Whoo-hoo-hoo, look who knows so much. It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive. – Miracle Max in The Princess Bride
This past Wednesday was both Valentine’s Day (a celebration of romantic love) and Ash Wednesday (an observance marked by sacrifice). The juxtaposition of these seemingly diverse concepts got me thinking about one of my favorite movies, The Princess Bride. This 1987 film directed by Rob Reiner has everything a romantic date might want: maidens and pirates, swordfights and acts of revenge, rivalries and true love. Without giving away all the plot points of this 30-year-old cinematic gem, I will say that, with great sacrifice, love conquers all. Love and sacrifice, the perfect combination for those celebrating the full range of experiences observed on February 14, 2018.
One of the pivotal scenes is quoted above: our hero is tortured to death and all hope is lost, unless Miracle Max, a village magician, can bring him back to life. Needless to say, it works and Wesley, the movie’s Prince Charming, is given new life. It works because the hero was only mostly dead, not completely dead; he was still slightly alive. Death and life, the same combination that forms the tension found in the New Testament Scriptures. Those who lose their lives will gain it and those who want to save their lives will lose it, or so the Good Book says.
For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin – because anyone who has died has been set free from sin. Romans 6:6-7
In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul tells believers that we have crucified – painfully killed – our old nature to do away with our bondage to sin. Unfortunately, many of us think that God is a bit like Miracle Max and that we can come to the God of creation in the state of “mostly dead” or “slightly alive” and think that we can be restored to wholeness. But that is simply not true. The prisoner with a life sentence does not receive a pardon because he is sick or because she is at death’s door. Our sin is not fully dealt with when we “mostly” remove it from our lives. We cannot fully enjoy our new life if we continue to hold onto a bit of our old one. Why would we want to try?
As we prepare for Easter with a season of sacrifice, allow me to remind all those who claim Christ as Lord to consider yourself dead to sin: have nothing to do with that old life, with its passions, powers and prizes. Consider yourself alive with new life in Him: embrace fully the pardon you have received, the gifts with which you have been graced and the peace you now enjoy. God is not Miracle Max; He is so much more, not only able to give us our lives back from the grave, but to transform us to be our greatest self.
It all began with a conversation around the dinner table. I had mentioned an incident of public confession at a church we had visited a few years ago. This then led to a question from my 17-year old son: “We’re not supposed to do that; doesn’t the Bible say that the right hand shouldn’t know what the left one does?” This then turned into a discussion about the natures of pride and humility. There we sat, with a table full dirty dishes between us, engaging in a conversation about the revolutionary demands of following Christ.
My son was right. The Bible does say:
But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing…. Matthew 6:3
We shouldn’t let one hand know what the other is doing. However, the context of this verse is explicit: we do this when we give to the needy. Jesus, as part of his Sermon on the Mount, commanded his followers to maintain no memory of the good things we do. We must not let ourselves know what we’ve done, let alone others. We are to practice humility when it comes to acts of good will.
My son was also mistaken. The Bible also says:
Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. James 5:16
We should be confessing our sins to each other, in proportion to the breadth of the offense and the depth of our relationship. James commands Christ’s followers to maintain accountability for the bad things we do, otherwise we are in danger of damaging our souls and dropping into prideful arrogance. We need to practice humility when it comes to acts of ill will.
All this caused my son, in resignation, to say that what we were saying was messed up. But the fact remains that the ways of the world – celebrating our altruism publicly and covering our mistakes privately – are diametrically opposed to the ways of the Lord – admitting our mistakes publicly and allowing our acts of kindness to remain private. All who follow Jesus cannot follow the patterns of the culture, and instead of ‘cleaners’ and ‘plausible deniability’ we must embrace confession and transparency.
This is truly a revolutionary lifestyle. While everyone around us might tell us to take pride in our positive accomplishments, we need to remain humble. While everyone around us might tell us not to dwell on our mistakes, we need to deal with our sin. This requires us to rely on God’s Spirit to lead us – to trust that He sees the good that we do (even when no one else does) and will reward us and to know that He sees the bad that we do (even though no one else might) and will forgive us.
So, we who know Jesus as Lord and Savior must admit our weaknesses to someone and expect no one to know our goodness. In a world drenched in abuse and aggression, a posture of humility like this would go a long way to addressing some of the pain.
Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. James 4:14
Let me start by stating that everyone in our family is happy and healthy. That being said, I am writing this post after a member of my family spent a night in the emergency room and a day in the hospital. Let me repeat: everyone is perfectly fine and nothing has changed, except for one thing – my perspective. No one begins their day planning to endure a car accident (not what happened) or a falling anvil (also not what happened) or a series of chest pains (well, there it is). But this post is not about electrocardiograms or blood enzyme tests; this post is about me and my futile desire to preserve this mortal frame.
All this has got me thinking. Make no mistake, I would be grateful to enter The Guinness Book of World Records by replacing Jeanne Louise Calment and becoming the longest living human (she died at 122). I would like to see my children’s weddings and my grandchildren’s graduations. I would like to see the Grand Canyon and the mighty redwoods. My brain repeats the same refrain: “I still have time.” But if this week is any indication of the realities of earthly existence, I cannot put off until tomorrow what I can do today since tomorrow is not guaranteed.
I am now left reflecting on how I spend my life (or waste it). I work on my ‘day off’ and allow my vacation days to remain unspent. I watch TV when I could have conversations. When I do have conversations, my words are a lot like the last ten minutes of the late-night news (weather and sports). I spend more time pursuing recreation and not enough time pursuing relationships. I am stingy with my words of encouragement, my offerings of forgiveness and my displays of affection. And now I worry that what I am saving for tomorrow I will not get a chance to spend.
“I will deal with that later.” I will call later.” “I will see you later.” “I will take a break later.” Later. What is it about that word and the power it contains? We all can agree that putting off making a payment or scheduling an appointment does not magically make the discomfort go away. We all suffer regret for forgetting to make that call or neglecting to put down that project. Even when spoken with the best of intentions, in many cases ‘later’ means ‘never’.
After the ‘health scare’ earlier this week, I am grateful for the gift of a few more tomorrows. Yet, there is a nagging truth resonating deep within me that the gift of tomorrow is not guaranteed and that all we have is today. This means that a must not delay the decisions or withhold the hugs that are meant for today. I appreciate the reminder that there are some things that cannot wait until tomorrow, for that may never come.
What do you hope your legacy will be? More specifically, how do you hope to be remembered five or ten years after your retirement, or what do you hope people will say about you five or ten years after your passing? On Wednesday, which also happened to be my birthday, I spent a few hours with a dozen or so pastors discussing a collection of essays about the connection between faith and biblical scholarship (compiled in a book titled I (Still) Believe) and these questions of legacy were part of our conversation.
The conversation made me think about an aspect of the scripture reading from Sunday that never made it into my sermon, the legacy (or non-legacy) of Joseph, the man not chosen. Joseph’s complete mark on history is found in the following single verse:
So they nominated two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. Acts 1:23
This is what we know about Joseph:
- He was called Barsabbas – meaning either literally ‘the son of Sabbas’ or figuratively ‘the child of rest or return (i.e. the Sabbath)’;
- He was known as ‘the Just’ – he had a character of righteousness;
- He was continually present with Jesus from the time of His baptism by John through His ascension – he spent more than three years following the Lord and hearing His teachings;
- He was passed over for the promotion to apostle when God chose Matthias instead.
That is Joseph Barsabbas’ legacy: a good man who was ever-present to witness the words and ways of Jesus and was called by God to a secondary role. The Bible is filled with “secondary characters” like Joseph Barsabbas: Mordecai, Esther’s cousin; Ehud, the left-handed judge who delivered Israel from the Moabites; and Onesiphorus, a care-taker of Paul’s. Few people in the Scriptures are remembered in history. Most of the names we read in the Old or New Testament are mentioned not for their legacy but for their lifestyle: to encourage our faithful obedience or to warn against our continued disobedience.
So, what do I hope my legacy will be? I hope that I will be remembered not for the history I make but for the footprints that I leave. I hope that I can leave big enough tracks in the muck of this earth that my children will remain on the course of faithfulness. I hope that the map that I have drawn over my career in pastoral ministry will assist those I leave behind to avoid the perilous cliffs of despair. I would be satisfied as a footnote, as a nameless face in a photograph, as a present-day Joseph Barsabbas; a good man who was there to witness all the wonders of Christ.
But ultimately, my legacy is largely inconsequential compared to the Lord’s. Jesus alone is the one who has changed history. World and military leaders fade from our memories, but the life of Christ alone remains. Whether we are the star in life’s motion picture or only performing a supporting role, we all are precious in God’ sight and useful in accomplishing His purposes, whether we are remembered or not.
As I was shoveling last week, I lost something amidst the snow for a moment. I was not immediately aware of what happened at that moment, but thankfully, I quickly recognized what was happened and was able to restore, mostly, what had been lost. The troubling fact about this encounter with nature was that it was not my keys or my phone that I lost; it was my character. Through an interaction with a cranky neighbor, my fleshly nature was revealed and my witness as a follower of Christ was trampled. In a moment, I went from being a light to the world to being dim-witted.
All I remember about the interaction is his question: “Would you like it if they threw snow onto your property? You think you’re entitled.” Aside from the fact that I have no property to speak of, he exposed my lapse of judgement. I was justifying myself with the thought that this other neighbor, whose space I was piling my shoveling onto, did not have a car. I was rationalizing my actions as a response to the fact that the street had yet to be plowed and my small increase in the drift would be addressed by the city’s plow. Still, my neighbor was right.
So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. Matthew 7:12
I was not treating my neighbor the way I would want to be treated. I was not reflecting the nature that the Spirit of God had given me when Christ saved my sorry state and transformed my selfish soul. Fortunately, in the midst of the interaction, I realized my error and removed my additions to the drift and, as an act of contrition, enlarged my neighbor’s walkway. It did not go unnoticed by my cranky neighbor; we swapped apologies (turns out he was unable to get an oil delivery and temporarily lost his heat) and I offered him a space-heater (which he appreciated but declined). He was gracious enough to repair my reputation, for which I praise God.
This whole episode has served as a reminder that a single moment of weakness can demolish a structure that took years to build. An angry word or a thoughtless action can compromise anyone’s integrity; our inner strength – our character – can be damaged and, if not addressed promptly, ultimately destroyed. We, who are commissioned by Christ to be His witnesses in the world, must routinely assess our actions and attitudes and perform the hard work of confession when our testimony is tarnished and about to be torn down.
As I stood outside the other night, in the snow, I thought about ‘doubling-down’: I thought about defending myself by deflecting my bad behavior with (justifiable) excuses for ignoring the “Golden Rule”. I would have felt better in the moment, but would have felt regret for a long time after. I thank God that He guides me, even when I stray, so that I can return to the path that leads me, and others, into His presence. And I thank God that I found that path the other night in the snow.
The observance of New Year’s Day (I suppose like so many other observances) is both arbitrary and random. The fact that we record dates with January as the first month, instead of May or August, and December as the last is illogical. There is no magical or material difference between 11:59PM on New Year’s Eve and 12:00AM on New Year’s Day. Nothing truly changes when the ball drops in Times Square. As my children would say, celebrating the new year on January 1 is just a ‘social construct’, and the ‘new year’ is just a structure that shapes our culture and maintains a standard for our practices.
That being said, we do measure our days by the calendar. We do, collectively, think about the day when one year is ending and another year is beginning. We do make resolutions to think or eat or behave differently because the year is new. There will be year-end reviews, year-end memorials, year-end sales and year-end parties. I suppose that we do need to change the calendars at some time, so why not December 31st? It is a good practice to take stock of our lives at some point and say, “Out with the old, in with the new”; it is a good time to make resolutions.
On the subject of resolutions, these were the top 10 of 2017, according to Harper’s Bazaar:
- Diet, exercise and weight loss.
- Read more.
- Learn something new.
- Save money.
- Be nicer, kinder and more patient.
- Get a new job.
- Volunteer and donate more to charity.
- Drink less alcohol.
- Get more sleep and relax more.
- Make new friends and be a better friend.
I could certainly benefit from some, if not most, of these. I have scrutinized this list and begun to formulate a plan to live a healthier, fuller and richer life. I will, however, likely give up when my birthday comes around (which is in a little less than three weeks). This is all because New Year’s Day is not as magical or mystical as we think. What I need is January 2nd resolutions, January 3rd resolutions, and every day resolutions. I must maintain a discipline of thinking every day about living a healthier, fuller and richer life. I also need those around me to ask about my resolutions (or commitments to discipline) regularly throughout the year.
One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Romans 14:5
I am going to keep this list (excepting a few that are not pertinent to my lifestyle) near me for the next few months, as a reminder of how I want to improve my health and wellness. I am going to resolve, as a contract between myself and my creator, to cultivate the physical, mental, social and emotional blessings He’s given me. I am going to attempt to do this every day, not just on the special days that this type of talk is fashionable. And I will pray with you that you reach whatever goals you and God have set for your life as well. Happy New Year.
All my life I have been encouraged to be a good boy (or a good man). Growing up, I must have heard the command to “be good” a thousand times, whether it was just before visiting a friend’s house or the local library. After I was particularly incorrigible as a child, I was warned that I might be dropped off at the “bad boy store” by my frustrated mother – in hindsight, I recognize the absurdity of the reality of this establishment, but at the time the notion that I could be chattel for this nefarious business worked well in keeping me on the straight and narrow. However, I was not always a good boy.
As I grew up into manhood, I have tried to be a good man. I think I have succeeded, to a greater of lesser degree. However, “the bad man store” may have a new item for sale. In my defense, the event I am about to describe occurred during the Patriots game on Sunday. As I was watching the game (the outcome of which at the time was still in question), trouble came to our house. As she was making sure our youngest was ready for bed, my wife hit her head – hard – on the upper bunk of the boys’ bed. While there was no blood, there was a bump. It least that is what I was told. I had little compassion and provided no care. I was not a good husband or a good father. I was wrong, and I sincerely apologize to my wife for my lapse in judgement. I am not always a good man.
When I became a follower of Christ, I tried to be a good Christian. I have a long list of good and godly behaviors – with appropriate measures of church attendance, charitable giving and acts of service – but I am not a good Christian. I am in danger of being shipped off to the “bad Christian store” because my practice of the faith is incomplete, my priority of Christ’s lordship is inconsistent and my passion for the gospel is anemic. I continue to sin. I continue to fail. I do not pray as much as I should nor share my faith as frequently as I should. I am not always a good Christian.
But who can discern their own errors? Forgive my hidden faults. Psalm 19:12
My problem is that I am lulled into believing that I am (overall) good. I compare myself to others and I see myself as measuring up pretty well against the competition. But, as the Psalm above states, I am unable to rightly evaluate my own goodness. I need forgiveness for the things I cannot see in myself. I need the truth of God to be my standard and not my own heightened sense of self. In comparison to the standards of the Scriptures (which are beneficial for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness), I am, by nature, a bad boy, a bad man and a bad Christian.
But that is not how God sees me: because I have trusted Jesus as Lord and Savior, I have been justified (declared not guilty by God through His acceptance of Christ’s sacrificial satisfaction of God’s wrath) and sanctified (anointed, appointed and equipped to accomplish His will). I am seen by God as good, and that motivates me to demonstrate this divinely imbued goodness. It also motivates me to remember that this goodness is not from me, but from the one who redeemed me so that I might do some good. I thank God that He enables me to be a good person, a sinner saved by His grace.
My heart remains heavy as I process the events of Sunday morning in Sutherland Springs, TX. According to numerous news sources, a man parked his truck at a gas station, walked across the street with a number of weapons and then opened fire on those around and within the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs as they gathered for the 11AM worship service. Twenty-six men, women and children were killed and more than 20 others were injured, leading to the pastor’s wife, Sherri Pomeroy, saying, “Most of our church family is gone….” The only word I am left with is this: tragic.
In the aftermath of this ever-increasingly common tragedy, numerous ‘shapers of culture’ (celebrities, politicians and media consultants) have said many things about many topics, and I am not sufficiently knowledgeable about the details of this event nor of its legal implications to offer my commentary. What I do know is this: there is no place on earth where we will be perfectly safe. We deceive ourselves if we think that churches or schools or country music concerts make those therein impervious to danger and risk. We are being unrealistic if we imagine that locks and detectors keep us far from harm.
(Jesus asked,) “Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” Luke 13:4-5
The bad news is this – bad things happen every day. Disease of the body and disease of the spirit is present in every place humanity dwells. There are earthquakes and hurricanes that devastate vast areas. There are wildfires and droughts that destroy lives and livelihoods. There are acts of violence that damage souls and bring death to innocents. There is little we can do about these things and nothing will prevent them from happening should they seek our demise. The bad news is that we cannot prevent what is evil from being evil. The bad news is that we are not safe.
However, there is good news. While we cannot prevent bad things from occurring, we can prepare for them, so that death by whatever circumstance cannot rob us of our relationships and our life. We have nothing to fear since we can claim the promise Jesus has made to all those who trust in Him
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” John 11:25-26
While it is true that life on earth is not safe, it also true that the God who loves us has provided us with blessings that can never be taken away. There are blessings beyond this physical realm – redemption, restoration, reunion and resurrection – that no act of violence or “act of God” that can rescind.
I hope and pray that the odds fall in your favor, that life-taking evil does not visit your camp. I also hope and pray that should your last day on earth occur much earlier than you planned, you will have prepared for this eventuality and placed your full faith in the One who provides life after death.
Image by DAVID J. PHILLIP / AP
For those of you discouraged by a 4:32PM Sunset in Boston on Sunday, you will be glad to know that an 11-member panel, created by the Massachusetts Legislature last year, spent months examining the pros and cons of effectively establishing daylight saving time year-round and eliminating the practice of setting clocks forward and back twice every year. Their decision: move the Commonwealth into the Atlantic Time Zone (aligning ourselves with the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island) if all the Northeast region (including New York) agrees to change their time zone with us.
This strikes me as nothing more than a hollow victory. The commission’s trouble with “going it alone” is that transportation, broadcasting schedules and sporting events could all be adversely affected. I, for one, could get used to The Tonight Show at 12:35AM, football at 2PM and early flights from Logan at 7 in the morning. It would be a challenge calibrating ourselves with the rest of the country, but I would be willing to try. But, because it is nearly impossible to buck the cultural norms, we in the Northeast will not experience a sunset after 5PM until February 4th; the groundhog may see the sun before I will during my drive home from work.
And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. 2 Timothy 2:24
Speaking of cultural norms, we were discussing the above referenced verse of scripture and my wife remarked at how difficult it is to keep the little details of this passage. If you think changing your Time Zone is counter-cultural, try not quarreling or being kind to everyone or releasing resentment.
- Anyone familiar with social media knows that quarreling (or fighting) is our national pastime: there are posts (and then comments about those posts) that are divisive and combative, attacking the “opposition” both personally and indiscriminately. A follower of Christ ought not engage in these senseless squabbles.
- If you are a driver, you know that kindness is in short supply. I realize that someone allowing me to turn into traffic is unrealistic, but I do wonder if honking the horn as the light turns green or passing on the right (through unoccupied parking spaces) on a single lane street or ignoring the ‘right lane must turn’ sign and weaving to the left at dangerous speeds are necessary. A few verses after the above passage, Paul tells Timothy that he should be gentle with those who oppose his teaching; a follower of Christ should be restrained in exercising whatever power that follower has.
- Life, no matter how it is lived, will contain times of deep disappointment. All but one team finishes the season without a title. Every person will find oneself in one sort of line or another, and whatever line you find yourself in, the other one is moving faster…and has fewer bitter and angry people occupying it. A follower of Christ should release resentment as soon as it is sensed.
God has called us to – and equipped us for – better than our culture prescribes. No matter what time we find ourselves in, we are called to be counter-cultural: peaceable, kind and hopeful. I suspect those godly attributes will be highly regarded during the long nights ahead.
There has been a series of conversations at our house about what costume our 9-year-old son will be wearing on Halloween. He has decided that his costume will be made from a cardboard box (he feels that it is tradition: in past years, he has been a Lego®, a birdhouse, a television, and a clock). Beyond that, the options are incalculable: he could go out into the neighborhood disguised as a board game, a rocket ship, a refrigerator or a hundred other ‘boxy’ things. For one night a year, my son will get the opportunity to pretend that he is someone or something else.
When he gets older, he will get the opportunity to pretend that he is someone or something else all the time. Lord willing, he will learn how to fashion and wear a mask to disguise his true self in the business world, the social spaces and marketplace. We all, as we mature, put on masks to protect our frail vulnerabilities and preserve our fragile sensitivities. We all learn that there are things about us that we choose to keep to ourselves: we temper our opinions, our preferences and our accomplishments to avoid being rejected by those around us. We all wear masks and pretend that we belong.
Except, we cannot wear the masks all the time. They chafe upon us and distort our vision. They prevent us from expressing our emotions and enjoying nourishment. So, we take them off and show ourselves to those we love and to those who love us. In those moments we find comfort and strength in being know as we truly are.
Beside all this, there is one who knows us, whether we don our masks or not; the one who created us knows us completely. We cannot hide our thoughts from Him. We cannot keep our opinions from Him. We cannot shield our motives from His eyes. It serves no purpose to wear a disguise in His presence, as He see through our cardboard boxes and knows who we are. There is a word in the New Testament that describes our attempts at pretending we are someone or something else, a word which literally means ‘a play actor’: hypocrite. It is this word that Jesus uses to describe those who perform a role in public places to protect themselves:
“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. … And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. … When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting.” Matthew 6:2, 5, 16
One night a year is sufficient time to wear a costume and pretend that you are a superhero or a celebrity or a washing machine. Perhaps you will need a disguise at the next corporate outing or family reunion. You need not wear these things just to make people like you. You need to know that the One who made you knows what is behind your mask, and loves you just as you are.