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.
Being an introvert by nature, I tend to think out (in greater detail than may be healthy) scenarios that may of may not ever be founded in reality. After this week’s Sunday School lesson on James 2, I have been fixated on what I might do if a celebrity came to Calvary to worship. My mind conjured questions: What person of influence, wealth or status might grace us with their presence? How would they be greeted? What engagement might be biblically appropriate? I follow the rabbit-trails of thought that make me reason that a new member of a local sports franchise might come to Calvary; Patriots players are out (they play on Sundays), as are Red Sox players (playoffs and all), so I think about Gordon Hayward, the Celtic star who once said in an interview that “[going to church has] always been a staple; something I try to do.”
So, what would I do if Gordon Hayward came to church on Sunday? Would I do more than I would for a neighbor? Would I offer him a special seat? Would I ask him to offer a few words during the ‘announcements’ in the service of worship? Would I ask for a photo or an autograph? Would I post a quick update to social media, stating, ‘Guess who came to church this morning’? Would I ask for tickets to the next game, purely for ministry purposes? What would the Bible tell me is right and proper?
My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. James 2:1 (NIV)
The Scriptures tell us that we must not show favoritism, the practice of giving unfair preferential treatment to one person or group at the expense of another. We must not give something better to some at the expense of others. The words of James’ letter to the churches tells us that we give special attention to the rich by offering a good seat while demanding that the poor stand in a back corner. So, if Gordon Hayward comes to Calvary this Sunday, I will treat him like anyone else: I will shake his hand and ask what brought him to church; I will seek his prayer requests and opportunities for praise as I extend the opportunity to everyone in attendance; and I will share with him the good news of Jesus Christ.
Instead of favoritism, we ought to show favor, the practice of showing kindness beyond what is due or usual. We are expected to show favor to all those who come in the doors of the church. So that if a visitor, whether wealthy and powerful or weak and poor, joins in worship at Calvary I will treat them all with kindness – I will speak with dignity, offer inclusion, express equity and advance grace. If we offer preferential treatment to everyone, we are not showing favoritism but favor. On that day, we will give the best seat to anyone who opens the door – saint or sinner – with the hope that grace will abound.
Do me a favor: visit us some Sunday morning and we will show you favor in return.
I am tired of it all. I am done with being cut off in traffic when the other car entering the flow refuses to ‘zipper’ in, with being interrupted before I can complete a sentence, with reaching the buffet table and finding empty dishes because the guy in front of me took more than appropriate, with running out of the public park because dog owners de-leash their pets – a cannot tell by its gait that she’s friendly – and with neglecting to bag her poop, with having a door close in my face because the person in front of me sneaks passed the coffee shop door as it closes (as if they are auditioning for “Mission Impossible”) and with the general absence of please and thank you by society. Call me a curmudgeon if you’d like, but I am desperate for some common courtesy.
In today’s vernacular ‘courtesy’ is synonymous ‘free’ or ‘extra’ – courtesy calls from a service provider, courtesy vans from the auto body shop or courtesy phones found in hotel lobbies. But its original meaning had more to do with characteristics of politeness and manners. It is this latter definition that I miss in today’s interactions; I miss males acting as gentlemen and females acting as ladies. At some point in my lifetime, our culture shifted and began valuing entitlement and individual rights over mutual respect and civility. Many of the lessons I learned in elementary school – the practices of sharing, waiting one’s turn and refraining from unkind comments – are summarily ignored by a large segment of our population.
We need to be reminded of the words of Jesus:
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
This sentence, commonly called “The Golden Rule”, is perhaps the second most familiar statement of Christ (the first being John 3:16). God Incarnate told His followers nearly 2,000 years ago that we are to treat other people the way we want to be treated. With a greater or lesser degree of success, we all have been wrestling with our obedience to this command since it was first uttered. We attempt to work the angles, balancing our needs with the needs of others, often failing because we resolve the tension with faulty math: if I hold the door for one or two people, those two turn into an untold number; I then end up at the end of the line and face delays that no one should be required to face; therefore, I cannot hold the door for you. My needs are paramount.
But when everyone makes similar computations, and I fear that this is our present reality, Jesus’ words are ignored and no one is treated they way they want to be treated. Everyone does what they want and common courtesy is but a relic of the past, like hand-written letters and house calls. All is not lost, however, and God’s word will never return empty: if a few of us choose courtesy and champion kindness, the culture can change over time. Join me in following the golden rule; it might encourage other to do the same toward you.
Yesterday was my son David’s last 1st day of school. I was hoping to post on social media a pair of pictures: one of his 1st day in kindergarten and one on his 1st day of 12th grade. I thought we had digital images from 2006, but, alas, our digital camera was purchased just prior to the birth of our youngest in December of 2007. I am sure that I have a physical photo in a presently unavailable box somewhere, but it would not be found on my laptop. However, in the midst of the search, Jeanine and I laughed and cried over ten years of captured moments.
We began with the 1st day of school pictures of the last ten years, then moved on to birthdays and Christmas. We saw pictures of vacations and awards ceremonies. We clicked through church events and graduations. Some of the images were posed and prepared, but many were candid and spontaneous. It is the candid shots that are the most delightful. They are the ones that represent what is real.
There were images of that holiday when everyone cried at dinner, of the birthday where the kids were fighting over cake and ice cream, and of the random day where one of the children played with the camera. It is these stolen moments, when raw emotions like love, joy or rage are on full display. They are genuine: small faces with squinting or swollen eyes, mouths agape or lips pursed; they are goofy and gawky, slightly blurred by motion or misfocus. They are life. That is what elicited our titters and tears. The beauty of those candid photos on my computer is that they enable us to gain a glimpse of the inner self – my (and my family’s) true fragile, flawed, fool-hearty, frail and fabulous nature.
Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. 1 Peter 3:4 (NIV)
While the above-mentioned verse relates primarily to women, the truth it contains, in context is that there is a difference between the outward appearance and the inner self. The world celebrates the outward appearance but the Lord values to inner person. The selfies and pictures of perfect foods and vacations on social media are a charade; they are staged and stylized. They capture the ideal of outward appearance. I would rather hold onto the unfading beauty of my family’s inner selves. I want to value their gentle and quiet spirit, warts and all.
A few weeks ago, I posted about my family portrait experience. These portraits are essential to capture a moment. But I will hold onto those fuzzy candids of my precious children, even though the images make my children cringe, because that is how I capture and hold onto what we are. I love those little beauties standing on porches for the past 20 years and I appreciate the technology that allows me to remember how blessed I am through all the realities of life.
We have a mouse in our apartment. At least, we hope we have a mouse in our apartment and not multiple mice living among us. On the bright side, it is a small mouse; however, small as it may be, it still has the power to startle my wife and family at will. It has been seen dashing under the hinges of open doors and scurrying across the floor into a gap between the dishwasher and the cabinet. This little mouse is, more or less, a nuisance, diverting our attention from the television or from conversation when it is seen out of the corner of our eyes. That said, this little mouse may be an indication of a larger ‘infestation’ and must be dealt with.
Metaphorically, I have a great deal of little mice in my house: they are the seemingly inconsequential things called temptations. They distract and derail my mind if they are not properly addressed as the damaging dangers they are. They reveal themselves during the idle times of my life since I do have instant access to those little graphic images of a prurient nature or an app on my phone that enables me to procure doughnuts at a moment’s notice. But, unlike the pesky mus musculus that might chew through an electrical wire or contaminate your cookie supply, temptation will (if unchecked) drag you off and destroy your life.
… but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. James 1:14-15
Unlike the house mouse, which infiltrates the boundaries of our abodes and then wreaks havoc, temptation is formed within the walls of our soul through the development of a desire for immediate gratification through the things of the world. That desire becomes an obsession, that obsession becomes a sinful act and that sinful act becomes a sinful pattern, which leads to spiritual death. While I can tolerate the presence of a little rodent without much concern for the repercussions, it would be foolhardy to allow temptation of any type to take up residence in my heart because the consequences are so dire.
To deal with the issue, I must ask: what is the mouse trap for temptation or the rat poison for desire? I believe the remedy to temptation has three aspects: recognize the truth about you, remember the provision of God and resist any inferior substitutes. First, recognize the truth about you – your weaknesses, your strengths and your blind spots – so that you are aware of the dangers before they surface. Then, remember the provision of God – the abundance of life, truth and love – and trust His will for you. Finally, resist the innate desire to accept anything inferior – what is quicker, easier or cheaper – to God’s very best. If we know, for example, that we are tempted to bear false witness (i.e., lie), we can resist that temptation by being aware of our inclination, remember God’s equipping us to share the truth and reject the temporary comfort through ‘gilding the lily’.
We all have things we need to deal with in order to keep our home healthy and whole … whether it be a (hu)man or a mouse.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.