A tarnished reputation is difficult to overcome. Just ask the Boston Red Sox or the New England Patriots. Along with Lance Armstrong, Rosie Ruiz and Tonya Harding, they have found themselves labeled as cheaters within our current zeitgeist. Just this week, the Red Sox field manager, Alex Cora mutually agreed to part ways after Cora’s name was linked with an elaborate sign-stealing scandal while he served as bench coach with the Houston Astros. This follows a report a few weeks ago that the Patriots were found recording the sidelines of an opposing teams during an NFL game (12 years after being punished for gaining an advantage by acting the same way). The home teams are a bunch of cheaters, calling into question the legitimacy of their championship titles.
Would the Patriots have won all those Super Bowls without that unfair advantage of knowing plays the opposition was planning before they were executed or modifying the air pressure of footballs? Would the Red Sox have won the World Series in 2018 had they not stolen signs and known the pitches they were facing before they were thrown? Sadly, sports fans in Boston can never know for sure. History is now tainted. Reputations are now tarnished. The critics are justified in questioning the integrity of the coaches and key players. The city’s sports heroes will be subject to the consequences of dishonesty for the foreseeable future.
But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Luke 19:8 (NIV)
Not surprisingly, the Bible has an ample supply of examples illustrating that cheating is wrong, whether it be swapping out an inferior sacrifice for a suitable one or moving a boundary line or tipping the scales to gain a small advantage. I would argue that Zacchaeus is a prime specimen of the ‘cheater’. Perhaps he contended that everyone was doing it, that it was acceptable to skim a bit off the top of all those tax payments he had received. But that rationale did not mean it was the right thing to do. God’s design and order for human interaction dictates our fair and equitable engagement with others.
In this way, Zacchaeus’s life story becomes a cautionary tale; if you cheat people you will be hated by nearly everyone around you. But Zacchaeus’s response to grace also becomes a template for all of us with a less-than-stellar reputation; after being confronted with his wrong-doing, he acted in repentance, showed regret and offered restitution. Almost immediately after witnessing the love of Christ, he changes the trajectory of his life; after years of focusing on selfish gain, he gives half of his accumulated wealth to others. Then he characterizes himself as a cheater, owning and admitting his sin. Finally, he compensates those he cheated sacrificially.
So, how does one overcome a tarnished reputation? Follow the biblical example of the wee and greedy tax collector. Admit your sin, change your priorities and repay what has been taken away. I hope we all can learn from the public fall from grace of our professional sports teams.
There are a whole bunch of people around me who are acting like the prophet Jonah, as recorded in Jonah 4 (Jonah is despairing to the point of death over the withering of a weed as he witnesses the repentance of the people of Nineveh). Like the Old Testament prophet, they are disappointed that things did not go their way, pouting due to a perceived personal slight and an actual adversary’s blessing. These community members are distraught over the Patriots’ early exit from the NFL playoffs – not that they had a losing season (they won three times the games they lost this season) or failed to make the playoffs (unlike 20 other teams), but that they simply did not advance to the Super Bowl.
Instead of rejoicing in the blessing that the home team has appeared in nine or the last eighteen Super Bowls, they are mourning their demise; they might find partners in commiseration in fans of the Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars or Houston Texans, who have never been to the championship game. Instead of reflecting on the good times experienced in six NFL titles (and six more by the professional sports teams in the Boston area), they disparage the players and coaches; I suggest these sentiments not be shared with the fans of the Vikings, Bills, Bengals, Falcons, Panthers, Cardinals, Titans or Chargers, who have never won a single Super Bowl.
As human beings, we are susceptible to the temptation of maximizing our self-importance and minimizing the value of others. We expect our lives to be a series of progressive blessings and we resent when others are blessed besides us, or – the horror – instead of us. Jesus share a parable about it when he shared the story of a vineyard manager who paid the first workers in the field (who worked a full day) and the last workers (who worked less than an hour) the same amount. Can you imagine? Those first workers (who we naturally identify with) got what was fair; the last workers (slackers if you ask me) received way more than they deserved. Jesus concludes his object lesson with the response of the vineyard foreman:
“Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ Matthew 20:15 (NIV)
As a fan of the New England Patriots, I have been compensated handsomely over the past nineteen seasons. And the greater truth remains that God can (and does) bless others with compensation just as handsome as mine. There will be a new champion in a new town – maybe Minnesota, Nashville or Houston for the first time – and I am good with that. I am glad that God is so generous. And know this: His generosity is not limited to football games but extends to every area of life. We are wise to rejoice with those who rejoice instead of mourning that it is not our day in the sun. And who knows, maybe Duck Boats will still carry a champion (the Bruins, Celtics or Red Sox) this year!
Part of my preparations for celebrating Christmas this year is that I have been reading the novella A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. While I have seen the films and adaptations on television (my personal favorites are Mr.Magoo’s Christmas Carol and Scrooged), I had never read the relatively short story of Ebenezer Scrooge and the three visiting Spirits. On the page or on the screen, the plot is well-known: Scrooge is a successful business owner with great accumulated wealth who is inundated with charitable requests as Christmas approaches; as returns home on Christmas Eve, he is visited by the ghost of his business partner and then three Christmas Spirits; these Spirits show Scrooge his Christmases past, present and yet to come; these visions have a profound effect on his miserly and calloused heart.
We are all tempted to be a bit like Ebenezer Scrooge at Christmas. We also receive a barrage of demands for our time and our finances and our kindnesses to care for those with pressing needs. We might be inclined to think only of ourselves and not about our fellow man and woman. We might need to be reminded of what is more important than earthly gain. But where can we find three Spirits on such short notice?
There is another character in Dickens’ novella that serves as a contrast to Ebenezer Scrooge: Bob Cratchit. Cratchit is Scrooge’s clerk and he is all that Scrooge is not; despite his lack of material resources, he is generous and kind. Cratchit has his reasons for cynicism – a terrible boss, an insufficient income and a sick child – but he is continually focused on others. Cratchit is the one who goes to church and he is the one who prays for his heartless boss. He is the one who carries within himself the joy of Christmas despite having several reasons for the contrary. While Scrooge was the one who was converted to compassion, Cratchit was continually kind.
This being said, A Christmas Carol is more of a moral fable than a spiritual allegory. In Dickens’ tale, Christmas is the setting, not the story. None of us are as hardened as Scrooge and none of us are as virtuous as Cratchit. All of us can be more compassionate and all of us can share more joy. Instead of comparing ourselves to a archetypal fictional miser or milquetoast, we are better suited to reflect the character of real individuals.
The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. Luke 2:20 (NIV)
These shepherds were, in many ways, like Scrooge – driven by their vocation to sacrifice most relationships, they accumulated wealth and were ostracized by society. But one day they received a message from God and that transformed their hearts and lives. They were changed by the good news of great joy that a savior had been born, and after seeing the Christ child, returned to their workplace with gladness in their hearts. When they saw (when we see) the great gift we have been given, we shout, “Glorious” – how glorious is our God, His creation and His plan for each one of us to care for each one of us.
For the last 85 years, our culture’s holiday playlist has contained “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town”. For the last 50 Christmases, we, as a society, been delighted by the Rankin/Bass stop-motion special inspired by the song’s lyrics and have come to love its additions; the irritations of Burgermeister Meisterburger, the commotion in Sombertown and the transformation of the Winter Warlock have become part of our seasonal heritage. We all can sing along – “He’s making a list, checking it twice; gonna find out who’s naughty or nice. Santa Claus is coming to town. He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake; he knows if you’ve been bad or good – so be good, for goodness sake.”
For the last few generations, we all have been told that Santa has made a list of who’s been “naughty” and who’s been “nice” (and untold numbers of parents have utilized the knowledge of this list to keep their children in line during the month of December). As Christmas approaches, we have had a musical reminder that Kris Kringle knows whether we’ve been good or bad and, by extension, he will bring gifts for the good boys and girls and coal for the bad. So, we do all we can to be good so that our names appear on the “nice” list.
For whatever reason – the close connection between the birth of Jesus and the arrival of Santa Claus or the compiling of lists of good and bad behavior or a benevolent mythical figure giving gifts – people are inclined to think of Father Christmas and God the Father in similar terms. Surely, we suppose, that the Almighty watches over us during our waking hours as well as through our slumber. Certainly, we expect, He keeps a list of names with all that we’ve done right and done wrong. It is likely, we surmise, that He blesses us for our goodness and supplies rocks to those who are bad. But God is not like Santa.
There is no difference … for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. Romans 3:22-24
God is making a list, and maybe He is checking it twice. He knows all are naughty and none are nice. He sees you when you are sleeping, and He knows when you’re awake. He knows that you’re not good but bad…but He gives us His greatest gift anyway. God does not keep us in line by threatening to remove His favor; He grants us His favor (grace) because we cannot stay in line. God loves us so much that He gave us the only gift that would satisfy our every longing – His presence among us in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Jesus didn’t come to earth because we were good, but because He is good. So good that He lists all those who trust in Jesus as Lord and Savior on His “nice” list, not because of what we’ve done, but because of what He’s done for us by sending us the gift of Christ.
It was the best of plans: I had wrapped my son’s birthday present (his first cell phone) and placed it with the others on the dining room table, and then I typed up a text to the family giving out his number but was waiting until the right moment push ‘send’. We proceeded with his party (the menu for our freshly minted 12 year-old’s festivities was Ring Dings and Wattamelon Roll), which we enjoyed before the opening of the gifts. As we were about to get on with the gift-giving, there was a muffled ring coming from the pile. It was the phone. Had I mistakenly sent out the text? (I quickly checked, and I had not.) It turns out a telemarketer had ruined our surprise, but in the process created an unexpectedly wonderful birthday memory.
“Mann Tracht, Un Gott Lacht” is a Yiddish proverb which means, “Man Plans, and God Laughs.” No matter how much we plan, life is messy and things often do not go as imagined. Josh’s birthday party made me think about Jesus’ birthday; the life his parents experienced was certainly not as planned. There was an unplanned pregnancy (from their perspective), a thwarted divorce, a rejected reservation, an unexpected visit (or two) from strangers and an unforeseen move. It was a year (or two) of chaos and confusion that neither Mary nor Joseph could have imagined. Yet, God was with them and was creating something unexpectedly wonderful.
If ever there was a time in human history when God orchestrated a course correction in the affairs of His creation, the birth of the Messiah was that time. God sent Gabriel to Mary to tell her, “Do not be afraid…” God sent an angel in a dream to Joseph to tell him, “Do not be afraid….”, and another (also in a dream) to tell him to travel to Egypt to protect his family. God sent angels to the shepherds to tell them, “Do not be afraid….” God warned the Magi, in a dream, to return home by another way so as to avoid Herod and protect the Lord.
Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. Proverbs 3:5-6 (NIV)
As I see it, we all have a choice to make when things do not seem to go as planned: we can scowl and think that all is ruined, or we can smile and thank God for His intercession. Our reaction when “things don’t go our way” reveals who we think is in charge of the details of our lives. Especially during this season, we need to face the facts that our plans may not go as expected: cookies will burn, airlines will have delays, products will be back-ordered, illnesses will invade our homes and sentimental ornaments will break. These things might be God’s way of correcting your course, adjusting your plans and preparing you for something unexpectedly wonderful.
“Mann Tracht, Un Gott Lacht”. I hope you hear Him.
Tuesday, for me, was a day of check-ups and check-ins. First, I spent time with my new doctor at my annual physical. Then, I spent time with my youngest child’s teachers at a series of parent-teacher conferences. Overall, all the conversations were satisfactory: I am doing well physically and Joshua is doing very well academically. With these appointments now concluded, we were both encouraged and challenged – encouraged to keep up the good work and build on successes, challenged to try new things and improve areas of weakness. It is good to hear, by medical and educational professionals, that one’s hard work is bearing fruit.
What would happen if we, as followers of Christ, sat before the Great Physician for an annual examination? What would happen if we, as the people of God, met with the Good Teacher for a routine conference? What would happen if we regularly met with the Almighty to find encouragement and challenge in our spiritual life? What would the One who knows all things (the Almighty knows our moves as well as our motives) direct us to maintain, for good health, or demand us to refrain from, like bad habits, to improve our health? What if we did for our soul what we do for our bodies and our minds?
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 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 10:24-25 (NIV)
Paul’s admonition – for us to consider how we may provoke one another – is worthy of reflection. Contained in these verses are some clues as to what he had in mind: we ought to be meeting together and we ought to be encouraging one another. Typically, I think about ‘meeting together’ as a reference to Sunday morning worship, but it merely means “gathering up with others’, whether it be in a formal service of in an informal assembly in the aisle of the grocery store. We ought to be engaging in intentional interactions with one another. We ought to be checking in with those God has surrounded us with.
And when we engage in these intentional interactions, we ought to have as a priority to encouragement of one another. The biblical term ‘encouragement’ is picturesque, a compound word in the original language denoting ‘one being called alongside’. God has brought us, with all our strengths and weaknesses, into relationship with others who are equally strong in some areas and scarred in others. We then rub shoulders with one another, offering words of guidance and expressions of hope, again in formal and informal settings. We ought to be checking up with those God has surrounded us with.
Check-ups and check-ins are inevitable. Just like the annual physical or the performance evaluation or the dental cleaning or the parent-teacher conference, we are blessed when we routinely examine our health and well-being. Our soul ought to be no exception.
For the past month, as part of a reading group, I have been reading Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. It is a fabulously engrossing book that deals with the reality of life and death, the limits of the current medical system and the conversations that every person should have before it is too late. One of the lasting lessons I received from Dr. Gawande’s words is to recognize what is important; it has caused me to wrestle with the reality of my own demise and to value every moment of cogency that God enables me to enjoy.
As I reflect upon these truths this morning and as I prepare for Thanksgiving next week, I am finding myself thankful for the moments I share with my family (immediate and extended, formed by blood and by friendship). I am thankful for productivity (in my vocation and in my avocations). I am thankful for opportunity (and the availability of the best in medicine, academia and ministry no more than a subway ride away). I am thankful for the guidance of God since last Thanksgiving (among other things, in leading my family to a new residence and two of my boys to new schools). I am thankful for the blessings I enjoy every day.
There is one more thing for which I am thankful, something never touched upon in the remarkable tome penned by the good doctor. I am thankful for the Gospel. I am thankful for the witness verified truth of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection. I am thankful for the long-established and prophetic plan of God’s salvation through Christ. I am thankful for the availability of the forgiveness of sin and the redemption of the disobedient which reached a wretch like me. I am thankful that my life-steps were directed by the Almighty to hear the truth of the Lord and accept Him as my personal Savior. I am thankful for those who shared, and continue to share, this good news with those who are dangerously unaware of their eternal destiny. I am thankful that I will participate in blissful life after my physical death.
Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! 2 Corinthians 9:15
But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! Romans 5:15
Each and every one of us reading this post has something for which to give thanks (if nothing else, we all have access to the vast worldwide web). For what things, truths and people are you thankful this year? What moments have brought you delight since last you sat at bounty’s table? What gifts have been bestowed upon you that have filled you with gratitude? In whatever way you will celebrate our thoroughly North American observance of Thanksgiving, I hope you will spend some time reflecting upon and remembering all the blessings you have been given.
I wish you all the happiness of Thanksgiving!
On Saturday, November 2nd, at 6:58PM our minivan’s odometer struck 100,000 miles. We were a block away from the house, on our way to a local eatery when it happened. In all truth, this anticipated occurrence was somewhat anticlimactic; having a digital odometer with six digits, we were unable to see the gears turn over to register 5 zeroes like the vehicles of my childhood and watched a group of nines change, somewhat similar to a digital clock striking midnight on New Year’s Eve. The numbers on the odometer have brought back to my mind many of those miles we, as a family, have traveled over the past 6 ½ years.
One hundred thousand miles means that we’ve made hundreds of trips to grocery stores and workplaces. Many of the miles were traveling up and down the eastern corridor of I-95 to visit loved ones in Maryland and D.C, not to mention trips to see friends and family in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and New Hampshire. How many cups of coffee and orders of fries have we eaten seated in the van? Some of these miles were traveled offering rides to others and transporting stuff around the South Shore. The van has made quite a few jaunts to the airport to joyfully welcome those who are arriving and to colleges to drop off (with tears) those who are departing. Upon reflection of both the spectacular and the mundane, both the sicknesses and the singing that occurred in our van, it has been a wonderful ride.
The steps of a man are established by the Lord, and He delights in his way. Psalm 37:23 (NASB95)
In light of this verse, I wonder what David would think about the last 100,000 of minivan has traveled. If Psalm 37 was written today, as opposed to 3,000 years ago, would he be inspired to write something like, “The miles of the family vehicle are established, or made firm, by God”? And if the words of God might be contextualized in this fashion, what might it mean for us? Is it possible that those 100,000 miles in our Dodge Grand Caravan were ordered and set up by God so that we may delight in his way? Is every one of the 528,000,000 feet we’ve journeyed over the last 78 months in the family car funded in God?
There is a memory my family has relating to our van that makes me think that God was instrumental in all those miles. We were driving through downtown Memphis after a rehearsal dinner. We were heading back to our hotel and took a wrong turn. Adjusting our course, we waited at a red light, the only car in the intersection, when a homeless woman hurriedly crossed four lanes of traffic to knock on my window. After I assisted her, my family joked about the aura of compassion I must radiate. I think God placed us there. I think that God has placed us in a great many places.
God was with us at all those rest areas stops, gas pumps and, yes, traffic lights. He was with us through all the conversations we had within and outside our reliable transportation. And I have no doubt he will be with us through the next 100,000 miles.
Research has shown that practicing gratitude boosts the immune system, bolsters resilience to stress, lowers depression, increases feelings of energy, determination, and strength, and even helps you sleep better at night. In fact, few things have been more repeatedly and empirically tested than the connection between gratitude and overall happiness and well-being. Experts confirm, over and over again, that those who would consider themselves happy are those who also consider themselves grateful.
Even though there is a preponderance of evidence for the benefits of thankfulness, most people do not practice gratitude. In a survey done by Janice Kaplan for her book The Gratitude Diaries, she found that while “more than 90% of people think gratitude makes you happier and gives you a more fulfilled life … less than half regularly express gratitude.” When was the last time you said anything more than an obligatory “Thank You” to the waitstaff at a restaurant or a wave of appreciation for the kind soul who held the door open for you at the bank? Have you experienced the benefits of a lifestyle of gratitude?
Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. Colossians 3:16
The words of Paul tell us that those who have been transformed buy the good news of Christ will be singing to God with gratitude. This act of singing may be figurative, or it may be a first century way of saying what the researchers of today contend: gratitude brings a melody to mind. It is quite possible that Paul knew the same link between happiness and gratitude that Kaplan has now written about. It is likely that the God who created us, in all our complexity, inspired the Apostle to pen the connection between singing and gratitude woven into our DNA.
Perhaps you would accept a challenge, an experiment to test the veracity of modern sociology and ancient biblical interpretation: we could practice expressing our gratitude with the objective of placing a song on our lips. We could be thankful, to God to others, for the blessings they bring into our lives. We could show appreciation for the acts of service friends and strangers perform on our behalf. We could return kindness when we experience it. We could discover whether or not these disciplines of gratitude make us happier and allow us to feel greater contentment. We could be happier.
In this season of harvest, we have much to be thankful for: most of us have more than we need, whether it be as little as a bed instead of a dirt floor or as much as a home with as many bathrooms as inhabitants. God has orchestrated all the functions of nature to allow our bellies to be filled and our bodies to be useful. We, each and every one of us, have reason to express gratitude. It is a good time to give thanks unto the Lord.
I had the great privilege last Thursday of joining my oldest son in celebrating his birthday by going to Gillette Stadium in order to watch the Patriots compete against the New York Giants. Neither of us had ever seen the Patriots play anywhere other than on television. It was, in many ways, an unforgettable experience. We got to see Tom Brady’s completion to Sony Michel, making him the quarterback with the second-most passing yards in NFL history; we got to see a punt blocked and passes intercepted; we got to see a win and the team we root for remain undefeated. We got to see it all. And it was glorious…mostly.
The traffic getting to the game was heavy. We followed the back roads, knowing the highways would be crammed. As we approached Foxboro, we were greeted with brake lights and orange cones. We crept, along with hundreds of other cars, toward the parking lots. Finally, we arrived in Lot 50, a quarter of a mile walk from the stadium.
The costs attributable to the game (tickets, parking and concessions) were substantial. We paid $30 for parking and much more for second-market tickets. We walked past the concession stands and decided to take a pass of a $10 malt beverage. There was over-priced fare at other stands as well as team merchandise at the Pro Shop kiosks. We could have easily dropped $1,000 during the night.
The comfort level of the seating was lacking. We had to walk to our 3rd tier seats, zigzagging along the access ramps and climbing the stairs of our section. After we adjusted to the perspective from being so high, we crammed our legs into the plastic formed seats. Sitting in the elements (the weather was windy but dry that night), we were surrounded by every kind of fan – everyone from the loud and obnoxious to the quiet and casual.
The quality of what was presented was spotty. The game itself was average. There were an equal number of good and poor plays. The Giants are not a team of great talent, and they played as expected. It was a good game, but not much of it would be highlighted on SportsCenter.
The time involved in participating was excessive. We left the hose at 4:30 and returned home at 2 in the morning. While we didn’t tailgate, we could have (the parking lots open 4 hours before kickoff). The game was a wonderful three hours or so. The inching along in the parking lot to get onto route 1 was a frustrating 90 minutes. It was a long and glorious night.
The experience was wonderful. I got to spend time with someone I love doing something we love together.
… 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)
Why is it that 65,000 people can withstand the traffic, the cost, the time and the discomfort of a mediocre football game, but cannot do the same for a worship service at a local church? I understand that the two experiences are not the same for many – our NFL experience was a once-in-a-lifetime experience – but I am puzzled that so many (especially season ticket holders) would risk rain and snow and spend large amounts of money and time to watch men play a game instead of attending a worship service. Why is it that some would relish the petty annoyances of traffic and parking lot gridlock while others will not tolerate a longer message and a service extended past 12:15?
Thanks for letting me rant. If you ever choose to come to Calvary, I promise that the parking will be free.