Paul, was that it included everyone. No one was to be excluded based on religious, cultural, national, economic or gender (cf. Gal. 3:28). In practice, the local gatherings of the family of God routinely miss the mark. Why can’t the people of God be like the line at Lamberts? Why isn’t the make-up of the ‘bride of Christ’ the same as those waiting for sandwiches? Why isn’t the church as diverse as those frequenting the local deli?
I suppose the answer to all these questions is simple: reputation. Lamberts has the long line for their offerings because they are known, largely through word of mouth, as a provider of excellent lunches for everyone. What is the reputation of the church? Justified or not, Dr. Martin Luther King was quoted as saying, “…it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” In the fifty-eight years since those words were uttered, the church has taken great strides, but there is more to be done so that the community surrounding our houses of worship verify that the local church has changed. I hope that one day soon the same crowd at Lamberts is present at Calvary. All we can do is spread the word, with genuine sincerity, that all are welcome to worship the Lord.
My family and I have just returned from a road trip to our nation’s capital. Along the way we stayed with and enjoyed the company of friends and family. The trip was not without incident however. While we were still within Boston’s city limits, one of the car’s indicator lights illuminated: the Tire Pressure Monitoring System’s low pressure indicator. I immediately pulled over and checked the tires and saw no flat and decided to sally forth (it was torrentially raining at the time). That was when the ‘game’ began. For the next eleven hours of our trip, I would repeat the following steps: fill the tire with air to 40 PSI, drive for 55 minutes, observe the TPMS indicator light go on, drive for another 15 to 30 minutes, and pull over to find another air hose. Only once, in Connecticut, was the air hose missing at the rest area pump. As a side note, the New Jersey service stations were the best: mechanic quality pumps, free of charge.
After some experiencing some unexpected stops and some soggy shoes, we safely arrived at our destination. The next day, I went to a repair shop not far from where we were staying (after one last fill of the tire) and they were able repair the pin-hole breach for $20.50. I am grateful for that little orange light on my dashboard that looks like the cross section of a flat tire with an exclamation point in the center: I told me when I was in danger of causing greater damage and needed to address my air. It told me how far I could go and when I needed to stop.
We all could benefit from an air monitoring system. The Greek word for air is ‘pneuma’, and it is from these Greek roots that we get words like pneumatic (air powered) and pneumonia (“sick air”). The Greek word ‘pneuma’ is also translated in the Bible as the word for spirit. That is truly what I wish I had: an indicator light warning me that the Spirit within me is dangerously low and in need of filling before permanent damage occurs. The thought of my need for this SPMS (Spirit Pressure Monitoring System) came to me several times during our trip, always in hindsight. Imagine the decisions that would be made (or not made) if we all knew that our spirit was riding low at that moment.
“Instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Ephesians 5:18
The context of the above quoted words of Paul point to two possibilities (both of which can be reasonably defended) – either we leak and need regular refilling to combat the challenges of the culture or we need regular reminders that we must rely upon our continual condition of being filled to combat the challenges of the culture.
Without an indicator light shining right in front of my face, I might neglect routine maintenance. This applies to the air in my tires and the spirit in my life. Regarding the latter, that is why the disciplines of faith are crucial: prayer, Bible reading, corporate worship. If I maintain these practices, I will avoid a spiritual blow-out and protect myself and those around me.
During a recent Bible study, the following question was posed: Who has been an example of Christlikeness for you? The question was asked as part of the larger context of the great commission where, in part, Jesus directs His followers to make disciples by “…teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Since we can only teach what we already know, implicit in the commission is each disciple’s obedience to Christ’s commands. Wisdom further implies that Jesus’ disciples would utilize and model the knowledge we have acquired. Essential to making disciples, therefore, is exemplifying Christlikeness, and thankfully, I have plenty of people who demonstrate obedience to Jesus.
Since this blog is written for public consumption (and once it is posted, it can never completely disappear), I am not going to include names. That being said, I have mental pictures of numerous people who regular live out Jesus’ great commandment:
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:37–40 (NIV)
While no one is perfect, I can picture in my mind many who love the Lord with all they are: they give sacrificially to His work, they meditate daily on His word, and they share consistently His transforming power. I can also see in my recollections many who love their neighbor as much as they love themselves: those who have crossed cultural boundaries to tell others the good news of Jesus, shared time they didn’t have to care and comfort strangers in need, and spoke words of truth to those who needed a dose of reality.
All these things, and more, exemplify Christlikeness in a world that desperately needs neighbors with a character akin to Jesus. We are constantly bombarded by accounts on our newsfeeds and newscasts of inhumanities perpetrated against the least among us. Because we are a nation of laws (and those laws are subject to interpretation by politicians and pundits), we need people who choose to live, however imperfectly, according to a higher standard: God’s law. We, as a society, need individuals who are willing to love God wholly and love their neighbors indiscriminately. We need people who are willing to exemplify Christlikeness, even at great personal cost.
So, I return to the question I began with: Who has been an example of Christlikeness for you? My answer is simple: All those who choose to express sacrificial love instead of selfish self-interest. In saying this, my answer is also complex: Those who are an example of Christlikeness can be found anywhere, since they have no other commonalities outside of love (as there is no experiential, economic, political or ethnic indicators of a disciple of Jesus). While not everyone is an example of Christlikeness, anyone could be. Anyone could follow the law of sacrificial love rightly expressed to God and others.
As I was following a digital ‘rabbit trail’ this week, I came across Volvo’s mission statement: “Vision 2020 is about reducing the number of people that die or are seriously injured in road traffic accidents to zero.” Volvo has embraced what business leaders call a B.H.A.G. – a big, hairy, audacious goal. They developed an emotionally compelling and strategically bold trajectory for their company. Volvo and other business who develop these B.H.A.G.s challenge themselves, their employees and their consumers to imagine a future that is bigger than their individual efforts could produce, scarier than their comfort levels would allow and bolder than their frames of reference should expect.
B.H.A.G.s are nothing new. In fact, when Jesus sent out his disciples to minister to the needs of the world around them, as recorded in Matthew 10, he commands them:
“Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.” Matthew 10:8
In my humble opinion, those are some big, hairy and audacious goals. How would it be possible for that rag-tag band of fishermen, financial agents and farmers to be able to do these things? Raise the dead? B.H.A.G.s are great, as long as they are achievable. When Jesus gave them a humanly impossible task to accomplish, thank God he also equipped them to accomplish it. Matthew tells us:
Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness. Matthew 10:1
I wonder what B.H.A.G.s the Lord may be calling us to aspire to accomplish in our communities today. Without diminishing the power of God at work through us (it seems unlikely that we’d be commanded to raise the dead), He is challenging us attempt more than our ability enables, our comfort allows and our logic expects. He may be calling us to completely love those who make different choices than we have made. He may be calling us to comprehensively care for those ravaged by the consequences of sin, regardless of whether this sin is theirs or another’s. He may be calling us consciously give away all that He has generously given us – everything from grace to garage space. He may be calling us to compassionately speak the truth that others need to hear in a way that they will hear it so that the healing of hearts and relationships may take place.
Whatever we might think God has called us to accomplish, Matthew 10 challenges us to think bigger, think hairier, and think more audaciously. If we think we can help ten people, God may be enabling us to help a hundred. If we think we can encourage someone living on our cul-de-sac, God may be enabling us to encourage someone NOT living in our neighborhood. If we think we can teach the kids at the church, God may be enabling us to teach the kids at the public school. God is the originator of B.H.A.G.s. What is He able to accomplish through ours, were we willing to give Him the opportunity?
This coming Sunday, June 3rd, our community will gather along the length of Dorchester Avenue to celebrate Dorchester Day and commemorate its incorporation on June 1, 1630 with a parade of police cars, floats and local politicians. So, after church on Sunday, we will sit on the curb with our neighbors to be (hopefully) showered with candy and treated to skilled performances by dance troupes, martial arts schools and school marching bands. Despite being firmly within the city limits, we will, for an afternoon, adopt the feel of a small town as we wave our tiny American flags and put aside our differences in order to enjoy all our community has to offer.
It is good to get together with people every once in a while. Having a sense of community is important. But, don’t take my word for it; these are the words of Vice Admiral Vivek H. Murthy, the 19th Surgeon General of the United States:
We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s. Today, over 40% of adults in America report feeling lonely, and research suggests that the real number may well be higher.
We are, despite all of our followers on Twitter and all our friends on Facebook, a bunch of lonely people.
I wish that all our neighbors – irrespective of economic, ethnic, racial or age-related distinctions – would have a parade to attend every weekend. I wish there were a regular event where we all could enjoy community. Rarely do we get together with someone somewhere outside of our well-defined demographics; that is, except for one particular occasion. God’s word has a remedy for this epidemic of loneliness: the family of God. That’s right, the church. If you are feeling isolated, attend a service of worship this weekend.
… not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching. Hebrews 10:25
Accept the challenge to be counter-cultural. Be willing to gather for an hour to hear music that you haven’t chosen and reflect on topics you haven’t selected, surrounded by people who are not completely like you. Be willing to engage in prayer and praise with those who have more and with those who have less. Be willing to share your story with those of a different culture and with those from a different upbringing. Be willing to rejoice with those who have something to rejoice over (even when it is something you might not celebrate) and mourn with those who have something to mourn over (even if you cannot sympathize with their pain).
If you are uncomfortable around people who are not quite like you and are a little scared to enter the doors of a church and be surrounded by strangers, come to the parade and look for me (I will be the only guy standing near Ashmont station in a suit and tie). I would be blessed to celebrate the community with you and develop some community with you. Maybe we can shake the mayor’s hand as well.
Earlier this week, I felt like a was in a bad comedy routine. At 9:18AM on Tuesday my cell phone rang and a telemarketer asked for Janelle. I politely told the caller that it was a wrong number and thought nothing more about it. It happened again, from a different number, ten minutes later. And again. And again. All told, I received a total of ten calls, all from different numbers and different companies, throughout the day. I thought that surely the last call I received was going to be from Janelle, asking if she had any messages.
My life was briefly interrupted by telemarketers, each one offering some great thing to someone I never met. Ten calls throughout the day, all looking for someone else, were a major nuisance. In the end, I never got an answer to my question of where they got my number; I can only speculate that, perhaps, Janelle entered a contest at a mall or visited a time-share presentation. Whatever the reason, intentional or unintentional, ten people reached out to me, thinking me to be someone I am not.
As I was answering all these calls, it struck me that there are those in our culture that will exploit one fact about us to gain access to our lives. These telemarketers had a valid phone number and tried to take advantage of whoever would answer. They took one vital statistic, one entry point into my life, and tried to get more. I am relatively certain that these calls were benign, but in a world where identity theft and cybercrime is rampant, one can never be too cautious.
“In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. Ephesians 4:26-27
While I am in no way equating telemarketers with the satanic (after all, I was a telemarketer for a local newspaper for about three hours), these ‘wrong numbers’ did make me think about the devil and his tactics. As Paul’s letter to the Ephesians tells us, all it takes is a foothold, a crack or crevice in our stony exterior, for the enemy of our soul to scale our defenses and access our vulnerable spirits. All it takes is one truth for the father of lies to breach the doors and take our lives – an embarrassing action, a hidden temptation, a word of anger, a troubled past. The devil takes what he knows and tries to get more, just like those pesky callers to my cellphone.
The remedy to both the telemarketers and Mephistopheles is to refuse to reply. We can, empowered by the Spirit, refuse to take the bait. We can tell them, strongly and simply, that it is a wrong number, that the one they seek is not found here. We can do this because one fact about us is not our identity and one forgiven action is not our lifestyle.
Now, if I could only figure out how to end those calls informing me about an urgent public announcement regarding my energy service I would be blessed beyond measure.