Tag Archives: suffering

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.

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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.

Heck of a Good Family

I was introduced to Mike and Frankie nearly nine years ago.  While their situation was different than mine (they lived in a rural middle American suburb and we lived in an urban neighborhood of Boston), our similar family dynamic made them special to me.  We would spend 22 minutes together each week and they would share their lives.  I would identify with their frustrations in raising their oldest through High School and college and beyond.  I would sympathize with the challenges of raising an optimistic but clumsy daughter who tried everything to fit in but never quite succeeded.  I would commiserate with the difficulties that come from a unique younger son, complete with quirks and tics.  But next week they are departing and I will miss their stories of their ordinary life of ordinary struggles.

My favorite show, The Middle, will broadcast its series finale on Tuesday, and I feel like I am losing a friend.  Something about the Hecks from Orson, Indiana always rang true for me.  They didn’t have a ‘very special episode’ but instead relied on real life circumstances — a folding lawn chair at the dining room table, floating anniversaries, kids fighting in the backseat and ‘borrowing’ the church van for months.  The kids made holes in their walls, their computers couldn’t access family photos and they ate fast food in front of the TV.  It was a pleasure to watch a family on TV that was much, maybe too much, like my own.

There was a comfort in tuning in every week, sending that someone understood your struggle.  It was a picture of life rarely seen on television today, a situation-comedy where episodes revolved around the challenges of the ordinary: living on a budget, dreading the school conferences and bake-sales and loving one another through the trials of life.  There were moments of passion (for things like the Indianapolis Colts and the Wrestlerettes) but little politics.  There were tears of joy and tears of sorrow.  Through it all, there was an underlying theme of familial love – even in the midst of familial discord.

I urge you, brothers and sisters, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me.  Romans 15:30

I believe it to be a blessing to God to be understood, to know that there is someone somewhere that ‘gets’ you.  That was what God did for me through The Middle.  Although they were not an actual family but a fictional clan with great writers, they were real to me.  Their struggles were real.  Their victories were real.  I know, for their life, in many ways, is mine.  Their life is the same as many in the church: those who love their kids and can’t stand their kids, those who have broken dishwashers and broken dreams but refuse to give up, those who are simply doing their best even when their best is not great.  Thank you, Frankie, Mike, Axl, Sue and Brick for joining so many in the struggle.

I am sure that I will see the Hecks again as The Middle is already in syndication.  I will sit and remember that there are people, real and make-believe, that share my values and concerns and dreams.   Perhaps there will be another family I can befriend next season.  There are the Ottos from Westport, CT that might remind me that we are never alone.

Mother of All Moms

According to the National Retail Federation, the average Mother’s Day shopper will spend $180, or a total of $23.1 billion.  That is a lot of flowers and jewelry.  It seems that we all want to celebrate the blessing God has given us through giving us mothers.  In recognition of Mother’s Day on Sunday, allow me to share the story of a remarkable mom who lived a few thousand years ago.  She was poor, widowed and responsible for a child.  Things have gotten so bad for her that she had given up hope.  But God has other plans for her and her child.

We really know little about this mother.  While we do not know her name or her lineage, we do know she was married, but her husband died and left her with no source of income: according to the scriptures, all she had to her name was a jar of flour and a pitcher of oil.  We also know that she was not part of the “People of God”: she was an “unclean” Gentile.  Lastly, we know that she was commanded by God to help a certain prophet of God named Elijah: she was commissioned to use that last of all she had to feed this stranger.

Before I conclude the story, allow me to digress.  I am not at all surprised that God used a mother, especially a single mother, to save Elijah.  Is there any other class of human being so willing to sacrifice as a mom?  When there are five mouths and four slices of pie, it is the mom who says, “I’m too full from dinner for dessert; you guys have it.”  When it is three AM and thundering, it is the mom who gets displaced so that her child can be comforted.  She picks up the underwear, wipes up the barf and cleans up the bathroom.  There is seemingly no need too demanding or distance too far to travel for a mom.

Getting back to the story, this mother prepares her last meal for herself, her son and her visitor.  But the flour and oil never run out.  She and her household (including the guest) were fed for three years, miraculously.  Despite the fact that they were in the midst of a global famine, God was able to meet her needs.  Just when one might think everything is going to get better, tragedy strikes when the son of this woman becomes ill and stops breathing.  No one would blame her for her outburst:

She said to Elijah, “What do you have against me, man of God?  Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?”  1 Kings 17:18

After all she had sacrificed, was this really how her story was going to end?  No.  Elijah immediately cries out to God and her son’s life is restored to him.  Then they all lived happily ever after (though not together).

I thank God that the mothers I am most familiar with (both biological and metaphorical) have yet to lose hope.  They sacrificed for the sake of those they loved, expressed outrage when something hurt those they loved and never gave up hope for those they loved.  Some of that has to do with their personal resolve – they are all formidable people of character – but some of it has to do with their faith in the God who can resource and restore them as He did for a Phoenician widow, her son and her house-guest.

Happy Mother’s Day to all those who have given more than they will ever get back from their families.

Inconvenience Store

There was an article in the New York Times that opined about the costs and benefits of present-day conveniences.  According to columnist Time Wu, conveniences are “more efficient and easier ways of doing personal tasks”.  Conveniences come in a nearly endless number of forms, everything from appliances (washers, dryers and microwaves) to technologies (digital streaming, cell phones and search engines).  They save us time, toil and treasure.  The world of my childhood would be foreign soil to my ten-year old son; the convenience of debit cards instead of cash or checks, the convenience of homework at home with Google and Wikipedia instead of researching at the library with the World Book Encyclopedia, the convenience of GPS and EZPass instead of glove compartment maps and a cupful of quarters.  Conveniences make life better.

However, there is another side to conveniences, a less beneficial side that warrants our attention.  As Wu writes, “With its promise of smooth, effortless efficiency, it threatens to erase the sort of struggles and challenges that help give meaning to life.”  Ultimately, there is a benefit to inconvenience, whether it is getting lost and discovering the pathway back to civilization or baking a pie from scratch instead of ordering one online through Uber Eats.  It is rewarding to toil and use reason.  We might become better people because we are required to wait or, worse yet, to go without.

In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.  Luke 14:33

Discipline is never convenient.  Eating healthy takes effort: making a salad takes longer than tearing the foil off a Pop Tart.  Exercise takes effort: spending time at the gym will be more demanding than spending time on the couch.  Education takes effort: solving a pesky equation with a pencil will take more time than watching a YouTube video of someone else solving for x.  The Christian life is no different.  When Jesus taught about the demands of discipleship, He told his followers to consider the costs.  He called His followers to live a life which included inconvenience.  He told them to give more than demanded, work longer than most and sacrifice greater than merely necessary.

Most of the things that make life easier are convenient.  Most of the things that make life better are inconvenient.  The question for each of us is whether we want easier or we want better.   Do we want the ease of microwave turkey or the goodness of Thanksgiving dinner?  Do we want the ease of hearing an explanation or the goodness of researching it ourselves?  Do you want the ease of activism by hashtag or the goodness of laboring for righteousness?  When we are passionate about something, the Cliff Notes will not suffice; we will want to invest our blood, sweat and tears to pursue it.

Evan Williams, a co-founder of Twitter, was quoted in Wu’s piece as saying, “Convenience decides everything.”  Maybe he’s right in general.  I do that hope he is wrong about us.

Eighty and Oscar

Tomorrow is my father’s 80th birthday.  Happy birthday, Dad!

Sunday is Oscar® day, when the Academy Awards are presented.  Hooray for Hollywood!

The above-stated occasions may seem to most as two random calendar entries, but to me, they are inextricably linked.  For those who are unaware of my upbringing, my parents separated and divorced when I was in grade school.  While the intervening years have dulled my memory, I do recall a number of weekend matinees that my dad took us to see: “Robin Hood”, “Pete’s Dragon”, “Superman”, “Star Trek” and more.  I remember the hours in the dark at the General Cinema Theater at Westgate Mall and the Brockton East Twin Cinema.   It was in those moments that I gained a love for movies – good movies, bad movies, all movies.

In thinking about these memories, some more than four decades old, I am reminded of the love my dad had (and has) for my siblings and me, and the love I have for him.  While we spent few nights under the same roof, we spent hours together every weekend.  I remember waiting for him to pick us up (making a game of counting cars of a randomly particular color) and I cannot recall ever being disappointed when he never arrived.  We had inside jokes (ordering “pine tree floats” at MerMac’s and trying to spell the name one of his old bosses, S. Gunnar Myrbeck), ate hundreds of hamburgers and watched dozens of movies.

A wise son brings joy to his father, but a foolish son brings grief to his mother. – Proverbs 10:1

As the years have passed and the miles have grown between us, my meetings with my dad have grew more infrequent, but my love for my dad and my love for the movies have remained.  I appreciate all those afternoons, with or without popcorn, that we shared watching the silver screen.  I think about that as I take my children to the movies, tell the same corny jokes and buy the same fast food.   I love you, Dad.

Thinking about my dad taking me to the movies all those years ago makes me wonder why I love the movies so much.  I am sure it has something to do with those deep-seated emotions of my childhood.  It also has something to do with the escape the darkened theater provides: a diversion from the daily grind to exotic and fantastic places.  Mostly, I reckon, it has to do with the story – dozens of accounts of love and loss, risk and rescue, life and death.  Thank you, Dad, for giving me all that.  I carry a part of you every time I buy a ticket.  Happy Birthday!  Maybe one day soon we can catch one more movie together.

For what it is worth, after seeing most of the nominated films (there’s still time to finish the challenge), I would give the Oscars to “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri”, Gary Oldman, Frances McDormand, Allison Janney and Sam Rockwell.  Knowing my track-record, I’m due to be right.

May I Have A Word?

As we have for the previous few years, my wife and I have endeavored to see the nine movies nominated for the Best Picture Oscar®.  With ten days remaining and only two movies yet to view, I am confident that we will complete our task.  Reflecting on the films we have already seen, a theme seems to be emerging: the power of words.  In these films, I am reminded that a well-chosen word or a turn-of-phrase at the appropriate time has the power to uplift or destroy, the force sufficient to motivate a nation or crush a spirit.

Of particular impact were the words Sheriff Bill Willoughby (portrayed by Woody Harrelson in Three Billboard Outside Ebbing, MO), British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (portrayed by Gary Oldman in The Darkest Hour and referenced in Dunkirk), and fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis in The Phantom Thread).  Without giving away the plot, the theater-goer will be gripped by the redemptive and encouraging nature of the words contained in Willoughby’s letters, the motivating influence upon a nation to continue the struggle through Churchill’s “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech before Parliament, and the damaging and demoralizing destruction caused by Woodcock’s cutting comments.

Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing.  My brothers and sisters, this should not be. James 3:10

The last few weeks of movie-going have caused me to consider anew the wisdom of James and the power of the tongue.  How is that the same function can exalt or eviscerate?  How intentional am I with my words?  Have I learned the truth regarding the power of speech and the wisdom to wield that ‘sword’ beneficially?  Ultimately, am I utilizing my glossary to glorify myself or give gravitas to others?   While I would not to presume to be as loquacious as Churchill, neither do I want to be as self-absorbed as Woodcock.

Perhaps preparation is key (and a Hollywood screenwriter would help, too).  Churchill labored over his speeches, editing and reediting his message even to the final moments before delivery.  Willoughby wrote letters, which experience tells us is a slower form of communication – our thoughts race faster than our pens, allowing us to shape and shade our words as we go.  I wonder how our words might change if we gave ourselves as little as a moment to collect our thoughts.   That might be enough time to enable us to refrain from that angry retort and share something edifying instead.

Words contain an immense power – a power that could be positive or negative.  A single word (“mistake”) can destroy the fragile soul of an impressionable youth and a single word (“gift”) can develop the formidable soul of that same impressionable youth.  Words can be ugly or beautiful, can be used to build up or tear down and therefore requires our attention.  I wouldn’t let youngest juggle chainsaws, even if he told me he was confident in his ability to harness to power of the tools.  Perhaps I should have the same concern about his (and my) use of the many tools we find in the dictionary.

With careful preparation and attention, may we use our words to build up one another.