No one would have thought less of her had she dropped out. It was cold. It was windy. It was pouring rain. It was the Boston Marathon. It was a place she’d been before, including 2011 when she ran a personal best and still finished two seconds behind the winner. Nearly thirty minutes into the race, Desiree Linden tapped fellow American marathoner Shalane Flanagan and said:
“Hey, I think I’m going to drop out today, so if you need any help with anything, let me know. I’m happy to block the wind, whatever it may be.”
But she persisted. She and Flanagan continued to put one foot in front of the other. The weather conditions sufficiently slowed down the pace of the elite runners and she continued to run. She remained with the pack for the next 15 miles and then thought that this might in fact be her day. With a burst of breakaway speed, she separated from the rest of the runners and ran the final five miles alone, crossing the finish line more than four minutes before any other woman.
Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. – Luke 18:1 (NIV)
While most of us will not run the Boston Marathon, we are all required to run the race of life. And there are days when the course conditions will cause us to contemplate dropping out and to think about giving up on our dreams or giving in to our difficulties. In numerous places, the Scriptures encourage us to not give up.
Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. – Galatians 6:9 (NIV)
We can benefit from persisting. We need not give up praying, even when our prayers seem to us like we are hounding God with our pressing needs. We need not give up doing good, even when our efforts seem to us unproductive and fruitless. We need not give up doing what is right, even when our faith seems to us as stagnant and stale. We need not give up going to church, even when our gathering seems to us as irrelevant or pointless. There is a blessing from tenacity that only those who endure can enjoy.
Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers. – 1 Timothy 4:16 (NIV)
The performance of Des Linden ought to serve as a reminder of the rewards for those who persist. We may still win the race. We will have our prayers heard and our needs will be met. We will reap a harvest of good in the world. We will save ourselves and those around us. We will encourage one another and equip one another for the difficulties inherent in life. We will finish because we did not quit. We might even finish first.
…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 (NIV)
May we all see the laurel and medal as we have waiting for us at the finish line.
There is a person in my social circle (I will not divulge their identity) who regularly calls me by something other than my name. This person calls me “Rev.”. I appreciate the title as an acknowledgment of my years of schooling and my professional standing. I do not appreciate it as a nickname. I have tried everything to get this person to cease using this nomenclature – asking nicely (and then not as nicely), calling them by an equally clever occupational title, ignoring their solicitations when addressed in this manner – and, as yet, nothing has worked. So, I grin and bear this salutation.
While I am confident that the person I am speaking of will not read this post, allow me the time to offer my rationale for why I am upset by the nickname “Rev.”. First, I am more complex as a person than is represented through being addressed by what I do. Second, I struggle with sin too greatly to be entitled with calling myself someone who ought to be revered. Lastly, I do not wish others to address me in a way that conveys that I will be the spiritual, moral or biblical expert at all times. So, please, I prefer that you call me something other than “Rev.”.
As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence. But Peter made him get up. “Stand up,” he said, “I am only a man myself.” Acts 10:25-26
Let me take my last reason for averting this title first. Just as a doctor would not like every conversation to be relating to her profession (as in, “Hey, you’re a doctor; let me show you something weird”), I prefer not to “work” at every social gathering I attend. I am not simply present to pray or evangelize or compete in an informal game of Bible Jeopardy. I am so much more (and so much less) than a cultural touchpoint representing godliness in the world.
This brings me to the second reason: I am not as good or mature as this title reflects. The term “Reverend” is believed to be the anglicization of a Latin verb (revereri) meaning “to be revered or respected.” I am not proud to admit it, but if you were able to hear my thoughts or to stand by my side for 24 hours, “Reverend” would not be the word you would use to describe me. We all face the same struggle to keep the faith and I would be disingenuous to say I deserve the nickname I’ve been given.
I am so much more than what I do. Yes, I am an ordained minister. But I am also a crossword and game show enthusiast, a burger lover and an observer of Oscar®-worthy films. I am a fan of Boston-area professional sports and a foe of strawberries and bowling. I am a husband, parent and child. I have strong opinions about politics, condiments and manatees. I am, like you, more of a human being than a human doing.
Like it or not, all of us are too complex to be called by our job title. So, let’s keep the use of “Rev.” to Sunday mornings, when I am ‘on the job’. Most other times, I prefer to be called Michael (or “Skippy”, since I am so smooth).
If you were to look outside my office window, you would see that the forsythia bushes are currently in bloom. Over the next few days, little yellow flowers will cover the ‘brown sticks’ protruding from the ground. These flowers will be around for a few weeks and then will then disappear. In our nation’s capital, the cherry blossoms are expected to reach peak bloom over the weekend, lasting just a few days. I am also reminded of the excitement around the city in September, when Fester, the corpse plant cultivated by the Franklin Park Zoo, was expected to bloom – it’s flower lasts only a day or two – but, alas, it never flowered. That is the nature of flowers – here today and gone tomorrow.
What could possibly be the benefit of something that only lasts but a moment? While the flowers that adorned the sanctuary on Easter morning were beautiful and fragrant, they will likely be only a memory in a few weeks. While arrangements of cut flowers and funeral sprays can be pressed and saved, they will wilt and wither far too quickly. Still, with such an ephemeral inventory, floral shops and nurseries accounted for more than $26 billion in annual sales last year. To put that figure in perspective, it is more than twice the income of the National Football League.
Flowers are not an experience, like a vacation in Cancun. Flowers are not a consumable, like a dinner at Top of the Hub. Flowers are frivolous, a bit of whimsy in the world. Perhaps that is why we value them so greatly. They have little utility or function. They are just pretty to look at. Jesus put it this way:
“Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.” Luke 12:27
Flowers serve as a reminder of the limitless imagination of God. There are over 400,000 plant species across the world (which is more than the number of bird, butterfly and bee species combined) which have been conceptualized and created by God. 400,000 species – with multiple varieties – of something unnecessary for our existence. Isn’t God amazing?
The flowers all around us ought to remind us of God’s love for us. Our landscapes could be covered with green leaves (taking for granted that we need the plants’ chlorophyll to complete the process of photosynthesis which, in turn, scrubs our atmosphere of carbon dioxide and replenishes it with oxygen), but splashes of violet, rose, lilac, goldenrod and periwinkle dazzle our eyes. This is simply because God wanted to give us colors. This is because God loves us so much that He wanted us to enjoy and not simply exist. This is because God is greater than we can imagine.
God created delight in our world for no purpose other than our enjoyment. Yes, flowers will wither. But in time, others will take their place, bringing beauty and blithe spirits to those who notice them. Sometimes, the function of an item in God’s creation is nothing more than to bring joy. May we all appreciate the unnecessary diversity of the Almighty’s design this spring and always.
Today is Good Friday, the day on the Christian calendar when we remember and reflect upon the crucifixion of the Lord. Some of us will get together at a local church and hear the Gospel account of the cross. Others of us will spend some time alone reflecting on the death of Jesus. In whatever way you choose to recognize this pivotal moment in human history, I pray that you will appreciate the awesome transaction that took place on the Palestinian hillside nearly two millennia ago. I hope you will rejoice over that moment when Jesus cried out, “It is finished”, and gave up His spirit (as John 19:30 tells us), that moment when every member of the human race was offered reconciliation.
We are offered reconciliation with God, since we know that the cross resulted in the full forgiveness of sin, pardon from our willfully disobedient nature that separates us from our creator. Jesus (who committed no sin) gave His life for us (who are sinful) to completely satisfy the wrath of God. Instead of suffering the appropriate consequences for our actions, Jesus paid the price with His life and enabled us to reunite with God. Through the death of Jesus – the public, ghastly and humiliating death of Jesus – we are declared forgiven and allowed entrance into the heavenly realms.
This is wonderfully good news, but there’s more. We are also offered reconciliation with one another. As Paul wrote:
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. Ephesians 2:14-16 (NIV)
Before Good Friday, all people were separated by a wall of hostility into two camps – those who were under God’s covenant and those who were not. This separation is a symptom of our sin and caused people then, as it causes people now, to divide one another into two distinct groups: us and them. We like us and we hate them. Today’s divisions are no longer about rabbinical interpretations of Old Testament law, but of gender and politics and class and ethnicity. The cross has destroyed the dividing wall of hostility.
Rejoice today that we are reconciled with our Creator and with our fellow-created through the cross of Jesus Christ. We need never be alienated from God or from our neighbor because of Christ’s sacrifice on Good Friday. When we stand before the cross today, literally or figuratively, let us all remember that through His death we gain peace with God and unity with all those who stand beside us. I pray you will accept His offer of reconciliation and receive the peace that passes all understanding.
I wish you all a happy and healthy Easter.
Family members disagree. They argue. They fight. They feud. I witnessed this as a middle child and as a father of four. I could share stories of fighting with my younger brother or of my boys fighting over something or other. Sibling rivalry is nothing new; it is as old as history itself. The first siblings, Cain and Abel, did not get along and fought, with terrible results. Sibling rivalry also rears its ugly head among the followers of Jesus, as is evident in the interaction between siblings Mary and Martha that is recorded in Luke 10:38-42.
It all began with these sisters disagreeing over the proper etiquette in entertaining guests: one sister gave priority to hospitality and the other to conversation. These two women had a difference of focus. Martha focused on serving – Jesus was coming over for dinner and she wanted everything to come together properly. Mary was focused on engaging with Jesus – sitting at his feet listening to everything He was saying. Neither of these women were wrong in their attention, but not everything that holds our focus is necessary.
When our focus is fixed, it becomes difficult to see the periphery clearly. Mary’s sole focus was Jesus and everything else was inconsequential. Martha’s scattered focus was on many things and everything became distracting and disturbing. I cannot recount the number of times I have been troubled with all the details: is the dinner going to be done at the right time, are their any food allergies I am unaware of, is there something I am forgetting? If that happens on a typical Tuesday, what would I be like if the Savior of all people were to visit my home?
Mary had no such turmoil. She was blessed with peace. As Jesus stated,
“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10:41–42 (ESV)
She chose the necessary, the good portion, and that enabled her to have peace. In saying this, Jesus is not diminishing all the things that are important – service, school, socializing and more – but elevating the essential. Time with God is necessary. It is as essential as sleep, food, water and shelter. These are the things we cannot function without. We cannot survive without a relationship with Jesus, for that relationship is the source of our salvation, direction and righteousness.
This complex conversation between an aggravated sister and her Lord prompts me to ask about my own priorities and whether I am distracted and disturbed or at peace. Do I have a lack of focus on what is necessary? Do I have a lack of fellowship with God because I am so busy doing what is important but not essential? Am I consumed by the worries of this world that I am in danger of fruitlessly withering? Am I more like Martha or more like Mary? I wish there was a verse 43 in Luke 10 which stated that later in the evening Mary did the dishes and Martha sat at the Lord’s feet. While the scriptures are silent, I hope it to be true. Maybe we all could be both.
Serving, like Martha did, is a wonderful gift to those around us, but it may or may not have anything to do with our relationship with God. Building a relationship with God, like Mary did, will lead us to serve and be a blessing to those around us and a glory to God. Focusing on the necessary will give us all we need.
As I am sure you are aware, Rev. William (Billy) Franklin Graham reunited with His Savior on February 21st. Although I never met him, nor heard him speak in person, he was a co-founder and trustee emeritus of my alma mater, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (and I have his signature on my degree). Billy Graham was instrumental in shaping evangelicalism in the 20th century: thousands heard and accepted the Gospel through the crusades he conducted across the globe, thousands more have been encouraged through his writings (including the co-founding of Christianity Today Magazine), and untold numbers of national and world leaders had sought his advice and counsel. He was a giant not only in the church, but in our culture. That being said, when I mentioned his passing at our dinner table, my 10-year old son, Joshua, had no idea who Billy Graham was.
Jump ahead a week. It is the night before the Oscars® and our family is watching what would ultimately be given the award for Best Animated Feature, Coco. The film’s storyline is simple (albeit contradictory to biblical truth): a boy, Miguel, raids a mausoleum to steal a guitar from his hero on Día de Muertos (The Day of the Dead) and is brought to the land of the dead, where he meets his ancestors and discovers a secret. One interesting aspect of the ‘other side’ that Miguel finds out as he is interacting with those who have passed is that you disappear when there is no one left who remembers your stories. According to the movie, when no one remains to remember your name, you cease to exist.
As great as Billy Graham (the man, the preacher, the writer or the friend) was, within a generation or two, he will be largely forgotten. And as harsh as that seems, the Bible concurs:
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 (NIV)
So, what does this say for me or for you? Maybe we are like lightbulbs – we shine for a while, but eventually we will cease to give light and we will be discarded. Maybe some of you are like lamps – useful for many cycles of lightbulbs, but still subject to the ravages of time and eventually replaced by a cheaper lamp from Ikea©. Whether a lightbulb or a lamp, we are merely a conduit for the electricity. Lightbulbs and lamps (like us) come and go, but the electricity (in this metaphor, the Lord God Almighty) remains.
Billy Graham was somewhat like a lighthouse lamp: strong, powerful, and steady in its purpose; but that light has gone. I pray another light will rise to take his place. While I, in comparison, may be a night light, I still can be strong, powerful, and steady in my purpose until I have been fully spent. Within a generation or two, I will likely be forgotten – a name on a list or a letter, an unfamiliar face in a yellowed photograph – but for now, let me make some impact and shed some light. Perhaps I could guide the next world-changer to avoid stumbling in the dark long enough to see the true Light of the world.
photo found on billygraham.org
Tomorrow is my father’s 80th birthday. Happy birthday, Dad!
Sunday is Oscar® day, when the Academy Awards are presented. Hooray for Hollywood!
The above-stated occasions may seem to most as two random calendar entries, but to me, they are inextricably linked. For those who are unaware of my upbringing, my parents separated and divorced when I was in grade school. While the intervening years have dulled my memory, I do recall a number of weekend matinees that my dad took us to see: “Robin Hood”, “Pete’s Dragon”, “Superman”, “Star Trek” and more. I remember the hours in the dark at the General Cinema Theater at Westgate Mall and the Brockton East Twin Cinema. It was in those moments that I gained a love for movies – good movies, bad movies, all movies.
In thinking about these memories, some more than four decades old, I am reminded of the love my dad had (and has) for my siblings and me, and the love I have for him. While we spent few nights under the same roof, we spent hours together every weekend. I remember waiting for him to pick us up (making a game of counting cars of a randomly particular color) and I cannot recall ever being disappointed when he never arrived. We had inside jokes (ordering “pine tree floats” at MerMac’s and trying to spell the name one of his old bosses, S. Gunnar Myrbeck), ate hundreds of hamburgers and watched dozens of movies.
A wise son brings joy to his father, but a foolish son brings grief to his mother. – Proverbs 10:1
As the years have passed and the miles have grown between us, my meetings with my dad have grew more infrequent, but my love for my dad and my love for the movies have remained. I appreciate all those afternoons, with or without popcorn, that we shared watching the silver screen. I think about that as I take my children to the movies, tell the same corny jokes and buy the same fast food. I love you, Dad.
Thinking about my dad taking me to the movies all those years ago makes me wonder why I love the movies so much. I am sure it has something to do with those deep-seated emotions of my childhood. It also has something to do with the escape the darkened theater provides: a diversion from the daily grind to exotic and fantastic places. Mostly, I reckon, it has to do with the story – dozens of accounts of love and loss, risk and rescue, life and death. Thank you, Dad, for giving me all that. I carry a part of you every time I buy a ticket. Happy Birthday! Maybe one day soon we can catch one more movie together.
For what it is worth, after seeing most of the nominated films (there’s still time to finish the challenge), I would give the Oscars to “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri”, Gary Oldman, Frances McDormand, Allison Janney and Sam Rockwell. Knowing my track-record, I’m due to be right.
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.