I am sure that some of you are not basketball fans, let alone college basketball fans. To be honest, I am, at best, a casual observer of the college game. However, every once in a while something happens on the court that makes it beyond the sports update and into the ‘regular’ news. Such an occurrence happened last Thursday when the University of Maryland – Baltimore County Retrievers defeated the University of Virginia Cavaliers in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. The win marked the first time a 16-seed (the lowest seeding that the tournament gives) had ever defeated a 1-seed in the tournament (there had been 135 previous match-ups over the past 34 years). Ultimately, that is where the good news ends, as two days later the Retrievers exited the tournament with a loss to Kansas State.
There is just something about the underdog, the long shot and the dark horse: that competitor thought to have little chance of winning a fight or contest. Our human nature roots for David as he battles Goliath and cheers for Buster Douglas as he contends against Mike Tyson. We want to believe that in any fight anyone could win. We want to live in a world where the little guy could catch a break and beat the big guy at his own game. Even if it has never happened before, a major league baseball team could win a playoff series even when it is down three games to none and a nation football league team could win the championship even when it is down by 25 points with little more than 17 minutes left in the game. We all want to live in a world where anything is possible.
In so many areas of life, you and I are the underdog. Cancer is the 1-seed and we are the 16-seed with little chance for victory. Poverty has a three-game lead over us and we remain winless. Sin is ahead by 25 points and time is running out. All is not lost, however, as we can rest in the promise of our Lord in scripture:
Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Matthew 19:26
“…With God all things are possible.” Not inevitable, but possible. Not probable, but possible. With God, anyone can enjoy victory over any seemingly undefeatable thing.
This weekend we enter Passion Week as the church, the eight days leading up to the world-changing victory of Easter over a previously unbeatable foe. I hope that you will engage with the body of Christ as Christians of every tradition observe the misunderstood and vastly underestimated challenger enters the court in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, share in the pre-contest meal with his teammates on Maundy Thursday and participate in the main event on Good Friday. I hope that you will rejoice with others as we celebrate the devastating defeat of the previously undefeated sin and the once all-conquering death. Join us, as a local church or as the universal representation of God’s kingdom, as we declare that ‘with God all things are possible’, that the tomb is empty and the slate is wiped clean. The underdog, the least and the lowest, will one day be victorious.
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
As we have for the previous few years, my wife and I have endeavored to see the nine movies nominated for the Best Picture Oscar®. With ten days remaining and only two movies yet to view, I am confident that we will complete our task. Reflecting on the films we have already seen, a theme seems to be emerging: the power of words. In these films, I am reminded that a well-chosen word or a turn-of-phrase at the appropriate time has the power to uplift or destroy, the force sufficient to motivate a nation or crush a spirit.
Of particular impact were the words Sheriff Bill Willoughby (portrayed by Woody Harrelson in Three Billboard Outside Ebbing, MO), British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (portrayed by Gary Oldman in The Darkest Hour and referenced in Dunkirk), and fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis in The Phantom Thread). Without giving away the plot, the theater-goer will be gripped by the redemptive and encouraging nature of the words contained in Willoughby’s letters, the motivating influence upon a nation to continue the struggle through Churchill’s “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech before Parliament, and the damaging and demoralizing destruction caused by Woodcock’s cutting comments.
Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. James 3:10
The last few weeks of movie-going have caused me to consider anew the wisdom of James and the power of the tongue. How is that the same function can exalt or eviscerate? How intentional am I with my words? Have I learned the truth regarding the power of speech and the wisdom to wield that ‘sword’ beneficially? Ultimately, am I utilizing my glossary to glorify myself or give gravitas to others? While I would not to presume to be as loquacious as Churchill, neither do I want to be as self-absorbed as Woodcock.
Perhaps preparation is key (and a Hollywood screenwriter would help, too). Churchill labored over his speeches, editing and reediting his message even to the final moments before delivery. Willoughby wrote letters, which experience tells us is a slower form of communication – our thoughts race faster than our pens, allowing us to shape and shade our words as we go. I wonder how our words might change if we gave ourselves as little as a moment to collect our thoughts. That might be enough time to enable us to refrain from that angry retort and share something edifying instead.
Words contain an immense power – a power that could be positive or negative. A single word (“mistake”) can destroy the fragile soul of an impressionable youth and a single word (“gift”) can develop the formidable soul of that same impressionable youth. Words can be ugly or beautiful, can be used to build up or tear down and therefore requires our attention. I wouldn’t let youngest juggle chainsaws, even if he told me he was confident in his ability to harness to power of the tools. Perhaps I should have the same concern about his (and my) use of the many tools we find in the dictionary.
With careful preparation and attention, may we use our words to build up one another.
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.
They are called ‘spoilers’ and I have been battling them for the last week. For those who are unaware of the term, the urban dictionary defines ‘spoiler’ as when someone reveals a previously unknown aspect of something which you likely would have rather learned on your own. Spoilers take all forms: giving away the ending of movies (like the twists in the plots of “The Usual Suspects, “Fight Club” or “The Sixth Sense”) to revealing the killer of an Agatha Christie novel to talking about the details of television show you are waiting to watch on DVR.
My barrage of spoilers began while watching the Super Bowl™ on Sunday. We were watching the game via a streaming service, which meant that there was a delay of a minute or so between the live action and the broadcast. So, cell phones would relate information that I would have rather learned on my own, like if that field goal was made or that extra point was successful. Then, beginning on Monday morning, through social media posts, I learned things about one of my favorite television shows (“This Is Us”) that I wish I had learned on my own. Finally, on Monday night my wife and I saw the movie “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” and there are parts of this wonderful piece of cinema that I would love to reveal, but there are just some things others need to learn on their own.
Now to him who is able to establish you in accordance with my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all the Gentiles might come to the obedience that comes from faith – to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen. Romans 16:25-27
The Bible, extrapolating from the above passage, contains a ‘spoiler’. It includes a mystery that has been revealed. What needs to be understood is that when the Bible speaks of ‘mystery’, it is not referring to something that cannot be known, but rather something that was once hidden, but can be known. But unlike other spoilers, I am not uncomfortable revealing the previously unknown aspect of God’s plan of salvation which many may learn, eventually, on their own. The mystery of the Scriptures is the identity of the Christ, the promised Messiah – the one who has been anointed and appointed by God to satisfy His wrath against all sin and to fulfill His law. Spoiler alert: This Messiah is Jesus of Nazareth.
As I reflect on the nature of spoilers, I realize that there are ‘spoilers’ that are shared to benefit the revealer and others that are shared to benefit the hearer. There is power (for the individual) in secrets and some want to capitalize on that power by revealing what they know, like the final score of the big game or the identity of Keyser Söze. There is also power (for all) in casting light on the mysteries of life so that everyone might know the truth, like sharing the Gospel with a lost and dying world.
It is hard to keep important, exciting or life-changing news to ourselves. If you have the opportunity to share a ‘spoiler’, just be sure it benefits those who listen.
Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. James 4:14
Let me start by stating that everyone in our family is happy and healthy. That being said, I am writing this post after a member of my family spent a night in the emergency room and a day in the hospital. Let me repeat: everyone is perfectly fine and nothing has changed, except for one thing – my perspective. No one begins their day planning to endure a car accident (not what happened) or a falling anvil (also not what happened) or a series of chest pains (well, there it is). But this post is not about electrocardiograms or blood enzyme tests; this post is about me and my futile desire to preserve this mortal frame.
All this has got me thinking. Make no mistake, I would be grateful to enter The Guinness Book of World Records by replacing Jeanne Louise Calment and becoming the longest living human (she died at 122). I would like to see my children’s weddings and my grandchildren’s graduations. I would like to see the Grand Canyon and the mighty redwoods. My brain repeats the same refrain: “I still have time.” But if this week is any indication of the realities of earthly existence, I cannot put off until tomorrow what I can do today since tomorrow is not guaranteed.
I am now left reflecting on how I spend my life (or waste it). I work on my ‘day off’ and allow my vacation days to remain unspent. I watch TV when I could have conversations. When I do have conversations, my words are a lot like the last ten minutes of the late-night news (weather and sports). I spend more time pursuing recreation and not enough time pursuing relationships. I am stingy with my words of encouragement, my offerings of forgiveness and my displays of affection. And now I worry that what I am saving for tomorrow I will not get a chance to spend.
“I will deal with that later.” I will call later.” “I will see you later.” “I will take a break later.” Later. What is it about that word and the power it contains? We all can agree that putting off making a payment or scheduling an appointment does not magically make the discomfort go away. We all suffer regret for forgetting to make that call or neglecting to put down that project. Even when spoken with the best of intentions, in many cases ‘later’ means ‘never’.
After the ‘health scare’ earlier this week, I am grateful for the gift of a few more tomorrows. Yet, there is a nagging truth resonating deep within me that the gift of tomorrow is not guaranteed and that all we have is today. This means that a must not delay the decisions or withhold the hugs that are meant for today. I appreciate the reminder that there are some things that cannot wait until tomorrow, for that may never come.
What do you hope your legacy will be? More specifically, how do you hope to be remembered five or ten years after your retirement, or what do you hope people will say about you five or ten years after your passing? On Wednesday, which also happened to be my birthday, I spent a few hours with a dozen or so pastors discussing a collection of essays about the connection between faith and biblical scholarship (compiled in a book titled I (Still) Believe) and these questions of legacy were part of our conversation.
The conversation made me think about an aspect of the scripture reading from Sunday that never made it into my sermon, the legacy (or non-legacy) of Joseph, the man not chosen. Joseph’s complete mark on history is found in the following single verse:
So they nominated two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. Acts 1:23
This is what we know about Joseph:
- He was called Barsabbas – meaning either literally ‘the son of Sabbas’ or figuratively ‘the child of rest or return (i.e. the Sabbath)’;
- He was known as ‘the Just’ – he had a character of righteousness;
- He was continually present with Jesus from the time of His baptism by John through His ascension – he spent more than three years following the Lord and hearing His teachings;
- He was passed over for the promotion to apostle when God chose Matthias instead.
That is Joseph Barsabbas’ legacy: a good man who was ever-present to witness the words and ways of Jesus and was called by God to a secondary role. The Bible is filled with “secondary characters” like Joseph Barsabbas: Mordecai, Esther’s cousin; Ehud, the left-handed judge who delivered Israel from the Moabites; and Onesiphorus, a care-taker of Paul’s. Few people in the Scriptures are remembered in history. Most of the names we read in the Old or New Testament are mentioned not for their legacy but for their lifestyle: to encourage our faithful obedience or to warn against our continued disobedience.
So, what do I hope my legacy will be? I hope that I will be remembered not for the history I make but for the footprints that I leave. I hope that I can leave big enough tracks in the muck of this earth that my children will remain on the course of faithfulness. I hope that the map that I have drawn over my career in pastoral ministry will assist those I leave behind to avoid the perilous cliffs of despair. I would be satisfied as a footnote, as a nameless face in a photograph, as a present-day Joseph Barsabbas; a good man who was there to witness all the wonders of Christ.
But ultimately, my legacy is largely inconsequential compared to the Lord’s. Jesus alone is the one who has changed history. World and military leaders fade from our memories, but the life of Christ alone remains. Whether we are the star in life’s motion picture or only performing a supporting role, we all are precious in God’ sight and useful in accomplishing His purposes, whether we are remembered or not.
As I was shoveling last week, I lost something amidst the snow for a moment. I was not immediately aware of what happened at that moment, but thankfully, I quickly recognized what was happened and was able to restore, mostly, what had been lost. The troubling fact about this encounter with nature was that it was not my keys or my phone that I lost; it was my character. Through an interaction with a cranky neighbor, my fleshly nature was revealed and my witness as a follower of Christ was trampled. In a moment, I went from being a light to the world to being dim-witted.
All I remember about the interaction is his question: “Would you like it if they threw snow onto your property? You think you’re entitled.” Aside from the fact that I have no property to speak of, he exposed my lapse of judgement. I was justifying myself with the thought that this other neighbor, whose space I was piling my shoveling onto, did not have a car. I was rationalizing my actions as a response to the fact that the street had yet to be plowed and my small increase in the drift would be addressed by the city’s plow. Still, my neighbor was right.
So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. Matthew 7:12
I was not treating my neighbor the way I would want to be treated. I was not reflecting the nature that the Spirit of God had given me when Christ saved my sorry state and transformed my selfish soul. Fortunately, in the midst of the interaction, I realized my error and removed my additions to the drift and, as an act of contrition, enlarged my neighbor’s walkway. It did not go unnoticed by my cranky neighbor; we swapped apologies (turns out he was unable to get an oil delivery and temporarily lost his heat) and I offered him a space-heater (which he appreciated but declined). He was gracious enough to repair my reputation, for which I praise God.
This whole episode has served as a reminder that a single moment of weakness can demolish a structure that took years to build. An angry word or a thoughtless action can compromise anyone’s integrity; our inner strength – our character – can be damaged and, if not addressed promptly, ultimately destroyed. We, who are commissioned by Christ to be His witnesses in the world, must routinely assess our actions and attitudes and perform the hard work of confession when our testimony is tarnished and about to be torn down.
As I stood outside the other night, in the snow, I thought about ‘doubling-down’: I thought about defending myself by deflecting my bad behavior with (justifiable) excuses for ignoring the “Golden Rule”. I would have felt better in the moment, but would have felt regret for a long time after. I thank God that He guides me, even when I stray, so that I can return to the path that leads me, and others, into His presence. And I thank God that I found that path the other night in the snow.
As I write this post, it is heavily snowing outside. I am fortunate that I, through the ‘miracle’ of digital technology, can work from virtually anywhere with an electrical outlet and a wi-fi connection. So, here I sit at my kitchen table, with my family in the next room, enjoying the ‘day off’. While the flakes fly, we are following the recommendation the Governor and Mayor that people stay off the road, reveling at home over the cancelation of school and work for ‘non-essential personnel’. While there will be shoveling and clearing to be done later, right now there is nothing that needs to be done (other than look out the window occasionally and query as the amount of accumulation).
In many ways, the ‘snow day’ of the present is like the Sabbath of the past. God created us with a need for time away from our labors. According to the scriptures:
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. Exodus 20:8-11
Rarely do we, in today’s culture, find a day when no work is being done. Retail establishments and restaurants are open nearly every day. Many movie theaters and convenience stores welcome patrons even on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Service providers provide services at all hours of the day and night. We, as a society, rarely take a day off – if we are not working for our employer, we are checking work-related e-mail or laboring at home or serving in volunteer positions. So, occasionally God, who knows exactly what we need for our health and well-being, allows the weather to slow us down and cease our work.
We are given a snow day (or, in other parts of the country, a heat day, a tornado day, or an ice day) as a blessing or gift for our souls. It is a day to do something other than work – to break out the puzzle, the board game or the cookbook. It is a day of creation or recreation: a day spent building a snowman or a strudel, an afternoon of binge-watching “Parks and Recreation” or binge-reading War and Peace. I am going to cherish the time to do something truly productive – build memories with my family. As the wind howls and the snow drifts outside, I will be enjoying the ‘down-time’ God has given me.
Besides, I am going to need all the rest I gain today for my work tomorrow, when I will be required to move all of this blessed precipitation off the sidewalks and stairways.