I was introduced to Mike and Frankie nearly nine years ago. While their situation was different than mine (they lived in a rural middle American suburb and we lived in an urban neighborhood of Boston), our similar family dynamic made them special to me. We would spend 22 minutes together each week and they would share their lives. I would identify with their frustrations in raising their oldest through High School and college and beyond. I would sympathize with the challenges of raising an optimistic but clumsy daughter who tried everything to fit in but never quite succeeded. I would commiserate with the difficulties that come from a unique younger son, complete with quirks and tics. But next week they are departing and I will miss their stories of their ordinary life of ordinary struggles.
My favorite show, The Middle, will broadcast its series finale on Tuesday, and I feel like I am losing a friend. Something about the Hecks from Orson, Indiana always rang true for me. They didn’t have a ‘very special episode’ but instead relied on real life circumstances — a folding lawn chair at the dining room table, floating anniversaries, kids fighting in the backseat and ‘borrowing’ the church van for months. The kids made holes in their walls, their computers couldn’t access family photos and they ate fast food in front of the TV. It was a pleasure to watch a family on TV that was much, maybe too much, like my own.
There was a comfort in tuning in every week, sending that someone understood your struggle. It was a picture of life rarely seen on television today, a situation-comedy where episodes revolved around the challenges of the ordinary: living on a budget, dreading the school conferences and bake-sales and loving one another through the trials of life. There were moments of passion (for things like the Indianapolis Colts and the Wrestlerettes) but little politics. There were tears of joy and tears of sorrow. Through it all, there was an underlying theme of familial love – even in the midst of familial discord.
I urge you, brothers and sisters, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me. Romans 15:30
I believe it to be a blessing to God to be understood, to know that there is someone somewhere that ‘gets’ you. That was what God did for me through The Middle. Although they were not an actual family but a fictional clan with great writers, they were real to me. Their struggles were real. Their victories were real. I know, for their life, in many ways, is mine. Their life is the same as many in the church: those who love their kids and can’t stand their kids, those who have broken dishwashers and broken dreams but refuse to give up, those who are simply doing their best even when their best is not great. Thank you, Frankie, Mike, Axl, Sue and Brick for joining so many in the struggle.
I am sure that I will see the Hecks again as The Middle is already in syndication. I will sit and remember that there are people, real and make-believe, that share my values and concerns and dreams. Perhaps there will be another family I can befriend next season. There are the Ottos from Westport, CT that might remind me that we are never alone.
As we have for the previous few years, my wife and I have endeavored to see the nine movies nominated for the Best Picture Oscar®. With ten days remaining and only two movies yet to view, I am confident that we will complete our task. Reflecting on the films we have already seen, a theme seems to be emerging: the power of words. In these films, I am reminded that a well-chosen word or a turn-of-phrase at the appropriate time has the power to uplift or destroy, the force sufficient to motivate a nation or crush a spirit.
Of particular impact were the words Sheriff Bill Willoughby (portrayed by Woody Harrelson in Three Billboard Outside Ebbing, MO), British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (portrayed by Gary Oldman in The Darkest Hour and referenced in Dunkirk), and fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis in The Phantom Thread). Without giving away the plot, the theater-goer will be gripped by the redemptive and encouraging nature of the words contained in Willoughby’s letters, the motivating influence upon a nation to continue the struggle through Churchill’s “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech before Parliament, and the damaging and demoralizing destruction caused by Woodcock’s cutting comments.
Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. James 3:10
The last few weeks of movie-going have caused me to consider anew the wisdom of James and the power of the tongue. How is that the same function can exalt or eviscerate? How intentional am I with my words? Have I learned the truth regarding the power of speech and the wisdom to wield that ‘sword’ beneficially? Ultimately, am I utilizing my glossary to glorify myself or give gravitas to others? While I would not to presume to be as loquacious as Churchill, neither do I want to be as self-absorbed as Woodcock.
Perhaps preparation is key (and a Hollywood screenwriter would help, too). Churchill labored over his speeches, editing and reediting his message even to the final moments before delivery. Willoughby wrote letters, which experience tells us is a slower form of communication – our thoughts race faster than our pens, allowing us to shape and shade our words as we go. I wonder how our words might change if we gave ourselves as little as a moment to collect our thoughts. That might be enough time to enable us to refrain from that angry retort and share something edifying instead.
Words contain an immense power – a power that could be positive or negative. A single word (“mistake”) can destroy the fragile soul of an impressionable youth and a single word (“gift”) can develop the formidable soul of that same impressionable youth. Words can be ugly or beautiful, can be used to build up or tear down and therefore requires our attention. I wouldn’t let youngest juggle chainsaws, even if he told me he was confident in his ability to harness to power of the tools. Perhaps I should have the same concern about his (and my) use of the many tools we find in the dictionary.
With careful preparation and attention, may we use our words to build up one another.
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.
As much as I try to maintain the ‘true meaning of Christmas’ (through the images I choose to reflect on Christmas cards and wrapping paper, the musical selections of carols in the midst of secular songs and our participation in Advent), one trapping of the ‘holiday’ season that I cannot seem to eliminate is the Christmas stocking. I recognize the secular source of these socks hung over the hearth – I have seen the documentary “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”, which cogently gives the history of the holiday hosiery as a means of Kris Kringle avoiding the mandates of the mean-spirited Burgermeister Meisterburger so that the children of Sombertown could receive ‘outlawed’ toys.
There is another possible origin story involving the real Saint Nicholas. It seems that there was a once wealthy nobleman who had three daughters. This nobleman fell upon hard times and could not afford a dowry to enable his girls to be married. This inability to accept proposals filled the family with shame. Nicholas heard of this man’s misfortune and, having riches from an inheritance, secretly gave the young women bags of gold, throwing them inside the house through an open window. One of these bags made its way into a stocking. As religious and pious as the story sounds, it is as dubious and as unlikely as the imaginative plotline of stop-motion animators Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass.
Whatever the source, stockings have always been a tradition in my family. We are (okay, it is probably more me than anyone else) peculiar in our practice of ‘stuffing’: the trinkets are never wrapped or labeled (everyone knows they are filled by Santa), there is always at least one toy (since that is what Santa brings from his workshop) and there is always at least one piece of fruit (it is anyone’s guess why). The stocking is the first thing that is ‘opened’. While it may contain small, inexpensive and ordinary items, it is an important part of our family’s Christmas.
The stocking is a sort of microcosm for the nativity. In both, there are a number of ordinary things grouped together to make a whole that is so much greater than the parts. There is the humility of Mary, the righteousness of Joseph and the simplicity of the shepherds. There is a single star, a meager manger and some common cloth. The ‘real’ gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh – arrived days (if not weeks) later. Yet, when combined, they amount to so much more than a simple, albeit rustic, arrival of a first-born child. It becomes the greatest gift the world has ever received.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:14
My hope and prayer for you this Christmas is that you will see the glory of the one and only Son. Whether your stockings are hung by the chimney with care (in hopes that St. Nicholas soon will be there) or you enjoy some other Christmas tradition, may the ordinary aspects of your celebration accumulate to much more than you can imagine.
I heard the following quote from a podcast earlier this week:
“If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” – G.K. Chesterton
Upon hearing it, I did a quick Google© search to check its veracity. It is, in fact, genuine. Chesterton (a writer, poet and lay theologian from England) did write these words at the end of the fourteenth chapter of his 1910 book What’s Wrong with the World. The context for the quote was the education of children and the point of his comments were to do what is necessary, even if it is done poorly.
Our society, at first blush, seems to contradict Chesterton’s words by telling us that if it is worth doing, it is worthy doing well. Chesterton’s point, and my reasoning for quoting him, does not disagree with this prevailing wisdom. When we endeavor to accomplish a task – in the home, in the workplace or in the church – we ought to do our best. We must not enter into the essential activities of life half-heartedly. That being said, we rarely are able to accomplish our best, whether it be due to an inaccessibility of resources, an insufficiency of energy or a lack of passion.
When our best work and our real work are incongruent, we tend to get discouraged, and when we get discouraged, we quit. We flip the above-stated cultural mandate on its head and think to ourselves, “if I cannot do this well, I should not do it at all.” That is where Chesterton comes in, reminding us that it is perfectly acceptable to do something, even if it is done badly. We are always to do things to the best of our abilities, understanding that there are days when our best is bad. On those days, instead of giving up the fight, we can resolve to do better the next time.
My life is full of moments when I am doing what is worth doing, but doing it badly. There are times when I am hungry and I diet badly. There are times when I am angry and communicate badly. There are times when I am lonely and manage my time badly. There are times when I am tired and pray with the family badly. There are times when I preach badly, teach badly, father badly, husband badly, perform sonly duties badly and witness badly. But I do not quit, and instead commit to doing better the next time.
But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 2 Corinthians 4:7
As Paul reminded the early church in Corinth, we are simple, easily broken, earthen vessels. Anything we do, any excellence we accomplish, any power we display is not from us; it is from God. We cannot (and are not expected to) do everything well every time. We will, occasionally, do things badly. But we will do them because they are worth doing. I pray we all will always be doing good, even when we can only do it badly.
Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Galatians 6:9 (NIV)
On Monday of this week we celebrated my wife’s birthday. Without sharing a specific number (a woman never tells her age), I will say that it was a ‘milestone’. She and I went ‘in town’ to a fancy restaurant for lunch, then returned home for presents and cake with the kids, and finally had supper together (all the while enduring the hottest June 12th on record). While some may say that our festivities were meager given the circumstances for celebration, it was exactly what the birthday girl wanted – a time to break from the routine of laundry, dishes and ‘taxi service’ and simply enjoy the blessings of life with those we love.
I don’t believe I am ‘telling tales out of school’ in saying that milestone birthday can be hard. In the days leading up to her birthday, as was the case 16 months ago with my milestone birthday, my wife voiced some uneasiness in acknowledging another candle was being added to the cake. It is at these times that we all tend to reflect on those missed opportunities, regret those unwise decisions and recalibrate to what now seems possible. We joke with one another about being “over the hill” (as long as it isn’t our birthday we’re talking about) and wonder if our best days are behind us.
Milestones, like big birthdays, also remind us of where we’ve been and how far we’ve travelled. I have known my wife since she was sixteen and celebrated it with her ever since she was eighteen. We’ve celebrated a few times during summer break from college, once while planning our wedding and as even newlyweds and new parents. We’ve celebrated at her parents’ home, at our six different homes and at dozens of diverse restaurants. We’ve celebrated some birthdays after long days at work, others on warm weekends and one at a High School awards ceremony. Each year has been different. All those celebrations have now become mental snapshots of a life well lived and a life well loved.
I know that I have given Jeanine a present or two each of the years we’ve been together, but, for the life of me, I cannot remember a single one with any specificity. I think this is because, in my opinion, the best gift given on her birthday is not the one she receives from us but the one she is to us. She is the anchor of our family, preventing us from drifting toward disaster. She is the glue in her relationships, keeping us together. She is the optimist in the most pessimistic of predicaments. All those who know Jeanine understand that the world is a better, kinder, sweeter place because she is in it.
May your fountain be blessed, and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth. Proverbs 5:18
As the cliché goes, age is just a number. While that may be true, birthdays are special; it celebrates the day God gave us one another. I praise God that I could spend so many days celebrating the important people in my life, especially Jeanine. Happy Birthday to you.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name. Psalm 100:4
It may be culturally ‘old-fashioned’, but let me extend a belated “Happy Thanksgiving”. I hope you were able to spend a few precious moments with loved ones yesterday expressing your gratitude to God. Although mainstream advertisers may have wanted me and mine to celebrate “Friends-giving”, “Thanks-gathering” or “Thanks and Giving”, I am unashamedly and uncompromisingly sharing my “Thanksgiving” this weekend. I am committed to using my words and taking my thoughts captive with the specific goal of giving thanks to God – the One who gives every good and perfect gift. I want to be not only thankful but thanksgiving.
My thoughts and expressions of thanksgiving are framed by four words that have occupied my prayers since Sunday – wealth, health, hearth and dearth.
- Wealth is defined as “an abundance of valuable possessions or money”. Being in the northeast region of the most prosperous nation on Earth means that God has given me much more than most. I am blessed by God with a peace that comes from needn’t worrying about clothing, food, shelter or transportation. I am also blessed with a wealth of non-monetary possessions – vocation, friendship, education and liberty, just to name a few – for which I am grateful.
- Health is defined as “the state of being free from illness or injury”. This year I reached a ‘milestone birthday’ which meant that I was required to endure more than an annual physical exam. I thank God, as I had appointments with four specialists, all of whom, after poking and prodding, gave me a clean bill of health. I am also blessed with health in other areas of life – spiritual, mental and relational – for which I am thankful.
- Hearth is defined as “the floor of a fireplace”. I am thankful for those that surround the figurative hearth (and the fact that we have a figurative hearth at all). I praise God for my wife and children. I praise God that we celebrated birthdays, graduations and holidays together with love and laughter. I am also blessed for the ‘hearth’ of Calvary Community Church and the brothers and sisters that God has given me – for them I am also grateful.
- Dearth is defined as “a scarcity or lack of something”. There were challenges this year (a requirement to move, a daughter departing for college, family members battling cancers, and more) that brought me to the needful point of prayer and contemplation of God’s word. I am thankful that God supplied and continues to supply in these darker moments, teaching me to trust in Him more and rely on earthly pleasures less. I am blessed for the trials we are enduring through which God is triumphing – and for all these I am thankful.
Whether you are enjoying a banquet of leftovers or a list of bargains this weekend, I hope that you will also continue to give thanks to the Lord for all the blessings He has showered upon you. And after all the food and extended family have gone and all the touchdowns and sales have been scored, remember that every day is a good day for thanksgiving.
According to Albert Einstein, “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.” We all can remember times when insignificant details accumulate to significantly shape our lives. Coincidence often takes part in how we meet our soulmates, determine our vocations and develop our strengths. When it is looked at objectively, so much of each our lives are built on coincidences. Few of us who are married first laid eyes on our future spouse with the expectation of nuptials. Few of us had a detailed plan for our career and then worked the plan. Objectively, we should agree that the world is too random to assume that most of the major developments in life are left to chance. Objectively, it makes more sense that there is someone who has a plan for us, whether he wants to remain anonymous or not.
This truth became clear to me once again as I studied the second chapter of Ruth last week. In two places, the author makes the point, with cultural wordplay that God’s plan is so coincidental that it cannot be random. First, the author writes:
“So she went out, entered a field and began to glean behind the harvesters. As it turned out, she was working in a field belonging to Boaz, who was from the clan of Elimelek.” Ruth 2:3 (NIV)
Then, one verse later, the author writes:
“Just then Boaz arrived from Bethlehem and greeted the harvesters, “The LORD be with you!” “The LORD bless you!” they answered.” Ruth 2:4 (NIV)
So Ruth just happened to stumble into a relative’s field at just the same time that this relative, Boaz, returns to check on that same field. Objectively, it seems too specific to be random.
Objectively, it seems more rational, and more honest, to acknowledge that the God who designed the orbit of planets, who placed every star in the sky and who builds and topples nations directs the path of each and every person in all creation, including the big pictures and small details of our personal histories. Since this is true, we ought to appreciate those big pictures that provide clarity as well as those small details that regularly go unnoticed. And since so much of our lives are shaped by the accumulation of individually insignificant events, it is in our best interest to occasionally take notice of the ‘coincidences’ that guide our lives.
Maybe God is guiding you when you see an old friend in a hotel lobby while you are on vacation so that you renew a relationship, so that you have that contact when a better job is available at that friend’s company. Perhaps He is guiding you through an article you read in a waiting room, then a conversation over the phone and then a relative’s diagnosis so that you make an appointment for that cancer screening and you avoid having to endure treatments. Then again, maybe He is guiding you to move so that your travel pattern to work is changed so that you share a smile with a kid who, unbeknownst to you, is going through a tough time at home and needed someone to give him hope. God is in it all.
Thank God that He is Lord of the details of life, whether He chooses to reveal His hand or not.
As I was going through a box that that had remained unpacked from a previous move in anticipation for our impending move, I came across a picture of me (and the other members of the Stoughton High School Show Choir) from 1981. After I posted the picture onto social media, many from the photo began commenting about how time had flied and how they remembered those days of singing and dancing long before “Glee” entered the cultural landscape. It was good to electronically ‘catch up’ with people I hadn’t seen in thirty-five years, making me think that I still had the agility and stamina to replicate some of the routines.
A long time has passed since the day that picture was taken – I’ve gone from fifteen to fifty years of age– and I know I cannot do now what we did then. All this illuminates the problem with time: it is constantly passing but we rarely sense its passing. If I am a typical person, there will come a day – Lord willing that I am blessed with a long enough life – that my working days will be over, my driving days will be over and the days of handling my own affairs will be over. Will I understand that I cannot do what I could do in the days of my youth?
The other day, I was shown the following passage of scripture describing a moment in King David’s life as his earthly days were drawing to an end.
Once again there was a battle between the Philistines and Israel. David went down with his men to fight against the Philistines, and he became exhausted. And Ishbi-Benob, one of the descendants of Rapha, whose bronze spearhead weighed three hundred shekels and who was armed with a new sword, said he would kill David. But Abishai son of Zeruiah came to David’s rescue; he struck the Philistine down and killed him. Then David’s men swore to him, saying, “Never again will you go out with us to battle, so that the lamp of Israel will not be extinguished.” 2 Samuel 21:15-17
When David was a boy, he faced a Philistine named Goliath who held a spear with a spearhead weighing 600 shekels (1 Samuel 17:7), and we all know how that ended. The above-referenced scripture takes place many years later, as David is approached by another giant Philistine, but this time with a spear half the weight of the one Goliath held. David thought he could relive his ‘glory days’ and begins to engage, but a warrior-brother steps in, fights for the king, and slays the enemy. Then David’s confidantes tell him, more or less, “You can’t do this anymore. You are too precious to us to allow us to risk your life.” At some point, we all need to put down our sling shots (and our dreams of recapturing our youth) and let someone else fight the giants.
We all need people around us who care enough to stop us from harming ourselves and others. I encourage those who are still young and strong to engage in the battle that rages, humbly taking the place of those who valiantly fought when they were young and strong. I encourage those who are being asked to sit the next one out to humbly appreciate that there are those around you that love you enough to protect you. At whatever station of life you may find yourself in, know that God has a perfect plan for every day of your life, whether you are singing and dancing or joyfully reminiscing about the ‘good old’ days. I believe that I still have some warrior days in the future, but I remain aware that at some point I’ll need to lay my weapons down…may I be blessed with wisdom when that day comes!
Most of us are accustomed to seeing things as either good or bad. There tends to be very little ambiguity in our conception of what is right in our lives and what is wrong. We would all likely agree that hospitalizations, evictions, firings, rainstorms and car accidents are bad things. We would all also agree that promotions, vacations, weddings, days of unlimited sunshine and occasions for a party are good things. We all seek ways to avoid the bad and embrace the good as we go about our daily routines. We all try to move past those dark moments and move into the brighter ones.
There is an alternative to this black and white thinking, however; what if every moment had the opportunity for good or bad? This point came through to me the other night as a group of men and I studied the first two chapters of the book of Daniel. For those of you unaware of the plot of this portion of the Old Testament scripture, let me give you a brief synopsis:
- In 605 BC the nation of Babylonia conquered the tribe of Judah and took the choicest items and individuals back to its capital city;
- Four Judean young men from among the captives brought to Babylon were raised up to the positions of chief advisor to the king;
- When the king’s dream went uninterpreted by the Babylonian magicians or enchanters, Daniel – one of the four Judean youths – told the king what he had dreamt and what it meant.
One would think that being conquered by a foreign government would be a bad thing, yet the Bible states, “And the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, with some of the vessels of the house of God (Daniel 1:2 ESV).” God gave the people and land of Judah over to Nebuchadnezzar. Is God bringing about bad things for His people?
Righteousness will go before him and make his footsteps a way. Psalm 85:13 (ESV)
Simply stated, the answer is no. We know this because we can also see that God gave the four youths “favor and compassion in the sight of the chief of the eunuchs (Daniel 1:9 ESV)” and gave Daniel “understanding in all visions and dreams (Daniel 1:17 ESV)”. We even know that after Daniel sought God’s mercy in the matter of the king’s dream, “the mystery was revealed to Daniel in a vision of the night (Daniel 2:19 ESV)”. Through all those assumptively dark moments in Daniel’s life, God was there equipping Daniel for a great blessing – for the interpretation of the dream given to that secular leader of that secular nation was that all the great kingdoms of the earth will be crushed by the kingdom of heaven, which will rule forever.
If I were Daniel, I would have had many questions as I took the long journey from Jerusalem to Babylon. I would have wondered if God was with me in the midst of this awful situation. I think the same questions surface when our good lives are interrupted by hospitalizations, evictions, firings, rainstorms and car accidents. Perhaps we can gain a lesson from Daniel and expect that God has a good purpose in all of lives moments, sometimes something for us and sometimes something for those around us. Perhaps God could use some of us to interpret the visions God has given to someone who would deny His very existence. Perhaps we could be used as a rainbow in the midst of another person’s storm.