It began, for me, on a Sunday afternoon a number of weeks ago as we were dropping something off at the home of a church member – we saw a small painted rock, a bit of cheer during this challenging time, on the curbstone in front of their house. Since that time, I have been seeing painted rocks, many with inspirational slogans, all over the neighborhood as we walk. They have been placed on stoops and in side yards, gathered around trees and set upon fenceposts. I have no idea who put them there or when, but I do appreciate the lift they give my soul as I encounter them.
These are not the only rocks I walk by, mind you. My ambling has enabled me to observe cornerstones, surveyor’s marks, painted sea walls, an old milestone, gravestones and etched building facades, all sharing a story, a memory and a history. These stones, painted or chiseled, are permanent reminders of fleeting realities. They are prompts to remember our collective past. They represent to all those who travel by them that that building was once the Massachusetts Fields School or that this particular street was once the main route to Boston. They mark lives and industries, they represent hope and heartache, they tell stories.
Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer, saying, “Thus far the LORD has helped us.” 1 Samuel 7:12
As I see all these stones around me, I have been reminded of Samuel and his ‘Ebenezer’ (a Hebrew compound word which means, literally, ‘stone of remembrance’). Samuel did not want to forget God’s faithfulness, so he erected a rock in the middle of a clearing to remember the event. We could benefit from the same practice: we could experience so much joy if, as we moved about the trails of our lives we were given permanent prompts to remind us of God’s faithfulness throughout the trials of our lives.
I have been thinking about those stones as we navigate the current crisis. I have been thinking about the ‘things’ that have suddenly found their way onto all of our counters and tabletops and have taken up residence in all of our cars. I have begun to see the disposable face masks, the bottles of hand sanitizer and the drums of disinfecting wipes as ‘Ebenezers’ – no longer do they serve as a reminder of a deadly virus but also as a reminder of the Lord who has helped us thus far, of the God who is delivering us through these tough times.
Ebenezers are all around us, if we are careful enough to notice them. They are the permanent and unchanging objects, infused with meaningful memories, that surround us. They are painted rocks and markings on a door frame. They are hospital bracelets and broken wristwatches. They are considered junk by everyone but us; to us, they are the epitome of joy. They are the containers that hold the memories of God’s faithfulness and the tangible touchpoints reminding us that thus far the Lord has helped us. They are precious indeed.
It was the best of plans: I had wrapped my son’s birthday present (his first cell phone) and placed it with the others on the dining room table, and then I typed up a text to the family giving out his number but was waiting until the right moment push ‘send’. We proceeded with his party (the menu for our freshly minted 12 year-old’s festivities was Ring Dings and Wattamelon Roll), which we enjoyed before the opening of the gifts. As we were about to get on with the gift-giving, there was a muffled ring coming from the pile. It was the phone. Had I mistakenly sent out the text? (I quickly checked, and I had not.) It turns out a telemarketer had ruined our surprise, but in the process created an unexpectedly wonderful birthday memory.
“Mann Tracht, Un Gott Lacht” is a Yiddish proverb which means, “Man Plans, and God Laughs.” No matter how much we plan, life is messy and things often do not go as imagined. Josh’s birthday party made me think about Jesus’ birthday; the life his parents experienced was certainly not as planned. There was an unplanned pregnancy (from their perspective), a thwarted divorce, a rejected reservation, an unexpected visit (or two) from strangers and an unforeseen move. It was a year (or two) of chaos and confusion that neither Mary nor Joseph could have imagined. Yet, God was with them and was creating something unexpectedly wonderful.
If ever there was a time in human history when God orchestrated a course correction in the affairs of His creation, the birth of the Messiah was that time. God sent Gabriel to Mary to tell her, “Do not be afraid…” God sent an angel in a dream to Joseph to tell him, “Do not be afraid….”, and another (also in a dream) to tell him to travel to Egypt to protect his family. God sent angels to the shepherds to tell them, “Do not be afraid….” God warned the Magi, in a dream, to return home by another way so as to avoid Herod and protect the Lord.
Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. Proverbs 3:5-6 (NIV)
As I see it, we all have a choice to make when things do not seem to go as planned: we can scowl and think that all is ruined, or we can smile and thank God for His intercession. Our reaction when “things don’t go our way” reveals who we think is in charge of the details of our lives. Especially during this season, we need to face the facts that our plans may not go as expected: cookies will burn, airlines will have delays, products will be back-ordered, illnesses will invade our homes and sentimental ornaments will break. These things might be God’s way of correcting your course, adjusting your plans and preparing you for something unexpectedly wonderful.
“Mann Tracht, Un Gott Lacht”. I hope you hear Him.
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.
Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it. Proverbs 22:6
Monday morning at 10AM, Jeanine and I will be dropping off at college our middle son, David. When we do, he will start his freshman year at Fitchburg State University. This will mark the third time we have dropped off our child at college (for those unfamiliar with our story, seven years ago we abandoned to the world of academia a defenseless boy at Gordon College and three years ago we deserted in our nation’s capital a wide-eyed girl at American University). For those wondering, repetition does not make the process of leaving a child to fend for himself any easier.
So, as David steps out of the shadows of our wings and begins to chart the course of his own flight, allow me to share a few words of wisdom for my own experiences:
- First, I would want to tell him to allow seize every opportunity to accentuate all that is good within him. I want David to use these next four years to discover and define his passions and pursue them. I’d want him to exhaust his electives with eclectic, not just easy, courses – art, drama, bocce, or women’s studies – with the intent on unearthing an unknown interest. I ask that he join a club or society outside his field of study. And, in the dining hall, I hope he expands his palate, eating more than just a backpack full of croutons.
- Next, I would want to tell him to remember why he is where he is. He is there to get an education. He is there to gain confidence in his independence. He is there to shine like the sun in a world of darkness. He is there to build life-long relationship with real people. I’d recommend to him to maintain the discipline of going to every class every time it meets, of working hard and then playing hard and of partnering with like-minded individuals to prod themselves onto good works. If his brother and sister are any indication of his future, he will return home a different, more assured, person; I’d want him to embrace that development.
- Then, I would remind him that an elephant is eaten one bite at a time. As he enters the dormitory on Monday, I am sure that there are fears and trepidations that will cloud his thinking, as well as the worry that this undertaking is too much to handle – and in the moment, it will be. But when he takes one step in the right direction, followed by another and another, before long progress will be seen. I would tell him to keep moving forward, even if it is baby steps.
As my child steps out of the car and into a world of curated independence, I’d want him to know that he is capable of more than he thinks possible and stronger than he thinks necessary.
For all those leaving for college for the first time this week, and for their families who love them, I pray God’s richest blessing and watch care be upon us as we all pursue our dreams.
For those wanting to read my thoughts seven years ago, read https://calvaryboston.wordpress.com/2012/08/24/a-parents-hope-for-freshmen/ and for my thoughts three years ago, read https://calvaryboston.wordpress.com/2016/08/19/for-freshmen/
In January, as a birthday gift from my family, I received a Fitbit© fitness tracker. Because of this high tech ‘wristwatch’, I have become aware of so many aspects of my life and health: this little gizmo tracks things like my steps, my sleep, my resting heart rate and my hours of activity. I am particularly obsessed with my step count and have begun to enjoy the sensation of personal accomplishment that comes from reaching my daily goal of eight-thousand steps. Plus, when you are walking 8,000 steps, generally over the same terrain, you begin to notice things that have escaped your attention if you were driving by. As I evaluate where my steps have taken me, I realize that where I walk is how I live.
Walking gives you the time to exchange pleasantries with those you are passing on the sidewalks or front porches along the path. Walking affords you the opportunity to observe the repairs being made to gorgeous old houses and those that are still desperately needed. Walking prepares you to keep your distance from that big unfriendly dog that is always guarding his fenced front yard (the fence of which is seriously too low). Walking provides you the time to check out what others are discarding and time to think about how you could use that dresser or night table on that great and glorious day when space is no longer a concern. Walking enables you to feel the sunshine and the gentle rain, invigorating the soul.
It has given me great joy to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as the Father commanded us. … And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love. 2 John 4,6
John’s second letter to the church tells believers that we must walk (or have the lifestyle) of truth and obedience and love. These are not individual commands but a singular multi-faceted directive. Part of my daily walk involves walking in the truth, putting feet to the gospel, walking in such a way that shows that God loves the residents of Geneva Avenue as deeply as the residents of Commonwealth Avenue. Part of my daily walk involves walking in obedience, putting feet to biblical integrity, walking in such a way that shows that God’s people stay on the sidewalks and resist trespassing onto the lawn. Part of my daily walk involves walking in love, putting feet to grace and mercy, walking in such a way that shows those who I encounter a willingness to offer my assistance and my understanding.
I have been asking myself a question as I walk: does how I go and where I go project the truth, obedience and love I have in God? In order to answer that question as I should, I need to remind myself that walking is more than a means of getting from one point to another, but an opportunity to slow down and engage in the life all around us. Walking is one way we serve the community as the body of Christ. It is more than an exercise for fitness; it is an exercise of faith.
Last weekend the Red Sox began their new season, exactly five months after winning the World Series, concluding their best statistical season in franchise history. Throughout the season, they led the league in wins (108), RBIs (829) and team batting average (.286). To top it all off, their star player, Mookie Betts, was named the AL MVP. By all means of measuring success, the Red Sox had a historic season. The city was blessed to enjoy a rolling rally throughout the streets and the sporting goods stores in the area sold a bunch of merchandise celebrating the team’s victory over every foe.
Last weekend the Red Sox began their new season and, as of this posting, proceeded to lose more games than they had won. The good news in anticipating the current season is that most of the key elements in prior success is still in place for the present campaign. The bad news in anticipating the current season is that past performance is no guarantee of success in the present. The slate has been wiped clean and the wins of the past season no longer matter. Every team, both winners like the Red Sox and non-winners like the Baltimore Orioles (who amassed a mere 47 wins last season), starts on Opening Day in the same place.
As I think about the Red Sox, I also think about myself. I remember all the victories I won last season: I battled temptation and won more times than I lost. I faced discouragement, home and away, and won the season series; I went into the stadium of sexual purity and came away with a win; I stood in ‘the box’ against the enemy’s strongest arms (hurlers with names like lying, cheating and stealing) and bested them with base hits and deep bombs. There were days that I did not have my best stuff, but over the course of the entire season I ended up with many more wins than losses.
No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it. 1 Corinthians 10:13
But, like baseball, that was last season and while I have many of the same tools and much of the same training, I still must engage the enemy. And, like baseball, past performance is no guarantee of success in the present. This season, along with the regular adversaries, the measure of victory I have enjoyed has made me vulnerable to other forms of attack from things like personal pride and common complacency. I am going to take it one day at a time, one ‘at-bat’ at a time: I will have to enjoy the success of victory only for a moment, accept the sting of loss only for an instant, and fight the good fight each and every day.
There is no spiritual World Series and the faithfully obedient will not receive a trophy at end of each season. Still, the one who resists and remains after going nine innings with temptation is not without reward. There is, for that one, a crown – of life, of righteousness, of glory – that will never be taken away.
Have a great season!
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.
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.