Yesterday, Valentine’s Day, I missed the small pink boxes of tiny hearts that used to be made by Necco. The good news is that, although the Revere institution filed for bankruptcy and shuttered the factory last year, Spangler Candy Co. (the company that took over the rights to Necco’s iconic brands) confirmed Conversation Hearts would return in 2020. While I am not a great fan of the product (they tasted like chalk and were always lagging behind the cultural vernacular), they were a good and inexpensive gift to hand to the kids. Because these confections are a rarely-consumed tradition in my home (like that bowl of mixed nuts at Thanksgiving or those ‘stocking oranges’ at Christmas) I did buy some second-tier Brach’s© Hearts yesterday.
These little hearts that say “BE MINE” or “TEXT ME” or “PUPPY LOVE” or “DREAM BIG”, which may have little or no taste, are not tasteless. They are simple expressions of affection, comfort and encouragement. In a world of incessant honking in the streets and ubiquitous trolling on the internet, a tiny piece of pressed sugar with the words “I (HEART) YOU” might be just what the doctor ordered. We all have times when we need that short and sweet interaction with someone who cares; at those crucial moments we do not want a poem or a lecture – we want a hug, a call or a smile.
“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” Deuteronomy 31:6
Imagine if God produced a box of “Conversation Hearts” for you. Perhaps you would read “BE STRONG”, “BE COURAGEOUS”, “NO FEAR”, “I’LL GO WITH U”, “NEVER LEAVE U” and “NEVER FORSAKE U” (and those are from just one verse from one book in the Bible). Imagine you could place the hundreds of promises contained in the Scriptures, condensed to a dozen or so characters, in a pocket-sized box. Imagine taking one out in those discouraging moments and digesting it – chewing on it, enjoying its sweetness and reflecting on all the sentiment includes – and savoring the moment.
Whatever the date on the calendar, you have someone who loves you more than can be imagined: the God of the universe, as demonstrated in the death of Jesus Christ. It would take a lifetime to apprehend the incomprehensible fullness of this love, but it all begins with a sentiment that can be contained on one of those little hearts. “I (HEART) U”. This expression is something like the emotions contained in those crayon and construction paper cards that mothers keep in a special place. It is not simply what is said but what said by what is said.
It might be a good idea to swing by the grocery store and pick up a bag of discounted hearts, to open them up and read them as if written by God, and to act on them as if certain they are true. Then, literally or figuratively, hug, text and encourage the body of Christ…and wait for next year to get a pink box of chalky affection.
My daughter is currently spending a semester abroad at American College of Thessaloniki in Greece. In addition to taking a full slate of classes, she will (as part of the abroad program) be travelling through Greece to experience its unique culture and (because of proximity) be travelling throughout the Schengen Area of Europe to see the world. Already, her mother and I have seen pictures and heard anecdotes of all the beautiful places and the delicious foods our daughter has enjoyed. We are genuinely happy for her for this incredible opportunity and cannot wait until April to live vicariously through her.
While my wife and I have never been to Europe (we do not even have passports), we have the next best things. We have access to maps which can inform us of all the geography, roads and boundaries of Europe: we can know where everything is. We have access to episodes of “Rick Steves’ Europe” on PBS and “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern” on Travel Channel, both of which have done multiple programs on Greece: we know can everywhere to go. We have access to literature like Eleni Gage’s “North of Ithaka” and Nikos Kazantzakis’ “Zorba the Greek”: we can know everything to expect. But that would only give us knowledge, and no matter how much knowledge we might gain, it would not be the same as living in Greece.
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. John 10:10
As a parallel, there are plenty of people who know a great deal about living in Christ – through studying the Bible, attending worship services and reading biographies – but are not experiencing life in Christ. There is a great deal of difference between reading about God’s grace and experiencing His blessings or between singing of His mercy and experiencing His forgiveness. Simply because someone can quote Scriptures does not guarantee that they are living them out, just as knowing what is on the menu at Top of the Hub doesn’t mean you’ve eaten there. Knowledge of the culture of Christ’s kingdom is not the same as being absorbed by that culture, any more than reading about Greece is the same as being there.
So, I challenge all those who are reading this to experience what you know. Knowledge is important – even essential – in the navigation of life, whether we are referring to life which is physical or spiritual. But “book learning” is not sufficient. We need to apply that knowledge experientially, to immerse ourselves (intelligently) in the culture of Christ. We need to experience the fruit of the Spirit, the virtues of grace and mercy, and the love of God expressed in a billion little ways. Live out the life of Christ in all its glorious splendor.
The culture of Christ, like every culture, is experienced through community. If you, or someone you know, are looking for a community with which to experience abundant life in Christ, consider visiting us at Calvary.
Am I the only one who wishes that life would be easier? Am I alone in longing for simplicity in the workplace – there is a job to do, a way to do it and an absence of obstacles to its completion? Am I the only one who desires that life was a whole lot less messy?
These thoughts, no matter how comforting, are not based in reality: all of us, and all we work with and for, are – to some degree – messy. We all have unrealistic expectations, unresolved insecurities, and inexplicable weaknesses. We all have times when we think we are worthless and our situation is hopeless. That is the time when we need someone to come alongside. Thankfully, we have someone: the one about whom Isaiah prophesied and the one who fulfilled this prophecy: Jesus. Recorded in the Old and New Testament is a picture representing the heart of God for ministry.
A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. Isaiah 42:3a
A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out…. Matthew 12:20a
In the days of Isaiah, reeds and bulrushes were literally a dime a dozen. They were everywhere and, as such, easily cultivated for a variety of menial tasks. Therefore, only perfect specimens were used and the bruised (bent, blemished or broken) reeds were discarded. Ancient reeds were of the same value of a Dixie© cup: I take medication twice daily with the aid of those 3-ounce wax-coated paper cups and (to the consternation of my loving wife) I reuse just one for days upon days. Christian ministry, according to Jesus, values the people around us that the world sees as replaceable and disposable.
At the same time, fire was essential for existence. Fire was the only source of heat (for comfort and cooking) and light (through hearth and lantern). Tending to the home fires was a constant chore. If one were to neglect the flames or use live or wet wood, it would be easiest to sweep the firebox and start over. If you have ever camped before, you know the work maintaining a fire demands, especially if one does not have a lighter (invented in 1823) or friction matches (invented in 1826); it would be wiser simply to rebuild and relight dry wood. Christian ministry, according to Jesus, values the people around us that the world sees as difficult and demanding.
The good news is that God has established the Church to ministry to the bruised reeds and the smoldering wicks. All around the world this weekend, those who might consider themselves nameless and voiceless cogs in the mechanism of life will gather together to remind one another that they are irreplaceable and valuable. All across the globe, people who the world would label as difficult and unworthy of the effort will come together and worship the One who equips His people with limitless compassion and patience.
Life is not easy. Life is not simple. Life is messy. But, thank God, we have the Church, the people of God committed to accomplishing His will. Therefore, there is always a place for disposable cups and dying embers like you and me.
More often than I care to admit or recognize, the disparate portions of scripture that read relating to different parts of my life that (whether it be through sermon preparation, prayer, or devotional readings) intersect to illuminate a truth that my thick skull would not have comprehended had it not been bombarded from diverse angles. This week, a verse from Proverbs (from a devotional), a verse from Psalms (through our church’s participation in “21 Days of Prayer”) and a verse from Acts (from last week’s sermon) have gotten me thinking. They all were used by the Holy Spirit to connect some dots, producing a picture of life that includes discernment, disappointment, and direction.
Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance…. Proverbs 1:5 (ESV)
I cry out to God Most High, to God who fulfills his purpose for me. Psalm 57:2 (ESV)
[Herod] had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. Acts 12:2 (NIV)
Initially, God directed me to the above passage in Proverbs and to a devotional where Tim Keller examined the difference between knowledge and discernment as they relate to the pursuit of wisdom. We must be ever increasing in our learning, gaining factual and practical knowledge from a variety of healthy sources. We must also seek understanding of this knowledge. We need to know what the truth is, as well as what the truth means in practice.
Next, God directed me to the passage in the Psalms, which states the truth that God fulfills His purposes for us. But what does that mean in practice? In context, David recited this plea as he was running for his life from Saul. It means that God uses all our experiences (times of joy and times of sorrow) as a means of fulfilling His purposes for us. Whether we comprehend God’s rationale for our situation, we must live with the understanding that He has a plan.
This leads to the final passage, which recorded the martyrdom of one the first disciples at the hands of Herod. Unlike His deliverance of Peter a few verses later, this passage appears to reflect that God did nothing to spare James’ life. That is what knowledge of the truth would tell me, anyways. But understanding of the passage tells me more: first, that Jesus secured James’ life after his physical death, delivering him from harm and granting him passage into His presence; and second, His purpose (whatever that may be) for James and the people James know was fulfilled.
Ultimately, the life of faith is found in the confluence of these verses (as well as thousands more). Whether it is budget meetings or bond hearings, weddings or funerals, winning the lottery or losing a job, God has a purpose for you. We can get a glimpse of this purpose through studying His word and seeking His guidance. But, whether we “get” what God is doing or not, we can trust that He will give us all we need to trust Him in the darker hours. We need only remember that God all things work together for good for those who are called according to His purpose. But that is a verse for another day.
On Wednesday night, a group of us from the church walked down the hill to the Ashmont T station and sang carols for the commuters. While we were there, I could not help but notice that Ashmont station is a hub of activity. There were people using every form of transportation: cars, cabs, busses, trains, bicycles and walking. There was a steady stream of busy people, some rushing past our makeshift choir and others lingering for a moment but ultimately moving onto other matters. And there were so many noises: car alarms, public address announcements, stray musical sounds and digital voices from cell phone speakers.
Yet, in the midst of all the hustle and bustle, there we were, proclaiming the joy, hope, peace and love of the Savior and handing out candy canes to those who would take them. As Philips Brooks wrote 150 years ago, “Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light….” While the rest of the neighborhood was moving about, accomplishing the things of their “To Do” lists, we were being used by God to provide a gentle reminder of the reason we celebrate. Above the din of humanity, the soft sounds of the baby born in the manger, the angels and Magi who visited, and the good tidings for all people could be heard.
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. Luke 2:1-4
Is our experience at the Ashmont T station a few nights ago what it was like in Bethlehem all those years ago? While it is unclear how many were living in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth (some scholars suggest as few as 300 or as many as 1,000), the biblical account of the events that occurred in Bethlehem are clear: so many people flooded this small village outside Jerusalem because of a governmentally decreed census that living space was at a premium. There were travelers, noises and activity aplenty and few, if any, stopped to notice the world changing couple that came to town. The urgency of the moment overwhelmed the importance of the advent, the appearing, of the Savior of humankind.
We, too, can get wrapped up in all that still needs doing that we overlook what has been done. We need to purchase gifts, wrap gifts, bake cookies, consume wassail, attend parties, visit family, connect with friends, worship on Christmas Eve, stuff stockings and settle down for a long winter’s nap. We can, like subway commuters and census participants, lose track of what is important as we engage in the things that are urgent. I pray that, in the midst of all the people, noise and activity of the next few days, you hear the angels’ song and delight in the birth of our Lord.
Last Sunday, I spent part of my vacation visiting a church not far from home. The fact that I went to church on vacation is not my point in this posting. Where we went is also not my point, nor is my point the fact that it was a wonderful service. What I felt as I sat there, on the other side of the pulpit, can be summed up in one word: distracted. I was distracted by the worship leader’s broken guitar string (and how he was going to handle the set-back). I was distracted by the graphics on the screen (and the exceptional quality of said images that the church projected through two large television screens). I was distracted by those sitting next to me (my boys have nothing softer than a stage whisper) and those sitting a few rows in front of me (who were shifting in their seats randomly and consistently).
My point is this: we all, even when we have the best of intentions, get distracted by the things that bombard our senses every Sunday. Perhaps, like me, you hear the radiator hiss or the bench squeak. Perhaps, like me, you see the head three rows ahead bob back and forth or the lamp on the platform flicker off and on. Perhaps, like me, you smell the lip balm of your wife or the phantom aromas of pot-lucks past. Perhaps, like me, you feel an odd breeze or sense your leg falling asleep. Before you know it, like me, you are missing what the Spirit is saying.
A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. Luke 7:37
As I think about my distracted mind last Sunday, I think about the Pharisee who invited Jesus to his house for dinner. In those days, eating a meal with someone was a big deal: it represented the importance of the relationship. As Jesus and the Pharisee were discussing any number of pressing matters, a woman comes in and proceeds to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears. The Pharisee (and apparently Luke) are fascinated by this woman, wetting His feet with her weeping, wiping them away with her hair and anointing them with perfume and kisses. Quite the spectacle.
At some point Jesus, knowing the Pharisee’s thoughts and his distracted condition, breaks through and tells the Pharisee a parable about forgiveness. This serves as a good reminder to all of us: Jesus knows our thoughts and how we are easily distracted, and He is willing and able to capture (and recapture) our attention to show us what we need to see. Jesus is faithful to His adopted siblings, pulling us away from our daydreams and off our rabbit trails and redirecting our thoughts toward His counsel. That is what I needed last Sunday, a nudge to ignore the behavior of that woman in front of me and focus (if only for a moment) on the Lord before me.
We all get distracted at times (even on Sunday mornings at 11:40 in Dorchester). It is good to know that God not only understands, but assists us in catching what we need to hear even when we are not listening.
The other morning, my mother-in-law underwent a procedure to treat her cataracts. At ninety-one, she was hesitant to have it done (she was unwilling to endure the pain, to be anesthetized, or to have a doctor mess with her eyes). After weeks of prayer and encouragement by a multitude of sources, she went to the surgical clinic and allowed the procedure to be done. The surgery was a success. Twenty-four hours later, at the follow-up appointment, two surprising developments took place: 1) she told the nurse that the experience was better than she expected, and 2) her vision test showed that her eyesight was greatly improved.
Worry is, by all appearances, a mighty adversary. It will tell us that the costs are not worth the gains. It will remind us of that one time, long ago, when we were mistreated and assure us it will happen again. It will highlight the adverse effects that professionals must legally disclose and tell us that we will be the ‘one-in-a-million’ to suffer. It will keep us up at night, make us lose our appetites and force us to pace the floor. Few know the truth, however, that worry is a paper tiger. Worry is only a shadow on the wall.
“Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” Matthew 6:27 (NIV)
As I read these words of Jesus, I think to myself, “Maybe I can; I am pretty good at it.” Despite my conviction that God’s word is true and that God grants perfect peace – complete contentment and wondrous well-being – to all who trust in Him, worry is a constant travelling companion of mine. Its relentless whisper rings in my ears, causing me to fret about everything from car accidents to broken bones, from power outages to excessive costs. I readily admit that this level of worry is not rational; it is nothing more than exhausting – of energy, of hope and or peace.
“So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Matthew 6:31-33 (NIV)
The remedy for worry is worship: to trust in the promises of our loving Heavenly Father for what we eat, what we drink and what we wear (as well as what we endure, what we await and what we hope to avoid). Worry is silenced when we rely upon God to provide whatever we need, whether it be peace or patience or perseverance. Worry is unmasked when we rest in God’s presence. Worry is defeated when we occupy our thought with the goodness, kindness and love of our creator. The paper tiger of worry is tamed by the authority of His name.
I hope that my quickly recovering mother-in-law (and I) will be able to see this truth.
On Sunday night, the Boston Red Sox won their fourth World Series in the last fifteen years. As I was preparing my thoughts for this post, I read my post from November 1, 2013, the last time the Red Sox won it all. At that time, I was particularly impressed with John Lackey, who had a checkered past as a Red Sox pitcher but came up big in the playoffs, even getting the win in the Series clinching game. He was a living example of the biblical practice of “forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead (Philippians 3:13).”
This time around it was another pitcher, in fact the pitcher who got the win in this year’s Series clinching game, with whom I was particularly enamored. David Price, the highest paid player on the Red Sox, has always been an ace (an exceptional starting pitcher) in the regular season, but, entering the 2018 post-season, had amassed an 0-9 record in games he started in the playoffs. It looked like it would be more of the same this year when Price lost to the Yankees in game 2 of the A.L. Divisional Series and received a no-decision in game 2 of the A.L. Championship Series.
Hope for the hometown team was flagging when Price was named the starter for game 5 of the ALCS. However, as Price put it, he “figured something out while [warming up in the bullpen for a possible relief appearance in game 4], and it kind of just carried over” into his start the following day. He was spectacular, earning his first win in the playoffs as a starter (and clinching the American League pennant). He was then spectacular a few days later, in game 2 of the World Series, earning his second win, and then, a few days after that, winning his third consecutive start and securing the World Series for the Red Sox.
The amazing truth in all this is that David Price is in the middle of his contract (which, I remind you, is the highest in Red Sox history) and – win, lose or no-decision – would have been paid the same amount for the next 4 years. Yet, Price pitched three times in the World Series (once as a reliever) and willingly sacrificed himself for he team. Price literally did everything he could do to win, leaving everything he had on the field of play. By doing this, he went from scapegoat to hero in the span of ten days.
And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. Colossians 3:17
Because of David Price, I am reminded that all that I do can and should glorify God. It is only reasonable for me to do all that I am capable of doing in building for His kingdom, expanding His gospel and expressing His love to those around me. I am able to sacrifice more than I think so that I can accomplish more than I expect. I thank God that our record from the past does not dictate our productivity in the future. When we are willing to do whatever it takes, sometimes God will use that to enable us to take it all.
Driving in Boston can be an adventure: the streets are narrow, turn signals are for ‘the other car’ and the solid yellow lines are ignored. I am typically the driver on family trips to the grocery store or school, with my loving wife in the front passenger seat. As we navigate the roads around our residence, she gently reminds me on occasion of people and vehicles that are dangerously close to our car. “Watch out for that car pulling out of the driveway,” she implores. “Do you see that woman with the baby carriage?” she asks. “There’s a truck on your left,” she says.
What my wife is pointing out are my blind spots. When she says these things and asks these questions, I am quick to tell her that I am fine and that I see everything she mentions. I am confident that I know where my blind spots are and what is contained within them. As I write these words, I realize just how dumb they sound: am I really proposing that I can see and process the things that, by definition, I cannot see, the things to which I am blind? What makes them blind spots is the fact that they are not seen.
We all need an extra pair of eyes, someone watching our backs, if we hope to avoid disaster. We all need someone outside ourselves, someone with a slightly different perspective, who will tell us the hard facts that we are unable to recognize. We all need someone who will see the trouble before it strikes and warn us (or, at least, enable us to brace for impact). We need other people in our lives in order to avoid becoming a wreck: physically, emotionally, spiritually or relationally. “Watch out for increased sodium levels,” they will implore. “Do you see those red flags that your new companion is raising?” they will ask. “There’s a flaw in your logic,” they will say.
As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another. Proverbs 27:17 (NIV)
In order for iron to sharpen iron, in order for the hammer and anvil to shape the blade and in order for the file to hone the edge two things are needed: fire and friction. Solomon, in all his wisdom, understood that we need the same thing, especially in the blind spots. We need fire; the healthiest relationships include elements of passion and purification. We need friction; the healthiest relationships include the qualities of proximity and pressure. In order to make it from one point in life to another without damage, we need a friend who is close enough to care and strong enough to say what needs saying.
It is my firm belief that this type of friendship is a gift from God. He blesses us with people who will point out what is in our blind spots because they love us and want the best for us. It is in our best interest to foster those who will bring fire and friction into our life, so that we can avoid the flames. I thank God for my wife, my second set of eyes. I pray you have someone similar to her with whom you can ride along.
I would say that I am an avid follower of the Boston Red Sox. I watch the games (typically on television) and listen to all levels of commentary from sports radio. I worry when the bases are loaded with Yankee base runners and cheer when the team pulls it out in the ninth. I offer suggestions for lineups and complain about roster moves. I use “we” and “us”, not “they” and “them”; I have been known to say such things as “we are going to the playoffs” and “the bullpen lost us the game”. I may call myself an avid follower of the Red Sox, but I am not. I am simply a fan.
Merriam-Webster defines a fan (actually, a fanatic) as ‘a person who is extremely enthusiastic about and devoted to some interest or activity’. That is what I am as relates to the Red Sox. Whatever the outcome might be of a single game or the entire season, my life and livelihood are never disrupted. I will never get a million-dollar contract after a great year or cut after a poor one. I need not save the date for the day I ride through Boston at a Duck Boat parade. Alex Cora, the field manager, and Dave Dombrowski, the general manager, are never going to ask my opinion or consider my suggestions for the team. I am not part of the “we”; I am not one of “us”.
Some of us have a similar sense of ‘following’ Christ as we do ‘following’ a sports team: we can attend the game, or not; we can have strong opinions about how things ought to go, but they amount to nothing more than talk show fodder; I can say that I am a part of the team, but never put on a uniform or play my position. I do not attend the team meetings or do the conditioning work in the off-season. Sometimes we act as if all we want is the glory based upon the sacrifice of another without having to do anything more than watch when I feel like it. We mistake following Christ as nothing more than being a fan of God’s only begotten.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Matthew 16:24
So, are you a fan of Jesus or an actual follower? Jesus had a completely different conception of “following”. When we follow Jesus, it means a denial of self. We must be willing and able to refuse ourselves: our opinions, preferences, schedules and feelings. Then we are free to accept the Lord’s best for us. When we follow Jesus, it means taking up our cross. We must be willing to humble ourselves; certainly the cross of Jesus’ day was an instrument of death, but it was more than that – it was an instrument of dehumanization and disgrace (after all, Jesus could have simply said that we need to lay down our lives, but taking up our cross frames our acceptance of shame for His glory). Following Jesus will cost us everything.
But we cannot simply leave things there. Yes, there are costs to following Jesus, and they are dire and deep. But, as Paul proclaims, the gains of following Jesus are so much greater. We are shown forgiveness. We are blessed with adoption. We are given purpose and hope. We are equipped to live abundantly.
Follow Jesus, not as a casual fan but as a member of His team.