Tag Archives: maturity

Picture This!

On Monday, our whole family went to the local mall and sat for a family portrait.  My wife, Jeanine, had wanted us all to take a new picture for some time, but with college schedules and work schedules, there never seemed to be the time.  But thanks to Groupon© and the wonderful people at Portrait Simple©, we were able to capture the spirit of the family on film (well, whatever digital images are captured upon).  In hindsight, I am so glad we had it done, since it had been six years since our last family portrait was taken and we all have changed so much.

As we were preparing for the appointment, there was a great deal of pushback from at least one of the children.  There were questions asked about the necessity of picture-taking and the costs attributable to said picture-taking.  Why do we take pictures?  Why do we, in ever increasing measure in this age of the smart phone, seek to capture every memory and moment with pictures?  What is it that we hope to keep?  What is it that we long to preserve?  These are the things that I think about as I watch a stranger style my daughter’s hair through his fingers and adjust my son’s head to frame the perfect image.

We take pictures because we want to remember who we were.  One of the secondary joys of this photo-taking process is, as I place the new photos in their frames, that I get to take a look at all the photos of the past sandwiched in the frames.  I get the chance to see when we had one, then two, then three and now four cherubs.  I get to recall snapshots of our beautiful family.  It is pictures that enable us to think back to who we once were

We take pictures because we want to remember where we have been.  I have hundreds of digital files of vacations, holidays and birthdays, all to capture those moments.  Some are fuzzy, others are messy, but all of them reflect our life together.  It is pictures that ring back the sounds, smells and sight of special times.

We take pictures because we want to remember what we have overcome.  Our family pictures have children with broken bones and missing teeth.  We have candids taken in cruddy apartments while children are crying.  But it is what is contained in these pictures that enables us to see how far we’ve come – from awkward and gangly to radiant and strong.

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.  Colossians 1:15

Pictures – photographic images – enable us to capture a moment in time, albeit a retouched and carefully selected moment in time, which serve as reference points to earlier, simpler or happier times.  They represent the ideal, not real but not false either.  They are intended to elicit emotions and trigger memories.  For this reason, we will continue to take family portraits: some years there may be more in the frame and some years there may be less, but every time they will represent who we are (or who we could be).

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What a Feeling

Earlier this week, my family went to see Disney’s latest movie, “Christopher Robin”.  It was a sweet, if somewhat simple, story of a grown man remembering the importance of family and friends.  As I watched, I was transported to my childhood, through the recollection of familiar songs and sayings of a bear and his friends, and my early adulthood, as I remembered watching on VHS these same stories with my children.  For me (and those my age), it was a trip down memory lane and into the hundred-acre wood, making me long for simpler times.

These thoughts I am having are ‘nostalgia’, which is defined as ‘a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition’.  The term comes from the Greek word nostos (home) and algia (pain): it is literally ‘home-sickness’.  Nostalgia is all about feelings: longing for the good old days or the hoping that we can make America great again.  But nostalgia (like all feelings) is not necessarily anchored in reality, for the good old days may not have been all that good for some in our society and the America of generations past may not have been as great as we recall.

Instead of embracing sentimentality based on feelings, the Bible commands us to elicit memories based on facts.  The last few weeks, at Vacation Bible School and through Sunday morning messages, I have read in the scriptures what we are commanded to remember: as the Israelites were crossing the Jordan River and entering the Promised Land they were commanded to erect a tower of 12 stones from the riverbed (an Ebenezer, a ‘stone of remembrance’) to remind future generations of the deliverance Lord had granted them; and through the letters Jesus dictated to the churches in Asia Minor they were commanded to remember the great height from which they had fallen.  They were commanded to remember the facts of God’s gracious and merciful interactions with them, not the emotions of the moment.

Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent.  Revelation 3:3

The church is commanded to remember what we have received (tangible blessings and actual gifts) and what we have heard (reliable teachings and sworn testimonies).  We are not commanded to commemorate how we felt about what we have received or heard.  In fact, an argument could be made that nostalgia emotions and feelings are man-made idols which could take the place of God if we are not careful.  Instead of worshiping the God who has revealed Himself in the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, we are tempted to offer our sacrifices to the gods of happiness and comfort.   Unfortunately, those who choose feelings over facts end up with nothing.

It is good to remember what has happened in the past – what God has done and said – but it might not be best to wish we went back.  May the source of our joy in the present be what is real and not simply what we feel.

Hunger Games

My children tell me I have a lot of strange rules (e.g. I do not allow random singing at the kitchen table during meals).  At one time, I used to demand that there would be no snacking after 4PM, with the rationale being that I wanted the kids to eat their supper when it was time for dinner.  However, after years of hungry kids disregarding my wishes, I have given up the fight and silently tolerate the consumption of chips, croutons and trail mix at 5:47, thirteen minutes before mealtime.  There is no stopping someone when they are hungry, and, with laser-like focus, my children will find something to eat whenever those hunger pangs strike.

Hunger, the pain that comes when an appetite is not satisfied, is a powerful force.  It breaks our focus and drains our strength.  It weakens our will and halts our productivity.  It is the reason why parents everywhere load granola bars into their children’s backpack when the time for standardized testing rolls around.  It is the reason why breakfast is the most important meal of the day.  It is the reason why we should never shop for groceries on an empty stomach.  One of our most primal urges, one of our basest instincts, is to satiate our hunger.

I will be fully satisfied as with the richest of foods; with singing lips my mouth will praise you.    Psalm 63:5

We all know what to do when we experience physical hunger: we find something to eat – sometimes healthy and sometimes not.  But, are we aware that we do the same things with our other hungers?  We satisfy our emotional hunger at times with emotional burgers (cat videos) and at other times with emotional salads (writing poems).  We satisfy our mental hunger occasionally with intellectual ring dings (“Fifty Shades of Grey”) and occasionally with educational cantaloupe (“Hannah Coulter”).  We satisfy our relational hunger with doughnuts (Facebook) and egg whites (face-to-face conversations).  The good news is that, according to the Psalmist, God satisfies our hunger; the bad news is that we all have times when we choose to consume what is not on His menu.

Nowhere is this more evident than when it comes to our spiritual hunger.  Throughout the scriptures we are promised the lavish abundance of the Lamb’s marriage supper.  When we feast upon the blessings of Christ, we are given forgiveness, eternal life, spiritual giftedness and spiritual fruit.  There are times when we choose spiritual celery (which has no nutritional value) or spiritual caramel corn (which is not good for us).  We hunger for forgiveness, for example, but instead of receiving satisfaction from God we seek justification from the culture.  We substitute the good for the good enough.

These hungers we experience are necessary.  It is in our best interest to listen to them.  Our focus, strength, will and productivity will suffer if we neglect to keep watch over our appetites.  Appreciate the banquet table the Lord has prepared for you and accept no lesser substitute. Allow your satisfaction to come from God and you need not spoil your appetite on what the world has to offer.

The Melting Pot

There is a place in my neighborhood that is a microcosm of my neighborhood.  As the noontime hour approaches, you can see every demographic:  there are police officers in uniform, fire fighters in Blue BFD T-shirts, DCR lifeguards from Malibu Beach, grandchildren dressed in Vineyard Vines pants (pegged at the ankle) visiting their grandparents, National Grid workers in safety vests, lawyers in business suits, moms with strollers, politicians and fast-food clerks.  It is there where every ethnicity and lifestyle of Dorchester is represented, and men and women of every age are present.  Where is this perfect melting pot that includes everyone, from Boston Brahmin to the denizen of the triple-deckers?  As a pastor, I would like to say that I am talking about the church, but, alas, I am not.  The place that I am talking about is the deli counter at Lamberts.  At lunchtime, the line for sandwiches includes everyone that calls Dorchester home.

Ah, Lamberts, where you can get the finest sandwich eight bucks can buy.  All you have to do is hand the meat slicer your choice of roll and a list (either verbally or in writing) of ingredients, and a few minutes later, you are handed a piece of heaven wrapped in butcher paper.   But it is in that long line leading to the counter that you can brush shoulders with literally anyone and everyone.  As I wait for my turn, I wonder if this is what heaven will be like, complete with the distinct sound of dropped ‘r’s and the obligatory ‘wicked’.

“Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.”  Colossians 3:11 (NIV)

The original design for what we call the local church, according to the apostle Paul, was that it included everyone.  No one was to be excluded based on religious, cultural, national, economic or gender (cf. Gal. 3:28).  In practice, the local gatherings of the family of God routinely miss the mark.  Why can’t the people of God be like the line at Lamberts?  Why isn’t the make-up of the ‘bride of Christ’ the same as those waiting for sandwiches?  Why isn’t the church as diverse as those frequenting the local deli?

I suppose the answer to all these questions is simple: reputation.  Lamberts has the long line for their offerings because they are known, largely through word of mouth, as a provider of excellent lunches for everyone.  What is the reputation of the church?  Justified or not, Dr. Martin Luther King was quoted as saying, “…it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.”  In the fifty-eight years since those words were uttered, the church has taken great strides, but there is more to be done so that the community surrounding our houses of worship verify that the local church has changed.  I hope that one day soon the same crowd at Lamberts is present at Calvary.  All we can do is spread the word, with genuine sincerity, that all are welcome to worship the Lord.

Free Delivery

Unless you yourself have been living in a cave for the past three weeks, you know about the rescue of the dozen Thai boys and their soccer coach.  This rescue can be only described as miraculous.  On Saturday, June 23rd, the team was reported missing, their bicycles found at the mouth of a cave as monsoon rains poured down.  Search and recue teams were dispatched, but the flooded caves proved too treacherous for the local authorities.  National and international divers were recruited, and, despite the odds, the whole team was found by a diver on July 2nd, nine days after reported missing.  Weak from starvation and compromised by low oxygen levels in the cave, the team was cared for (underground) as the rescue team formulated an extraction plan.  Ultimately, with the use of a ‘buddy diver’ system, the boys and their coach were rescued six, seven and eight days later (on July 8th, 9th and 10th).  After more than two weeks of darkness, for the boys and their loved ones, they all were safely resting in a hospital located 37 miles away from that murky cave.

To many observers, lost in the details of this miraculous delivery are the fatal circumstances of Major Saman Gunan, the former Thai Navy Seal who died when his oxygen ran out while navigating the path in and out of the cave on July 6th.  Without the sacrifice of a few, there would not be reason to rejoice.  The good news – that the boys were delivered from certain death – is undergirded by greater news – that there are always some who will be willing to die that others may live.  The good news celebrated by ordinary people is secured by extraordinary people amongst us: fire fighters, police officers, rangers, soldiers, sailors and more.  Join me in celebrating the ones who dare to face death for the sake of others.

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.  Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die.  But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  Romans 5:6-8

Saving innocent good boys is commendable work.  Saving guilty troublemakers (the neighborhood kids that are throwing rocks at houses and cars while calling our parents terrible names and stealing their property) is another matter.  While no one would say, “Let them die!”, that same ‘no one’ will not risk their very lives, instead doing what they can, to save them.  No one simply human, that is.  The one who is fully human and fully divine would not only risk His life but will give His life to save all those who oppose His Father.   He gave His life for you and me.

We all have been driven deeper into darkness through the chaos of the rising waters and were at the point of death, needing deliverance.  Thank God that He bought us into the light, giving His own life as a means of our rescue.

Indicator Lights

My family and I have just returned from a road trip to our nation’s capital. Along the way we stayed with and enjoyed the company of friends and family.  The trip was not without incident however.  While we were still within Boston’s city limits, one of the car’s indicator lights illuminated: the Tire Pressure Monitoring System’s low pressure indicator.  I immediately pulled over and checked the tires and saw no flat and decided to sally forth (it was torrentially raining at the time).  That was when the ‘game’ began.  For the next eleven hours of our trip, I would repeat the following steps: fill the tire with air to 40 PSI, drive for 55 minutes, observe the TPMS indicator light go on, drive for another 15 to 30 minutes, and pull over to find another air hose.  Only once, in Connecticut, was the air hose missing at the rest area pump.  As a side note, the New Jersey service stations were the best: mechanic quality pumps, free of charge.

After some experiencing some unexpected stops and some soggy shoes, we safely arrived at our destination.  The next day, I went to a repair shop not far from where we were staying (after one last fill of the tire) and they were able repair the pin-hole breach for $20.50.  I am grateful for that little orange light on my dashboard that looks like the cross section of a flat tire with an exclamation point in the center: I told me when I was in danger of causing greater damage and needed to address my air.  It told me how far I could go and when I needed to stop.

We all could benefit from an air monitoring system.  The Greek word for air is ‘pneuma’, and it is from these Greek roots that we get words like pneumatic (air powered) and pneumonia (“sick air”).  The Greek word ‘pneuma’ is also translated in the Bible as the word for spirit.  That is truly what I wish I had: an indicator light warning me that the Spirit within me is dangerously low and in need of filling before permanent damage occurs.  The thought of my need for this SPMS (Spirit Pressure Monitoring System) came to me several times during our trip, always in hindsight.  Imagine the decisions that would be made (or not made) if we all knew that our spirit was riding low at that moment.

“Instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit.”  Ephesians 5:18

The context of the above quoted words of Paul point to two possibilities (both of which can be reasonably defended) – either we leak and need regular refilling to combat the challenges of the culture or we need regular reminders that we must rely upon our continual condition of being filled to combat the challenges of the culture.

Without an indicator light shining right in front of my face, I might neglect routine maintenance.  This applies to the air in my tires and the spirit in my life.  Regarding the latter, that is why the disciplines of faith are crucial: prayer, Bible reading, corporate worship.  If I maintain these practices, I will avoid a spiritual blow-out and protect myself and those around me.

Dad, Just Believe

This Sunday is Father’s Day, the time when we celebrate the dads in our lives.  Being the father of four, I can attest that being a dad is not a undertaking for the faint of heart.  Generations ago, men had it easier, if Ward Cleaver or Mike Brady of classic television sitcoms are any indication – work every day during the week, escape to the home office when you are home and play golf on the weekends; the only time a dad interacted with their children was to dispense disciplinary chastisement or moral clichés.  Today’s dads are expected to work inside and outside the home, attend a fair number of their children’s extra-curricular and school events, and spend quality time with their family.  As I reflect on these things, I realize that being a father is one of the hardest and greatest roles God has blessed me to perform.

There is a man, a father, in the Bible that inspires me as a dad.  His name was Jairus.  He was a synagogue leader (and therefore a man of faith) and the father of a 12-year-old daughter.   But he was a father in crisis: despite the religious practices he, no doubt, engaged in (praying, offering sacrifices and fasting), his daughter was dying.  What would you do if your baby was deathly ill?  If you are Jairus, you go to an itinerant rabbi whom you heard had accomplished miracles.  However, before he could return with the man of Galilee, a servant of his tells him that it is too late: his daughter is dead.

Hearing this, Jesus said to Jairus, “Don’t be afraid; just believe, and she will be healed.”  Luke 8:50

Instead of giving up, Jairus gave his troubles over to Jesus.  He continued the long walk home and, instead of trusting the eyes of his servant, he trusted the words of a stranger.  As he came into his home, there was weeping and mourning appropriate to the circumstances.  But Jesus would not have any of it.

He went in and said to them, “Why all this commotion and wailing?  The child is not dead but asleep.”  But they laughed at him.  Mark 5:39-40

What is a dad to do?  You take a leap of faith and everyone you care about thinks it is a joke.  But, then again, what did he have to lose?  If Jesus was unable to do anything, his daughter was still dead…but what if HE WAS ABLE to do something amazing?

There are days that I feel like Jairus, asking Jesus to secure a healthy future of my child.  I have nothing I can offer but trust: trust that my 10-year-old will safely navigate the streets of Boston from school to home, trust that my 17-year-old will pass that difficult class, trust that my 20-year-old will be protected from the dangers prevalent in our national capital and trust that my 23-year-old will arrive home safely from that job 131 miles away.    People may say that my intercessions are realistically useless or that my circumstances are ridiculously hopeless.  Still, the dad in me will trust in the one who is able to do immeasurably more than I can imagine.

Happy Father’s Day to all those who are blessed to be called “Dad”.

B.H.A.G.s

As I was following a digital ‘rabbit trail’ this week, I came across Volvo’s mission statement: “Vision 2020 is about reducing the number of people that die or are seriously injured in road traffic accidents to zero.”  Volvo has embraced what business leaders call a B.H.A.G. – a big, hairy, audacious goal.  They developed an emotionally compelling and strategically bold trajectory for their company.  Volvo and other business who develop these B.H.A.G.s challenge themselves, their employees and their consumers to imagine a future that is bigger than their individual efforts could produce, scarier than their comfort levels would allow and bolder than their frames of reference should expect.

B.H.A.G.s are nothing new.  In fact, when Jesus sent out his disciples to minister to the needs of the world around them, as recorded in Matthew 10, he commands them:

“Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons.  Freely you have received; freely give.”    Matthew 10:8

In my humble opinion, those are some big, hairy and audacious goals.  How would it be possible for that rag-tag band of fishermen, financial agents and farmers to be able to do these things?  Raise the dead?  B.H.A.G.s are great, as long as they are achievable.  When Jesus gave them a humanly impossible task to accomplish, thank God he also equipped them to accomplish it.  Matthew tells us:

Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.   Matthew 10:1

The Lord still gives his disciples B.H.A.G.s.  The Lord also give them the ability to accomplish these B.H.A.G.s through his equipping.  

I wonder what B.H.A.G.s the Lord may be calling us to aspire to accomplish in our communities today.  Without diminishing the power of God at work through us (it seems unlikely that we’d be commanded to raise the dead), He is challenging us attempt more than our ability enables, our comfort allows and our logic expects.  He may be calling us to completely love those who make different choices than we have made.  He may be calling us to comprehensively care for those ravaged by the consequences of sin, regardless of whether this sin is theirs or another’s.  He may be calling us consciously give away all that He has generously given us – everything from grace to garage space.  He may be calling us to compassionately speak the truth that others need to hear in a way that they will hear it so that the healing of hearts and relationships may take place.

Whatever we might think God has called us to accomplish, Matthew 10 challenges us to think bigger, think hairier, and think more audaciously.  If we think we can help ten people, God may be enabling us to help a hundred.  If we think we can encourage someone living on our cul-de-sac, God may be enabling us to encourage someone NOT living in our neighborhood.  If we think we can teach the kids at the church, God may be enabling us to teach the kids at the public school.  God is the originator of B.H.A.G.s.  What is He able to accomplish through ours, were we willing to give Him the opportunity?

Heck of a Good Family

I was introduced to Mike and Frankie nearly nine years ago.  While their situation was different than mine (they lived in a rural middle American suburb and we lived in an urban neighborhood of Boston), our similar family dynamic made them special to me.  We would spend 22 minutes together each week and they would share their lives.  I would identify with their frustrations in raising their oldest through High School and college and beyond.  I would sympathize with the challenges of raising an optimistic but clumsy daughter who tried everything to fit in but never quite succeeded.  I would commiserate with the difficulties that come from a unique younger son, complete with quirks and tics.  But next week they are departing and I will miss their stories of their ordinary life of ordinary struggles.

My favorite show, The Middle, will broadcast its series finale on Tuesday, and I feel like I am losing a friend.  Something about the Hecks from Orson, Indiana always rang true for me.  They didn’t have a ‘very special episode’ but instead relied on real life circumstances — a folding lawn chair at the dining room table, floating anniversaries, kids fighting in the backseat and ‘borrowing’ the church van for months.  The kids made holes in their walls, their computers couldn’t access family photos and they ate fast food in front of the TV.  It was a pleasure to watch a family on TV that was much, maybe too much, like my own.

There was a comfort in tuning in every week, sending that someone understood your struggle.  It was a picture of life rarely seen on television today, a situation-comedy where episodes revolved around the challenges of the ordinary: living on a budget, dreading the school conferences and bake-sales and loving one another through the trials of life.  There were moments of passion (for things like the Indianapolis Colts and the Wrestlerettes) but little politics.  There were tears of joy and tears of sorrow.  Through it all, there was an underlying theme of familial love – even in the midst of familial discord.

I urge you, brothers and sisters, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me.  Romans 15:30

I believe it to be a blessing to God to be understood, to know that there is someone somewhere that ‘gets’ you.  That was what God did for me through The Middle.  Although they were not an actual family but a fictional clan with great writers, they were real to me.  Their struggles were real.  Their victories were real.  I know, for their life, in many ways, is mine.  Their life is the same as many in the church: those who love their kids and can’t stand their kids, those who have broken dishwashers and broken dreams but refuse to give up, those who are simply doing their best even when their best is not great.  Thank you, Frankie, Mike, Axl, Sue and Brick for joining so many in the struggle.

I am sure that I will see the Hecks again as The Middle is already in syndication.  I will sit and remember that there are people, real and make-believe, that share my values and concerns and dreams.   Perhaps there will be another family I can befriend next season.  There are the Ottos from Westport, CT that might remind me that we are never alone.

Mother of All Moms

According to the National Retail Federation, the average Mother’s Day shopper will spend $180, or a total of $23.1 billion.  That is a lot of flowers and jewelry.  It seems that we all want to celebrate the blessing God has given us through giving us mothers.  In recognition of Mother’s Day on Sunday, allow me to share the story of a remarkable mom who lived a few thousand years ago.  She was poor, widowed and responsible for a child.  Things have gotten so bad for her that she had given up hope.  But God has other plans for her and her child.

We really know little about this mother.  While we do not know her name or her lineage, we do know she was married, but her husband died and left her with no source of income: according to the scriptures, all she had to her name was a jar of flour and a pitcher of oil.  We also know that she was not part of the “People of God”: she was an “unclean” Gentile.  Lastly, we know that she was commanded by God to help a certain prophet of God named Elijah: she was commissioned to use that last of all she had to feed this stranger.

Before I conclude the story, allow me to digress.  I am not at all surprised that God used a mother, especially a single mother, to save Elijah.  Is there any other class of human being so willing to sacrifice as a mom?  When there are five mouths and four slices of pie, it is the mom who says, “I’m too full from dinner for dessert; you guys have it.”  When it is three AM and thundering, it is the mom who gets displaced so that her child can be comforted.  She picks up the underwear, wipes up the barf and cleans up the bathroom.  There is seemingly no need too demanding or distance too far to travel for a mom.

Getting back to the story, this mother prepares her last meal for herself, her son and her visitor.  But the flour and oil never run out.  She and her household (including the guest) were fed for three years, miraculously.  Despite the fact that they were in the midst of a global famine, God was able to meet her needs.  Just when one might think everything is going to get better, tragedy strikes when the son of this woman becomes ill and stops breathing.  No one would blame her for her outburst:

She said to Elijah, “What do you have against me, man of God?  Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?”  1 Kings 17:18

After all she had sacrificed, was this really how her story was going to end?  No.  Elijah immediately cries out to God and her son’s life is restored to him.  Then they all lived happily ever after (though not together).

I thank God that the mothers I am most familiar with (both biological and metaphorical) have yet to lose hope.  They sacrificed for the sake of those they loved, expressed outrage when something hurt those they loved and never gave up hope for those they loved.  Some of that has to do with their personal resolve – they are all formidable people of character – but some of it has to do with their faith in the God who can resource and restore them as He did for a Phoenician widow, her son and her house-guest.

Happy Mother’s Day to all those who have given more than they will ever get back from their families.