Tag Archives: suffering

And the Winner Is…

My wife, Jeanine, and I completed our annual quest to view the Best Picture Oscar® nominations before the telecast.  Each year, I have tried to predict who would win with only limited success (currently I am batting .500; 3 right predictions in 6 years).  My prediction will be revealed at the end of this post, but first I want to think about our culture as reflected in these 8 cinematic masterpieces.

This blog is not written by a movie critic; I am a minister of the gospel.  As such, it is unlikely that the Academy is considering my particular demographic in their determination of what is ‘best’.  That being said, I watch these films with the hope that I can gain a glimpse of a deeper truth embedded in these movies.  What I have come to see is that all these films include elements of systemic ‘selectivism’ within our culture:

  • The plot of Black Panther revolves around the divisions our world faces regarding race, asking the audience, in the guise of a superhero blockbuster with spectacular special effects, why wouldn’t the richest nation on the planet use its resources to deliver all the earth from societal injustice;
  • The fact-based Blackkklansman retells the story of a black officer in Colorado Springs who becomes a card-carrying member of the KKK, thwarting the ‘organization’s’ plans for violence, and, in so doing, depicts the hate-filled rhetoric some spewed against those of other races, religions and orientations;
  • The biographical Bohemian Rhapsody is largely the account of Queen front-man Freddie Mercury who feels like an outsider due to his mis-identified ethnic upbringing and his sexual orientation, culminating with him and his bandmates becoming “a group of outcasts making music for other outcasts”;
  • The Favourite, described by one critic as a ‘punk Restoration romp’, is an elaborate depiction of the court and courtesans of Queen Anne in the early 18th century where the women lead and the men waste time and money in hedonistic pursuits;
  • The true story of Green Book tells of an unlikely friendship forged by a black pianist and the white driver/muscle he hires for a road-trip concert tour through the Midwest and South in the early 1960s, enabling segregation, racism and ignorance to cast a dark shadow into the theater;
  • Roma is a slice-of-life account of the interactions between a family and some young domestic workers in Mexico in 1971, telling the movie-goer about the living in a culture of class distinction, male dominance and revolution;
  • The remake A Star is Born is about a self-destructive headlining musician and a young songwriter who fall in love, telling the story of the sacrifices we make (and refuse to make) for those we care about while championing the cause of the ‘unattractive underdog’;
  • Vice, a fact-based and speculation-filled movie about the rise to power of former Vice President Dick Cheney, pulls the curtain back so we can see the machinations and manipulations that those in power are willing to employ when seeking to increase that power.

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  Galatians 3:28 (NIV)

To a greater or lesser degree, these films all deal with what may be the greatest issue in our culture: division based on gender, race, wealth or sexual orientation.  Some do it with great skill (Blackkklansman, Green Book and Vice) while others must be on so high an artistic level that simple movie-goers like me cannot fully comprehend (Roma and The Favourite).  There is hope: the cultural zeitgeist inherent in these films seems to be reinforcing what the Bible affirms – that every human being is of equally incredible worth and that we ought to champion those who take up the cause of protecting and preserving the value of every soul.  As I watch the Oscars® on Sunday night, I will celebrate the stories of Queen Anne, the Duchess of Marlborough, Ron Stallworth, Flip Zimmerman, Don Shirley, Tony Vallelonga, and Freddie Mercury – reminders of the intrinsic value of every human being.

And the Oscar® (if I were given a vote) goes to Green Book.

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In Defense of Discipline

For the twelfth time in the last eighteen years, the team from New England has been crowned the World Champion of a professional sports league.  On Sunday night, the New England Patriots defeated the Los Angeles Rams (13-3) to win the Super Bowl©, causing great delight in this writer’s household and neighborhood.  I completely understand the animus – the hostility – others in regions outside New England feel for the sports fans of greater Boston (after all, this is the second World Championship our rooting interests have captured in the last 100 days, lest we forget the Red Sox’s World Series performance of October).  These are heady times in the hometown, to be sure!

Many have said that, while the Lombardi Trophy will reside at Gillette Stadium, the Patriots won no style points in victory – some have gone so far as to say that this was the most boring Super Bowl in its fifty-three years.  While I understand my opinion might be skewed, allow be to rebut this claim: I concede that if you are a fan of offense, this game (with a single touchdown scored on a two-yard running play late in the contest) was less than spectacular; but football is not one-sided, and the other two dimensions of the game (defense and special teams) were incredible and, with only a few penalties and no reviewed, challenged or reversed plays, both teams made plays worthy of a world champion.

I am glad that the Patriots won, if for no other reason than the shared camaraderie among the diverse demographic over the celebration of the superiority of Brady and Belichick and the best football team evah!  I am also glad that the season is over: there will be fewer people remaining home or leaving immediately after church each Sunday at noon; there will be a cessation of the idol-worship of great (though mostly morally flawed) athletes; and there will be a few weeks before the perceived superiority expressed by some rabid fans over other parts of the country will resurface (when the Celtics and Bruins look to enter the playoffs).  Perhaps in these intervening weeks we can celebrate a biblical truth witnessed by millions watching the big game from Atlanta.

No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.  1 Corinthians 9:27 (NIV)

What would happen if the followers of Christ were willing to engage the opponent with a similar attitude toward discipline that the players in the Super Bowl maintained?  What if we were willing to take the blows, in accordance with the rules, to advance the Gospel that National Football League endure to move the ball toward the goal line?  As the game on Sunday night vividly made evident, much of the gains are hard fought and much of the actions of the opponent are difficult to defend.  Nearly two hundred years ago, a New York Senator, William L. Marcy, said, “To the victor belong the spoils”; I think a better expression might be that, win or lose, the spoils (the goods or benefits taken from one’s competitor) belong to the disciplined.

Happily, that was my home team this year.  In the end, win or lose, they all played a great game, and that is something to celebrate… and emulate.

Disposable Cups and Dying Embers

Am I the only one who wishes that life would be easier?  Am I alone in longing for simplicity in the workplace – there is a job to do, a way to do it and an absence of obstacles to its completion?  Am I the only one who desires that life was a whole lot less messy? 

These thoughts, no matter how comforting, are not based in reality: all of us, and all we work with and for, are – to some degree – messy.  We all have unrealistic expectations, unresolved insecurities, and inexplicable weaknesses.  We all have times when we think we are worthless and our situation is hopeless.  That is the time when we need someone to come alongside.  Thankfully, we have someone: the one about whom Isaiah prophesied and the one who fulfilled this prophecy: Jesus.  Recorded in the Old and New Testament is a picture representing the heart of God for ministry.

A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.  Isaiah 42:3a

A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out….  Matthew 12:20a

In the days of Isaiah, reeds and bulrushes were literally a dime a dozen.  They were everywhere and, as such, easily cultivated for a variety of menial tasks.  Therefore, only perfect specimens were used and the bruised (bent, blemished or broken) reeds were discarded.  Ancient reeds were of the same value of a Dixie© cup: I take medication twice daily with the aid of those 3-ounce wax-coated paper cups and (to the consternation of my loving wife) I reuse just one for days upon days.  Christian ministry, according to Jesus, values the people around us that the world sees as replaceable and disposable.

At the same time, fire was essential for existence.  Fire was the only source of heat (for comfort and cooking) and light (through hearth and lantern).  Tending to the home fires was a constant chore.  If one were to neglect the flames or use live or wet wood, it would be easiest to sweep the firebox and start over.  If you have ever camped before, you know the work maintaining a fire demands, especially if one does not have a lighter (invented in 1823) or friction matches (invented in 1826); it would be wiser simply to rebuild and relight dry wood.   Christian ministry, according to Jesus, values the people around us that the world sees as difficult and demanding.

The good news is that God has established the Church to ministry to the bruised reeds and the smoldering wicks.   All around the world this weekend, those who might consider themselves nameless and voiceless cogs in the mechanism of life will gather together to remind one another that they are irreplaceable and valuable.  All across the globe, people who the world would label as difficult and unworthy of the effort will come together and worship the One who equips His people with limitless compassion and patience.

Life is not easy.   Life is not simple.   Life is messy.  But, thank God, we have the Church, the people of God committed to accomplishing His will.  Therefore, there is always a place for disposable cups and dying embers like you and me.

On Purpose

More often than I care to admit or recognize, the disparate portions of scripture that read relating to different parts of my life that (whether it be through sermon preparation, prayer, or devotional readings) intersect to illuminate a truth that my thick skull would not have comprehended had it not been bombarded from diverse angles.  This week, a verse from Proverbs (from a devotional), a verse from Psalms (through our church’s participation in “21 Days of Prayer”) and a verse from Acts (from last week’s sermon) have gotten me thinking.  They all were used by the Holy Spirit to connect some dots, producing a picture of life that includes discernment, disappointment, and direction.

Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance….   Proverbs 1:5 (ESV)

I cry out to God Most High, to God who fulfills his purpose for me.  Psalm 57:2 (ESV)

[Herod] had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword.  Acts 12:2 (NIV)

Initially, God directed me to the above passage in Proverbs and to a devotional where Tim Keller examined the difference between knowledge and discernment as they relate to the pursuit of wisdom.  We must be ever increasing in our learning, gaining factual and practical knowledge from a variety of healthy sources.  We must also seek understanding of this knowledge.  We need to know what the truth is, as well as what the truth means in practice. 

Next, God directed me to the passage in the Psalms, which states the truth that God fulfills His purposes for us.  But what does that mean in practice?  In context, David recited this plea as he was running for his life from Saul.  It means that God uses all our experiences (times of joy and times of sorrow) as a means of fulfilling His purposes for us.  Whether we comprehend God’s rationale for our situation, we must live with the understanding that He has a plan.

This leads to the final passage, which recorded the martyrdom of one the first disciples at the hands of Herod.  Unlike His deliverance of Peter a few verses later, this passage appears to reflect that God did nothing to spare James’ life.  That is what knowledge of the truth would tell me, anyways.  But understanding of the passage tells me more: first, that Jesus secured James’ life after his physical death, delivering him from harm and granting him passage into His presence; and second, His purpose (whatever that may be) for James and the people James know was fulfilled.

Ultimately, the life of faith is found in the confluence of these verses (as well as thousands more).  Whether it is budget meetings or bond hearings, weddings or funerals, winning the lottery or losing a job, God has a purpose for you.  We can get a glimpse of this purpose through studying His word and seeking His guidance.  But, whether we “get” what God is doing or not, we can trust that He will give us all we need to trust Him in the darker hours.  We need only remember that God all things work together for good for those who are called according to His purpose.  But that is a verse for another day.

There in Prayer

Later today, my daughter will spend 18 hours travelling over 4,500 miles, flying from Boston to Thessaloniki in Greece.  When she gets there, she will study abroad for her spring semester and be far from home for 3 months.   It is, without a doubt, a wonderful opportunity for her.  However, I am anxious about all the logistics that a trip of this nature requires: will she make her connecting flights, communicate with reputable locals to get to the college campus and be compatible with her roommate?  I fear that my anxiety will not subside until the first week of April, when Rebekah returns to the sweet land of liberty.  Until then, I will pray.

But what should I pray?  That the airplanes remain in the sky between uneventful takeoffs and landings?  That everyone in Europe is kind and caring?  That she will enjoy 90 days of Aegean bliss, akin to the images of Grecian villages in “Mama Mia”?  I have to admit that I would like to offer these prayers, except that they all seem so self-serving, as if I am saying that in this world where so many are in the midst of genuine suffering, I want God to place my little girl in a bubble of security.  There must be more to prayer than simply supplying the sustainer of the heavenly spheres with my personal wish-list.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  Philippians 4:6-7

As my daughter departs for her next adventure, I am choosing to take the Apostle Paul’s advice to the church in Philippi to heart.  I am choosing, in this situation, to not be anxious as I present my requests to God.  I will make these requests with all the gratitude I can muster, recognizing the enormity of my circumstance (able to offer prayers in the presence of our Great High Priest and offer petitions before the King of Kings).  After I have emptied my heart of all the anxiety that it harbored, I will be blessed with the peace that replaces it.  I may not understand God’s remedies to my requests, but I will remember that He loves my daughter even more than I do.  And that will be more than enough.

As I pray for my daughter over the next three months, I recognize that my intercession will not change God’s will; it will, however, give voice to what I would like God’s will to be – protection and blessing for those I love.  This will bring me to the threshold of faith (as the author of Hebrews says, that which gives us confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see) where I enter the place of God’s grace, trusting that He will always answer my prayers with what He knows is best, whether I comprehend its goodness or not.

So, please join me in prayer: continue to bring your heart’s cry before the throne of the Almighty and trust that He will perfectly answer your every request…and enjoy the peace that will keep watch over your heart and mind, whatever the resolution.

Thank You for Your Service

According to the Pew Research Center, there are more than 20.4 million veterans alive today in the United States, slightly more than one in sixteen Americans.  This weekend, we commemorate their sacrifice, and the sacrifices of their loved ones, as we observe Veteran’s Day.  We take time as a country to recognize the efforts of the members of our armed forces – Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marines and Navy – as they defended our freedom in World War II, the Korean Conflict, the Viet Nam War, the Gulf War and in peace-time service.  We recognize those who are presently serving on ships and at bases across the globe, and we recognize those who remain at home awaiting their return.

When I turned eighteen (in the winter of ’84), there were no on-going war zones and so I was not compelled to enlist or serve.  In a way, I feel that I missed out on something special.  I was not willing to endure the hardships of basic training or the rigors of living in barracks.  I also missed out on the camaraderie and support of one soldier supporting another, of one pilot protecting the back of another, of one sailor confiding in another or one marine securing the success of another.  We must respect these servicewomen and men who see the cause ahead of them as greater than all they have left behind and are willing to bear the cost that cause demands.

Join with me in suffering, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus.  2 Timothy 2:3

How does that old camp song go?  “I may never march in the infantry, ride in the cavalry, shoot the artillery.  I may never fly o’er the enemy, but I’m in the Lord’s army!”  Now, I am in no way equating the life-threatening peril faced by a veteran and the daily drudgery of a follower of Christ.  What I am thinking about is what might happen if the kingdom of God had citizens who were willing to suffer as a good soldier.  What ground could be claimed, what captives could be set free, if we, as followers of Christ, see the cause ahead of us – the redemption of souls through the furthering of the gospel – as greater than all we want to keep for ourselves.  What if we, too, were willing to bear the cost that cause demands.

There is a great debt that we all owe to all those who are willing to sacrifice everything for our freedom.  This debt extends from Jesus, who entered enemy territory to set us free from the bondage of death and sin, to every member of the military, who entered enemy territory to secure life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  We ought to be grateful for the sacrifices that secure our freedoms and recognize the costs that others have made.  May the followers of Christ have the same commitment to those around them that the veterans we celebrate on November 11th have.

For those who wore, or are wearing, the flag on their shoulder, we thank you.

That Hits the (Blind)Spot

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.

Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash

What The World Needs Now

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.

Dad, Just Believe

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”.

Calling Janelle

Earlier this week, I felt like a was in a bad comedy routine.  At 9:18AM on Tuesday my cell phone rang and a telemarketer asked for Janelle.  I politely told the caller that it was a wrong number and thought nothing more about it.  It happened again, from a different number, ten minutes later.  And again.  And again.  All told, I received a total of ten calls, all from different numbers and different companies, throughout the day.  I thought that surely the last call I received was going to be from Janelle, asking if she had any messages.

My life was briefly interrupted by telemarketers, each one offering some great thing to someone I never met.  Ten calls throughout the day, all looking for someone else, were a major nuisance.     In the end, I never got an answer to my question of where they got my number; I can only speculate that, perhaps, Janelle entered a contest at a mall or visited a time-share presentation.  Whatever the reason, intentional or unintentional, ten people reached out to me, thinking me to be someone I am not.

As I was answering all these calls, it struck me that there are those in our culture that will exploit one fact about us to gain access to our lives.  These telemarketers had a valid phone number and tried to take advantage of whoever would answer.  They took one vital statistic, one entry point into my life, and tried to get more.  I am relatively certain that these calls were benign, but in a world where identity theft and cybercrime is rampant, one can never be too cautious.

“In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.  Ephesians 4:26-27

While I am in no way equating telemarketers with the satanic (after all, I was a telemarketer for a local newspaper for about three hours), these ‘wrong numbers’ did make me think about the devil and his tactics.  As Paul’s letter to the Ephesians tells us, all it takes is a foothold, a crack or crevice in our stony exterior, for the enemy of our soul to scale our defenses and access our vulnerable spirits.  All it takes is one truth for the father of lies to breach the doors and take our lives – an embarrassing action, a hidden temptation, a word of anger, a troubled past.  The devil takes what he knows and tries to get more, just like those pesky callers to my cellphone.

The remedy to both the telemarketers and Mephistopheles is to refuse to reply.  We can, empowered by the Spirit, refuse to take the bait.  We can tell them, strongly and simply, that it is a wrong number, that the one they seek is not found here.  We can do this because one fact about us is not our identity and one forgiven action is not our lifestyle.

Now, if I could only figure out how to end those calls informing me about an urgent public announcement regarding my energy service I would be blessed beyond measure.