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.
For those of you living in Boston, today you will experience the earliest sunset of the year (4:11:38pm). This is both good news and bad news, since the length of your daylight will continue to decrease until December 20. Astronomically, we could say that these are dark days: for the next month, we will experience nearly 15 hours of ‘night’. Metaphorically, we can also say that these are dark days: everyday, through every media source, we witness incidences marked by a lack of direction, a lack of warmth or a lack of morality.
The Bible has much to say about darkness. It was the penultimate plague that was inflicted upon Egypt (Exodus 10:21). It is the dwelling place of God, as witnessed by Moses on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 20:11), by Solomon in the temple (1 Kings 8:12) and through the psalmist (Psalm 97:2). It was what overshadowed the cross of Christ for three hours during His crucifixion. It is the place of chaos (Genesis 1:2), temptation (Ephesians 5:11), ignorance (Matthew 6:23) and death (Job 10:21). It is the place of sinful desires (John 3:19) and the place without light (Acts 2:20) – lifeless, cold and confusing.
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. Isaiah 9:2
It seems that every day another man in authority is accused of harassment or abuse. It seems that every week there is another account of mass violence. The fact is that every moment is filled with an immoral act (a lie, a theft, an assault or an infidelity) somewhere in the world. There is no shortage of crimes suitable for the local and national news outlets, and those reported on at 6 and 11 are just the tip of the iceberg of what Robert Burns wrote as “man’s inhumanity to man”. We are people walking in darkness, shivering and stumbling in sin.
But in that darkness a light has dawned. This is not the flicker of a candle or a 100-watt lightbulb; it is more than the flashlight on your smartphone or a lighthouse on the coast. It is a great light, like the sun; it is the light of the world, which the Gospel of John tells us is the light of life. This light is Jesus, who has entered the darkness and overcome it. He is the source of life, purpose and power. He has destroyed the secrecy of temptation, the strangeness of confusion and the sting of death. Because of Christmas, the light has overwhelmed the darkness.
I hope that you delight in all the lights of Christmas – those on the trees, in candleholders, woven into sweaters, at church, on lawns and in the sky – and rejoice that the light of the world, the great light, has come into our world and has illumined our darkness. Perhaps this truth will enable us all to focus on the joy of this light and, perhaps, seek the goodwill of all those who walk with us during these dark days.
Yesterday was the first day of 11th grade for my son, David, and the first day of 4th grade for my son, Joshua. Speaking for parents everywhere, the first day of school is absolutely wonderful. The children were dressed in new clothes and their backpacks were filled with new school supplies. Everyone sensed the excitement due to the possibilities of a new year with new teachers. Social media will inevitably be filled with photos of our bright-eyed scholars ready for the commencement of new classes. And, while the young ones are at school, precious hours of peace and quiet returned to homes everywhere.
I have memories (through a thick fog of time) surrounding a number of “first day”s of school: buying Garanimals at Bradlees, writing my name in my new Trapper Keeper, wondering if any of my friends were going to be in my class, trepidation over the navigation of hallways and locker combinations, walking down Park Street (first to the Clapp School and then to the E. A. Jones School). I remember nearly all of my teachers’ names. I can still see the hallway and stairway where one of my first grade classmates (who will remain nameless) had a meltdown of epic proportions due to what we now call separation anxiety. First days of school leave an indelible mark.
These memories, however, are fading as I get older. School days are no longer part of our adult lives. We do not buy new clothes for ourselves at Labor Day sales and we detest the incredibly long lines at Staples. Many of us have not been in a classroom setting (outside of parent-teacher conferences) in decades and assume a mindset that education is only for the young. According to Pew Research, 27% of adults did not read a single book last year. The world around is constantly changing, but, sadly, some of us see no need to hone our intellectual resources.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Acts 2:42
One of the counter-cultural practices of the Christian church is a devotion to life-long learning. This weekend, communities of faith all over the region will be holding, in one form or another, a “Rally Day” to resume Christian Education classes. Through Sunday School classes, Bible studies and C. E. discussions people of all ages will devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching. People of diverse backgrounds will gather in church basements and conference rooms and read the Scriptures together. Women and men of all ages will share experiences and insights, equipping one another to face the challenges of life.
At Calvary, Sunday will be the first day of school. While we will not expect you to have sharpened #2 pencils or matching shirts and khakis, we do encourage you to devote yourselves to learning more about the Lord. Whether it be in Dorchester or wherever Christ has called you, I hope you will get together with constructively curious people this weekend and equip yourselves with the Sword of the Spirit, readying one another for whatever the world may bring.
I have always enjoyed roller coasters. I delight in the anticipation from the slow but steady climb and the exhilaration caused by the rapid descent. I am enthralled to no end when these experiences of undulation repeat themselves at an ever increasing rate of speed. I like the old-fashioned wooden coasters, with their drop-bars, shimmies and creaks. I like the newer, metal coasters with their harnesses, loops and corkscrew twists. Unlike the carousel or teacups, the roller coaster is the highlight of my visit to the theme park. I will try any one of them; any one, except the emotional roller coaster.
I went on an emotional roller coaster ride on Wednesday, beginning at 8:30 in the morning, when the dealership’s service manager called with news about my car (they had been performing routine maintenance on it for about twenty-four hours). The voice on the phone told me that the calipers had seized and needed replacing, costing an additional $530. Feeling the pinch of the rock on one side and the hard place on the other, I agreed to the added expense. [Down we go.] Then I remembered that we purchased an extended warranty with the vehicle, and because we had moved about a year ago, I knew where I could find all the paperwork for the car. [Up we go again.] Securing the documents and reading them, I was overjoyed that calipers were covered under warranty. [The ride was over].
But the roller coaster didn’t slow down after all. Upon closer inspection, the warranty covered parts and labor for the first five years or 60,000 miles, whichever occurred first. Since we purchased the car less than five years ago, the only question was the mileage, which was, when I dropped it off at the dealer, 61115. Because of 1115 miles, we were liable for the cost we couldn’t really afford. [And down we go again]. All I could do was wait for the work to be done and the final invoice to be calculated. Finally, at 12:30, I received a call from the same service manager. It turns out the technician was able to free up the calipers and springs so that they would work properly and the repairs (and the expense) were unnecessary. [You may now safely exit the ride.]
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. Isaiah 43:2
It doesn’t take three years in seminary to know that roller coasters are not mentioned in the Bible. However, we can turn to the Bible to find assurances that God is with us through the ups and downs of life. The ups and downs of my week ended, this time, on the up side. Maybe next time we will be less fortunate. I want to delight in all things, for God is with me, sitting right beside me throughout the waves. To paraphrase Matt Redmond’s song “10,000 Reasons”, whatever may pass and whatever lies before me, let me be singing when the coaster drops.
What a difference five months makes. On Monday, July 3rd, when there was nothing but repeats on television, I flipped through the channels, finally arriving upon the programming of the NFL network. They were rebroadcasting Super Bowl LI, which took place on Sunday, February 5th. I sat in my recliner, celebrating the eve of Independence Day, and watched ‘America’s New Team’, the New England Patriots, contend against the Atlanta Falcons for the Lombardi Trophy and professional football’s championship.
I watched the game when it was broadcast live. I was optimistic when the 1st quarter ended with neither team scoring. That optimism waned as Atlanta held a 21-3 lead as Lady Gaga took the field for the halftime show. The hopes of a 5th championship nearly disappeared when the Falcons scored one more time midway through the 3rd quarter. 28-3. No one had ever overcome as much as a 14-point deficit in the Super Bowl, and now the Pats were down by 25. Maybe the Patriots were not as good as their fans imagined. I remember watching with unbelief and sadness that the hometown team was going down to utter defeat. I remember thinking that perhaps New England could, at the very least, make the game competitive.
Watching the replay of the game earlier this week was a much different experience. I was not troubled by Tom Brady’s early and poorly thrown interception. I was unaffected by Gostkowski’s missed point-after attempt. I delighted in the ineptitude of the New England defense in the 1st half and the Atlanta offense in the 2nd half. The final 23 minutes were when all the fun took place. 28-3. 28-9. 28-12. 28-20. Edelman’s miracle catch with 2 minutes and change to go in the game. 28-28. The Super Bowl was going into overtime for the first time in the history of the game. Patriots win the coin toss. 34-28. Patriots win. NFL Champions. Queue up the duck-boats.
It takes an emotional toll on a spectator when the outcome remains unknown, but there is no trepidation when that same spectator knows how it all will end. That was the difference between February 5th and July 3rd. The second broadcast was thoroughly enjoyable – even the bad plays and the foolish fouls – because I knew that the New England Patriots were victorious.
Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. 1 Thessalonians 4:13
This is how those who know Christ as Lord and Savior ought to think about the future, just like we were reviewing a recorded sporting event. We know how it ends. We need not hopelessly grieve as if we are unaware of the outcome. We can, and should, anticipate the blessed hope of Christ’s victory over sin, death and Satan. We will certainly have periods of awfulness and ache, but they will lose their power in light of the impending joy at the conclusion of our journey.
In the words of Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman, “Hey! Let’s go, boys. It’s going to be a hell of a story.”
There is a church down the street with the following on its lawn sign: “GODISNOWHERE”. The point of the sign is to reveal a person’s perspective – does the reader see “God is nowhere” or “God is now here”? Clever. But the sign also serves as a prime example for the value of space. There is meaning in strings of letters and there is meaning in the breaks: legend and leg end (one involves a great feat and other is great feet), justice and just ice (ask for each at the donut shop and you will get two very different things), menswear and men swear (it may refer to a blue shirt or a blue streak) or conspiracy and cons piracy (descriptions of a nefarious plot and the actions of a thieving ship of prisoners). Space contributes to meaning.
Pauses are impactful. Watch any competition television show and you will experience the power of the pause: Ryan Seacrest stating on American Idol that “the winner…will be revealed when we come back” or Tom Bergeron on Dancing with the Stars looking into the camera and saying “the couple leaving tonight’s competition…(a camera pans over the contestants for 30 seconds)…[insert names here]”. We all can recall an occasion when we included a pregnant pause – for effect, in remorse, to increase suspense – to take a breath to add weight to what needed to be said. Space contributes to importance.
Unfortunately, most of us rush our words and our conversations suffer. We abhor silence. We seek to remedy the awkward pause with something, anything to fill the void. We have lost our appreciation for space, for pause, for silence. We have stopped taking the time to listen. We have ceased the practice of seeking God’s help in appropriating just the right phrase. We have replaced relational interactions with information transfers, expressing less of our feelings and more of the facts. We tweet and text, ignoring punctuation and eliminating the full stop from the period or the subtle shift from the comma. Space contributes to emotion.
May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer. Psalm 19:14
The root word for the Old Testament practice of meditation relates to the biological function of digestion. We have a similar English word: rumination. We ‘chew on’ ideas, we ‘digest’ materials. In a real sense we break down the thoughts, sights and sounds of life into their basic nutritional components and absorb them, using them for our benefit and the benefit of others. We would be better communicators if we allowed time for the inner processes to come to a completion before we uttered some of the empty outward expressions our conversations contain.
Allow yourself the space to build meaning, emphasize importance and express emotion. Perhaps we can, in our own way, incorporate the wisdom of C.S. Lewis, who said,
“A pipe gives a wise man time to think and a fool something to stick in his mouth.”
We all can benefit from a little time to think and then utter just the right expression.
Recently, I had the opportunity to deliver a sermon on one of my favorite Bible passages: Mark 4:35-41. This portion of scripture recounts Jesus’ stilling of the storm. I find this section of God’s word particularly impactful because of the question someone in the boat asks of Jesus: “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” That is a question that each one of us has asked (or will ask) whoever we understand to be our Supreme Being when our lives are on the brink of shipwreck. When we come to the end of ourselves, when our brains and our brawn have been exhausted, we all want to know if God will be there to deliver us from danger.
From the very beginning of their voyage, everyone in the boat knew Jesus’ command – “Let us go over to the other side.” Their problem was that they lacked a full understanding of who was resting in the boat with them; they failed to recognize that the man who fell asleep amid the rising swells was God the Son. They did not recognize that the one who directed the disciples to cross the sea would not lie or be denied. They were unable to comprehend that, no matter how strong the storm (and even if the boat was sunk), they would make it through the wind and waves safe to the other side. They were going to survive those frightening hours because God keeps His promises. We, too, will survive the storm.
This inability to recognize Jesus as anything more than a teacher, an expert in the Law of God, is the crux of this account. It has always fascinated me that the disciples, at least four of whom had years of nautical experience as fishermen, would wake the resting Rabbi for assistance. Perhaps this question of concern was founded in their thought that a “man of God” was blessed by God and His prayers would avail much. Maybe they remembered His miraculous power expressed in healing and deliverance, thinking that maybe He could act miraculously again. The point is, someone in that boat thought that Jesus was special and wondered if He could save them. We, too, have times when we wonder if Jesus can save us.
Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. 1 Peter 5:7 (NIV)
Why did Jesus calm the sea? He did not still the waves to assure safe passage; that would have happened anyway. He did not rebuke the wind to demonstrate His power over the natural order; they already knew He could do that. He did all this to bring peace to the hearts of twelve frightened grown men; He showed that He cared for them, not just their circumstances. The danger in reading passages like this that it can lead us to assume that God will always tame the troubles that terrify us. That would miss the point that Jesus came to tame our fear, not simply take them away.
We all have anxious moment when we wonder if God cares, or even know, about us. Here is a reminder that He does. He cares enough to weather the storms with us and still the storms within us.