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.
As part of a discussion with my family over Sunday’s sermon, my eldest stated that he was humored by the possibility of God’s bestowal of the spiritual gift of provocation. His comment was based on the phrase “spur one another on” in Hebrews 10:24, a peculiar Greek word (παροξυσμός) which literally means “with a point”; the only other time the word is used in the New Testament (Acts 15:39) it is translated as “a sharp disagreement”. The writer of the book of Hebrews was inspired to tell the church to look for ways to sharply provoke our fellow believers.
The term ‘spur on’ is a wonderful word picture of this process of provocation. It conjures images of a race horse and jockey, working together as a team, to reach the optimal outcome. The jockey is kicking his mount in the hind quarters and the horse is increasing its efforts. At the end of the race, the horse, which endured the sting of provocation, is the champion and the jockey, the source of the provocation is the one who drapes the victor in flowers (quick question: horseracing’s Triple Crown was won this past June: what was the horse’s name? And who was his jockey? More of us can remember Justify, but few would come up with jockey Mike Smith). ‘Spurring on’ may not be pleasant for the horse in the moment, but the resulting rewards cannot be underestimated.
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds…. Hebrews 10:24
The writer of Hebrews tells us to consider (literally, to look upon) one another for the spurring on toward love and good deeds. The Holy Spirit inspired a first century author to urge the church to look for ways to provoke one another. This provocation, this calling forth with sharpness, propels the believer toward acts and attitudes that convey love and compassion. It appears that these virtues – love and compassion – are not always instinctual, logical or natural. We all have times when we revert to pettiness, anger and selfishness and need a good kick in the pants to motivate us to pursue the goal set before us.
So, perhaps there is a spiritual gift of provocation, a God-given ability to call one another forth with sharpness so that we all may glorify God to the fullest. Perhaps there is also a need among God’s people to accept that ‘spurring’ with grace and gratitude, knowing the intent of our ‘jockey’ is the attaining of our very best effort. No one wants to hear that they need to love the heartless or hurt for the homeless; most of us are comfortable loving who we love and helping who we help. Then we wrestle with the truth that God’s love and mercy is greater than our expressions of them, and that we need someone to remind us that we are able to do more than we think we are capable of doing.
So, appreciate those whom God uses to spur you on. Appreciate those whom God uses to agitate you to love deeper and provoke you to act kinder. Appreciate those with sharp words intended to soften your heart.
My children tell me I have a lot of strange rules (e.g. I do not allow random singing at the kitchen table during meals). At one time, I used to demand that there would be no snacking after 4PM, with the rationale being that I wanted the kids to eat their supper when it was time for dinner. However, after years of hungry kids disregarding my wishes, I have given up the fight and silently tolerate the consumption of chips, croutons and trail mix at 5:47, thirteen minutes before mealtime. There is no stopping someone when they are hungry, and, with laser-like focus, my children will find something to eat whenever those hunger pangs strike.
Hunger, the pain that comes when an appetite is not satisfied, is a powerful force. It breaks our focus and drains our strength. It weakens our will and halts our productivity. It is the reason why parents everywhere load granola bars into their children’s backpack when the time for standardized testing rolls around. It is the reason why breakfast is the most important meal of the day. It is the reason why we should never shop for groceries on an empty stomach. One of our most primal urges, one of our basest instincts, is to satiate our hunger.
I will be fully satisfied as with the richest of foods; with singing lips my mouth will praise you. Psalm 63:5
We all know what to do when we experience physical hunger: we find something to eat – sometimes healthy and sometimes not. But, are we aware that we do the same things with our other hungers? We satisfy our emotional hunger at times with emotional burgers (cat videos) and at other times with emotional salads (writing poems). We satisfy our mental hunger occasionally with intellectual ring dings (“Fifty Shades of Grey”) and occasionally with educational cantaloupe (“Hannah Coulter”). We satisfy our relational hunger with doughnuts (Facebook) and egg whites (face-to-face conversations). The good news is that, according to the Psalmist, God satisfies our hunger; the bad news is that we all have times when we choose to consume what is not on His menu.
Nowhere is this more evident than when it comes to our spiritual hunger. Throughout the scriptures we are promised the lavish abundance of the Lamb’s marriage supper. When we feast upon the blessings of Christ, we are given forgiveness, eternal life, spiritual giftedness and spiritual fruit. There are times when we choose spiritual celery (which has no nutritional value) or spiritual caramel corn (which is not good for us). We hunger for forgiveness, for example, but instead of receiving satisfaction from God we seek justification from the culture. We substitute the good for the good enough.
These hungers we experience are necessary. It is in our best interest to listen to them. Our focus, strength, will and productivity will suffer if we neglect to keep watch over our appetites. Appreciate the banquet table the Lord has prepared for you and accept no lesser substitute. Allow your satisfaction to come from God and you need not spoil your appetite on what the world has to offer.
During a recent Bible study, the following question was posed: Who has been an example of Christlikeness for you? The question was asked as part of the larger context of the great commission where, in part, Jesus directs His followers to make disciples by “…teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Since we can only teach what we already know, implicit in the commission is each disciple’s obedience to Christ’s commands. Wisdom further implies that Jesus’ disciples would utilize and model the knowledge we have acquired. Essential to making disciples, therefore, is exemplifying Christlikeness, and thankfully, I have plenty of people who demonstrate obedience to Jesus.
Since this blog is written for public consumption (and once it is posted, it can never completely disappear), I am not going to include names. That being said, I have mental pictures of numerous people who regular live out Jesus’ great commandment:
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:37–40 (NIV)
While no one is perfect, I can picture in my mind many who love the Lord with all they are: they give sacrificially to His work, they meditate daily on His word, and they share consistently His transforming power. I can also see in my recollections many who love their neighbor as much as they love themselves: those who have crossed cultural boundaries to tell others the good news of Jesus, shared time they didn’t have to care and comfort strangers in need, and spoke words of truth to those who needed a dose of reality.
All these things, and more, exemplify Christlikeness in a world that desperately needs neighbors with a character akin to Jesus. We are constantly bombarded by accounts on our newsfeeds and newscasts of inhumanities perpetrated against the least among us. Because we are a nation of laws (and those laws are subject to interpretation by politicians and pundits), we need people who choose to live, however imperfectly, according to a higher standard: God’s law. We, as a society, need individuals who are willing to love God wholly and love their neighbors indiscriminately. We need people who are willing to exemplify Christlikeness, even at great personal cost.
So, I return to the question I began with: Who has been an example of Christlikeness for you? My answer is simple: All those who choose to express sacrificial love instead of selfish self-interest. In saying this, my answer is also complex: Those who are an example of Christlikeness can be found anywhere, since they have no other commonalities outside of love (as there is no experiential, economic, political or ethnic indicators of a disciple of Jesus). While not everyone is an example of Christlikeness, anyone could be. Anyone could follow the law of sacrificial love rightly expressed to God and others.
This Sunday is Father’s Day, the time when we celebrate the dads in our lives. Being the father of four, I can attest that being a dad is not a undertaking for the faint of heart. Generations ago, men had it easier, if Ward Cleaver or Mike Brady of classic television sitcoms are any indication – work every day during the week, escape to the home office when you are home and play golf on the weekends; the only time a dad interacted with their children was to dispense disciplinary chastisement or moral clichés. Today’s dads are expected to work inside and outside the home, attend a fair number of their children’s extra-curricular and school events, and spend quality time with their family. As I reflect on these things, I realize that being a father is one of the hardest and greatest roles God has blessed me to perform.
There is a man, a father, in the Bible that inspires me as a dad. His name was Jairus. He was a synagogue leader (and therefore a man of faith) and the father of a 12-year-old daughter. But he was a father in crisis: despite the religious practices he, no doubt, engaged in (praying, offering sacrifices and fasting), his daughter was dying. What would you do if your baby was deathly ill? If you are Jairus, you go to an itinerant rabbi whom you heard had accomplished miracles. However, before he could return with the man of Galilee, a servant of his tells him that it is too late: his daughter is dead.
Hearing this, Jesus said to Jairus, “Don’t be afraid; just believe, and she will be healed.” Luke 8:50
Instead of giving up, Jairus gave his troubles over to Jesus. He continued the long walk home and, instead of trusting the eyes of his servant, he trusted the words of a stranger. As he came into his home, there was weeping and mourning appropriate to the circumstances. But Jesus would not have any of it.
He went in and said to them, “Why all this commotion and wailing? The child is not dead but asleep.” But they laughed at him. Mark 5:39-40
What is a dad to do? You take a leap of faith and everyone you care about thinks it is a joke. But, then again, what did he have to lose? If Jesus was unable to do anything, his daughter was still dead…but what if HE WAS ABLE to do something amazing?
There are days that I feel like Jairus, asking Jesus to secure a healthy future of my child. I have nothing I can offer but trust: trust that my 10-year-old will safely navigate the streets of Boston from school to home, trust that my 17-year-old will pass that difficult class, trust that my 20-year-old will be protected from the dangers prevalent in our national capital and trust that my 23-year-old will arrive home safely from that job 131 miles away. People may say that my intercessions are realistically useless or that my circumstances are ridiculously hopeless. Still, the dad in me will trust in the one who is able to do immeasurably more than I can imagine.
Happy Father’s Day to all those who are blessed to be called “Dad”.
This coming Sunday, June 3rd, our community will gather along the length of Dorchester Avenue to celebrate Dorchester Day and commemorate its incorporation on June 1, 1630 with a parade of police cars, floats and local politicians. So, after church on Sunday, we will sit on the curb with our neighbors to be (hopefully) showered with candy and treated to skilled performances by dance troupes, martial arts schools and school marching bands. Despite being firmly within the city limits, we will, for an afternoon, adopt the feel of a small town as we wave our tiny American flags and put aside our differences in order to enjoy all our community has to offer.
It is good to get together with people every once in a while. Having a sense of community is important. But, don’t take my word for it; these are the words of Vice Admiral Vivek H. Murthy, the 19th Surgeon General of the United States:
We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s. Today, over 40% of adults in America report feeling lonely, and research suggests that the real number may well be higher.
We are, despite all of our followers on Twitter and all our friends on Facebook, a bunch of lonely people.
I wish that all our neighbors – irrespective of economic, ethnic, racial or age-related distinctions – would have a parade to attend every weekend. I wish there were a regular event where we all could enjoy community. Rarely do we get together with someone somewhere outside of our well-defined demographics; that is, except for one particular occasion. God’s word has a remedy for this epidemic of loneliness: the family of God. That’s right, the church. If you are feeling isolated, attend a service of worship this weekend.
… not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching. Hebrews 10:25
Accept the challenge to be counter-cultural. Be willing to gather for an hour to hear music that you haven’t chosen and reflect on topics you haven’t selected, surrounded by people who are not completely like you. Be willing to engage in prayer and praise with those who have more and with those who have less. Be willing to share your story with those of a different culture and with those from a different upbringing. Be willing to rejoice with those who have something to rejoice over (even when it is something you might not celebrate) and mourn with those who have something to mourn over (even if you cannot sympathize with their pain).
If you are uncomfortable around people who are not quite like you and are a little scared to enter the doors of a church and be surrounded by strangers, come to the parade and look for me (I will be the only guy standing near Ashmont station in a suit and tie). I would be blessed to celebrate the community with you and develop some community with you. Maybe we can shake the mayor’s hand as well.
As I am sure you are aware, Rev. William (Billy) Franklin Graham reunited with His Savior on February 21st. Although I never met him, nor heard him speak in person, he was a co-founder and trustee emeritus of my alma mater, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (and I have his signature on my degree). Billy Graham was instrumental in shaping evangelicalism in the 20th century: thousands heard and accepted the Gospel through the crusades he conducted across the globe, thousands more have been encouraged through his writings (including the co-founding of Christianity Today Magazine), and untold numbers of national and world leaders had sought his advice and counsel. He was a giant not only in the church, but in our culture. That being said, when I mentioned his passing at our dinner table, my 10-year old son, Joshua, had no idea who Billy Graham was.
Jump ahead a week. It is the night before the Oscars® and our family is watching what would ultimately be given the award for Best Animated Feature, Coco. The film’s storyline is simple (albeit contradictory to biblical truth): a boy, Miguel, raids a mausoleum to steal a guitar from his hero on Día de Muertos (The Day of the Dead) and is brought to the land of the dead, where he meets his ancestors and discovers a secret. One interesting aspect of the ‘other side’ that Miguel finds out as he is interacting with those who have passed is that you disappear when there is no one left who remembers your stories. According to the movie, when no one remains to remember your name, you cease to exist.
As great as Billy Graham (the man, the preacher, the writer or the friend) was, within a generation or two, he will be largely forgotten. And as harsh as that seems, the Bible concurs:
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 (NIV)
So, what does this say for me or for you? Maybe we are like lightbulbs – we shine for a while, but eventually we will cease to give light and we will be discarded. Maybe some of you are like lamps – useful for many cycles of lightbulbs, but still subject to the ravages of time and eventually replaced by a cheaper lamp from Ikea©. Whether a lightbulb or a lamp, we are merely a conduit for the electricity. Lightbulbs and lamps (like us) come and go, but the electricity (in this metaphor, the Lord God Almighty) remains.
Billy Graham was somewhat like a lighthouse lamp: strong, powerful, and steady in its purpose; but that light has gone. I pray another light will rise to take his place. While I, in comparison, may be a night light, I still can be strong, powerful, and steady in my purpose until I have been fully spent. Within a generation or two, I will likely be forgotten – a name on a list or a letter, an unfamiliar face in a yellowed photograph – but for now, let me make some impact and shed some light. Perhaps I could guide the next world-changer to avoid stumbling in the dark long enough to see the true Light of the world.
photo found on billygraham.org
Whoo-hoo-hoo, look who knows so much. It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive. – Miracle Max in The Princess Bride
This past Wednesday was both Valentine’s Day (a celebration of romantic love) and Ash Wednesday (an observance marked by sacrifice). The juxtaposition of these seemingly diverse concepts got me thinking about one of my favorite movies, The Princess Bride. This 1987 film directed by Rob Reiner has everything a romantic date might want: maidens and pirates, swordfights and acts of revenge, rivalries and true love. Without giving away all the plot points of this 30-year-old cinematic gem, I will say that, with great sacrifice, love conquers all. Love and sacrifice, the perfect combination for those celebrating the full range of experiences observed on February 14, 2018.
One of the pivotal scenes is quoted above: our hero is tortured to death and all hope is lost, unless Miracle Max, a village magician, can bring him back to life. Needless to say, it works and Wesley, the movie’s Prince Charming, is given new life. It works because the hero was only mostly dead, not completely dead; he was still slightly alive. Death and life, the same combination that forms the tension found in the New Testament Scriptures. Those who lose their lives will gain it and those who want to save their lives will lose it, or so the Good Book says.
For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin – because anyone who has died has been set free from sin. Romans 6:6-7
In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul tells believers that we have crucified – painfully killed – our old nature to do away with our bondage to sin. Unfortunately, many of us think that God is a bit like Miracle Max and that we can come to the God of creation in the state of “mostly dead” or “slightly alive” and think that we can be restored to wholeness. But that is simply not true. The prisoner with a life sentence does not receive a pardon because he is sick or because she is at death’s door. Our sin is not fully dealt with when we “mostly” remove it from our lives. We cannot fully enjoy our new life if we continue to hold onto a bit of our old one. Why would we want to try?
As we prepare for Easter with a season of sacrifice, allow me to remind all those who claim Christ as Lord to consider yourself dead to sin: have nothing to do with that old life, with its passions, powers and prizes. Consider yourself alive with new life in Him: embrace fully the pardon you have received, the gifts with which you have been graced and the peace you now enjoy. God is not Miracle Max; He is so much more, not only able to give us our lives back from the grave, but to transform us to be our greatest self.
What do you hope your legacy will be? More specifically, how do you hope to be remembered five or ten years after your retirement, or what do you hope people will say about you five or ten years after your passing? On Wednesday, which also happened to be my birthday, I spent a few hours with a dozen or so pastors discussing a collection of essays about the connection between faith and biblical scholarship (compiled in a book titled I (Still) Believe) and these questions of legacy were part of our conversation.
The conversation made me think about an aspect of the scripture reading from Sunday that never made it into my sermon, the legacy (or non-legacy) of Joseph, the man not chosen. Joseph’s complete mark on history is found in the following single verse:
So they nominated two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. Acts 1:23
This is what we know about Joseph:
- He was called Barsabbas – meaning either literally ‘the son of Sabbas’ or figuratively ‘the child of rest or return (i.e. the Sabbath)’;
- He was known as ‘the Just’ – he had a character of righteousness;
- He was continually present with Jesus from the time of His baptism by John through His ascension – he spent more than three years following the Lord and hearing His teachings;
- He was passed over for the promotion to apostle when God chose Matthias instead.
That is Joseph Barsabbas’ legacy: a good man who was ever-present to witness the words and ways of Jesus and was called by God to a secondary role. The Bible is filled with “secondary characters” like Joseph Barsabbas: Mordecai, Esther’s cousin; Ehud, the left-handed judge who delivered Israel from the Moabites; and Onesiphorus, a care-taker of Paul’s. Few people in the Scriptures are remembered in history. Most of the names we read in the Old or New Testament are mentioned not for their legacy but for their lifestyle: to encourage our faithful obedience or to warn against our continued disobedience.
So, what do I hope my legacy will be? I hope that I will be remembered not for the history I make but for the footprints that I leave. I hope that I can leave big enough tracks in the muck of this earth that my children will remain on the course of faithfulness. I hope that the map that I have drawn over my career in pastoral ministry will assist those I leave behind to avoid the perilous cliffs of despair. I would be satisfied as a footnote, as a nameless face in a photograph, as a present-day Joseph Barsabbas; a good man who was there to witness all the wonders of Christ.
But ultimately, my legacy is largely inconsequential compared to the Lord’s. Jesus alone is the one who has changed history. World and military leaders fade from our memories, but the life of Christ alone remains. Whether we are the star in life’s motion picture or only performing a supporting role, we all are precious in God’ sight and useful in accomplishing His purposes, whether we are remembered or not.
As I write this post, it is heavily snowing outside. I am fortunate that I, through the ‘miracle’ of digital technology, can work from virtually anywhere with an electrical outlet and a wi-fi connection. So, here I sit at my kitchen table, with my family in the next room, enjoying the ‘day off’. While the flakes fly, we are following the recommendation the Governor and Mayor that people stay off the road, reveling at home over the cancelation of school and work for ‘non-essential personnel’. While there will be shoveling and clearing to be done later, right now there is nothing that needs to be done (other than look out the window occasionally and query as the amount of accumulation).
In many ways, the ‘snow day’ of the present is like the Sabbath of the past. God created us with a need for time away from our labors. According to the scriptures:
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. Exodus 20:8-11
Rarely do we, in today’s culture, find a day when no work is being done. Retail establishments and restaurants are open nearly every day. Many movie theaters and convenience stores welcome patrons even on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Service providers provide services at all hours of the day and night. We, as a society, rarely take a day off – if we are not working for our employer, we are checking work-related e-mail or laboring at home or serving in volunteer positions. So, occasionally God, who knows exactly what we need for our health and well-being, allows the weather to slow us down and cease our work.
We are given a snow day (or, in other parts of the country, a heat day, a tornado day, or an ice day) as a blessing or gift for our souls. It is a day to do something other than work – to break out the puzzle, the board game or the cookbook. It is a day of creation or recreation: a day spent building a snowman or a strudel, an afternoon of binge-watching “Parks and Recreation” or binge-reading War and Peace. I am going to cherish the time to do something truly productive – build memories with my family. As the wind howls and the snow drifts outside, I will be enjoying the ‘down-time’ God has given me.
Besides, I am going to need all the rest I gain today for my work tomorrow, when I will be required to move all of this blessed precipitation off the sidewalks and stairways.