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.
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”.
Earlier this week, I felt like a was in a bad comedy routine. At 9:18AM on Tuesday my cell phone rang and a telemarketer asked for Janelle. I politely told the caller that it was a wrong number and thought nothing more about it. It happened again, from a different number, ten minutes later. And again. And again. All told, I received a total of ten calls, all from different numbers and different companies, throughout the day. I thought that surely the last call I received was going to be from Janelle, asking if she had any messages.
My life was briefly interrupted by telemarketers, each one offering some great thing to someone I never met. Ten calls throughout the day, all looking for someone else, were a major nuisance. In the end, I never got an answer to my question of where they got my number; I can only speculate that, perhaps, Janelle entered a contest at a mall or visited a time-share presentation. Whatever the reason, intentional or unintentional, ten people reached out to me, thinking me to be someone I am not.
As I was answering all these calls, it struck me that there are those in our culture that will exploit one fact about us to gain access to our lives. These telemarketers had a valid phone number and tried to take advantage of whoever would answer. They took one vital statistic, one entry point into my life, and tried to get more. I am relatively certain that these calls were benign, but in a world where identity theft and cybercrime is rampant, one can never be too cautious.
“In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. Ephesians 4:26-27
While I am in no way equating telemarketers with the satanic (after all, I was a telemarketer for a local newspaper for about three hours), these ‘wrong numbers’ did make me think about the devil and his tactics. As Paul’s letter to the Ephesians tells us, all it takes is a foothold, a crack or crevice in our stony exterior, for the enemy of our soul to scale our defenses and access our vulnerable spirits. All it takes is one truth for the father of lies to breach the doors and take our lives – an embarrassing action, a hidden temptation, a word of anger, a troubled past. The devil takes what he knows and tries to get more, just like those pesky callers to my cellphone.
The remedy to both the telemarketers and Mephistopheles is to refuse to reply. We can, empowered by the Spirit, refuse to take the bait. We can tell them, strongly and simply, that it is a wrong number, that the one they seek is not found here. We can do this because one fact about us is not our identity and one forgiven action is not our lifestyle.
Now, if I could only figure out how to end those calls informing me about an urgent public announcement regarding my energy service I would be blessed beyond measure.
There was an article in the New York Times that opined about the costs and benefits of present-day conveniences. According to columnist Time Wu, conveniences are “more efficient and easier ways of doing personal tasks”. Conveniences come in a nearly endless number of forms, everything from appliances (washers, dryers and microwaves) to technologies (digital streaming, cell phones and search engines). They save us time, toil and treasure. The world of my childhood would be foreign soil to my ten-year old son; the convenience of debit cards instead of cash or checks, the convenience of homework at home with Google and Wikipedia instead of researching at the library with the World Book Encyclopedia, the convenience of GPS and EZPass instead of glove compartment maps and a cupful of quarters. Conveniences make life better.
However, there is another side to conveniences, a less beneficial side that warrants our attention. As Wu writes, “With its promise of smooth, effortless efficiency, it threatens to erase the sort of struggles and challenges that help give meaning to life.” Ultimately, there is a benefit to inconvenience, whether it is getting lost and discovering the pathway back to civilization or baking a pie from scratch instead of ordering one online through Uber Eats. It is rewarding to toil and use reason. We might become better people because we are required to wait or, worse yet, to go without.
In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples. Luke 14:33
Discipline is never convenient. Eating healthy takes effort: making a salad takes longer than tearing the foil off a Pop Tart. Exercise takes effort: spending time at the gym will be more demanding than spending time on the couch. Education takes effort: solving a pesky equation with a pencil will take more time than watching a YouTube video of someone else solving for x. The Christian life is no different. When Jesus taught about the demands of discipleship, He told his followers to consider the costs. He called His followers to live a life which included inconvenience. He told them to give more than demanded, work longer than most and sacrifice greater than merely necessary.
Most of the things that make life easier are convenient. Most of the things that make life better are inconvenient. The question for each of us is whether we want easier or we want better. Do we want the ease of microwave turkey or the goodness of Thanksgiving dinner? Do we want the ease of hearing an explanation or the goodness of researching it ourselves? Do you want the ease of activism by hashtag or the goodness of laboring for righteousness? When we are passionate about something, the Cliff Notes will not suffice; we will want to invest our blood, sweat and tears to pursue it.
Evan Williams, a co-founder of Twitter, was quoted in Wu’s piece as saying, “Convenience decides everything.” Maybe he’s right in general. I do that hope he is wrong about us.
There is a person in my social circle (I will not divulge their identity) who regularly calls me by something other than my name. This person calls me “Rev.”. I appreciate the title as an acknowledgment of my years of schooling and my professional standing. I do not appreciate it as a nickname. I have tried everything to get this person to cease using this nomenclature – asking nicely (and then not as nicely), calling them by an equally clever occupational title, ignoring their solicitations when addressed in this manner – and, as yet, nothing has worked. So, I grin and bear this salutation.
While I am confident that the person I am speaking of will not read this post, allow me the time to offer my rationale for why I am upset by the nickname “Rev.”. First, I am more complex as a person than is represented through being addressed by what I do. Second, I struggle with sin too greatly to be entitled with calling myself someone who ought to be revered. Lastly, I do not wish others to address me in a way that conveys that I will be the spiritual, moral or biblical expert at all times. So, please, I prefer that you call me something other than “Rev.”.
As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence. But Peter made him get up. “Stand up,” he said, “I am only a man myself.” Acts 10:25-26
Let me take my last reason for averting this title first. Just as a doctor would not like every conversation to be relating to her profession (as in, “Hey, you’re a doctor; let me show you something weird”), I prefer not to “work” at every social gathering I attend. I am not simply present to pray or evangelize or compete in an informal game of Bible Jeopardy. I am so much more (and so much less) than a cultural touchpoint representing godliness in the world.
This brings me to the second reason: I am not as good or mature as this title reflects. The term “Reverend” is believed to be the anglicization of a Latin verb (revereri) meaning “to be revered or respected.” I am not proud to admit it, but if you were able to hear my thoughts or to stand by my side for 24 hours, “Reverend” would not be the word you would use to describe me. We all face the same struggle to keep the faith and I would be disingenuous to say I deserve the nickname I’ve been given.
I am so much more than what I do. Yes, I am an ordained minister. But I am also a crossword and game show enthusiast, a burger lover and an observer of Oscar®-worthy films. I am a fan of Boston-area professional sports and a foe of strawberries and bowling. I am a husband, parent and child. I have strong opinions about politics, condiments and manatees. I am, like you, more of a human being than a human doing.
Like it or not, all of us are too complex to be called by our job title. So, let’s keep the use of “Rev.” to Sunday mornings, when I am ‘on the job’. Most other times, I prefer to be called Michael (or “Skippy”, since I am so smooth).
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
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.
For those of you living in Boston, today you will experience the earliest sunset of the year (4:11:38pm). This is both good news and bad news, since the length of your daylight will continue to decrease until December 20. Astronomically, we could say that these are dark days: for the next month, we will experience nearly 15 hours of ‘night’. Metaphorically, we can also say that these are dark days: everyday, through every media source, we witness incidences marked by a lack of direction, a lack of warmth or a lack of morality.
The Bible has much to say about darkness. It was the penultimate plague that was inflicted upon Egypt (Exodus 10:21). It is the dwelling place of God, as witnessed by Moses on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 20:11), by Solomon in the temple (1 Kings 8:12) and through the psalmist (Psalm 97:2). It was what overshadowed the cross of Christ for three hours during His crucifixion. It is the place of chaos (Genesis 1:2), temptation (Ephesians 5:11), ignorance (Matthew 6:23) and death (Job 10:21). It is the place of sinful desires (John 3:19) and the place without light (Acts 2:20) – lifeless, cold and confusing.
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. Isaiah 9:2
It seems that every day another man in authority is accused of harassment or abuse. It seems that every week there is another account of mass violence. The fact is that every moment is filled with an immoral act (a lie, a theft, an assault or an infidelity) somewhere in the world. There is no shortage of crimes suitable for the local and national news outlets, and those reported on at 6 and 11 are just the tip of the iceberg of what Robert Burns wrote as “man’s inhumanity to man”. We are people walking in darkness, shivering and stumbling in sin.
But in that darkness a light has dawned. This is not the flicker of a candle or a 100-watt lightbulb; it is more than the flashlight on your smartphone or a lighthouse on the coast. It is a great light, like the sun; it is the light of the world, which the Gospel of John tells us is the light of life. This light is Jesus, who has entered the darkness and overcome it. He is the source of life, purpose and power. He has destroyed the secrecy of temptation, the strangeness of confusion and the sting of death. Because of Christmas, the light has overwhelmed the darkness.
I hope that you delight in all the lights of Christmas – those on the trees, in candleholders, woven into sweaters, at church, on lawns and in the sky – and rejoice that the light of the world, the great light, has come into our world and has illumined our darkness. Perhaps this truth will enable us all to focus on the joy of this light and, perhaps, seek the goodwill of all those who walk with us during these dark days.
All my life I have been encouraged to be a good boy (or a good man). Growing up, I must have heard the command to “be good” a thousand times, whether it was just before visiting a friend’s house or the local library. After I was particularly incorrigible as a child, I was warned that I might be dropped off at the “bad boy store” by my frustrated mother – in hindsight, I recognize the absurdity of the reality of this establishment, but at the time the notion that I could be chattel for this nefarious business worked well in keeping me on the straight and narrow. However, I was not always a good boy.
As I grew up into manhood, I have tried to be a good man. I think I have succeeded, to a greater of lesser degree. However, “the bad man store” may have a new item for sale. In my defense, the event I am about to describe occurred during the Patriots game on Sunday. As I was watching the game (the outcome of which at the time was still in question), trouble came to our house. As she was making sure our youngest was ready for bed, my wife hit her head – hard – on the upper bunk of the boys’ bed. While there was no blood, there was a bump. It least that is what I was told. I had little compassion and provided no care. I was not a good husband or a good father. I was wrong, and I sincerely apologize to my wife for my lapse in judgement. I am not always a good man.
When I became a follower of Christ, I tried to be a good Christian. I have a long list of good and godly behaviors – with appropriate measures of church attendance, charitable giving and acts of service – but I am not a good Christian. I am in danger of being shipped off to the “bad Christian store” because my practice of the faith is incomplete, my priority of Christ’s lordship is inconsistent and my passion for the gospel is anemic. I continue to sin. I continue to fail. I do not pray as much as I should nor share my faith as frequently as I should. I am not always a good Christian.
But who can discern their own errors? Forgive my hidden faults. Psalm 19:12
My problem is that I am lulled into believing that I am (overall) good. I compare myself to others and I see myself as measuring up pretty well against the competition. But, as the Psalm above states, I am unable to rightly evaluate my own goodness. I need forgiveness for the things I cannot see in myself. I need the truth of God to be my standard and not my own heightened sense of self. In comparison to the standards of the Scriptures (which are beneficial for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness), I am, by nature, a bad boy, a bad man and a bad Christian.
But that is not how God sees me: because I have trusted Jesus as Lord and Savior, I have been justified (declared not guilty by God through His acceptance of Christ’s sacrificial satisfaction of God’s wrath) and sanctified (anointed, appointed and equipped to accomplish His will). I am seen by God as good, and that motivates me to demonstrate this divinely imbued goodness. It also motivates me to remember that this goodness is not from me, but from the one who redeemed me so that I might do some good. I thank God that He enables me to be a good person, a sinner saved by His grace.
My heart remains heavy as I process the events of Sunday morning in Sutherland Springs, TX. According to numerous news sources, a man parked his truck at a gas station, walked across the street with a number of weapons and then opened fire on those around and within the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs as they gathered for the 11AM worship service. Twenty-six men, women and children were killed and more than 20 others were injured, leading to the pastor’s wife, Sherri Pomeroy, saying, “Most of our church family is gone….” The only word I am left with is this: tragic.
In the aftermath of this ever-increasingly common tragedy, numerous ‘shapers of culture’ (celebrities, politicians and media consultants) have said many things about many topics, and I am not sufficiently knowledgeable about the details of this event nor of its legal implications to offer my commentary. What I do know is this: there is no place on earth where we will be perfectly safe. We deceive ourselves if we think that churches or schools or country music concerts make those therein impervious to danger and risk. We are being unrealistic if we imagine that locks and detectors keep us far from harm.
(Jesus asked,) “Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” Luke 13:4-5
The bad news is this – bad things happen every day. Disease of the body and disease of the spirit is present in every place humanity dwells. There are earthquakes and hurricanes that devastate vast areas. There are wildfires and droughts that destroy lives and livelihoods. There are acts of violence that damage souls and bring death to innocents. There is little we can do about these things and nothing will prevent them from happening should they seek our demise. The bad news is that we cannot prevent what is evil from being evil. The bad news is that we are not safe.
However, there is good news. While we cannot prevent bad things from occurring, we can prepare for them, so that death by whatever circumstance cannot rob us of our relationships and our life. We have nothing to fear since we can claim the promise Jesus has made to all those who trust in Him
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” John 11:25-26
While it is true that life on earth is not safe, it also true that the God who loves us has provided us with blessings that can never be taken away. There are blessings beyond this physical realm – redemption, restoration, reunion and resurrection – that no act of violence or “act of God” that can rescind.
I hope and pray that the odds fall in your favor, that life-taking evil does not visit your camp. I also hope and pray that should your last day on earth occur much earlier than you planned, you will have prepared for this eventuality and placed your full faith in the One who provides life after death.
Image by DAVID J. PHILLIP / AP