I have a simple question for all those reading this: when do we stop celebrating our “Season’s Greetings”? When the radio and television stations return to their regular programming? When the last Christmas cookies have been eaten? When the tree and decorations are taken down? When the final greeting card, initially misdirected by the Post Office, arrives? Until the next holiday is celebrated? Until the children return to school after their Winter Break? Once all the exterior lights have been boxed and stored away? I suppose we all must move on from all of those special gatherings with family and friends filled with all sorts of special traditions and resume the mundane schedule of everyday life, but when?
But what if I do not want to move on from Christmas? What if I still want to reflect on the gifts of advent – the hope, peace, joy and love that comes through the appearing of Christ? What if the remembrance of the 1st advent at Bethlehem, has whet my appetite for the 2nd advent when Christ shall descend from the clouds? While I can dispense with the carols and the cookies, I would like to retain the warmth of the manger, the worship of the shepherds, the hospitality of the city of David and the generosity of God, the Father.
When [the shepherds] had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child…. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. Luke 2:17-20
I want to be like those shepherds, so impacted by the facts and sensations of Christmas that they were undeniably transformed. Because of the advent, these blue-collar laborers went from sheep herders shaking in fear to pastors leading lost sheep to verdant fields. They went back to their ordinary schedules with an understanding of the extraordinary sights and sounds of the Savior born in a Bethlehem manger. They were changed by Christmas, as is evidenced by their propensity for giving glory and praise to God. They had no special carols or cards or casseroles – they had the Christ and He was sufficient to sustain them.
I will, in the days ahead, put everything that symbolizes Christmas into boxes or, in the case of our tree, onto the curb – all the external stimuli that reminds me of that blessed event two thousand years ago. But, like the shepherds, I will continue to carry inside me all the sounds, scents and sights that make Christmas special. My hope is that the inward prompts of these sensational sensations will stimulate my soul to maintain a spirit of glory and praise every day in every place as I interact with everyone. Instead of celebrating Christmas throughout the year, perhaps I can communicate the hope, peace, joy and love of Immanuel – God with us – for a while longer.
Lord, help me to remember that on every day that ends with ‘y’ that Christ came to inaugurate “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
On Wednesday night, a group of us from the church walked down the hill to the Ashmont T station and sang carols for the commuters. While we were there, I could not help but notice that Ashmont station is a hub of activity. There were people using every form of transportation: cars, cabs, busses, trains, bicycles and walking. There was a steady stream of busy people, some rushing past our makeshift choir and others lingering for a moment but ultimately moving onto other matters. And there were so many noises: car alarms, public address announcements, stray musical sounds and digital voices from cell phone speakers.
Yet, in the midst of all the hustle and bustle, there we were, proclaiming the joy, hope, peace and love of the Savior and handing out candy canes to those who would take them. As Philips Brooks wrote 150 years ago, “Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light….” While the rest of the neighborhood was moving about, accomplishing the things of their “To Do” lists, we were being used by God to provide a gentle reminder of the reason we celebrate. Above the din of humanity, the soft sounds of the baby born in the manger, the angels and Magi who visited, and the good tidings for all people could be heard.
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. Luke 2:1-4
Is our experience at the Ashmont T station a few nights ago what it was like in Bethlehem all those years ago? While it is unclear how many were living in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth (some scholars suggest as few as 300 or as many as 1,000), the biblical account of the events that occurred in Bethlehem are clear: so many people flooded this small village outside Jerusalem because of a governmentally decreed census that living space was at a premium. There were travelers, noises and activity aplenty and few, if any, stopped to notice the world changing couple that came to town. The urgency of the moment overwhelmed the importance of the advent, the appearing, of the Savior of humankind.
We, too, can get wrapped up in all that still needs doing that we overlook what has been done. We need to purchase gifts, wrap gifts, bake cookies, consume wassail, attend parties, visit family, connect with friends, worship on Christmas Eve, stuff stockings and settle down for a long winter’s nap. We can, like subway commuters and census participants, lose track of what is important as we engage in the things that are urgent. I pray that, in the midst of all the people, noise and activity of the next few days, you hear the angels’ song and delight in the birth of our Lord.
For many, the Christmas season means spending a great deal of time traveling: a dozen trips in the car battling the traffic to the mall, the annual airline flight to visit the grandparents, or the 10-hour bus ride home from college. Time on the road or waiting in a terminal is synonymous with celebrating Christmas. It makes sense, since travelling has always been a part of Jesus’ birth. I am thinking about a young couple named Mary and Joseph, who were required to travel roughly ninety miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. To put it in perspective, it would be like walking from Dorchester to Hartford.
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. Luke 2:1-3
Sometimes, we might think that the demands upon us to travel are beyond our control and we chafe at the expectation. That may have been how Mary and Joseph felt. Caesar Augustus thought he had a good idea in counting everyone in his realm and raise taxes to increase his kingdom. Because he was the dictator of the entire Rome world, he could do anything he wanted. So they went, on foot, despite the fact that Mary was ‘heavy laden with child’. God had a plan for them, and God often has a plan for us.
Sometimes, we might think that the destination of our travel plans are outside our comfort zone. That could have been how Joseph and Mary felt as they awkwardly advanced toward Bethlehem together. It was an uncomfortable situation: they were pledged to be married but had yet to have the ceremony when it was obvious that they were expecting. Mary was in an uncomfortable condition: can you imagine walking 15 miles a day for 6 days while 9 months pregnant? God was guiding their every step, and God is also guiding ours.
God may be leading us to places out of our control and beyond our comfort because there are people in those places that need the hope, the joy and the love that appeared in its fulness for the first time in Bethlehem. There are people in parking lots and registers who need a smile and a warm greeting. There are people frustrated by missed connections or missing luggage that could benefit from an act of kindness and a candy cane. The roads and airways are filled with inconsiderate and self-centered travelers; perhaps God could use you to offer those around you common courtesy and Christmas cheer.
Wherever God has you travelling this month, whether it be across the room, across the street or across the country, know that God has a purpose in your journey – to bring forth a witness to God’s grace, mercy and love to those who may not experience it otherwise. We could choose to follow Mary and Joseph’s example and remain faithful to God wherever He may lead us. We could choose to share the delight of knowing the light that shines in the darkness, the hope of nations, the King of Kings and the prince of peace.
May we go wherever we go with gladness and may the gifts arrive unbroken.
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.
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.