What a difference five months makes. On Monday, July 3rd, when there was nothing but repeats on television, I flipped through the channels, finally arriving upon the programming of the NFL network. They were rebroadcasting Super Bowl LI, which took place on Sunday, February 5th. I sat in my recliner, celebrating the eve of Independence Day, and watched ‘America’s New Team’, the New England Patriots, contend against the Atlanta Falcons for the Lombardi Trophy and professional football’s championship.
I watched the game when it was broadcast live. I was optimistic when the 1st quarter ended with neither team scoring. That optimism waned as Atlanta held a 21-3 lead as Lady Gaga took the field for the halftime show. The hopes of a 5th championship nearly disappeared when the Falcons scored one more time midway through the 3rd quarter. 28-3. No one had ever overcome as much as a 14-point deficit in the Super Bowl, and now the Pats were down by 25. Maybe the Patriots were not as good as their fans imagined. I remember watching with unbelief and sadness that the hometown team was going down to utter defeat. I remember thinking that perhaps New England could, at the very least, make the game competitive.
Watching the replay of the game earlier this week was a much different experience. I was not troubled by Tom Brady’s early and poorly thrown interception. I was unaffected by Gostkowski’s missed point-after attempt. I delighted in the ineptitude of the New England defense in the 1st half and the Atlanta offense in the 2nd half. The final 23 minutes were when all the fun took place. 28-3. 28-9. 28-12. 28-20. Edelman’s miracle catch with 2 minutes and change to go in the game. 28-28. The Super Bowl was going into overtime for the first time in the history of the game. Patriots win the coin toss. 34-28. Patriots win. NFL Champions. Queue up the duck-boats.
It takes an emotional toll on a spectator when the outcome remains unknown, but there is no trepidation when that same spectator knows how it all will end. That was the difference between February 5th and July 3rd. The second broadcast was thoroughly enjoyable – even the bad plays and the foolish fouls – because I knew that the New England Patriots were victorious.
Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. 1 Thessalonians 4:13
This is how those who know Christ as Lord and Savior ought to think about the future, just like we were reviewing a recorded sporting event. We know how it ends. We need not hopelessly grieve as if we are unaware of the outcome. We can, and should, anticipate the blessed hope of Christ’s victory over sin, death and Satan. We will certainly have periods of awfulness and ache, but they will lose their power in light of the impending joy at the conclusion of our journey.
In the words of Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman, “Hey! Let’s go, boys. It’s going to be a hell of a story.”
There is a church down the street with the following on its lawn sign: “GODISNOWHERE”. The point of the sign is to reveal a person’s perspective – does the reader see “God is nowhere” or “God is now here”? Clever. But the sign also serves as a prime example for the value of space. There is meaning in strings of letters and there is meaning in the breaks: legend and leg end (one involves a great feat and other is great feet), justice and just ice (ask for each at the donut shop and you will get two very different things), menswear and men swear (it may refer to a blue shirt or a blue streak) or conspiracy and cons piracy (descriptions of a nefarious plot and the actions of a thieving ship of prisoners). Space contributes to meaning.
Pauses are impactful. Watch any competition television show and you will experience the power of the pause: Ryan Seacrest stating on American Idol that “the winner…will be revealed when we come back” or Tom Bergeron on Dancing with the Stars looking into the camera and saying “the couple leaving tonight’s competition…(a camera pans over the contestants for 30 seconds)…[insert names here]”. We all can recall an occasion when we included a pregnant pause – for effect, in remorse, to increase suspense – to take a breath to add weight to what needed to be said. Space contributes to importance.
Unfortunately, most of us rush our words and our conversations suffer. We abhor silence. We seek to remedy the awkward pause with something, anything to fill the void. We have lost our appreciation for space, for pause, for silence. We have stopped taking the time to listen. We have ceased the practice of seeking God’s help in appropriating just the right phrase. We have replaced relational interactions with information transfers, expressing less of our feelings and more of the facts. We tweet and text, ignoring punctuation and eliminating the full stop from the period or the subtle shift from the comma. Space contributes to emotion.
May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer. Psalm 19:14
The root word for the Old Testament practice of meditation relates to the biological function of digestion. We have a similar English word: rumination. We ‘chew on’ ideas, we ‘digest’ materials. In a real sense we break down the thoughts, sights and sounds of life into their basic nutritional components and absorb them, using them for our benefit and the benefit of others. We would be better communicators if we allowed time for the inner processes to come to a completion before we uttered some of the empty outward expressions our conversations contain.
Allow yourself the space to build meaning, emphasize importance and express emotion. Perhaps we can, in our own way, incorporate the wisdom of C.S. Lewis, who said,
“A pipe gives a wise man time to think and a fool something to stick in his mouth.”
We all can benefit from a little time to think and then utter just the right expression.
I had been getting error messages from my computer at work for some time. I was able to work around them and do my job without much inconvenience…until Tuesday. That is when I got the BSOD (the blue screen of death), which stated, “Your PC ran into a problem that it couldn’t handle, and now it needs to restart”. This computer issue was now a serious inconvenience and an exasperating consumer of my time. Fortunately, I was able to restart the computer (after a number of failed attempts), back up the files and reload a new CPU. The church office is now back up and running.
The process of replacing the computer has enabled me to take stock of a few things.
First, I realize that I am a creature of habit. I like things the way I like things. The keyboard upon which I now type feels different (softer?) than my old one. Some of the desktop icons I am used to seeing are now missing (but at this point in time I have no idea what they were or what they did, but more on that later). Updated hardware sometimes facilitates updated software, and some of my familiar programs appear different. This realization is good for me, though: some habits are unhealthy (perhaps even a cause of the BSOD) and others are time consuming. Maybe I am better off experiencing change.
I also realize that I am an undiagnosed digital hoarder. The office PC had more than 45,000 files stored on its hard drive, accumulated over the span of five years. Until I began having problems with the CPU, I had kept everything – every document, picture, PDF file, sound clip and program – on the hard drive. I ran no backups, downloaded virtually nothing to discs, deleted no software I hadn’t been using. I kept everything, even the icons for programs I hadn’t used in years. This realization is also good for me: my productivity and efficiency can improve if I clean up the computer occasionally. It would be better if I ran a backup, purged the unnecessary and saved on removable media important but not urgent data.
One more thing I realize is that deterioration and drive failures are a natural part of life. While I appreciate the power and capacity of this new computer, I am aware, as I step over the carcass of dated technology currently residing on my office floor, that this CPU, too, will pass. I will need a new computer, a new monitor and new software at some point in the future, either to improve or replace what I am blessed to use today. This realization is good for me to grasp as well: entropy, a gradual decline into disorder, is real and must be dealt with as we go about our lives. I am better off knowing that nothing on earth lasts forever.
By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” Genesis 3:19
I also realize that what is true for my electronic existence is also true for my physical existence. I am made for proficiency and efficiency, needing this reminder to cast off the clutter and prepare for change. One day this mortal frame will wear out; I can only hope that all I contain will be able to be accessed by those who come after me.
I take an unhealthy delight in typographical errors on notices and signs. The dry cleaner on the corner offers a “pans hem” service for $8. There was a Dunkin Donuts© in Connecticut with a bathroom that was out of order, a handwritten note imploring patrons to “pleas bare with us”. There are websites and late-night talk show segments devoted to “Bad Signs”. One of these signs was for a children’s software company whose tagline was “So Fun, They Won’t Even Know Their Learning”. Despite the errors (in grammar, spelling or context), the information is still conveyed – that the cleaner offers tailoring for pants, the coffee shop begs for their customers’ patience and that they are retaining knowledge while enjoying the computer products.
Almost every blog posting I write has some typographical error. Sometimes it is grammatical, crafting sentences where I lack verbal agreement or confuse plurals with possessives. Sometimes it is spelling, such as when I use form for from or an for any (often words that slip through auto-correct but are misspellings for what I intend). Sometimes it is contextual, when I think effect is correct instead of affect or use complement for compliment. While I am not fond of disclosing my imperfect nature to the cyber-universe, I am blessed to have a few readers who are caring enough to make me aware of my mistakes (mind you, this is not an invitation for anyone and everyone to point out my many flaws).
This is one of the wonderful aspects of life in Christ and living for Christ – God doesn’t require our perfection, but our faithfulness.
But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 2 Corinthians 4:7
In the words of Scripture prior to this verse, Paul mentions our ministry, our knowledge of God, the gospel and the light – all of which could be the treasure he mentions. Then, in the above verse, he likens us to jars of clay (common earthen vessels) susceptible to cracks and chips and vulnerable to failure due to imperfections. One implication of Paul’s teaching is that our value is in our content and not our form. In other words, what we say is more valuable than how we say it and what we do is more valuable than how we do it.
My goal in ministry, sharing the knowledge of God and shining the light, is not eloquence and exactitude (as is evident with a blog post a few weeks ago containing more errors than a little league game) but expressing the truth of God to all those whom God blesses this earthen vessel to reach. So, I no longer wander about if I could of had an affect on the readers personnel growth if I could only write good (I know, at least 6 errors in that last sentence). I only hope that God can use this imperfect platform and performer to point to Him, the author and perfecter of our faith.
Even a misspelled sign can give direction if its message is true. Of this, I am living proof.
The other night as I was reflecting on the fact that the New England Patriots had just won their fifth Super Bowl©, it made me think of God’s grace and guidance. Sure, as a Pastor, I often connect random occurrences in life with Biblical themes; the progression of Sunday’s game and its outcome makes my job easy. For the Patriots, this was a season which required the team to deal with consequences for bad actions, demonstrated determination when excuses might have been easier and exemplified fortitude and the discipline of finishing strong. These are things we all could afford to reflect upon, and learn from, as we face the struggles of life.
As even the casual football fan knows, Tom Brady was suspended for the first four games of the season ultimately due to his refusal to cooperate with the NFL Commissioner’s investigation into “Deflate-gate”. After a lengthy process involving the courts, Brady agreed to accept his suspension, albeit with no admission of guilt. He then was forced to sit out the first four games of the season. While we can argue, and many have, about the fairness of the Commissioner’s decision, it was what it was. Tom Brady, and the team, suffered the consequences of his actions. Then he was restored to active status and played the remainder of the season. As I saw the Commissioner shake TB12’s hand and later hand him the Super Bowl© MVP trophy, I thought about grace. To an even greater degree than the NFL brass and its players, God is correcting and rebuking His children and then, after confession and contrition has been made, fully and completely restores them, separating their sin as far as the east is from the west. Do the crime, do the time, receive forgiveness and restoration, and go back out and compete.
Before the big game was played, it was reported that Tom Brady’s mother had been battling an undisclosed illness for eighteen months. Also, the Patriots had suffered significant injuries throughout the regular season, including an injury which sidelined their most powerful offensive weapon, Rob Gronkowski. No one would have blamed the Patriots if they had said that this was not their year, that the obstacles were too great and the challenges were too overwhelming. Instead, the team worked hard, utilized “lesser” members, and seized victory. To an even greater degree, God is drawing together and equipping His church to claim victory over darkness. He has brought together a wide variety of people with a wide variety of abilities, all broken in one way or another, to become stronger together than they would ever be separately. Do your job, do it to the best of your ability, trust those around you and taste victory.
Even the most optimistic ‘homer’ in New England may have thrown in the towel at six and a half minutes into the third quarter when the Falcons took a commanding 28-3 lead. It is almost inconceivable that the Patriots (who had scored 3 points in the first 36:29 of the game) could score 25 points in the remaining 23:31 of regulation. It is almost equally inconceivable, given the difficulties they had on defense, that they could hold the Falcons scoreless for the remainder of the game. But that is exactly what happened – touchdown, field goal, touchdown, two-point conversion, touchdown, two-point conversion. Tie game. Overtime. Touchdown. Champions. The accolades and the prize goes to those who finish strong. To an even greater degree, that is the attitude God desires in us. God’s people ought not to start strong and ultimately give out, but finish strong and ultimately win out.
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 1 Corinthians 9:24
Congratulations to the World Champion New England Patriots. I am grateful to God that He can use such an earthly endeavor as a football game to remind us of His great plans and hopes for us.
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!
According to Albert Einstein, “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.” We all can remember times when insignificant details accumulate to significantly shape our lives. Coincidence often takes part in how we meet our soulmates, determine our vocations and develop our strengths. When it is looked at objectively, so much of each our lives are built on coincidences. Few of us who are married first laid eyes on our future spouse with the expectation of nuptials. Few of us had a detailed plan for our career and then worked the plan. Objectively, we should agree that the world is too random to assume that most of the major developments in life are left to chance. Objectively, it makes more sense that there is someone who has a plan for us, whether he wants to remain anonymous or not.
This truth became clear to me once again as I studied the second chapter of Ruth last week. In two places, the author makes the point, with cultural wordplay that God’s plan is so coincidental that it cannot be random. First, the author writes:
“So she went out, entered a field and began to glean behind the harvesters. As it turned out, she was working in a field belonging to Boaz, who was from the clan of Elimelek.” Ruth 2:3 (NIV)
Then, one verse later, the author writes:
“Just then Boaz arrived from Bethlehem and greeted the harvesters, “The LORD be with you!” “The LORD bless you!” they answered.” Ruth 2:4 (NIV)
So Ruth just happened to stumble into a relative’s field at just the same time that this relative, Boaz, returns to check on that same field. Objectively, it seems too specific to be random.
Objectively, it seems more rational, and more honest, to acknowledge that the God who designed the orbit of planets, who placed every star in the sky and who builds and topples nations directs the path of each and every person in all creation, including the big pictures and small details of our personal histories. Since this is true, we ought to appreciate those big pictures that provide clarity as well as those small details that regularly go unnoticed. And since so much of our lives are shaped by the accumulation of individually insignificant events, it is in our best interest to occasionally take notice of the ‘coincidences’ that guide our lives.
Maybe God is guiding you when you see an old friend in a hotel lobby while you are on vacation so that you renew a relationship, so that you have that contact when a better job is available at that friend’s company. Perhaps He is guiding you through an article you read in a waiting room, then a conversation over the phone and then a relative’s diagnosis so that you make an appointment for that cancer screening and you avoid having to endure treatments. Then again, maybe He is guiding you to move so that your travel pattern to work is changed so that you share a smile with a kid who, unbeknownst to you, is going through a tough time at home and needed someone to give him hope. God is in it all.
Thank God that He is Lord of the details of life, whether He chooses to reveal His hand or not.
This week Jeanine and I have been looking at apartments. We need to move at the end of next month and we are trying to find a place where we can see ourselves and our children living for the next few years, God willing. It is a challenge – there are features in a dwelling that are necessities, features that are preferences and features that are luxuries – and these features interplay with cost and location. Do we live where we can comfortably afford the rent, even if it is in a less-than-desirable neighborhood? Do we really need a washer and dryer on property or a dishwasher in the kitchen (for those keeping score, one is a necessity and the other is a preference)? Can we survive without the luxury of a dining room so that we can enjoy the preference of four bedrooms? Where does keeping the younger kids in their present schools fall within our priorities?
Needless to say, these questions (and their gelatinous nature) and these decisions (not just on our part, but also on the part of the homeowners) are keeping my wife and me up at night with anxious thoughts. I’d like to say that I could be happy wherever we move, but I have a nagging feeling that I may not be happy just anywhere. I want to say that I am trusting in the Lord to guide our steps in the process, but I also feel that I am dragging my feet along the way. What can I do to lessen these feelings of dread and fear?
Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. 1 Peter 5:7
Honestly, I simply need to release it. These concerns and apprehensions that I am holding onto like a child’s security blanket I just need to hand over to God, knowing that He will address these concerns and implement His loving plan for my future. This, frankly, is difficult for me: I find it hard to ride in a car that I am not driving; how can I be expected to give up control of my whole life? And that is the reason I have had more than a few sleepless nights recently. I am greatly concerned and anxious about things that are truly beyond my control. The tension in my life is not about moving (or about the logistics of trucks and boxes and calendars) but about seeking to manage what I cannot manage.
It is somewhat like what my wife and youngest son did the other day – they tried to finish all the puzzles in his room before they were packed into boxes. Some of the puzzles were missing pieces (including some of the ‘crucial to solving’ edges) and try as they might, their task could not be completed. Did they worry, fret or frown because the job was left undone? Did the unfinished puzzle consume their thoughts? No – those puzzles were simply set aside, destined for the recycling bin, and they moved onto the next ones. I can only work with what I’ve got and trust that God will allow me the pieces of this puzzle called life when He knows I am ready to place them in.
We will likely be making some decisions this weekend. If you are a person who prays, please consider lifting my family (and our living situation) before the throne. And if you are like me, trying to ‘cast and claim His care’, let me know how I can pray for you. It’ll give me something different (and better) to focus on should I find myself still unable to sleep.
Despite the fact that my family and I live in an urban area, we are regularly visited by more rural creatures. A few years ago, we had birds nesting in our window boxes. Then, the other night my wife told me that while I was attending the church’s prayer meeting, a family of raccoons (a mother and five babies) were stranded on our neighbor’s roof. Somehow they had climbed up but apparently they were now unable to go back down. Jeanine, David and Joshua were intrigued by the mother’s watch-care over her rambunctious litter as she divided her time equally between finding a safe path for her babies off the roof and controlling their rolling into the gutters and running around and over one another. Jeanine had no success at calling animal control and in the morning the newest residents of Nahant Avenue were gone.
As Jeanine recounted her observations of this family of raccoons, it was obvious that her concern was that one of those little babies, completely unaware of the danger, would playfully roll too close to the edge and plummet the roughly 20 feet to the ground. She identified with the maternal instinct of the mother raccoon as she would grab and pull back to safety her little ones. Through it all, the babies simply wanted to play – chasing one another and rolling around into cracks and corners, seemingly oblivious that trouble lurked just inches away.
There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death. Proverbs 14:12 (ESV)
In many ways, I am like one of those baby raccoons and God is that attentive mother. I am regularly courting danger, oblivious at how close my destruction may be. In hindsight, I can recognize places of reckless behavior: there are times that I drive too fast, lift too much, dabble with sin too carelessly and stand too close to the edge. It would be impossible to fully comprehend how many times I was ignorantly heading for death (at least spiritually if not physically), only to be rescued by the hand of my loving heavenly Father. When I was about to fall, the Lord interceded in my life and spared me the damages I unknowingly planned on experiencing.
Like I said, we do not know how the raccoons got off the roof; all we know is that in the morning they were gone and there was no sign of any negative outcome of their evening in danger. It is the same with all of us – not only do we rarely recognize the danger, we also rarely recognize the redemption. We remember the fun we had and forget the risks we took. It is unfortunate that we only occasionally sense the hand of God – redirecting, redeeming and reaching us – at our regular moments of needed rescue. Praise Him, He is always there, whether we know it or not.
I’d like to think that those five little raccoons are in a wooded glen, frolicking with their mother. I’d like to think that the real dangers they experienced on the neighbor’s roof are never realized. I’d like to think the same for all of us, that God will continue to guide us through the valley of the shadow of death while we fear no evil. I’d like to think these thoughts might make me rethink my own plans, which leads to destruction, and follow God’s direction, which leads to life.
About a month ago I received a belated fiftieth birthday present: a prescription for an ACE inhibitor (Lisinopril) for hypertension/high blood pressure. Because of this daily reminder of bodily deterioration, I have had to establish a new routine – every morning I take my pill before I do anything else. By maintaining this pattern, I don’t give a second thought to whether or not I have already taken it (although there are times that I still think I might have forgotten to take it, only to be reassured that I must have taken it at the start of my day). It is this type of personal discipline that will improve my overall well-being.
Now, if only I could maintain some discipline in other areas of life. How much better would my well-being be if I simply had the discipline to eat less at mealtimes and much less at other times? How much better would my day be if I added one hundred steps or a few flights of stairs to my daily exercise regimen? How much better would my health be if I committed to reducing stress and increasing my sleep? My hesitation arises from the knowledge that any beneficial discipline will require an amount of denial and denying myself is frequently painful.
No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. Hebrews 12:11 (NIV)
The writer of Hebrews expresses the positive benefits of discipline – the production of righteousness and peace – and I have to wonder if a few extra bites, a few more snacks, a few quicker trips, a few more minutes of vacuous television is worth what is being forfeited. Just as I take something to control my blood pressure (and, I hope, extend my life expectancy to see my eight-year old’s wife and children), I need to practice other disciplines to procure an opportunity to live strongly as a good steward of the physical body I have been given by God.
And why stop at God’s gift of my physical health? What about my relational health, my intellectual health and my spiritual health? There are disciplines I ought to incorporate for my relational well-being (such as holding my tongue more frequently than I am now), my intellectual well-being (like reading something from a dead author instead of watching television) and my spiritual well-being (maybe spending an hour in silence instead of being surrounded by technology). Perhaps there is wisdom in the words attributed to a number of great thinkers:
“Sow a thought and you reap an action; sow an act and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny.”
If I believe that the practice of discipline will produce righteousness and peace (and I do), and if I can develop the pattern of thinking about these promises instead of the initial pain (and I can), perhaps I will begin communicating these promises and living better to the point in my life where I am no longer thinking about what I have surrendered. Then all that initial pain will give way to pleasure as I am afforded opportunity to spontaneously do things I would not have had the ability to do had I forgone the discipline in the first place.
All this heavy thinking has made me hungry…but I can wait until mealtime.