Today is Good Friday, the day in which the Church remembers and reflects upon the death of Jesus. Each year, I focus on one of the gospels as they relate the events of Palm Sunday through Easter. This year I have been reading through Luke’s account of the Lord’s final days and am struck by what the good doctor states is Jesus’ final utterance (and arguably His “famous last words”): “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” In saying this, He is quoting from Psalm 31:5 and restating the assurances that David made of God about a thousand years before the cross.
From the context of Psalm 31:5, I do not believe this is a simple statement of resignation, as if Jesus is saying, “I give up”. Rather, it is a statement of confidence in the Father. Psalm 31 tells us that David saw his strength as coming from the knowledge that God is his refuge, deliverance, rescue, rock and redemption. It is in light of all this that David places all that he was, every aspect of himself beyond his physical existence, in the hands of God. Similarly, this is the same confidence that Jesus expresses from the cross.
This phrase is akin to the words that Jesus spoke in the garden a few hours earlier, “… not My will, but Yours be done.” It conveys the confidence that Jesus had in knowing that the plans of God and the guiding hand of God can be trusted. As the agony of the cross began to overwhelm the limits of His human body, Jesus doesn’t give up, but rather gives over control of His existence to the only one who can perfectly accomplish God’s will, the Father himself. And He is faithful, releasing Jesus from His mortal coil and redeeming us, lost sinners, from the power of death and sin.
Into your hands I commit my spirit; deliver me, LORD, my faithful God. Psalm 31:5
Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last. Luke 23:46
I pray that I’d have the confidence that David expressed or that Jesus exhibited. Sadly, I often see the opposite dynamic at work: when the going gets tough, I want to take matters into my own hands. Instead of committing my spirit into God’s hands, I futilely attempt to handle my trials and troubles myself. Instead of acting like David (who just prior to committing his spirit to God asks Him to “keep me free from the trap that is set for me”), I am more likely to stumble into danger by relying on my own sense of direction. How much pain could be avoided if I committed my spirit to His hands.
It is hard to see the empty tomb when we are enduring what, for us, seems to be the cross. It is at those times that we need to trust the hand of God, which comforted the Lord, rolled away the stone and raised the Savior. It is also the hand that can comfort, strengthen and save us.
I am praying that you have a blessed Good Friday and a Happy Easter.
My mother-in-law, who turned ninety on the 28th of last month, had a fall at her home which resulted in her breaking six ribs. She is currently being cared for at a wonderful hospital in Boston, but addressing her pain, which is substantial, has proven difficult. If you were to visit her those first few days, you would hear her literally crying out to God in a loud voice; however, by all appearances, God did not reply. The extreme discomfort of those broken ribs (which cannot be immobilized) remained and the extreme fervency of her prayers (which could not be suppressed) remained unanswered.
My mother-in-law’s condition makes me think about all those who are crying out for relief – relief from the grief or anger of loss, relief from the pain or anguish of trauma and relief from the worries and doubts of the unknown – but relief does not seem to arrive. Is God silent when we seem to need to hear from Him the most? Is God distant when we have the greatest hunger for His presence? Is God uncaring when we long for the comfort that can only come from Him? By faith, I contend just the opposite.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. 2 Corinthians 1:3-4
Let me be the first to admit that I would appreciate my mother-in-law’s relief from her pain. Let me also admit that I tend to be blinded by the blessings of God when burdens are right before me. The loudest murmurs I hear are those of distress, but also present are the beeps of monitors, the hums of IV pumps and the voices of caring health professionals. My mind plays out a number of other sounds as well: the ringing of an unanswered phone which triggered concern in a daughter’s heart, the sirens of an ambulance that brought needed assistance to a woman in need and a lecture in a medical/nursing school that equipped the doctors and nurses at the hospital to provide expert care. These, too, are answers to prayer.
God is not silent, or distant or uncaring. He is speaking in our circumstances, even in the pains that are not fully relieved (which might be teaching us what we ought to avoid). He is close to us as we undergo the troubling conditions relating to our shared human nature. He cares for us, so much so that He endured every indignity that comes with life on earth and conquered everything that causes permanent damage – sin, death and damnation. While I would like the symptoms of this fallen existence to fade into solely painful memories, I accept that God usually comforts us in less obvious ways.
The good news is that Jeanine’s mother is slowly improving and pain killers are alleviating some of her discomfort. I pray that God, in time, alleviates the remaining difficulties. It is unfortunate that it takes pain to cause most of us to cry out to God. It is truly fortunate that He hears and cares, even if we cannot sense it.
Today is Saint Patrick’s Day and, thanks to my father’s recent genetic profile from ancestry.com, I will be celebrating the holy day with the newfound knowledge that I am 2% Irish. There is much to commend Maewyn Succat (thought to be Patrick’s name at birth) to all believers: he was born into a religious family, with his grandfather serving as a priest; he suffered great adversity, having been kidnapped by pirates at age 16 and then living as a slave in Ireland for 6 years; he was miraculously rescued by God, to whom he had been praying fervently for deliverance, when he was told in a dream that his ship had arrived and then walked more than 200 miles to set sail; upon reaching England, far from home, he survived starvation when a wild boar wandered into his camp; at age 40, God told him in a dream to return to Ireland with the Gospel and build His church. He gives us all a testimony of what God can do through a person committed to trusting in the Lord.
There are a number of the interesting truths about Patrick’s life. First, he rejected the beliefs of his family for many years, but the great difficulties of his early life drew him to God with a fervent faith. Second, he was not the first missionary to Ireland, as he succeeded another man who had come to Ireland five years before he returned to the island. Third, one of the Patrick’s first converts from Druidism to Christianity was Milchu, the tribal chieftain who served as his master more than 20 years earlier. Patrick was used by God in mighty ways and He utilized every aspect of Patrick’s life (both blessings and burdens) to glorify the Lord.
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28
Saint Patrick reminds me that anyone can do great things through God. Anyone can endure a horrible past when they trust in Him. Anyone can show the power of forgiveness when they know the forgiveness of God. Anyone can mightily share their faith when they have experienced the grace of the Lord. Saint Patrick reminds me that nothing is impossible with God – He is able to reach anyone through anyone by any means. So, whether you are in the ideal location or the worst place imaginable, among the most wonderful people or the dregs of society, confident in your abilities or concerned about your inabilities, know that God can still be glorified through you.
Perhaps you will enjoy a bit of green lager or some corned beef and cabbage today. Maybe you will wear green or kiss someone who is Irish. Wherever and however the day finds you, I pray that we all remember the witness of a special man who God used to reach ‘the ends of the earth’ over 1,600 years ago. And I hope in remembering his story we are reminded of our story as well. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
As we have for the previous four awards seasons, my wife and I watched, in local theaters and in our living room, the nine movies nominated for the Academy Award’s Best Picture. This year we were enchanted by a western, a musical, a science fiction thriller, a play adaption, a war epic, a biographical film, a coming-of age story, a historical narrative and a tear jerker. Each film introduced us people facing challenges different (sometime much different) than our own. Each movie gave us something to talk about and wrestle with after we viewed it. And while the process of spending twenty or so hours watching movies may not appeal to everyone, it is a treat and a blessing to my wife and me.
Invariably, when the conversation turns to our project of seeing these Best Picture nominees, I am asked the question: what do you think will win? I have some trouble answering that, in part because artistic expression (and that is ultimately what all these movies are) is so subjective, and in part because every film (well, maybe with one exception) had elements of greatness. What do I think will win? The Academy will likely choose Lalaland. What do I think is overall the best picture for 2016, from among those nominated? This is a much more complicated question.
As I answer this question, I feel that I can eliminate half the nominees from my personal best: Arrival was good, especially in its character development and the deep conversation that followed was profound, but not great; Fences, with its exceptional acting performances, was too dialogue driven for my taste; Lalaland was artistically stunning but slow and lacked a plot for about a third of the film; and I found Moonlight, despite its important story, too confusing. I appreciate all these films and the questions they produced in me: what would life be like if we were not constricted by time? How do our dreams and failures shape our lives? Can love conquer all? Can we truly escape our environment?
The other five (Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High Water, Hidden Figures, Lion and Manchester-by-the-Sea) were better stories more beautifully told with exceptional acting. These five, at any given moment, fluctuate in my mind as best. They represent characters who are each faced with challenges (trying to save lives while others are taking them, fighting foreclosure, battling racial injustice, finding a way back home and overcoming an unfair and tragic past), overcoming them, to a greater or lesser degree. There are images and elements of each of these works of art that will remain with me for quite a while – moments of extreme pain and moments of overwhelming joy. At this moment, I offer my opinion and would recommend you seeing Hacksaw Ridge, my choice for Best Picture.
For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen. Romans 11:36
I do not say this simply because it is the most “faith-based” of the nominees, but because it is the most beautifully shot and compelling story captured on film. All these films, from my personal favorite to my personal worst, have elements which provoke my pastoral side. Each one is worth seeing so that their narratives, whether true or fictitious, can enable us to walk in the shoes of another for 140 minutes or can afford us the opportunity to experience life in a way that we would never experience on our own. We are surrounded by people broken by society and bruised by circumstance, and it is good to be reminded once in a while that we can overcome poverty, tragedy, rejection, oppression, prejudice and even the occasional success. In every story our lives tell, no matter our faith system or lack thereof, God has a marvelous way of breaking in and then shining through the cracks the world inflicts upon us. We all have a story to tell, one worthy of an Academy Award.
On Tuesday morning, my wife and I watched as the Oscar© nominations were announced for the year’s best picture. As we have over the past four years, we are planning on seeing these nine films before the awards ceremony on February 26th. We are entering into this odyssey because we have found that there is a certain kind of magic that is experienced when a wonderful story is wonderfully told. Over the years, I’ve come to enjoy these tales, some based on real events and some based on pure fabrication, which transport the movie-goer to a different time or place to witness a life quite foreign to one’s own.
One such experience occurred when we watched Hidden Figures, which relates the story of three real women who worked for NASA in the early 1960s. These women, each in their own way, were brilliant, and each used their God-given gifts to be sure that the United States reached the moon before the Russians. John Glenn would never have survived his initial trip into space without the contributions of Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan or Mary Jackson. But each of these women, because they were ‘colored’, were refused access to occupational advancement, advanced education or common decency. Despite their exceptional abilities and passions, they were marginalized simply because of the color of their skin.
Perhaps it is because I was raised in the Northeast or because my earliest memories were from the early 1970s or because I am white, whatever the reason, the concept of separate bathrooms, entrances and water fountains integral to this film is completely foreign to me. It was saddening and eye-opening to be reminded again that an entire segment of our great society lived, and perhaps still lives, with blatant prejudice and disregard for universal humanity as a way of life. This reflection of our shared past serves as a stark contrast to the truth of God recorded in the Bible.
And they sang a new song, saying: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.” Revelation 5:9-10
The kingdom of God includes men and women from every culture, race and ethnicity. Our choice of words or our color of eyes have no bearing on our identity; we are all the same in all the ways that matter. We are all worthy of respect, entitled to opportunity and capable of all sorts of greatness. And because of the nature of God’s kingdom (and our desire to see His kingdom come) we ought to be the first to champion a person’s spirit over their skin color (or gender or possessions or education or health or status). We are all the same.
Going to the movies the other night reminded me that we, who have been purchased and ransomed by the blood of the lamb, are called to treat one another as fellow citizens of God’s kingdom. We ought to be the first to confront discrimination and advocate impartiality. We, as ambassadors of Christ, ought to be an encouragement to and an embracer of those around us. Then, we can all touch the heavens.
As part of a roundtable discussion group, I met with a dozen or so other ministry leaders on Wednesday to discuss a recent New York Times best-seller: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. It is a wonderful memoir of Vance’s upbringing in a dysfunctional extended family in Appalachia. At first, without going into the details, let me tell you that I resonated with the narrative Vance weaved around households riddled with abuse, addiction and hopelessness. It brought me back in time to my childhood and I immediately thought that I alone saw parallels between the author’s life and my own. It turns out that a degree of dysfunction is universal.
Few homes house perfect families. Parents argue – some quite loudly – and even use foul language. Drug and alcohol addiction cannot be restricted to particular regions of the United States. Serial divorce and remarriage is not limited to one social stratum. Nearly every family tree contains a branch (or several branches) that were established through unwed or teenage mothers. There are few families who have not been effected by mental illness, whether it is an immediate family member battling depression or a suicidal extended relation. To some degree, we all carry similar baggage, given to us in childhood and carried into adulthood.
In reading and reacting to this book, I realized that the homes in my neighborhood – as well as the pew in the churches in our community – are filled with people with baggage from their upbringing. As the saying goes, “You don’t know what you don’t know”; because almost no one shares all the challenges they are attempting to overcome, we rarely know the whole story. This requires us to treat one another with compassion, what the Greek bible writers call “splanchnizomai”. Those who have a medical education might be aware that the root ‘splanchno-’ relates to the visceral organs (the guts). So we, as human beings and as God’s people, ought to get a knot in our stomachs, an intestinal distress, as we interact with those navigating rough waters in a leaky rowboat.
Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Ephesians 4:31–32 (NIV)
Before we dismiss those who buy bottles of soda with food stamps as unfit, perhaps we ought to feel compassion for their situation, recognizing that milk and juice are often options too expensive for their budget and perhaps then offer to pick up a gallon of milk for them. Before we roll our eyes at the hopeless and jobless as we utter the words, “Get a job,” perhaps we ought to feel compassion for their situation, recognizing that education is not the same as intelligence and access to opportunity is not equally available to all classes and cultures and perhaps offer to share some social capital with those without any of their own. There are already enough people in the world willing to judge others; we could empathize instead and bring help and hope to those who need it.
We have the privilege of sharing – with those who feel unloved, those who title themselves worthless and those who have heard that they would never amount to anything – the fact that they are loved, they have worth and they can accomplish great things. We have the privilege to bring grace – unmerited favor – to those who know little more than heartache. We can share our struggles and listen to theirs, knowing that God cares for us and will comfort us in our times of need. We are all broken, at least a little. But praise God: He makes us whole.
When you spend more than twelve hours on the road, driving from Maryland to Massachusetts, you have a great deal of time to think. Because of the weather conditions last Saturday, our 382 miles trip took much longer than I anticipated. It was a challenging and stressful drive over snowy and slushy highways. The satellite radio and the DVDs from Redbox© made the travelling a bit more bearable while I focused on the road ahead. Throughout the journey, my thoughts turned to lessons about life and living, some superficial and some profound.
The first lesson I learned was that I ought not trust forecasts. We live in a society saturated in information, including phone apps that will show you live weather radar and predictions for storm patterns. As we were anticipating our trip home from Jeanine’s brother’s funeral, I watched and listened to meteorologists in Baltimore (via television) and Boston (via phone app) predicting that the storm was expected to move beneath us and travel out to sea before blowing into Massachusetts via the Cape. New Jersey, Westchester County and Western Connecticut were supposed to be spared more than a dusting. No such luck was to fall upon us. The computers were wrong and the storm took a more western course, forcing us to face light but accumulating snow every minute of our trip. Experts are not always correct.
I also learned that there are times, rare but right, that staying with others while disregarding the letter of the law is the proper course of action. Most of the highways we traveled (The New Jersey Turnpike, Garden State Parkway and Interstates 87, 287, 84 and 90) were three lanes in either direction. In the worst of conditions, these throughways became two sets of ruts travelling along the divided white lines. At times there was a series of 15 or so cars, all moving at 45 mph, all illegally crossing over their lanes and maintaining the safety of the roads. Obedience to the law is not always best.
There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death. Proverbs 14:12
The biggest lesson I learned was that I could stand to be more humble. Early on in the process, I made the decision to return to work on Sunday. We made our plans based on my choice to be home Saturday night. Throughout our time away I saw weather reports and I remained resolute. I received texts from people in the church advising me to reconsider and I remained resolute. My wife wanted me to change our plans and I remained resolute. I unnecessarily risked everything to show that I was right, but I was wrong. I feel that needs to be stated again: I was wrong. I was proud. I have since apologized to my wife and children for my arrogance. I am not always right.
Thank God that we, despite my own foolishness, arrived safely at home. In hindsight, I should have listened to those around me, led by the Spirt, instead of listening only to myself. There was a way that appeared to me to be right, and it certainly could have led to disaster. I am fortunate that I had the opportunity to learn these lessons and not harmed by the consequences of my unwise haughtiness. Let’s hope that you and I can all learn from my stupidity.
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
One of the blessings of our new neighborhood is that the house three doors away covers his front yard with a Christmas light display. We had seen the lights in prior years as we drove by, but now we can stand on the sidewalk while enjoying the details: a reindeer that moves its head, “Merry Christmas” written on the fence, a flying angel and more. It is quite a spectacle to behold. There must be a thousand lights on their yard, smack dab in the middle of the urban landscape. It shines bright through the community.
Christmas lights like these remind me of the prophet Isaiah’s words, that one day in the future a great light will dawn in the land of deep darkness. One day, God inspired Isaiah to record, the darkness — the muck of gloom and distress that we all are mired within – will be overwhelmed and overcome. Just as it was when Isaiah wrote to the people of his day, we, too, witness the same distress and gloom today in the faces of those seeking refuge on foreign soil, those oppressed by human systems, those who are poor and those who have lost hope. There is a great darkness that requires a great light. Christmas lights remind me that Jesus is that great light.
When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” John 8:12
Jesus told the people of His day – and beyond, through the testimony of the Scriptures – that He was the one who would conquer the distress and gloom of creation. In time, His followers would realize that He is the one who reigns victorious over sin, Satan and death; the things that caused hopelessness in the human heart have been vanquished by the appearing of Jesus, the promised light. Just as flipping a light switch in a darkened room immediately dispels the darkness, Jesus, at the moment of His arrival, dispelled all the darkness we were dealing with. Then, Jesus gave us that light to share with others.
[Jesus said,] “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.” Matthew 5:14
He called us, His followers, the light of the world. He commissioned us, His brothers and sisters in faith, to continue to shine in the darkness. He equipped us, His body, to bear witness to those who are without hope in the world that the darkness has been defeated. We are the ones who are now visiting prisons, hospitals, shelters and halfway houses with the expressed intent of eliminating the gloom and distress that many in our society are saddled with. We are the ones who, like my neighbor, bear the expense for the blessing of those around us. You are the light of the world.
So, this Christmas season, find those dark corners of your community and shine for them. Seek those who are in distress or gloom and share the light of hope around them. Be a blessing to those without one. And be blessed in the warmth of His great light.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name. Psalm 100:4
It may be culturally ‘old-fashioned’, but let me extend a belated “Happy Thanksgiving”. I hope you were able to spend a few precious moments with loved ones yesterday expressing your gratitude to God. Although mainstream advertisers may have wanted me and mine to celebrate “Friends-giving”, “Thanks-gathering” or “Thanks and Giving”, I am unashamedly and uncompromisingly sharing my “Thanksgiving” this weekend. I am committed to using my words and taking my thoughts captive with the specific goal of giving thanks to God – the One who gives every good and perfect gift. I want to be not only thankful but thanksgiving.
My thoughts and expressions of thanksgiving are framed by four words that have occupied my prayers since Sunday – wealth, health, hearth and dearth.
- Wealth is defined as “an abundance of valuable possessions or money”. Being in the northeast region of the most prosperous nation on Earth means that God has given me much more than most. I am blessed by God with a peace that comes from needn’t worrying about clothing, food, shelter or transportation. I am also blessed with a wealth of non-monetary possessions – vocation, friendship, education and liberty, just to name a few – for which I am grateful.
- Health is defined as “the state of being free from illness or injury”. This year I reached a ‘milestone birthday’ which meant that I was required to endure more than an annual physical exam. I thank God, as I had appointments with four specialists, all of whom, after poking and prodding, gave me a clean bill of health. I am also blessed with health in other areas of life – spiritual, mental and relational – for which I am thankful.
- Hearth is defined as “the floor of a fireplace”. I am thankful for those that surround the figurative hearth (and the fact that we have a figurative hearth at all). I praise God for my wife and children. I praise God that we celebrated birthdays, graduations and holidays together with love and laughter. I am also blessed for the ‘hearth’ of Calvary Community Church and the brothers and sisters that God has given me – for them I am also grateful.
- Dearth is defined as “a scarcity or lack of something”. There were challenges this year (a requirement to move, a daughter departing for college, family members battling cancers, and more) that brought me to the needful point of prayer and contemplation of God’s word. I am thankful that God supplied and continues to supply in these darker moments, teaching me to trust in Him more and rely on earthly pleasures less. I am blessed for the trials we are enduring through which God is triumphing – and for all these I am thankful.
Whether you are enjoying a banquet of leftovers or a list of bargains this weekend, I hope that you will also continue to give thanks to the Lord for all the blessings He has showered upon you. And after all the food and extended family have gone and all the touchdowns and sales have been scored, remember that every day is a good day for thanksgiving.
For three years my family lived above a lovely couple, Vin and Anna. For three years I worried about the noise and disturbances that six pairs of feet can make. For three years I asked my children to stop stomping up and down the stairs and jumping around the living room. For three years I was anxious about the impact that we were having on those who lived around us, thinking that we were too loud, too disruptive or too rambunctious for condo living. As it turns out, for three years I had nothing to worry about.
As it turns out, we were not too disruptive, too loud or too rambunctious. My wife, Jeanine, ran into Anna at the grocery store the other day and eventually the conversation turned to the new owners of our prior residence. Anna related that the only time she heard us was when the family went down the stairs in the morning. Anna added that we were at our loudest on Sunday morning when we all went to church (the silver lining to that comment for me was that she knew we went to church as a family every Sunday; the silver lining to that comment for her was that she knew we had gone to church and she knew she would have serene sleep for the next three hours). So, I worried about something that was not an issue – Anna told Jeanine that she missed hearing the kids.
Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? Matthew 6:27 (NIV)
Maybe it is not concerns over excessive noise from the family’s footfalls on the neighbors ceiling, but I’m sure it is something. We all worry. Some worry about health issues and others worry about finances. Some worry about what the future holds and others worry about what could be revealed about our past. Some worry about their kids and others worry about their parents (and some worry about both). At some point, our thoughts get the better of us all and we become anxious over some aspect of life that is beyond our ability to control. The Bible says worry is not the answer.
Throughout the Scripture we are given narratives which prove that the antidote to worry is trust in the Almighty. Abraham didn’t worry about his son’s future and instead trusted that the Lord would provide a lamb. David didn’t worry about his ability to complete the task and instead trusted in the Lord to defeat Goliath. Three Israelite boys didn’t worry about dying in the fiery furnace and instead trusted in the Lord to deliver them. Jesus reminded us that we ought not worry about what we would eat or what we’d wear and instead trust that His Father would supply what we lack. And if these accounts are not sufficient, read about Noah, Moses, Elijah, Peter and Paul. Don’t worry, believe.
I realize that all this is easier (for me, at least) to say than to do. But I am going to trust God to provide, defeat, deliver and supply. I am going to follow His leading in communicating my fears and frustrations with Him and with others. I am going to let Him handle the details while I simply focus on Him. And I do my best to refrain from making faces or erupting emotionally when my 8-year-old is clomping down the hallway. Lord, help my unbelief!