Yesterday, Valentine’s Day, I missed the small pink boxes of tiny hearts that used to be made by Necco. The good news is that, although the Revere institution filed for bankruptcy and shuttered the factory last year, Spangler Candy Co. (the company that took over the rights to Necco’s iconic brands) confirmed Conversation Hearts would return in 2020. While I am not a great fan of the product (they tasted like chalk and were always lagging behind the cultural vernacular), they were a good and inexpensive gift to hand to the kids. Because these confections are a rarely-consumed tradition in my home (like that bowl of mixed nuts at Thanksgiving or those ‘stocking oranges’ at Christmas) I did buy some second-tier Brach’s© Hearts yesterday.
These little hearts that say “BE MINE” or “TEXT ME” or “PUPPY LOVE” or “DREAM BIG”, which may have little or no taste, are not tasteless. They are simple expressions of affection, comfort and encouragement. In a world of incessant honking in the streets and ubiquitous trolling on the internet, a tiny piece of pressed sugar with the words “I (HEART) YOU” might be just what the doctor ordered. We all have times when we need that short and sweet interaction with someone who cares; at those crucial moments we do not want a poem or a lecture – we want a hug, a call or a smile.
“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” Deuteronomy 31:6
Imagine if God produced a box of “Conversation Hearts” for you. Perhaps you would read “BE STRONG”, “BE COURAGEOUS”, “NO FEAR”, “I’LL GO WITH U”, “NEVER LEAVE U” and “NEVER FORSAKE U” (and those are from just one verse from one book in the Bible). Imagine you could place the hundreds of promises contained in the Scriptures, condensed to a dozen or so characters, in a pocket-sized box. Imagine taking one out in those discouraging moments and digesting it – chewing on it, enjoying its sweetness and reflecting on all the sentiment includes – and savoring the moment.
Whatever the date on the calendar, you have someone who loves you more than can be imagined: the God of the universe, as demonstrated in the death of Jesus Christ. It would take a lifetime to apprehend the incomprehensible fullness of this love, but it all begins with a sentiment that can be contained on one of those little hearts. “I (HEART) U”. This expression is something like the emotions contained in those crayon and construction paper cards that mothers keep in a special place. It is not simply what is said but what said by what is said.
It might be a good idea to swing by the grocery store and pick up a bag of discounted hearts, to open them up and read them as if written by God, and to act on them as if certain they are true. Then, literally or figuratively, hug, text and encourage the body of Christ…and wait for next year to get a pink box of chalky affection.
Last week, I had a conversation with my doctor as part of a routine follow-up (just one of the perks of surviving another birthday). I am proud to say that all my numbers are improving, thanks to a nutritional plan that he recommended I follow. Part of the conversation included my continued craving for the doughnut I had been denying myself. The doctor then stated, “Don’t think about these things as things that you are denying yourself of enjoying; instead, think of all the things you are providing for yourself by your restraint.” As I think about what he said, I remember that I would rather enjoy cardiac health and longer life than three minutes of refined sugar and saturated fat, however delightful those three minutes may be.
I am a big proponent of delayed gratification (the practice of foregoing instant, but temporary, pleasure with the hope of receiving a permanent, and greater, blessing). There is a problem that I see as I exercise discretion through delayed gratification: I tend to focus on what I am refusing and neglect to fix my gaze on what I am gaining. I know that I am skipping dessert when everyone else is indulging; what I need to know is that these tiny steps of obedience are enabling me to spend time with my theoretical four-year-old granddaughter drinking imaginary tea at her make-believe soiree. These are the thoughts that make baked goods (even the always delicious hermits) resistible.
Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” Luke 9:23 (NIV)
Yesterday, as I celebrated my birthday, I spent a few moments reflecting on my past 53 years and all the things I wish I had accomplished by now. I spent time ruing some of the choices of my youth (refusing to limit my spending in order to afford some savings, allowing myself to take shortcuts which lessened both my workload and my stamina) and regretted the nevers of my middle-age (never owning my own home, never travelling to Europe). These moments of reflection upon my dalliances with instant gratification have not discouraged me; they increase my resolve to engage in the sacrifices I must make to seize the future God desires for me.
So, as get up early to spend some time in Bible reading, I pray that I will not focus on the sleep that I am missing but rather upon the deep well of scripture that I am drilling for the day of spiritual dryness. As I spend time in concerted prayer, I pray that I will not dwell on the television show I am missing but rather the conversations with God and the concerns for others that I am finding. As I limit my daily caloric intake, I pray that I will not fixate on the dietary restrictions but rather the increased days that discipline will add to my life.
The only way I can remain ‘on track’ for the long haul is not by thinking about each painful step, but by thinking of the finish line. May we all finish strong the race set before us through self-denial and seeking the greater joy.
The other morning, my mother-in-law underwent a procedure to treat her cataracts. At ninety-one, she was hesitant to have it done (she was unwilling to endure the pain, to be anesthetized, or to have a doctor mess with her eyes). After weeks of prayer and encouragement by a multitude of sources, she went to the surgical clinic and allowed the procedure to be done. The surgery was a success. Twenty-four hours later, at the follow-up appointment, two surprising developments took place: 1) she told the nurse that the experience was better than she expected, and 2) her vision test showed that her eyesight was greatly improved.
Worry is, by all appearances, a mighty adversary. It will tell us that the costs are not worth the gains. It will remind us of that one time, long ago, when we were mistreated and assure us it will happen again. It will highlight the adverse effects that professionals must legally disclose and tell us that we will be the ‘one-in-a-million’ to suffer. It will keep us up at night, make us lose our appetites and force us to pace the floor. Few know the truth, however, that worry is a paper tiger. Worry is only a shadow on the wall.
“Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” Matthew 6:27 (NIV)
As I read these words of Jesus, I think to myself, “Maybe I can; I am pretty good at it.” Despite my conviction that God’s word is true and that God grants perfect peace – complete contentment and wondrous well-being – to all who trust in Him, worry is a constant travelling companion of mine. Its relentless whisper rings in my ears, causing me to fret about everything from car accidents to broken bones, from power outages to excessive costs. I readily admit that this level of worry is not rational; it is nothing more than exhausting – of energy, of hope and or peace.
“So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Matthew 6:31-33 (NIV)
The remedy for worry is worship: to trust in the promises of our loving Heavenly Father for what we eat, what we drink and what we wear (as well as what we endure, what we await and what we hope to avoid). Worry is silenced when we rely upon God to provide whatever we need, whether it be peace or patience or perseverance. Worry is unmasked when we rest in God’s presence. Worry is defeated when we occupy our thought with the goodness, kindness and love of our creator. The paper tiger of worry is tamed by the authority of His name.
I hope that my quickly recovering mother-in-law (and I) will be able to see this truth.
Driving in Boston can be an adventure: the streets are narrow, turn signals are for ‘the other car’ and the solid yellow lines are ignored. I am typically the driver on family trips to the grocery store or school, with my loving wife in the front passenger seat. As we navigate the roads around our residence, she gently reminds me on occasion of people and vehicles that are dangerously close to our car. “Watch out for that car pulling out of the driveway,” she implores. “Do you see that woman with the baby carriage?” she asks. “There’s a truck on your left,” she says.
What my wife is pointing out are my blind spots. When she says these things and asks these questions, I am quick to tell her that I am fine and that I see everything she mentions. I am confident that I know where my blind spots are and what is contained within them. As I write these words, I realize just how dumb they sound: am I really proposing that I can see and process the things that, by definition, I cannot see, the things to which I am blind? What makes them blind spots is the fact that they are not seen.
We all need an extra pair of eyes, someone watching our backs, if we hope to avoid disaster. We all need someone outside ourselves, someone with a slightly different perspective, who will tell us the hard facts that we are unable to recognize. We all need someone who will see the trouble before it strikes and warn us (or, at least, enable us to brace for impact). We need other people in our lives in order to avoid becoming a wreck: physically, emotionally, spiritually or relationally. “Watch out for increased sodium levels,” they will implore. “Do you see those red flags that your new companion is raising?” they will ask. “There’s a flaw in your logic,” they will say.
As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another. Proverbs 27:17 (NIV)
In order for iron to sharpen iron, in order for the hammer and anvil to shape the blade and in order for the file to hone the edge two things are needed: fire and friction. Solomon, in all his wisdom, understood that we need the same thing, especially in the blind spots. We need fire; the healthiest relationships include elements of passion and purification. We need friction; the healthiest relationships include the qualities of proximity and pressure. In order to make it from one point in life to another without damage, we need a friend who is close enough to care and strong enough to say what needs saying.
It is my firm belief that this type of friendship is a gift from God. He blesses us with people who will point out what is in our blind spots because they love us and want the best for us. It is in our best interest to foster those who will bring fire and friction into our life, so that we can avoid the flames. I thank God for my wife, my second set of eyes. I pray you have someone similar to her with whom you can ride along.
I am tired of it all. I am done with being cut off in traffic when the other car entering the flow refuses to ‘zipper’ in, with being interrupted before I can complete a sentence, with reaching the buffet table and finding empty dishes because the guy in front of me took more than appropriate, with running out of the public park because dog owners de-leash their pets – a cannot tell by its gait that she’s friendly – and with neglecting to bag her poop, with having a door close in my face because the person in front of me sneaks passed the coffee shop door as it closes (as if they are auditioning for “Mission Impossible”) and with the general absence of please and thank you by society. Call me a curmudgeon if you’d like, but I am desperate for some common courtesy.
In today’s vernacular ‘courtesy’ is synonymous ‘free’ or ‘extra’ – courtesy calls from a service provider, courtesy vans from the auto body shop or courtesy phones found in hotel lobbies. But its original meaning had more to do with characteristics of politeness and manners. It is this latter definition that I miss in today’s interactions; I miss males acting as gentlemen and females acting as ladies. At some point in my lifetime, our culture shifted and began valuing entitlement and individual rights over mutual respect and civility. Many of the lessons I learned in elementary school – the practices of sharing, waiting one’s turn and refraining from unkind comments – are summarily ignored by a large segment of our population.
We need to be reminded of the words of Jesus:
So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. Matthew 7:12
This sentence, commonly called “The Golden Rule”, is perhaps the second most familiar statement of Christ (the first being John 3:16). God Incarnate told His followers nearly 2,000 years ago that we are to treat other people the way we want to be treated. With a greater or lesser degree of success, we all have been wrestling with our obedience to this command since it was first uttered. We attempt to work the angles, balancing our needs with the needs of others, often failing because we resolve the tension with faulty math: if I hold the door for one or two people, those two turn into an untold number; I then end up at the end of the line and face delays that no one should be required to face; therefore, I cannot hold the door for you. My needs are paramount.
But when everyone makes similar computations, and I fear that this is our present reality, Jesus’ words are ignored and no one is treated they way they want to be treated. Everyone does what they want and common courtesy is but a relic of the past, like hand-written letters and house calls. All is not lost, however, and God’s word will never return empty: if a few of us choose courtesy and champion kindness, the culture can change over time. Join me in following the golden rule; it might encourage other to do the same toward you.
Earlier this week, my family went to see Disney’s latest movie, “Christopher Robin”. It was a sweet, if somewhat simple, story of a grown man remembering the importance of family and friends. As I watched, I was transported to my childhood, through the recollection of familiar songs and sayings of a bear and his friends, and my early adulthood, as I remembered watching on VHS these same stories with my children. For me (and those my age), it was a trip down memory lane and into the hundred-acre wood, making me long for simpler times.
These thoughts I am having are ‘nostalgia’, which is defined as ‘a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition’. The term comes from the Greek word nostos (home) and algia (pain): it is literally ‘home-sickness’. Nostalgia is all about feelings: longing for the good old days or the hoping that we can make America great again. But nostalgia (like all feelings) is not necessarily anchored in reality, for the good old days may not have been all that good for some in our society and the America of generations past may not have been as great as we recall.
Instead of embracing sentimentality based on feelings, the Bible commands us to elicit memories based on facts. The last few weeks, at Vacation Bible School and through Sunday morning messages, I have read in the scriptures what we are commanded to remember: as the Israelites were crossing the Jordan River and entering the Promised Land they were commanded to erect a tower of 12 stones from the riverbed (an Ebenezer, a ‘stone of remembrance’) to remind future generations of the deliverance Lord had granted them; and through the letters Jesus dictated to the churches in Asia Minor they were commanded to remember the great height from which they had fallen. They were commanded to remember the facts of God’s gracious and merciful interactions with them, not the emotions of the moment.
Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent. Revelation 3:3
The church is commanded to remember what we have received (tangible blessings and actual gifts) and what we have heard (reliable teachings and sworn testimonies). We are not commanded to commemorate how we felt about what we have received or heard. In fact, an argument could be made that nostalgia emotions and feelings are man-made idols which could take the place of God if we are not careful. Instead of worshiping the God who has revealed Himself in the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, we are tempted to offer our sacrifices to the gods of happiness and comfort. Unfortunately, those who choose feelings over facts end up with nothing.
It is good to remember what has happened in the past – what God has done and said – but it might not be best to wish we went back. May the source of our joy in the present be what is real and not simply what we feel.
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.