There is a word in Greek (thaumazō) that Luke used to describe what happened when human beings witnessed the power and glory of God. It is alternatingly translated as “to wonder, to be astonished, to be amazed, to marvel, and to be surprised”. It is the response of the people of Bethlehem after hearing the shepherds declare the birth of the Savior and the disciples after Jesus calmed the wind and the waves. It is how multiple people reacted to the miraculous acts of the Lord and how Peter felt when he saw the empty tomb. Throughout the Gospels, men and women come face-to-face with the words and works of God and are amazed.
This experience of occasional astonishment is, in my opinion, a stark contrast to those who attend our twenty first century worship services. When was the last time you wondered at the meaning of the words found in the Scriptures or were surprised by the works of the Holy Spirit in our midst? When was the last time God broke through the mundane and you marveled at the world around you? In our day and age, our impressions of life on earth is more like that of the author of Ecclesiastes: there is nothing new under the sun. Where has all the wonder gone?
I believe we get from life and from others what we expect from life and from others. Beyond “glass-half-full/glass-half-empty” biases, we see what we want to see. We are not surprised by God, either through His miraculous works or His marvelous words, because we do not think we will be. Babies are born and all but the immediate family shrugs. Healing comes to those who are sick and most of us yawn. Accidents are avoided by random delays and we are oblivious. Then we consider the biological functions necessary for sustaining life and the explosive power of the combustion engine, it is amazing that we “live and move and have our being”.
…and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. Luke 2:18
In fear and amazement they asked one another, “Who is this?” Luke 8:25b
…and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened. Luke 24:12b
Last weekend, with its reminders of the sacrificial death and glorious resurrection of Jesus, ought to pique our interest in the amazing. Easter is a lasting witness to the wonderful and marvelous works and words of God. It reminds us that while His claims may sound fantastic (i.e. based on fantasy), to our amazement they have all been proven true. This week, in communities of faith gathered in worship and in places of solitude intended for reflection, we allowed ourselves to be amazed, if only for a moment. I wonder what would happen if we allowed ourselves to look for the surprising every Sunday morning, or every morning for that matter.
I pray that this week you hear something amazing, see something wonderful and sense something marvelous. Let me know when you do.
Today is Good Friday, the day in which the Church remembers and reflects upon the death of Jesus. Each year, I focus on one of the gospels as they relate the events of Palm Sunday through Easter. This year I have been reading through Luke’s account of the Lord’s final days and am struck by what the good doctor states is Jesus’ final utterance (and arguably His “famous last words”): “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” In saying this, He is quoting from Psalm 31:5 and restating the assurances that David made of God about a thousand years before the cross.
From the context of Psalm 31:5, I do not believe this is a simple statement of resignation, as if Jesus is saying, “I give up”. Rather, it is a statement of confidence in the Father. Psalm 31 tells us that David saw his strength as coming from the knowledge that God is his refuge, deliverance, rescue, rock and redemption. It is in light of all this that David places all that he was, every aspect of himself beyond his physical existence, in the hands of God. Similarly, this is the same confidence that Jesus expresses from the cross.
This phrase is akin to the words that Jesus spoke in the garden a few hours earlier, “… not My will, but Yours be done.” It conveys the confidence that Jesus had in knowing that the plans of God and the guiding hand of God can be trusted. As the agony of the cross began to overwhelm the limits of His human body, Jesus doesn’t give up, but rather gives over control of His existence to the only one who can perfectly accomplish God’s will, the Father himself. And He is faithful, releasing Jesus from His mortal coil and redeeming us, lost sinners, from the power of death and sin.
Into your hands I commit my spirit; deliver me, LORD, my faithful God. Psalm 31:5
Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last. Luke 23:46
I pray that I’d have the confidence that David expressed or that Jesus exhibited. Sadly, I often see the opposite dynamic at work: when the going gets tough, I want to take matters into my own hands. Instead of committing my spirit into God’s hands, I futilely attempt to handle my trials and troubles myself. Instead of acting like David (who just prior to committing his spirit to God asks Him to “keep me free from the trap that is set for me”), I am more likely to stumble into danger by relying on my own sense of direction. How much pain could be avoided if I committed my spirit to His hands.
It is hard to see the empty tomb when we are enduring what, for us, seems to be the cross. It is at those times that we need to trust the hand of God, which comforted the Lord, rolled away the stone and raised the Savior. It is also the hand that can comfort, strengthen and save us.
I am praying that you have a blessed Good Friday and a Happy Easter.
As we have for the previous four awards seasons, my wife and I watched, in local theaters and in our living room, the nine movies nominated for the Academy Award’s Best Picture. This year we were enchanted by a western, a musical, a science fiction thriller, a play adaption, a war epic, a biographical film, a coming-of age story, a historical narrative and a tear jerker. Each film introduced us people facing challenges different (sometime much different) than our own. Each movie gave us something to talk about and wrestle with after we viewed it. And while the process of spending twenty or so hours watching movies may not appeal to everyone, it is a treat and a blessing to my wife and me.
Invariably, when the conversation turns to our project of seeing these Best Picture nominees, I am asked the question: what do you think will win? I have some trouble answering that, in part because artistic expression (and that is ultimately what all these movies are) is so subjective, and in part because every film (well, maybe with one exception) had elements of greatness. What do I think will win? The Academy will likely choose Lalaland. What do I think is overall the best picture for 2016, from among those nominated? This is a much more complicated question.
As I answer this question, I feel that I can eliminate half the nominees from my personal best: Arrival was good, especially in its character development and the deep conversation that followed was profound, but not great; Fences, with its exceptional acting performances, was too dialogue driven for my taste; Lalaland was artistically stunning but slow and lacked a plot for about a third of the film; and I found Moonlight, despite its important story, too confusing. I appreciate all these films and the questions they produced in me: what would life be like if we were not constricted by time? How do our dreams and failures shape our lives? Can love conquer all? Can we truly escape our environment?
The other five (Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High Water, Hidden Figures, Lion and Manchester-by-the-Sea) were better stories more beautifully told with exceptional acting. These five, at any given moment, fluctuate in my mind as best. They represent characters who are each faced with challenges (trying to save lives while others are taking them, fighting foreclosure, battling racial injustice, finding a way back home and overcoming an unfair and tragic past), overcoming them, to a greater or lesser degree. There are images and elements of each of these works of art that will remain with me for quite a while – moments of extreme pain and moments of overwhelming joy. At this moment, I offer my opinion and would recommend you seeing Hacksaw Ridge, my choice for Best Picture.
For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen. Romans 11:36
I do not say this simply because it is the most “faith-based” of the nominees, but because it is the most beautifully shot and compelling story captured on film. All these films, from my personal favorite to my personal worst, have elements which provoke my pastoral side. Each one is worth seeing so that their narratives, whether true or fictitious, can enable us to walk in the shoes of another for 140 minutes or can afford us the opportunity to experience life in a way that we would never experience on our own. We are surrounded by people broken by society and bruised by circumstance, and it is good to be reminded once in a while that we can overcome poverty, tragedy, rejection, oppression, prejudice and even the occasional success. In every story our lives tell, no matter our faith system or lack thereof, God has a marvelous way of breaking in and then shining through the cracks the world inflicts upon us. We all have a story to tell, one worthy of an Academy Award.
The other night as I was reflecting on the fact that the New England Patriots had just won their fifth Super Bowl©, it made me think of God’s grace and guidance. Sure, as a Pastor, I often connect random occurrences in life with Biblical themes; the progression of Sunday’s game and its outcome makes my job easy. For the Patriots, this was a season which required the team to deal with consequences for bad actions, demonstrated determination when excuses might have been easier and exemplified fortitude and the discipline of finishing strong. These are things we all could afford to reflect upon, and learn from, as we face the struggles of life.
As even the casual football fan knows, Tom Brady was suspended for the first four games of the season ultimately due to his refusal to cooperate with the NFL Commissioner’s investigation into “Deflate-gate”. After a lengthy process involving the courts, Brady agreed to accept his suspension, albeit with no admission of guilt. He then was forced to sit out the first four games of the season. While we can argue, and many have, about the fairness of the Commissioner’s decision, it was what it was. Tom Brady, and the team, suffered the consequences of his actions. Then he was restored to active status and played the remainder of the season. As I saw the Commissioner shake TB12’s hand and later hand him the Super Bowl© MVP trophy, I thought about grace. To an even greater degree than the NFL brass and its players, God is correcting and rebuking His children and then, after confession and contrition has been made, fully and completely restores them, separating their sin as far as the east is from the west. Do the crime, do the time, receive forgiveness and restoration, and go back out and compete.
Before the big game was played, it was reported that Tom Brady’s mother had been battling an undisclosed illness for eighteen months. Also, the Patriots had suffered significant injuries throughout the regular season, including an injury which sidelined their most powerful offensive weapon, Rob Gronkowski. No one would have blamed the Patriots if they had said that this was not their year, that the obstacles were too great and the challenges were too overwhelming. Instead, the team worked hard, utilized “lesser” members, and seized victory. To an even greater degree, God is drawing together and equipping His church to claim victory over darkness. He has brought together a wide variety of people with a wide variety of abilities, all broken in one way or another, to become stronger together than they would ever be separately. Do your job, do it to the best of your ability, trust those around you and taste victory.
Even the most optimistic ‘homer’ in New England may have thrown in the towel at six and a half minutes into the third quarter when the Falcons took a commanding 28-3 lead. It is almost inconceivable that the Patriots (who had scored 3 points in the first 36:29 of the game) could score 25 points in the remaining 23:31 of regulation. It is almost equally inconceivable, given the difficulties they had on defense, that they could hold the Falcons scoreless for the remainder of the game. But that is exactly what happened – touchdown, field goal, touchdown, two-point conversion, touchdown, two-point conversion. Tie game. Overtime. Touchdown. Champions. The accolades and the prize goes to those who finish strong. To an even greater degree, that is the attitude God desires in us. God’s people ought not to start strong and ultimately give out, but finish strong and ultimately win out.
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
Congratulations to the World Champion New England Patriots. I am grateful to God that He can use such an earthly endeavor as a football game to remind us of His great plans and hopes for us.
On Sunday, I entered the second half of my first century and celebrated my fiftieth birthday. For some reason that I cannot really explain, this milestone in my journey of life feels to me like a checkpoint, like a high vantage point where I can see all the places through which I have passed. Instead of focusing on all the wonderful experiences I have had during my travels, my thoughts for the last few months have gravitated upon all the places I thought I’d have gone but never reached. I thought I’d be a home-owner, be successful in my chosen career and be financially stable with some savings for retirement. I must have been distracted when I drove past all those exits on the highway of my life.
I feel as if I have fallen victim to the theological truth expressed by John Lennon:
“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
At various times I wanted to be a school teacher, a lawyer, a financial planner and a bank vice-president. Instead, I became a Baptist minister and in the process taught children during vacation Bible school, became an expert in the Law of Moses, managed charitable funds and offered insights on how to store up treasures in heaven. I want to ask myself if I have been successful, but I think that is the wrong question. Have I used the gifts, talents and abilities I have been blessed with to the best of my ability? From this vantage point I can say that it is likely.
I wanted to have sufficient disposable income to travel the world – to see the Grand Canyon, the Leaning Tower of Pisa or the Sydney Opera House. While I have been to Tijuana, the Bahamas, more than half of the US states and a few places in Canada, my greatest memories are insignificant spots. There is an outdoor chapel in my hometown with my fingerprints on it. There is a restaurant, no doubt now closed, in Worcester where I asked Jeanine to marry me. There were four delivery suites at Brigham and Women’s where the loves of my life took their first breaths. There were trips the Disney, Lakeside, Shawme Crowell, and a hotel in Chattanooga where the kids acted like prairie dogs. I want to ask myself why I haven’t seen more, but I think that is the wrong question. Have I seen the things and the places that matter? From this vantage point I can say that it is likely.
I wanted to have my own house. That will likely never happen and that is okay with me. I have become the beneficiary of something better – I have been given a home. I have lived in seven houses in my life and every one of them has been a home; I have always lived in a place of love and laughter, a place crammed with family and friends and fun. I don’t need a deed or a mortgage to give my life meaning. I have a home filled with loved ones and lovely memories for that.
All in all, I thank God for the way the first fifty years have developed. These days were much better than I would have planned. And now I cannot wait for what He will reveal in the next fifty years.
The steps of a man are established by the LORD, when he delights in his way…. Psalm 37:23 (ESV)
Tomorrow we, as a nation, will celebrate an event that took place 239 years ago – the unanimous passage of the Declaration of Independence by the 2nd Continental Congress, giving birth to the United States of America. Among other noteworthy phrases in this historic document is the following: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” While we wave our flags and watch some fireworks, I hope we can celebrate the hopes contained in our forefathers’ words.
- We have been endowed by our Creator with the right to life. These words convey a hope that we, as Americans, have the divine right to live our lives free from governmental interference. Fully understanding that there was a necessity for civil order, our forefathers longed for a society of people who could live as they desired where they desired.
- We have been endowed by our Creator with the right to liberty. This phrase, likewise, carries a promise to a livelihood free from oppression. The life given by the Creator is a life of freedom where we, as citizens, have the privilege of unlimited opportunity.
- We have been endowed by our Creator with the right to pursue happiness. It is interesting that we are not promised happiness, but only the right to pursue it. This again is a divine bestowal of a livelihood that brings us contentment and pleasure. We are a nation which holds as primary the right to chase our dreams and pursue our happiness.
Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:6
As I look at the above scriptures, I see these principles in reverse order: Our Creator, through Christ, has endowed us with Life, Truth (which will set you free) and the Way (to pursue ultimate happiness in our eternal dwelling place). This is where the challenges lie for all who seek what the 2nd Continental Congress described. We are not given the right to life as we define it, or liberty as we define it, or the pursuit of happiness as we define it. We are given the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as defined by the Creator and demonstrated through Christ. My rights are not self-centered, in that I cannot simply do whatever I want, but society-centered, knowing that I live and exercise freedom to seek satisfaction in the midst of a community.
Our creator has endowed us with inalienable, irrevocable and irremovable, rights. Let us celebrate the right to life – from our first heartbeat to natural death – for all of our citizenry (irrespective of race, gender, economic status or intellectual ability). Let us celebrate the right to liberty and work for the elimination of all things that would put our citizenry in bondage (everything from addictions to usury to trafficking). Let us celebrate the right to the pursuit of happiness, recognizing that there is no peace or contentment by reveling in sin or diminishing our neighbor’s welfare.
Happy Independence Day!