Can you feel the change in the air and, more specifically, on the air? Yesterday may have been Thanksgiving, but today is the beginning of the Christmas season. Overnight we went from enjoying the autumnal comforts of pumpkin spices and falling leaves to enjoying the winter delights of peppermint swirls and drifting snow. Yesterday may have been spent watching competing teams play football, but tonight we will be watching competing networks broadcast ‘specials’ featuring Frosty and Burgermeister Meisterburger. This weekend we will witness Christmas lights begin to twinkle on our front lawns and Christmas trees being set in front windows. I hope not to alarm you, but Christmas Day is exactly four weeks away.
But this year is different, isn’t it? Because of the travel and gathering restrictions many of us face, there will be much smaller lines at the big box stores this “Black Friday” and much longer shipping times from the online retailers this month. There will also be fewer ‘cookie swaps’ and Christmas parties (although “Secret Santa” gifts may be as simple as visiting Amazon). That may allow us the serendipitous blessing of more time to spend with those closest to us and more opportunity to stream our season’s greetings than in Christmases past. We will have to be creative, but we can still make this the most wonderful time of the year.
Besides, sometimes the crowds around us keep us from appreciating the gift of Christmas before us. We, too, are sometimes distracted by all the hubbub of the holidays to see the truth as it approaches. We are sometimes the “Inn Crowd”, the huddle of humanity in the Bethlehem of our day, too busy or too burdened to recognize the gift of God about to be given. We are sometimes guilty of misguided priorities and pointing the Savior to the stall in the back. The “desire of every nation” has been delivered to our doorstep, and we are in danger of dismissing him due to the distractions of the day.
Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me. Revelation 3:20
But this year is different, isn’t it? The crowds have socially distanced and we have settled for a celebration in isolation. In the stillness of this strange and strained setting, can you hear the knock on the door of your heart? In spite of all the changes that COVID has brought (or maybe because of them), this year may be the perfect time to get out of the inn and away from all the revelry and travel back to the stable – to hear the shepherds and see the child, to marvel at his radiance and muse about the shepherds’ report. Do whatever you need to do to prepare yourself for the blessed arrival of God’s greatest gift: listen to a Christmas Carol playlist on Spotify, stream an Advent service on YouTube (might I suggest Calvary’s?), or watch “The Bishop’s Wife” on Amazon Prime. This Christmas may be the best chance our generation has to worship the newborn king together.
I pray that we all are enveloped by the enormous love we encounter at Christmas.
There is a ‘standing headline’ circulating through social and broadcast media: “Celebrating Thanksgiving to Be Quite Different This Year”. As a consequence of surging numbers of COVID-19 cases across the globe, authorities are recommending, at least in my area of the country, that our observances of Thanksgiving be limited to small – and preferably outdoor – gatherings, that our travel plans be curtailed or eliminated, and that our traditions take a hiatus. Under the circumstances, it seems to me that this is the most reasonable path to take, both for the sake of our loved ones and for the communities around us.
The requested modifications in celebrating this thoroughly North American holiday gives us an opportunity for beneficial correction. This year we will not have the chance to celebrate “Turkey Day” or “Friendsgiving” or “Football Day in America”. The Thanksgiving table may not, this year, look like the iconic Rockwell painting in its gastronomic bounty. The chairs may not, this time around, be filled with friends from work or church, or school recreating the warmth of community. The back yard or living room, this year, will not be shared by generations who enjoy tossing around the pigskin. This year we might only have the opportunity to give thanks – alone with the grantor of all good things or with those in our closest of circles.
Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song. Psalm 95:2
Earlier this month, for another purpose, I formulated my list of ‘thanks’. I have modified the entries slightly, hoping that my touchpoints might stimulate your thoughts toward thanks. Today, I am thankful for:
TIME – I give thanks to God for the gift of time. I would have never planned to spend so much time at home and share so many little moments with my family. I cannot fully express the gratitude I feel to God for the ability to unexpectedly be together for much of the last year.
HEALTH – I give thanks to God for the gift of health. I consider myself fortunate that I have the availability of protective equipment and world-class care. God has truly blessed me with the accessibility of masks and wipes, medications and medical professionals that enable me to resist much of the ailments that in other places or other times would have diminished my quality of life.
AMUSEMENT – I give thanks to God for the gift of laughter. As dire as things are, there is an abundance of resources ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous that make me laugh. I give thanks to God for giggling babies, on-line videos, satirical skits, and dog sweaters, along with another million amusing moments.
NETWORKS – I give thanks to God for the gift of connectedness. I have been awed by the creative ways God has inspired others to engage with the community around them – Zoom, Duo, Facetime, YouTube, balcony concerts, calls, letters – and I am grateful to God for enabling me to participate in things I thought would be impossible to attend last Thanksgiving.
KINDNESS – I give thanks to God for the gift of love for one another. Through signs, parades, and deliveries, we have cared for one another like no other time I can recollect. This reminds me of the grace of God each time I see these expressions. Thank you, Jesus.
SALVATION – I give thanks to God for the gift of forgiveness. Countless times over the past year, as I reflect on the above-stated gifts of God, I have messed up: failing to appreciate what I have, ignoring the opportunities granted me, selfishly pouting for the things I am denied, or blatantly disregarding the Lord’s will and word. I am so thankful to God that my sins are forgiven and that I am a new creation, saved by the free gift of His grace.
For what will you be thanks giving?
Let us all agree that we will get together a year from now for “Turkey Day” and “Friendsgiving” and “Football Day in America”. But this year, in light of all we have been through, and continue to go through, let us all give thanks.
It has happened again; God has allowed those around me to repeat a recurring theme through interactions I have had over the last 7 days. I heard it first during a denominational meeting when a speaker encouraged me to ‘shrink the win’. I heard it again while attending a virtual retreat as a facilitator asked me to reflect on ‘small places of growth’. I heard it for a third time when I had lunch with a few colleagues when one of the participants commented on ‘the small victory’. I heard it lastly at our prayer meeting when one of our intercessors reminded us of God’s ‘little blessings’. God has been orchestrating my engagement with others as a means to focus my attention off the major problems of life and onto the (many times) minor peeks of sunshine.
God has been asking me to adjust my perspective. In the days since the stay-at-home order was issued in the Commonwealth, much of the news and statistics about my region have been horrible. The pandemic has exposed us to a great deal of death, damage, and dysfunction within our communities. I in no way want to diminish the pain or loss that so many have suffered since March. But I also do not want to make the mistake of seeing the last 220 days as filled entirely with bad news. There is some light in the midst of this whelming darkness that is visible to those who are looking for it.
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.” Lamentations 3:22-24 (NIV84)
What are these glimmers of hope, these baby steps of growth, these small victories and little blessings about which God has been speaking to me? This seasons-long quarantine has afforded the globe to be home with just a little more than television and internet, and this, in turn, provided the disparities of life to be displayed. The world was watching, and many good people were pressed to action. Medical inequity was broadcast and many responded with donations of PPE and calls to address the needs of inadequate care in nursing homes and among the poor. Racial injustice was then captured on cellphones and many were outraged to the point of demonstration and a long-delayed dialogue about race began to rise. Economic hardship gripped many and so neighbors helped neighbors with what they could share.
Many of us have spent time with the people we love, learned new skills or enjoyed new hobbies. Many of us, because of the mild and dry weather, walked more and dined more on the sidewalks of our city squares. The church went out digitally to the world instead of asking the world to come out to church. We learned to adapt, to adjust and to practice mercy. We made signs to appreciate the sacrifices of those who risked and shared tears with who lost. We grew in compassion and care for one another. Small victories.
I am still praying that this pandemic is over soon, but until then, I am choosing to embrace the reality that there can be great warmth and light from a dumpster fire.
I am sure that you are aware that the 2nd Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence 244 years ago tomorrow. This rather short document, signed by 56 colonial delegates, is a masterful work of art. One particularly poetic sentence is as follows: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” If you ask me, this is what we celebrate with our flag waving, parades and pyrotechnics. Unfortunately, as we endure this pandemic, most (if not all) of the pageantry of our nation’s Independence Day will be cancelled, but there is still much in which we can rejoice.
These God-given rights of all people – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – have been ‘works in progress’ since they were first penned by Thomas Jefferson and then edited on the Congressional floor. While, in 1776, the term ‘all men’ meant ‘all white property-owning males of mature age and education’, we have worked hard in the intervening years to secure these rights to all the citizenry of the United States of America, irrespective of skin-color, financial means, gender, age or perceived intellect. The news of the day reminds us that we still have miles to go in our journey, but let us, this weekend, celebrate the ideals we collectively embrace and strive to realize.
Let us also ask ourselves, as individuals and as a society, what we can do to secure these rights of life (to conduct our affairs free from governmental interference), liberty (to enjoy a simple existence free from oppression and characterized by justice), and the pursuit of happiness (to have the opportunity to live a life that brings both contentment and pleasure) for all those who call this parcel of earth their home. Let us ask the question that caused a revolution in the first place: if anyone in the land of the free and the home of the brave is unjustly oppressed or silenced, are not we all? As we celebrate our nation’s Independence Day, let us also rejoice in our interdependence with one another.
“…your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Matthew 6:10 (NIV)
I am grateful that I was born in this country. I am thankful that I am an American. As I write this, I recognize my own privilege in these statements: as a white male of mature age and education, I have always experienced the American Dream in all its shining greatness. I also recognize that the experience of many of my neighbors and friends is not the same. That is why, as much as I celebrate this great day in American history, I anticipate a greater day in human history – the realization of the kingdom of God and the culmination of our citizenship in it. As I await Christ’s return, I will strive to do God’s will here in the great U.S. of A., advocating that all men people are (not ‘will be’) endowed by their Creator (God Himself) with certain unalienable (eternally irrevocable) rights (legal entitlements), including, but not limited to, life liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This ideal is surely worth celebrating until Christ calls us home.
Happy Independence Day!
This past Wednesday, my daughter, Rebekah, ‘went’ to her final college class; she walked up the stairs to her bedroom and opened her laptop. As she shared this milestone with the family after the class had concluded, I got a little misty-eyed. I thought about how hard she had worked over the past four years at American University, enabling her to graduate with honors in two weeks, only ‘virtually’ recognized. I thought about all the friends, colleagues and sorority sisters she had made in DC, unable to support one another in these concluding events. It breaks a father’s heart.
Then I thought about all the others – in Rebekah’s class, in other college classes, high school seniors, pre-school graduates. I thought about new mothers, who will not have those precious 3-month or 6-month professional portraits of their drooling, chubby-cheeked cherub. I thought about birthdays (first, fifteenth, sixteenth, twenty-first, fiftieth or eightieth) that will be celebrated in isolation. I thought about silver and gold wedding anniversaries that cannot be held at their favorite restaurants and the life-long dream trips to Europe that cannot be rescheduled. I thought about all that has been lost or taken away.
Then I thought about why. Graduations, proms, weddings, parties, classes, reunions and the like have all been cancelled – nay, postponed or moved to digital platforms – so that we can keep those around us as safe as we can. That being said, we all ought to take time to acknowledge those who are required to sacrifice their personal milestones. If you know someone who is celebrating something in seclusion or going without so that life may go on, reach out and offer your congratulations or your consolation. Call, text or write a note and tell them that you are grateful for the costs they have incurred.
It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: “And this, too, shall pass away.” How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! – how consoling in the depths of affliction! “And this, too, shall pass away.” – Abraham Lincoln, 1859
“And this, too, shall pass away.” Government officials and company advertisements keep reminding us that things will get back to normal. Inevitably, a vaccine will be created and we will all get together again. We will have socials and soirees at some point. Graduations, like my daughter’s, will be held; for her, it will hopefully be in December. First haircuts can wait, photos can still be taken, anniversaries for 25 and a half years of marriage could become the new trend and birthday parties can be rescheduled (can you imagine the new school year for second graders when every weekend will have a birthday party at SkyZone?) I cannot wait to have the social calendar filled again. In the moments between now and then, let us help one another through this season of joys and sorrows.
Recalling your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy. 2 Timothy 1:4
For the past month, as part of a reading group, I have been reading Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. It is a fabulously engrossing book that deals with the reality of life and death, the limits of the current medical system and the conversations that every person should have before it is too late. One of the lasting lessons I received from Dr. Gawande’s words is to recognize what is important; it has caused me to wrestle with the reality of my own demise and to value every moment of cogency that God enables me to enjoy.
As I reflect upon these truths this morning and as I prepare for Thanksgiving next week, I am finding myself thankful for the moments I share with my family (immediate and extended, formed by blood and by friendship). I am thankful for productivity (in my vocation and in my avocations). I am thankful for opportunity (and the availability of the best in medicine, academia and ministry no more than a subway ride away). I am thankful for the guidance of God since last Thanksgiving (among other things, in leading my family to a new residence and two of my boys to new schools). I am thankful for the blessings I enjoy every day.
There is one more thing for which I am thankful, something never touched upon in the remarkable tome penned by the good doctor. I am thankful for the Gospel. I am thankful for the witness verified truth of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection. I am thankful for the long-established and prophetic plan of God’s salvation through Christ. I am thankful for the availability of the forgiveness of sin and the redemption of the disobedient which reached a wretch like me. I am thankful that my life-steps were directed by the Almighty to hear the truth of the Lord and accept Him as my personal Savior. I am thankful for those who shared, and continue to share, this good news with those who are dangerously unaware of their eternal destiny. I am thankful that I will participate in blissful life after my physical death.
Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! 2 Corinthians 9:15
But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! Romans 5:15
Each and every one of us reading this post has something for which to give thanks (if nothing else, we all have access to the vast worldwide web). For what things, truths and people are you thankful this year? What moments have brought you delight since last you sat at bounty’s table? What gifts have been bestowed upon you that have filled you with gratitude? In whatever way you will celebrate our thoroughly North American observance of Thanksgiving, I hope you will spend some time reflecting upon and remembering all the blessings you have been given.
I wish you all the happiness of Thanksgiving!
On Monday, my wife and I will celebrate our thirtieth wedding anniversary. According to Hallmark.com (the worldwide source of information ‘when you care enough to send the very best’), the gift for this anniversary is pearls. I find it funny how random some of these yearly suggestions are: wood is to be given on year 5; appliances are appropriate for year 18; tools are the traditional gift for year 29. Jeanine and I are non-traditional in this regard, I guess. We tend to mark the years of marriage by enjoying more sentimental gestures, such as thoughtful cards and fancy dinners without the children.
Truth be told, the gifts of a long marriage are not given on anniversaries, but rather every day in between. Jeanine and I have been married for more that half our lives and, it can be reasonably asserted, we are not the same people who stood before a minister three decades ago. We were bright-eyed and optimistic, confident that love conquers all. Over the years, the light in our eyes has dimmed a bit and we are a touch more practical now, but with age comes the certainty that love does indeed conquer all. That certainty, that calm assurance, that we have each other and know each other is, in my opinion, more precious than pearls.
A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies. Proverbs 31:10
I do not thank God as often as I should for Jeanine, this completely different-than-me angel who has blessed my life for more than 35 years. I am so appreciative that she complements my weaknesses with her strengths and accentuates my abilities with her own. She has lovingly challenged me to be a better man, a better husband and a better father. She has willingly, with her typical encouragement, endured my career change and seven moves while raising four wonderful children without complaint. God has given me an equal partner in life who has brought comfort and cleanliness and made our house a home. Again, I do not thank God as often as I should.
As we age and mature, we change. I thank God that Jeanine and I have grown together and not apart. I thank God that we enjoy one another’s company more now than ever, appreciate one another’s voices more now than ever and savor one another’s refinement more now than ever. I could not have imagined the beauty of our union when we first met at a Friendly’s in the early 1980s. And I am not too proud to say that I have gained the most in our marriage (which compels me to strive to appreciate to an even greater degree this precious gift of my wife of noble character).
Finally, I thank God for the demonstration of sacrificial love that Christ provides which serves as a template for my wife’s and my relationship. I thank God that we have committed to do the hard work of willful submission to one another. I thank God for the challenges we have faced and the strength we have found in our bond.
My prayer is that we would all have occasion to celebrate these bonds.
Last Monday, Memorial Day, was the cultural beginning of summer and tomorrow, June 1st, is its start, meteorologically. While I do not consider it summer until the air conditioners are placed in the windows (alas, no central air for us), I realize that it is that time again when we ask one another if we have made our vacation plans yet. For those of us in New England, it is the time we take the ice scrapers out of the car and replace them with beach chairs; it is the time when we begin to enjoy ice cream in cones while on a walk rather than in bowls while watching TV. It is a time for cookouts and campouts.
I hope you have plans for the summer – going to the lake or the mountains, spending time in the nation’s capital or at the in-laws, visiting a newest theme park or watching the latest blockbuster. I hope that these plans for the summer, whether at home or away, includes the worship of the Lord. I hope that your summer plans at your home church and the places you visit while on vacation allow you to offer our whole selves to God in grateful praise.
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship. Romans 12:1
As Paul says to the church in Rome, this offering of ourselves is primarily a sacrificial act intended to glorify God. The imagery he uses is one of an altar, the sacred place of righteous giving. As a way of responding to God’s mercy, we give ourselves – our time, talent and treasure – with gifts that are of varied amounts (some can give an hour or a dollar, while others have more to give) in completely voluntary ways. In light of all the blessings you enjoy because of God’s kindness, could you spend a bit of your summertime resources appreciating Him?
This offering, however, will have consequences. When we agree to offer our bodies, we offer all its parts. This act of generosity effects our talking, for our tongues have been offered. This act of generosity effects our toiling, for our hands have been offered. This act of generosity effects our traveling, for our legs have been offered. There may be plans, on vacation or at home, that will need to be curtailed or delayed because we are offering our resources to Him. The beach and the barbeque will have to wait. It is always better to exercise your faith in flip flops than to forgo the blessing of gathering altogether.
Our rightful response to the blessings God gives us – our vacations and vocations, our purses and our purposes – is to be living sacrifices. We are living sacrifices: continually, in every season and on every day, offering what He has given us to share. We are holy sacrifices: set apart for His purposes. We are pleasing sacrifices: demonstrating what is appropriate for Him. I hope that this attitude is the highlight of your next season.
“But it was love, after all, that made the cross salvific, not the sheer torture of it.” – Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart
This year at Calvary, as we remember Holy Week, we are reflecting on the words of Mark’s gospel. It was Mark who recorded that the crucifixion of Jesus began at the third hour (Mark 15:25) and, as a side note, we also know from Matthew’s account that it lasted until the ninth hour (Matthew 27:46). Six hours is a long time to do anything: imagine being invited to attend the screening of a six-hour movie or enjoy a six-hour buffet; think about babysitting a three-year old for six hours or waiting for news from the ER staff for six hours. These feats of endurance are nothing compared to what Jesus endured on the cross.
Crucifixion was a particularly ghastly method of capital punishment. As was the case with Jesus, the victim was tied or nailed to a large wooden beam and left to hang until eventual death from exhaustion and asphyxiation. Eventually the victim would slump due to muscular fatigue and the diaphragm would compress the lungs, depriving the vital organs of oxygen. This macabre ‘dance’ – lifting the body with the arms and legs to breathe until they could no longer support the weight and collapse again – went on for hours, and sometimes, to speed up the process, the ones responsible for guarding the condemned would break their legs.
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Romans 5:8
To paraphrase the words of apostle Paul: God, in Christ, showed us the extent of his love through his death. The fact is that thousands of people were humiliated and horribly executed by means of a cross, and none of those deaths, in and of themselves, save us from our sin. The cross is what we call the instrument of death, but it is not its cause. The cause of Jesus’ death was love, willful, active and limitless love. He chose to endure the dehumanization and shameful humiliation of crucifixion (after all, he could have been executed at any time and in any age of human history) to fulfill the will of the Father, to serve as a sacrificial substitute for our sin, and in so doing expressed his love.
I would like to say that there are a few things lasting six hours that I would do for a loved one. I would like to say that I would wait in the wind and rain, dig a mile-long trench or drive through a blizzard. I would like to say that, but I am not sure I would do that. I cannot imagine the great love required to endure the cross for six hours, let alone six minutes. I cannot fully comprehend how much Jesus loves a sinner like me. But I can appreciate it. In my mind, I can picture myself at the foot of the cross, staring up at my suffering savior; I ask him, “How much do you love me?” and with arms outstretched, he replies, “This much!”
Remember to remember Him this Good Friday.