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.
As I mentioned in previous posts, my family moved about a month ago, but that is not quite accurate. In all actuality, we are still in the process of moving. We are still unpacking boxes, rearranging furniture and repairing window coverings. Because of the size of the rooms and the placement of radiators and closets, we’ve been faced with making decisions about what we keep, what we shed and what we repurpose. We have had to determine whether a shelving unit is a better fit in one room or in another. We have had to experiment with the placement of dishes and bookshelves.
In the process, I have realized a few things: that we are not required to hold onto everything, that many things can have multiple uses and that a few things are non-negotiable. As we run out of shelf-space, books and baubles that we carried from our previous residence have become donations for the church’s yard sale. As we assessed our counter-space, kitchen carts were stacked and became an insert for a linen closet. Along the way, we came across pictures and memory-rich items that we had forgotten we had. We are removing what we no longer need, reshaping what we have and respecting what we cannot live without.
Our home, a work in progress, reminds me of my own soul.
He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. John 15:2
This verse from John is a snippet of a longer parable of Jesus which describes a vine, a gardener and a branch. From this story we know that Jesus is the vine, the Father is the gardener and we are the branches. We are living in connection to Jesus and the Father is regularly pruning us: we are not the ones who determine what is beneficial in keeping and what we is not, God is. He is searching our souls and determines what is best lopped off and what is best remaining.
Like our domestic situation, I am convinced that God is continually exploring our living situation and expunging the things that are no longer needed, exposing what will remain and extending our joy. He is regularly taking away our selfish attitudes and our self-interested motivations. He is regularly reshaping our spiritual activities and our spiritual gifts. He is reproducing fruit in our lives, all for His glory. At the end of the day, He enables us to enjoy the abundant life He offers to all those who accept His pruning.
With the blessing of hindsight, I am sure that old and broken parts of me have been removed by God with the skills of a surgeon, that aspects of my makeup have been reassembled and rehabilitated by God with the skills of a master craftsman, and that I have become more fruitful than I have ever imagined – all through His abiding presence in my life. As I place and replace the things in our home, I pray I remember the one who dwells in me.
On Monday, my wife and I will celebrate our thirtieth wedding anniversary. According to Hallmark.com (the worldwide source of information ‘when you care enough to send the very best’), the gift for this anniversary is pearls. I find it funny how random some of these yearly suggestions are: wood is to be given on year 5; appliances are appropriate for year 18; tools are the traditional gift for year 29. Jeanine and I are non-traditional in this regard, I guess. We tend to mark the years of marriage by enjoying more sentimental gestures, such as thoughtful cards and fancy dinners without the children.
Truth be told, the gifts of a long marriage are not given on anniversaries, but rather every day in between. Jeanine and I have been married for more that half our lives and, it can be reasonably asserted, we are not the same people who stood before a minister three decades ago. We were bright-eyed and optimistic, confident that love conquers all. Over the years, the light in our eyes has dimmed a bit and we are a touch more practical now, but with age comes the certainty that love does indeed conquer all. That certainty, that calm assurance, that we have each other and know each other is, in my opinion, more precious than pearls.
A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies. Proverbs 31:10
I do not thank God as often as I should for Jeanine, this completely different-than-me angel who has blessed my life for more than 35 years. I am so appreciative that she complements my weaknesses with her strengths and accentuates my abilities with her own. She has lovingly challenged me to be a better man, a better husband and a better father. She has willingly, with her typical encouragement, endured my career change and seven moves while raising four wonderful children without complaint. God has given me an equal partner in life who has brought comfort and cleanliness and made our house a home. Again, I do not thank God as often as I should.
As we age and mature, we change. I thank God that Jeanine and I have grown together and not apart. I thank God that we enjoy one another’s company more now than ever, appreciate one another’s voices more now than ever and savor one another’s refinement more now than ever. I could not have imagined the beauty of our union when we first met at a Friendly’s in the early 1980s. And I am not too proud to say that I have gained the most in our marriage (which compels me to strive to appreciate to an even greater degree this precious gift of my wife of noble character).
Finally, I thank God for the demonstration of sacrificial love that Christ provides which serves as a template for my wife’s and my relationship. I thank God that we have committed to do the hard work of willful submission to one another. I thank God for the challenges we have faced and the strength we have found in our bond.
My prayer is that we would all have occasion to celebrate these bonds.
In recent days I have been wondering what the appropriate response might be for a follower of Christ to have in addressing the pressing concerns reported through news outlets. I have been asking myself what Jesus might do and say in the aftermath of mass shootings (and the correlated issues of gun-ownership and our cultural love of violence) or child detainment at the borders (and the correlated issues of asylum and systemic racism). My response cannot be simply adding a hashtag to social media posts or offering “thoughts and prayers” – although thinking about these issues and praying for their rightful resolution is a good first step as long as other steps follow quick behind. But where are my feet to fall?
There are two things I know: that I cannot do nothing and that I cannot rely on political powers to legislate a solution. If I have learned anything from expositing the “One Another” passages of the New Testament each Sunday this summer, it is that God commands us to care deeply for one another, so doing nothing in light of real suffering is not an option. I have also learned that soundbites and speeches rarely foster compromise, so waiting for Washington is also not an option. I have decided instead to turn to God and His word to find wisdom in this time of need.
Listen to my words, Lord, consider my lament. Hear my cry for help, my King and my God, for to you I pray. Psalm 5:1-2 (NIV)
According to the Dictionary of Bible Themes, a lament is “a song of mourning or sorrow.” The scriptures are rife with lamentation, typically taking a particular form: a crying out in sorrow, an acceptance of evil, an acknowledgement that things are not following God’s will and a trust that God will ultimately be glorified. I reckon that the right response is to offer up to God a lament, just like David, Solomon, Isaiah, Ezekiel and Amos did in their day. We, as the people of God, need to cry out in mourning, acknowledging that these acts of violence and exclusion are not part of God’s created order and accepting that God is our only hope of resolution.
“Lord, hear my cry. Weapons of war have been amassed by individuals with the sole intent of bringing havoc and harm. Small but vocal portions of Your creation are intent on dividing us through irrelevant distinctions and minimizing the intrinsic value of all those who bear Your image. This is not what You desire; our hearts are broken because Your heart breaks over our sin.
“Lord, hear my cry. I seek Your beauty and Your glory in these days. I know that You are close to the widow and the orphan, and that You have regard for the plight of the sojourner. I long for my spirit to reflect Yours. I know that You desire that Your children repent and turn away from evil. I know that we who are inhabitants of Your kingdom are aliens and strangers in this foreign land. Enable us to turn from our sinful ways and honor Your purposes for us.
Lord, hear my cry. You alone can change the human heart. You alone can turn us from hostility to hospitality. You alone are our hope. Help me to no longer rely on human strength or invention to solve what only You can make right. And while I wait for Your hand to make all things right, equip me to obediently carry out Your redemptive plan among those with whom You have blessed me. In the name of the Lord, I pray. Amen.”
I was recently with a group of pastors where one of the participants prepared a devotional based on Acts 12. As we discussed this portion of scripture, the topic of prayer was brought up due, in no small part, to the mention (in verse 4) of the church earnestly praying to God for Peter, who was at the time in jail, and the mention (in verse 12) of the people gathered in Mary’s home who were praying throughout the night. Despite all this prayer, earnestly offered, the church was not prepared for Peter’s miraculous escape and were astonished when he knocked at their gate. The dynamics of engagement with God through prayer is a wonderful mystery.
I wish I could tell you how prayer works. I wish there was a formula where you could plug in your request and you would know the outcome. I wish I was not like the early believers written about in Acts 12 who powerfully and persistently prayed for Peter but were unable to comprehend the answer. It seems that we are consistently praying in one direction and the answer comes unexpectedly from another direction. Is it possible that our faith effects our ability to anticipate the answer, or do we pray with the realization that our faith will grow through the unanticipated ways the Almighty will work the resolution? Whatever the machinations or motivations for our prayers may be, we are called to present our requests before God.
[Jehoshaphat prayed,] “Our God, will you not judge them? For we have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” 2 Chronicles 20:12 (NIV)
I like Jehoshaphat’s prayer. Here is the king of Judah, the earthly ruler of God’s people, crying out to God because of an impossible situation – a vast army from Edom was just beyond the city gates. What would you pray for if you faced certain destruction unless the God of creation intervened? To strengthen your forces? To give success to your plans? Thankfully for us who are puzzled by prayer, Jehoshaphat’s petition takes a different tack.
“For we have no power….” It is as if Jehoshaphat is saying that God will have to do something if anything is going to be done. We would be wise to reflect upon the truth of these words: we cannot arrest cancer, we cannot end violence, we cannot create wealth, we cannot change a human heart. We pray because we are powerless to effect much of what we pray for.
“We do not know what to do….” Jehoshaphat has no plans, so asking for success in the abstract is fruitless. We would be wise to reflect upon the truth of these words as well: We are often unable to process all the details of our situation, let alone formulate action steps to bring about change. We are much better off to leave the process to the one who holds all things in order: God.
“…our eyes are on you.” Ultimately, Jehoshaphat determines that the only thing to do is watch for God’s movement and follow Him. A better prayer has never been uttered: to paraphrase, “Show me where you are and enable me to remain there.”
We have no overwhelming power, but Christ does. We have no earth-shattering plans, but Christ does. But we do have the ability of focus our attention on the things that matter…may that singular point of focus be Christ as we make every petition and request to Him.
Last Thursday night, I was captivated by a contest televised on ESPN: the 92nd Annual Scripps National Spelling Bee. Let me say that I am not an advocate for the cultural predilection toward presenting “participation awards” (the ubiquitous practice of giving everyone on the team a trophy, regardless of the score); both winning and losing has the ability to build character and excellence ought to be recognized. So, as I began watching the ‘evening finals’, beginning with round nine where sixteen children were still competing, I was very-much looking forward to seeing a champion crowned and the other 15 children cheered as they walked off the stage, defeated but undaunted.
The ninth round of words was perfectly executed – all 16 mastered the words they were given. Then, over the next 5 rounds, eight participants misspelled their word and exited the competition. At that point, the remaining eight spellers broke the system, correctly spelling the next 47 words. It was announced at one point that they were running out of words and, after a few more rounds, all those still spelling would win. After a total of 20 rounds, the directors of the bee declared all the remaining contestants the winner of the competition. Rishik Gandhasri, age 13 (who spelled ‘auslaut’), Erin Howard, 14 (‘erysipelas’), Saketh Sundar, 13 (‘bougainvillea’), Shruthika Padhy, 13 (‘aiguillette’), Sohum Sukhatankar, 13 (‘pendeloque’), Abhijay Kodali, 12 (‘palama’) Christopher Serrao, 13 (‘cernuous’) and Rohan Raja, 13 (‘odylic’) all walked away with the $50,000 and the trophy as champions of the National Spelling Bee.
This was not, in any way, a participation award. It was a pronouncement of excellence, as each one perfectly executed the task before them. These eight great spellers finished the competition without error and were declared the winner. The unfolding of this competition reminded me of the words of Paul to the church in Corinth:
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 1 Corinthians 9:24
These young competitors all expected that there would be only one winner and they prepared accordingly. They competed to win the prize and they finished the competition in first place. They won – they all won – together, giving one another High-fives and cheering on one another’s correct (always correct) efforts. The rules of the competition did not change, only the fact that many finished perfectly, together.
In many ways, I saw a glimpse of the heavenly in the very early moments of May 31st. The conclusion of the spelling bee reminded me of the concluding moments of life: we are diligently competing for the prize, surrounded by our fellow competitors, when the director of the race, the Lord Almighty, states that all who cross the finish line first will be declared winner. At that moment, we interlock elbows and all step across the finish line together, all securing the prize. We celebrate one another, realizing that we are not competing against the other runners, but the course itself. All those still standing at the end will receive the prize.
One last word to spell: H-A-L-L-E-L-U-J-A-H!
It was supposed to be the fastest two minutes in sports, but the Kentucky Derby turned out to be the longest 20 minutes in horse racing. As a way of providing a quick recap from the race that took place a couple of weeks ago, here is what the stewards of Churchill Downs officially recorded: the lead horse, Maximum Security, strayed from his lane and impacted the progress of another horse, War of Will, which in turn interfered with two others, Long Range Toddy and Bodexpress; because of this infraction, Maximum Security was disqualified and considered not to have participated, and the second place finisher, a horse named Country House, was declared a winner. Earlier this week, ten days after the race, the owners of Maximum Security filed a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn the disqualification.
I have an insufficient knowledge of the rules of thoroughbred racing to posit an opinion about the merits of the disqualification or the lawsuit. Was one horse’s veering from its path into the path of another sufficient cause to force the forfeiture of the substantial purse and the even more substantial legacy that goes with winning the Kentucky Derby? I cannot say. But then again, hypothetically, was my traveling ten miles over the speeding limit, along with everyone else, sufficient reason for a state police officer to cite me for speeding? Hypothetically again, was my fabrication about a little thing like coffee consumption sufficient cause for people to question my truthfulness?
But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. 1 Corinthians 9:27 (ESV)
Call it what you will: a competitive edge, a social construct, an ethical dilemma or a way of doing business; if it is unlawful, unethical or ungodly, it ought not to be done. Those who do these things are in danger of disqualification. Paul’s advice: stay in your lane. He tells us the secret to his spiritual integrity – if it takes away from the message we are telling or tarnishes our witness to the gospel, it is not worth the price. When we step over the line, we risk everything: it is possible that we could also forfeit our reward and forgo our legacy.
The antidote for disqualification is discipline or, as other translations put it, beating our bodies. We need the Holy Spirit to ride us like a righteous jockey, coaxing us with the crop to continue running on the right track and spurring us on to expend our greatest effort and achieve God’s goal. We need the Word of God to be a faithful trainer, strengthening us through resistance exercises and building our endurance through running the course. We need the Church to be a constant companion, challenging us when we are slogging through the mud and encouraging us to finish the race.
We are so much more than racehorses. We, who know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, are children of the Almighty and we ought never do anything that might jeopardize our birthright – the crown of life reserved for the victor. Trust the Holy Spirit, the Word of God and the Church to keep us on track and finish the race properly.
“All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.” Abraham Lincoln
Sunday is Mother’s Day, when three out of four of us will purchase a greeting card and over two-thirds of us will buy flowers for our mom (or our children’s mom). It is the least we can do for those who have given us so much of themselves. There is something in our mother’s kisses that are more therapeutic than the best medicine and something in her voice that is more comforting than the best psychotherapy. Mom was likely the first to read to us, pray for us and cry with us. She made sure, for most of us, that we had a birthday cake on our special day and a new outfit for the first day of school. It is right and good to honor and remember the ones who endured painful labor and sleepless nights for her children: God bless Mom!
As I think about Mother’s Day, my thoughts come back to a commercial I recently saw for the Portal from Facebook. In the commercial, actor Neil Patrick Harris decides to call and celebrate his mother on Mother’s Day using the Portal from Facebook. He sees that she’s not alone; she has company: the mothers of Serena and Venus Williams, Odell Beckham Jr., Snoop Dogg and Dwayne Johnson among others. While Neil knows who they are, most people watching the commercial are unfamiliar with the women on the video-chat screen and are given only a clue by Neil’s references – Odell’s mom, Jonah’s mom and the like. These women, no doubt, have done great things in their own right but are willingly recognized as someone’s mom. We ourselves may not actually know some women’s names, only that they are so-and-so’s mom. God bless you, Neil’s mom.
I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also. 2 Timothy 1:5 (NIV)
One of the moms of the Bible who lived a life of seemingly quiet obscurity is Lois – the mom of Eunice, who was the mom of Timothy. All we know about this woman is what we read in the verse I have quoted. All we have as a historical record is that a sincere faith lived in her. There are so many unanswered questions: Did she have hobbies or a favorite story? Where did she grow up? How long was she married? Was she like the Proverbs 31 woman and worked outside (as well as inside) the home? Was she tall, attractive and wealthy or petite, plain and poor? All we know is her name, her heart and her grandson. But, in God’s economy, that is enough. God has blessed us with moms like Lois.
Happy Mother’s Day to all those who are known by the world only as someone’s mom. God knows you are much more than that: you are leaders of industry, educators, medical experts, investors, inventors and artists – and then you go out the front doors of your home and do even more. Happy Mother’s Day!
The other day, an article in Relevant Magazine came to my attention. It reported on a new Instagram© account, PreachersNSneakers, that shows influential Christian leaders wearing high priced fashion. According to the article, the internet poster shows, among many examples, one pastor wearing SBB Jordan 1 sneakers, which cost $965, and another pastor wearing $1,045 Adam & Yves Saint Laurent boots. With all fairness, it is unclear who paid for or provided the pictured church leaders with their footwear or clothing, whether it was a personal purchase, an unsolicited gift or a promotional perk. Whatever the source, the pictures are shocking the sensibilities of many in the Christian community.
The article made me think about my choices, especially a few weeks ago on Easter Sunday, of dress. I wore a new suit (purchased at a ‘Buy 1, Get 2 Free’ sale), a new shirt and tie (both acquired while on sale at Kohl’s), a pair of old, but polished shoes, and new socks. It is these socks that give me pause: they were a gift from my daughter, who purchased them in Rome at the Vatican’s gift shop; they were produced by the tailor of the Pope. They may be the most luxurious item I have worn in a great while.
I remember commenting on the socks throughout the morning, glowingly reflecting that my “Pope socks” were a gift. I have no idea how much they cost my daughter – perhaps as little as $10 or as much as $50 (to which my thoughts scream, “Heavens, no!”) I gave no thought to the challenges some in the congregation may be facing: was there a participant in worship that wondered if I had paid for socks that would have filled their car with gas or bought them a weekend’s worth of groceries? This train of thought has subsequently been derailed as I think of the luxuries I enjoy that may come at the expense of ministry – thoughts relating to how much I spend on coffee or dining out or fashion accessories.
Better a little with the fear of the LORD than great wealth with turmoil. Proverbs 15:16
It is easy to judge people we only read about because their sneakers are more valuable than our cars. It is harder to correctly assess these things as they relate to our own personal spending habits. The line between necessities and luxuries can be difficult to locate. Most of us do not need personally tailored suits or dresses, brand name sneakers or stilettos, or homes with ten bedrooms. But we do need shirts, shoes and shelters. The optics of excess lie in the details, both in what we spend and the cultural surrounding in which we spend. Manhattan has a different standard than Montgomery of what is a necessity versus a luxury .
I am choosing to continue wearing my “Pope socks” but I will graciously refuse to accept any gift which includes a pair of Yeezy Boost 350 V2s. I will continue to try to give more to others than I luxuriously spend on myself. Hopefully, that we keep me from appearing on Instagram in a Tesla®.
Occasionally, I wrestle with a topic to write about in this weekly blog; this was one of those weeks. As a number of themes turned in my mind, I prayed that God would help me in my efforts to formulate a concise and meaningful reflection worthy of posting. Ironically, my attentions were drawn over and over again to prayer: as I discussed with other pastors a biography we read on J. Hudson Taylor, the conversation was about prayer; as I led the Lenten study on Matthew 26, the scriptures addressed prayer; when I put a 2006 Veggie Tales DVD into the player for the kids I watched as their moms attended the Women’s Bible Study, “Gideon: Tuba Warrior”, we unexpectedly watched a vignette about George Mueller (who was a champion of prayer).
Hudson Taylor was the founder of China Inland Mission, which brought the gospel to the Chinese, through ‘faith missions’ (the sending of missionaries with no promises of temporal support, but instead a reliance ‘through prayer to move [people] by God’), serving eastern Asia from 1854 – 1905. He utterly relied on prayer for his provision and direction throughout his life. As we discussed the life and faith of this great follower of Christ, a few of us were transparent enough to voice our regret that our prayer lives were, in comparison, woefully lacking in fervor and faithfulness. Hudson’s contemporary George Mueller built and directed numerous orphanages in Bristol, England while never making a single request for financial support; he remained debt-free as he relied solely on concerted prayer for God’s provision.
He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” Matthew 26:37-38
The above-mentioned verses report part of what took place in the garden of Gethsemane hours before Jesus was arrested. Jesus and his disciples had just concluded their commemoration of the Passover and had gone to this place just outside the city to pray. Unlike other times, when Jesus went to a solitary place, on this occasion he asks his three closest friends to stay and keep watch – to pray – with him. At the time of deepest sorrow, our Lord prayed with others. Our savior’s last act of human volition was to conduct a prayer meeting with his companions. I cannot help but ask myself if I would do the same thing.
It all makes me wonder: do we pray better when we pray together? Are we all a bit more like Moses than we care to admit, that we simply cannot keep our hands raised in prayer and intercession without the help of others (see Exodus 17:8-16)? Are we willing to learn from Jesus the lesson that we are better able to accomplish God’s will when we ‘keep watch’ together? I am not, in my own strength alone, able to pray as I should. Perhaps we could get together, say on a Wednesday night, and hold up one another in prayer.