My mother-in-law, who turned ninety on the 28th of last month, had a fall at her home which resulted in her breaking six ribs. She is currently being cared for at a wonderful hospital in Boston, but addressing her pain, which is substantial, has proven difficult. If you were to visit her those first few days, you would hear her literally crying out to God in a loud voice; however, by all appearances, God did not reply. The extreme discomfort of those broken ribs (which cannot be immobilized) remained and the extreme fervency of her prayers (which could not be suppressed) remained unanswered.
My mother-in-law’s condition makes me think about all those who are crying out for relief – relief from the grief or anger of loss, relief from the pain or anguish of trauma and relief from the worries and doubts of the unknown – but relief does not seem to arrive. Is God silent when we seem to need to hear from Him the most? Is God distant when we have the greatest hunger for His presence? Is God uncaring when we long for the comfort that can only come from Him? By faith, I contend just the opposite.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. 2 Corinthians 1:3-4
Let me be the first to admit that I would appreciate my mother-in-law’s relief from her pain. Let me also admit that I tend to be blinded by the blessings of God when burdens are right before me. The loudest murmurs I hear are those of distress, but also present are the beeps of monitors, the hums of IV pumps and the voices of caring health professionals. My mind plays out a number of other sounds as well: the ringing of an unanswered phone which triggered concern in a daughter’s heart, the sirens of an ambulance that brought needed assistance to a woman in need and a lecture in a medical/nursing school that equipped the doctors and nurses at the hospital to provide expert care. These, too, are answers to prayer.
God is not silent, or distant or uncaring. He is speaking in our circumstances, even in the pains that are not fully relieved (which might be teaching us what we ought to avoid). He is close to us as we undergo the troubling conditions relating to our shared human nature. He cares for us, so much so that He endured every indignity that comes with life on earth and conquered everything that causes permanent damage – sin, death and damnation. While I would like the symptoms of this fallen existence to fade into solely painful memories, I accept that God usually comforts us in less obvious ways.
The good news is that Jeanine’s mother is slowly improving and pain killers are alleviating some of her discomfort. I pray that God, in time, alleviates the remaining difficulties. It is unfortunate that it takes pain to cause most of us to cry out to God. It is truly fortunate that He hears and cares, even if we cannot sense it.
Today is Saint Patrick’s Day and, thanks to my father’s recent genetic profile from ancestry.com, I will be celebrating the holy day with the newfound knowledge that I am 2% Irish. There is much to commend Maewyn Succat (thought to be Patrick’s name at birth) to all believers: he was born into a religious family, with his grandfather serving as a priest; he suffered great adversity, having been kidnapped by pirates at age 16 and then living as a slave in Ireland for 6 years; he was miraculously rescued by God, to whom he had been praying fervently for deliverance, when he was told in a dream that his ship had arrived and then walked more than 200 miles to set sail; upon reaching England, far from home, he survived starvation when a wild boar wandered into his camp; at age 40, God told him in a dream to return to Ireland with the Gospel and build His church. He gives us all a testimony of what God can do through a person committed to trusting in the Lord.
There are a number of the interesting truths about Patrick’s life. First, he rejected the beliefs of his family for many years, but the great difficulties of his early life drew him to God with a fervent faith. Second, he was not the first missionary to Ireland, as he succeeded another man who had come to Ireland five years before he returned to the island. Third, one of the Patrick’s first converts from Druidism to Christianity was Milchu, the tribal chieftain who served as his master more than 20 years earlier. Patrick was used by God in mighty ways and He utilized every aspect of Patrick’s life (both blessings and burdens) to glorify the Lord.
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28
Saint Patrick reminds me that anyone can do great things through God. Anyone can endure a horrible past when they trust in Him. Anyone can show the power of forgiveness when they know the forgiveness of God. Anyone can mightily share their faith when they have experienced the grace of the Lord. Saint Patrick reminds me that nothing is impossible with God – He is able to reach anyone through anyone by any means. So, whether you are in the ideal location or the worst place imaginable, among the most wonderful people or the dregs of society, confident in your abilities or concerned about your inabilities, know that God can still be glorified through you.
Perhaps you will enjoy a bit of green lager or some corned beef and cabbage today. Maybe you will wear green or kiss someone who is Irish. Wherever and however the day finds you, I pray that we all remember the witness of a special man who God used to reach ‘the ends of the earth’ over 1,600 years ago. And I hope in remembering his story we are reminded of our story as well. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
As we have for the previous four awards seasons, my wife and I watched, in local theaters and in our living room, the nine movies nominated for the Academy Award’s Best Picture. This year we were enchanted by a western, a musical, a science fiction thriller, a play adaption, a war epic, a biographical film, a coming-of age story, a historical narrative and a tear jerker. Each film introduced us people facing challenges different (sometime much different) than our own. Each movie gave us something to talk about and wrestle with after we viewed it. And while the process of spending twenty or so hours watching movies may not appeal to everyone, it is a treat and a blessing to my wife and me.
Invariably, when the conversation turns to our project of seeing these Best Picture nominees, I am asked the question: what do you think will win? I have some trouble answering that, in part because artistic expression (and that is ultimately what all these movies are) is so subjective, and in part because every film (well, maybe with one exception) had elements of greatness. What do I think will win? The Academy will likely choose Lalaland. What do I think is overall the best picture for 2016, from among those nominated? This is a much more complicated question.
As I answer this question, I feel that I can eliminate half the nominees from my personal best: Arrival was good, especially in its character development and the deep conversation that followed was profound, but not great; Fences, with its exceptional acting performances, was too dialogue driven for my taste; Lalaland was artistically stunning but slow and lacked a plot for about a third of the film; and I found Moonlight, despite its important story, too confusing. I appreciate all these films and the questions they produced in me: what would life be like if we were not constricted by time? How do our dreams and failures shape our lives? Can love conquer all? Can we truly escape our environment?
The other five (Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High Water, Hidden Figures, Lion and Manchester-by-the-Sea) were better stories more beautifully told with exceptional acting. These five, at any given moment, fluctuate in my mind as best. They represent characters who are each faced with challenges (trying to save lives while others are taking them, fighting foreclosure, battling racial injustice, finding a way back home and overcoming an unfair and tragic past), overcoming them, to a greater or lesser degree. There are images and elements of each of these works of art that will remain with me for quite a while – moments of extreme pain and moments of overwhelming joy. At this moment, I offer my opinion and would recommend you seeing Hacksaw Ridge, my choice for Best Picture.
For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen. Romans 11:36
I do not say this simply because it is the most “faith-based” of the nominees, but because it is the most beautifully shot and compelling story captured on film. All these films, from my personal favorite to my personal worst, have elements which provoke my pastoral side. Each one is worth seeing so that their narratives, whether true or fictitious, can enable us to walk in the shoes of another for 140 minutes or can afford us the opportunity to experience life in a way that we would never experience on our own. We are surrounded by people broken by society and bruised by circumstance, and it is good to be reminded once in a while that we can overcome poverty, tragedy, rejection, oppression, prejudice and even the occasional success. In every story our lives tell, no matter our faith system or lack thereof, God has a marvelous way of breaking in and then shining through the cracks the world inflicts upon us. We all have a story to tell, one worthy of an Academy Award.
This morning we will be attending the funeral of my brother-in-law, Stephen V. Silva. Last Friday, in the early morning hours, Steve lost his battle with cancer at the age of fifty-four. He was a wonderful son, brother, husband, father, uncle and grandfather. He was a good man and he will be missed – he was warm and loving, considerate and caring toward those around him. Today is a day of great sorrow for all those who knew Stephen. There is a small bit of solace in knowing that his physical suffering, ever increasing for the last thirty-seven months, has ceased.
A few months ago, I wrote that the three toughest words I am forced to utter are “I don’t know.” Occasionally, I feel the need to defend God – when tragedy strikes or suffering comes to call – from the charge that He is unloving or uncaring or unfair. Honestly, especially on a day like today, I am immensely inadequate to the task. I cannot explain to my mother-in-law why she is called upon to bury a second child. I cannot give reason which makes sense of this loss to my sister-in-law or my wife. I am at a loss to rationalize why some cancers enter remission and others do not. I simply do not have all (or even most of) the answers.
I do know that God comforts those who mourn. There is not a single tear that falls from a single cheek that He is not mindful of. While I cannot explain the problem of pain, I am certain of God’s promise to be near those who are sorrowful.
I do know that God promises an end to suffering. There will come a day when all things will be made right and sin, death and disease will vanish. While I cannot tell you when the pain will cease, I do know that God promises it will.
I do know that God has conquered death through His son. All those who trust in Jesus as Lord and Savior will never truly die and we will see them again in glory. I cannot state with certainty when death will be ultimately vanquished, I know it will happen.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” Revelation 21:3-4
Today, Stephen’s family, co-workers, neighbors and friends will share in their collective grief. Tomorrow, many tears will be shed. For many days ahead, the pain of loss will be palpable. I trust that God will be with those mourn and, eventually, there will be a sense of ‘new’ normalcy. Until that day comes, I ask for your prayers for my wife’s family. I ask that you’d remember Bohuska, Stephen’s wife of over 30 years; Michael, Anthony, Stephanie, and Jonathan, his children; Lilly, Gionni, and Sage, his grandchildren; Pauline, his mother; and Natalie and Jeanine, his sisters.
For reasons I do not quite understand (something about licensing and ownership), our local NBC affiliation is changing channels – from channel 7 to channel 10 – on January 1st. For a few weeks I will, by instinct, tune into the wrong station and then remember that things have changed. It is a reminder that things are constantly changing. Life is continually in a state of flux, shifting like waves in the ocean. I have seen this in my own circumstances in 2016: our oldest son graduating from college and moving back home, our daughter graduating from High School and attending college in Washington, DC, spending 3 weeks at home over the past four months, our whole family moving from one apartment to another.
Some changes are simple (like television stations or finding new locations for Christmas trees), while others are more challenging (dealing with new medication regimens and moving everything you own), but every change impacts life. Some changes we make are restorative (such as eating healthier or improving our sleeping patterns) and others are destructive (such as picking up bad habits or ending a relationship). As this year ends and another begins, many will be thinking about making changes, or resolutions, as a means of improving their everyday lives. Seek to make the changes that are restorative.
My concern for myself, as well as those I love and serve beside, are not the changes I initiate, but the changes that come through uninvited means. About a year ago, I made some resolutions, preferring to call them intentions, about trusting God more and praying more. I had no idea that 366 days later I’d be in a different home with slightly different decor or that I’d be dealing with hypertension for my remaining days on earth. I had little idea what it would feel like having a child living so far away or worrying about colonoscopies. My concern is that I have no idea what lies ahead in 2017.
Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. James 1:17 (NIV)
My hope, for the years that have passed and the year to come, is that God alone never changes. Everything good in my life (and yours) comes from the immutable Father in heaven. There is nothing that surprises or flusters the Lord of all creation. While my circumstances (as well as my weight, my address and my blood pressure) may change, the one who knows my needs and desires will never change. He will, as I follow Him and His word, continue to shower good and perfect gifts upon me, whether I understand them as gifts or not. My hope is in God, no matter how my life may change.
Allow me to wish you all a very happy new year. Whether you are a person who makes resolutions or not, I pray that all who are reading this will find the changes that the coming year brings redemptive and restorative. And I pray that the God who never changes will grant you every good and perfect gift He has purposed for your enjoyment.
The events of last Tuesday night greatly disturbed my household. We were all gathered around the television watching the election results when suddenly we were surprised by some jarring noises – a work crew from the gas company was setting up shop in the middle of our ‘cul-de-sac’. Before we knew it, a truck, a backhoe and a team of experts were opening a hole in the asphalt, blocking us from driving out of our driveway. Eventually we were told that the gas main (installed in 1928) had ruptured and needed to be replaced; the gas company was cutting a trench down our street when I left for work on Wednesday. Thankfully, the workers could move their equipment and we could move our vehicles with little inconvenience.
As we watched these developments on Tuesday night and the aftermath on Wednesday, our displeasure with the situation increased. We were angry that we were not consulted and our needs were not considered. We were bothered that our freedom was hindered and we had no one to blame. While we wanted to go outside and loudly complain to whoever would listen, we remained silent – we knew our angry outbursts would not accomplish anything good and possibly produce something bad. We were faced with the ubiquitous station in life where we had reason to be angry. But should that reason result in our making it a right?
If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Romans 12:18 (NIV)
We live in a strongly individualized society. We are continually offended, insulted and aggrieved by those around us exercising their freedoms. We hear things that disturb our sensibilities and see things raise our rancor, causing us to consider seeking retaliation. But if we know Jesus as Lord and Savior, we must reconsider our desires to indulge these inner voices. We, as Christians, are called to live at peace. And the best way to live at peace is through practicing three peace-making disciplines.
Hostility is not the answer and “fighting fire with fire” only increases the flames. When we want retribution, we would be wise to pray, to have patience and to show compassion. Whether it is for authorities (like presidents or police) or aggravators (like gas company employees), we can lift them up in prayer and seek for them God’s wisdom to make the best decisions. Whether it is for commuters (noisy riders on the train or aggressive drivers on the roads) or critics (with ‘helpful advice’ or hateful rhetoric), we can exhibit patience and endure discomfort. Whatever separates or divides us (economics, experiences or ethnicities), we can show compassion by choosing to consider their side and contemplate our shared struggles.
The world needs peacemakers, people who are actively seeking reconciliation and common ground. If the national events of Tuesday night are any indication, half of us are dealing with disappointment and the rest are (very) cautiously optimistic about our country’s direction. We are a divided nation needing people who seek unity. We need people who will pray, be patient and bring compassion to our neighbors and our neighborhoods. Will you accept the Bible’s challenge and live at peace with everyone, as much as it depends upon you?
“I don’t know.”
While I hate to admit it, I am occasionally required to utter the above response. When terminal illness or unjust treatment invades the lives of those around me, I am asked questions that have no simple answer:
- ‘Why did God allow (name) to have cancer?’
- ‘Why didn’t God protect me from the man who (committed a crime)?’
- ‘Where was God when my (spouse) cheated on me?’
These questions are rarely stated but frequently felt by those who have been hurt by society, sin and circumstance. They want to know why prayers are not answered, why bad things happen to good people and why they must suffer.
“I don’t know.”
Because I am a professional with a graduate degree, there is some information that I can share with those who question me about God’s role and/or absence in our personal tragedies. In my mind, I consider the role of sin: this is not the perfect world God created, but a corrupted shell of Eden ravage by sin and its consequences; much of the evil we experience is not a product of God ignoring us but us ignoring God. In my mind, I consider how harsh that sounds and how life cannot be boiled down to simplistic soundbites. While sin is a factor, its introduction to the conversation often leads to other questions like, ‘Why me and not someone more horrible than me?’ In my mind, I think these things.
“I don’t know.”
Because I am a member of the clergy, there is some counsel I can offer to those who struggle with the unfair aspects of life. I think to myself that those who face adversity typically take it personally. I will hear first person pronouns – me, my, mine – when those around me question the purposes of God. I want to share that other circumstances in life have equipped them for the circumstances they are presently facing and that God has prepared them to persevere. But I know, as well, that these thoughts, if voiced, ring hollow when rebutted by questions like, ‘Why didn’t God stop this thing from happening?’ In my mind, I want to tell people to not take it personally.
“I don’t know.”
Because I am a fellow struggler in these areas, with a number of my own unanswered questions, I sometimes think about asking a few questions to those who wonder why: Is it possible that some unknown and yet unrevealed good is going to come from all this? Is it possible that you are being trained in sorrow so that you can strengthen someone else in the future? Is there any blessing, however small, that you could focus on instead your turmoil? But, even as I think of these questions, my own response is, ‘Yes, but why me? Why not someone else?’ In my mind, I’d want to think that there is a purpose in my pain.
I heard, but I did not understand. So I asked, “My lord, what will the outcome of all this be?” Daniel 12:8 (NIV)
I have no good answer to some of life’s questions. I am incapable of comprehending, let alone resolving, the intricacies of personal suffering. I must admit that I don’t know the answer to the question of why. But I do know and am comforted by the knowledge that God knows. Sometimes it is enough (and maybe sometimes it is all we have) to say that I know God and so I can trust Him with knowing why.
“I don’t know.”
I have written before that when my family is on vacation we make it a practice to visit a church wherever our plans take us (it is a good opportunity for me to hear a sermon and for us to see how others worship). This past Sunday was no exception. I have to admit that the style and substance of the service was not my cup of tea – the time of praise was too long for my liking and the sermon was less about the scripture and more about the speaker – but I did learn at least one thing: the kingdom of God is made up of a vast variety of people, most of whom are not like me.
While I like the style or our home church, I realized as I stood there singing on Sunday that most of the brothers and sisters in the faith that were gathered around me would not fully enjoy the worship at Calvary. I assume they would feel that our singing was too brief to be effective, our message was not as easily applicable and our spiritual fervor was not as expressive. God has truly blessed His people by developing each local body of Christ with great diversity and uniqueness. Because we as individuals are all different, it makes sense that every church is different, too.
Every fellowship of believers differs in many ways, depending upon the preferences and proclivities of those in attendance. Yet, despite these differences, there are important similarities, described in such verses as this:
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)
All churches ought to be a gathering of people who express love, service, fellowship and encouragement. While we may not perform all these practices in similar ways, we can all prepare for Heaven by engaging in them together.
We gather together for corporate worship to express love – for God and for one another through times of praise or prayer, whether it take six minutes or sixty. We gather together for corporate worship to provoke service – expressing gratitude for God’s blessing by giving our time, talents and treasures to benefit others in response to God’s grace. We gather together for corporate worship to share in fellowship – meeting together and sharing life together, mourning with those who mourn and rejoicing with those who rejoice. We gather together to express encouragement – sharing the hope and truth of God’s word as we anticipate the return of our Savior. That is why, even though it was not what I would choose to consistently participate in, I was glad to gather with the saints last Sunday.
With the heart of a pastor I write that I hope that everyone reading these words has a spiritual home that enables you to express your love for God, your service for others, your fellowship with the faithful and your encouragement in the Bible’s truth. If that home is not Calvary, perhaps one day while vacationing our paths will cross and we can worship together.
The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.” Genesis 12:1 (NIV)
By the time this is posted, my family and I will have moved the eight-tenth of a mile to our new apartment. By the time this is posted, my family will have eaten our first meal and slept our first night in our new home. By the time this is posted, the stress and nausea I have had for the last two weeks will have begun to subside…I hope. I am writing these words on Tuesday afternoon, will load the truck (the reservation on which, praise the Lord, was confirmed this morning) tomorrow and unload the truck on Thursday, Lord willing.
As I conclude the process of moving, I am struck by the following observations:
- In the task of packing, the three things I discovered we had the most of were clothes, photographs and loose change. I can understand the clothing (with 6 people and 4 seasons you gather a great deal of sweaters) and the photos (since you never want to throw a single one out); but the change was surprising (we seem to have found coins on every floor, drawer and flat surface); sometimes moving is important to discover the small treasures you never realized you had.
- We did not devote enough time to go through everything. We calculated in our minds how long it would take to go through memory boxes, school papers, the stuff that breeds in the backs of closets and kitchen cabinets and we ran out of days before we ran out of duties. This made me realize two things: that we (personally and as a culture) keep way too much stuff, and that we all need to move every decade or so to realize all the wonderful things we have in the backs of closets (or in attics, garages, sheds, cellars or storage units); sometimes we need to remember how vast God’s blessings really are.
- I will never use the phrase, “Let Go and Let God” ever again – because I know I’d be a hypocrite if I uttered it. Moving has revealed to me that I worry about too many things – will the truck be available, will the truck be big enough, will the kids like the new place, will the furniture fit up the stairs, will the truck fit down the small streets of Dorchester (especially with the contractor’s dumpster in the street and the pickup always parked across from it), and what will happen if we forget or break or lose something we need? God is always faithful and yet I am often fretful; sometimes we need to be out of control to remember Who really is.
By the time this is posted all will be settled and all the things that we’ve sorted, packed, recycled and worried about will have been resolved. Thank you all who prayed for us and assisted us throughout this process…moving also reminds you of all the good people God has surrounded you with.
I just thought of one more thing: I hope I got the truck back in time and they didn’t charge me an extra day!
If you have been reading this blog throughout the last four years, you know that my family has experienced a great deal of change over that period of time. It always seemed to me that change was cyclical; I was under the impression that there were seasons of transition and seasons of tranquility. Through the process of musing about life and ministry on a weekly basis I have come to realize that change is present every moment – we are all continually changing biologically, economically, spiritually, and relationally. Change is not some terrible thing we endure; change is a sometimes good thing that we can choose to embrace.
While change is constant, it is much like the tides in that there is variety in the intensity of the waves. My family’s present two and a half weeks are more like conditions for surfing rather than sailing as we watch the whitecaps wash over us. Last Saturday, we hugged our daughter goodbye at college, knowing that we’d not see her sweet face for more than a month. Last Tuesday, we hugged Jeanine’s brother goodbye as we drove home to Boston and he drove to chemotherapy in Baltimore. Next Wednesday, we will place all our worldly possessions in a moving van and the following day unload them a few blocks away. And finally, on Thursday, September 8, we’ll send David off to tenth grade and Joshua off to third grade.
If I were in charge, I would not have chosen any of these transitions for myself or my family: Rebekah could stay home, Stephen would not suffer from the end stages of cancer (if I made the decision, he’d never have cancer at all), we would have remained in the condo that has been home for the past three years and the boys would never get older. If I had my way, Rebekah would never make new friends or gain new experiences, Stephen would never know how strong he really is, we’d never impact a different neighborhood and the boys would lie on their beds playing video games all day. You see my point: I would not choose change, even if it were good for me.
The steps of a man are established by the Lord, when he delights in his way; though he fall, he shall not be cast headlong, for the Lord upholds his hand. Psalm 37:23-24 (ESV)
When we, as a family, go to the beach, the boys and I try to body surf. As I tell them, the best thing to do is follow two rules: First, lean into the smaller waves or they will knock you over; and second, jump just before the bigger wave crests and allow it to carry you to the shallows. In many ways, that is what I am trying to do these days: lean in and then enjoy the ride. So, I will brace myself when the texts go unanswered, when the diagnosis is pending, when the boxes get heavy and the house is quiet. I will enjoy the updates that she is making friends, that the drug is working, that the new house brings new opportunities and that I have another three years before another one leaves the nest.
Lord willing, there will be a stretch of smooth sailing for all of us in the days ahead. Whatever may be lying just beyond the horizon, I trust that God knows how to use it for my growth. And, oh, what an adventure awaits us with Him.