In recent days I have been wondering what the appropriate response might be for a follower of Christ to have in addressing the pressing concerns reported through news outlets. I have been asking myself what Jesus might do and say in the aftermath of mass shootings (and the correlated issues of gun-ownership and our cultural love of violence) or child detainment at the borders (and the correlated issues of asylum and systemic racism). My response cannot be simply adding a hashtag to social media posts or offering “thoughts and prayers” – although thinking about these issues and praying for their rightful resolution is a good first step as long as other steps follow quick behind. But where are my feet to fall?
There are two things I know: that I cannot do nothing and that I cannot rely on political powers to legislate a solution. If I have learned anything from expositing the “One Another” passages of the New Testament each Sunday this summer, it is that God commands us to care deeply for one another, so doing nothing in light of real suffering is not an option. I have also learned that soundbites and speeches rarely foster compromise, so waiting for Washington is also not an option. I have decided instead to turn to God and His word to find wisdom in this time of need.
Listen to my words, Lord, consider my lament. Hear my cry for help, my King and my God, for to you I pray. Psalm 5:1-2 (NIV)
According to the Dictionary of Bible Themes, a lament is “a song of mourning or sorrow.” The scriptures are rife with lamentation, typically taking a particular form: a crying out in sorrow, an acceptance of evil, an acknowledgement that things are not following God’s will and a trust that God will ultimately be glorified. I reckon that the right response is to offer up to God a lament, just like David, Solomon, Isaiah, Ezekiel and Amos did in their day. We, as the people of God, need to cry out in mourning, acknowledging that these acts of violence and exclusion are not part of God’s created order and accepting that God is our only hope of resolution.
“Lord, hear my cry. Weapons of war have been amassed by individuals with the sole intent of bringing havoc and harm. Small but vocal portions of Your creation are intent on dividing us through irrelevant distinctions and minimizing the intrinsic value of all those who bear Your image. This is not what You desire; our hearts are broken because Your heart breaks over our sin.
“Lord, hear my cry. I seek Your beauty and Your glory in these days. I know that You are close to the widow and the orphan, and that You have regard for the plight of the sojourner. I long for my spirit to reflect Yours. I know that You desire that Your children repent and turn away from evil. I know that we who are inhabitants of Your kingdom are aliens and strangers in this foreign land. Enable us to turn from our sinful ways and honor Your purposes for us.
Lord, hear my cry. You alone can change the human heart. You alone can turn us from hostility to hospitality. You alone are our hope. Help me to no longer rely on human strength or invention to solve what only You can make right. And while I wait for Your hand to make all things right, equip me to obediently carry out Your redemptive plan among those with whom You have blessed me. In the name of the Lord, I pray. Amen.”
At Vacation Bible School earlier this week, one of the lessons was about ‘going beyond with boldness’. As I taught the seven 3rd through 6th graders in my class about courageously trusting in the Lord, about doing and saying what is right even when it is hard, we explored the life and faith of Esther. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “Esther, the beautiful Jewish wife of the Persian king Xerxes I, and her cousin Mordecai persuade[d] the king to retract an order for the general annihilation of Jews throughout the empire.” Esther is the supreme example what God can do through a person who demonstrates boldness.
With a twenty-first century worldview, it might escape the awareness of the casual reader of the Old Testament that speaking to your husband about a decree would require extreme boldness. But the author of the book of Esther, in the first chapter, tells us what happens when a queen displeased King Xerxes: during a party with his friends, Queen Vashti was summoned in order to show her beauty; the queen refuses to go; so, the king exiles her from his presence and procures a new wife. If that is what happened to the queen after an informal request, what would happen to Esther when she decries an official proclamation? Yet, she courageously stood up for what was right.
“For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” Esther 4:14
Esther is a role-model for all the spine-deficient among us. After deciding that God, in fact, raised her to the position of queen for just this purpose, she devises a plan and musters the strength to speak of this injustice perpetrated against the people of God. But when she had an audience before the king, she buckles and only invites him to a banquet. She chickens out, reminding us all that even the strongest sometimes shiver before they shine. Then, after two days of drinking, Esther speaks up and secures the safety of her people, boldly proclaiming the truth of God. Despite the real possibility of losing everything – even her life – she courageously stands up for God.
We are not that different from Esther. We see and hear of injustice and wrongdoing every day. We, too, may have come into our position – a place of power and prosperity – for such a time as this. We could speak to the authorities of today and address the issues of today. We could go beyond what we think is possible with boldness. We need modern-day Esthers, those who are apprehensive but aware, and tentative but trusting.
One final word from the lesson plan: the name Esther means ‘star’. Just as there are stars in the night sky that have died centuries ago and their light is still reaching the earth after travelling for thousands of years, so too the examples of ‘stars of the faith’ may have died long ago, but still shine today.
In January, as a birthday gift from my family, I received a Fitbit© fitness tracker. Because of this high tech ‘wristwatch’, I have become aware of so many aspects of my life and health: this little gizmo tracks things like my steps, my sleep, my resting heart rate and my hours of activity. I am particularly obsessed with my step count and have begun to enjoy the sensation of personal accomplishment that comes from reaching my daily goal of eight-thousand steps. Plus, when you are walking 8,000 steps, generally over the same terrain, you begin to notice things that have escaped your attention if you were driving by. As I evaluate where my steps have taken me, I realize that where I walk is how I live.
Walking gives you the time to exchange pleasantries with those you are passing on the sidewalks or front porches along the path. Walking affords you the opportunity to observe the repairs being made to gorgeous old houses and those that are still desperately needed. Walking prepares you to keep your distance from that big unfriendly dog that is always guarding his fenced front yard (the fence of which is seriously too low). Walking provides you the time to check out what others are discarding and time to think about how you could use that dresser or night table on that great and glorious day when space is no longer a concern. Walking enables you to feel the sunshine and the gentle rain, invigorating the soul.
It has given me great joy to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as the Father commanded us. … And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love. 2 John 4,6
John’s second letter to the church tells believers that we must walk (or have the lifestyle) of truth and obedience and love. These are not individual commands but a singular multi-faceted directive. Part of my daily walk involves walking in the truth, putting feet to the gospel, walking in such a way that shows that God loves the residents of Geneva Avenue as deeply as the residents of Commonwealth Avenue. Part of my daily walk involves walking in obedience, putting feet to biblical integrity, walking in such a way that shows that God’s people stay on the sidewalks and resist trespassing onto the lawn. Part of my daily walk involves walking in love, putting feet to grace and mercy, walking in such a way that shows those who I encounter a willingness to offer my assistance and my understanding.
I have been asking myself a question as I walk: does how I go and where I go project the truth, obedience and love I have in God? In order to answer that question as I should, I need to remind myself that walking is more than a means of getting from one point to another, but an opportunity to slow down and engage in the life all around us. Walking is one way we serve the community as the body of Christ. It is more than an exercise for fitness; it is an exercise of faith.
“All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.” Abraham Lincoln
Sunday is Mother’s Day, when three out of four of us will purchase a greeting card and over two-thirds of us will buy flowers for our mom (or our children’s mom). It is the least we can do for those who have given us so much of themselves. There is something in our mother’s kisses that are more therapeutic than the best medicine and something in her voice that is more comforting than the best psychotherapy. Mom was likely the first to read to us, pray for us and cry with us. She made sure, for most of us, that we had a birthday cake on our special day and a new outfit for the first day of school. It is right and good to honor and remember the ones who endured painful labor and sleepless nights for her children: God bless Mom!
As I think about Mother’s Day, my thoughts come back to a commercial I recently saw for the Portal from Facebook. In the commercial, actor Neil Patrick Harris decides to call and celebrate his mother on Mother’s Day using the Portal from Facebook. He sees that she’s not alone; she has company: the mothers of Serena and Venus Williams, Odell Beckham Jr., Snoop Dogg and Dwayne Johnson among others. While Neil knows who they are, most people watching the commercial are unfamiliar with the women on the video-chat screen and are given only a clue by Neil’s references – Odell’s mom, Jonah’s mom and the like. These women, no doubt, have done great things in their own right but are willingly recognized as someone’s mom. We ourselves may not actually know some women’s names, only that they are so-and-so’s mom. God bless you, Neil’s mom.
I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also. 2 Timothy 1:5 (NIV)
One of the moms of the Bible who lived a life of seemingly quiet obscurity is Lois – the mom of Eunice, who was the mom of Timothy. All we know about this woman is what we read in the verse I have quoted. All we have as a historical record is that a sincere faith lived in her. There are so many unanswered questions: Did she have hobbies or a favorite story? Where did she grow up? How long was she married? Was she like the Proverbs 31 woman and worked outside (as well as inside) the home? Was she tall, attractive and wealthy or petite, plain and poor? All we know is her name, her heart and her grandson. But, in God’s economy, that is enough. God has blessed us with moms like Lois.
Happy Mother’s Day to all those who are known by the world only as someone’s mom. God knows you are much more than that: you are leaders of industry, educators, medical experts, investors, inventors and artists – and then you go out the front doors of your home and do even more. Happy Mother’s Day!
The other day, an article in Relevant Magazine came to my attention. It reported on a new Instagram© account, PreachersNSneakers, that shows influential Christian leaders wearing high priced fashion. According to the article, the internet poster shows, among many examples, one pastor wearing SBB Jordan 1 sneakers, which cost $965, and another pastor wearing $1,045 Adam & Yves Saint Laurent boots. With all fairness, it is unclear who paid for or provided the pictured church leaders with their footwear or clothing, whether it was a personal purchase, an unsolicited gift or a promotional perk. Whatever the source, the pictures are shocking the sensibilities of many in the Christian community.
The article made me think about my choices, especially a few weeks ago on Easter Sunday, of dress. I wore a new suit (purchased at a ‘Buy 1, Get 2 Free’ sale), a new shirt and tie (both acquired while on sale at Kohl’s), a pair of old, but polished shoes, and new socks. It is these socks that give me pause: they were a gift from my daughter, who purchased them in Rome at the Vatican’s gift shop; they were produced by the tailor of the Pope. They may be the most luxurious item I have worn in a great while.
I remember commenting on the socks throughout the morning, glowingly reflecting that my “Pope socks” were a gift. I have no idea how much they cost my daughter – perhaps as little as $10 or as much as $50 (to which my thoughts scream, “Heavens, no!”) I gave no thought to the challenges some in the congregation may be facing: was there a participant in worship that wondered if I had paid for socks that would have filled their car with gas or bought them a weekend’s worth of groceries? This train of thought has subsequently been derailed as I think of the luxuries I enjoy that may come at the expense of ministry – thoughts relating to how much I spend on coffee or dining out or fashion accessories.
Better a little with the fear of the LORD than great wealth with turmoil. Proverbs 15:16
It is easy to judge people we only read about because their sneakers are more valuable than our cars. It is harder to correctly assess these things as they relate to our own personal spending habits. The line between necessities and luxuries can be difficult to locate. Most of us do not need personally tailored suits or dresses, brand name sneakers or stilettos, or homes with ten bedrooms. But we do need shirts, shoes and shelters. The optics of excess lie in the details, both in what we spend and the cultural surrounding in which we spend. Manhattan has a different standard than Montgomery of what is a necessity versus a luxury .
I am choosing to continue wearing my “Pope socks” but I will graciously refuse to accept any gift which includes a pair of Yeezy Boost 350 V2s. I will continue to try to give more to others than I luxuriously spend on myself. Hopefully, that we keep me from appearing on Instagram in a Tesla®.
More often than I care to admit or recognize, the disparate portions of scripture that read relating to different parts of my life that (whether it be through sermon preparation, prayer, or devotional readings) intersect to illuminate a truth that my thick skull would not have comprehended had it not been bombarded from diverse angles. This week, a verse from Proverbs (from a devotional), a verse from Psalms (through our church’s participation in “21 Days of Prayer”) and a verse from Acts (from last week’s sermon) have gotten me thinking. They all were used by the Holy Spirit to connect some dots, producing a picture of life that includes discernment, disappointment, and direction.
Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance…. Proverbs 1:5 (ESV)
I cry out to God Most High, to God who fulfills his purpose for me. Psalm 57:2 (ESV)
[Herod] had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. Acts 12:2 (NIV)
Initially, God directed me to the above passage in Proverbs and to a devotional where Tim Keller examined the difference between knowledge and discernment as they relate to the pursuit of wisdom. We must be ever increasing in our learning, gaining factual and practical knowledge from a variety of healthy sources. We must also seek understanding of this knowledge. We need to know what the truth is, as well as what the truth means in practice.
Next, God directed me to the passage in the Psalms, which states the truth that God fulfills His purposes for us. But what does that mean in practice? In context, David recited this plea as he was running for his life from Saul. It means that God uses all our experiences (times of joy and times of sorrow) as a means of fulfilling His purposes for us. Whether we comprehend God’s rationale for our situation, we must live with the understanding that He has a plan.
This leads to the final passage, which recorded the martyrdom of one the first disciples at the hands of Herod. Unlike His deliverance of Peter a few verses later, this passage appears to reflect that God did nothing to spare James’ life. That is what knowledge of the truth would tell me, anyways. But understanding of the passage tells me more: first, that Jesus secured James’ life after his physical death, delivering him from harm and granting him passage into His presence; and second, His purpose (whatever that may be) for James and the people James know was fulfilled.
Ultimately, the life of faith is found in the confluence of these verses (as well as thousands more). Whether it is budget meetings or bond hearings, weddings or funerals, winning the lottery or losing a job, God has a purpose for you. We can get a glimpse of this purpose through studying His word and seeking His guidance. But, whether we “get” what God is doing or not, we can trust that He will give us all we need to trust Him in the darker hours. We need only remember that God all things work together for good for those who are called according to His purpose. But that is a verse for another day.
On Wednesday night, a group of us from the church walked down the hill to the Ashmont T station and sang carols for the commuters. While we were there, I could not help but notice that Ashmont station is a hub of activity. There were people using every form of transportation: cars, cabs, busses, trains, bicycles and walking. There was a steady stream of busy people, some rushing past our makeshift choir and others lingering for a moment but ultimately moving onto other matters. And there were so many noises: car alarms, public address announcements, stray musical sounds and digital voices from cell phone speakers.
Yet, in the midst of all the hustle and bustle, there we were, proclaiming the joy, hope, peace and love of the Savior and handing out candy canes to those who would take them. As Philips Brooks wrote 150 years ago, “Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light….” While the rest of the neighborhood was moving about, accomplishing the things of their “To Do” lists, we were being used by God to provide a gentle reminder of the reason we celebrate. Above the din of humanity, the soft sounds of the baby born in the manger, the angels and Magi who visited, and the good tidings for all people could be heard.
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. Luke 2:1-4
Is our experience at the Ashmont T station a few nights ago what it was like in Bethlehem all those years ago? While it is unclear how many were living in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth (some scholars suggest as few as 300 or as many as 1,000), the biblical account of the events that occurred in Bethlehem are clear: so many people flooded this small village outside Jerusalem because of a governmentally decreed census that living space was at a premium. There were travelers, noises and activity aplenty and few, if any, stopped to notice the world changing couple that came to town. The urgency of the moment overwhelmed the importance of the advent, the appearing, of the Savior of humankind.
We, too, can get wrapped up in all that still needs doing that we overlook what has been done. We need to purchase gifts, wrap gifts, bake cookies, consume wassail, attend parties, visit family, connect with friends, worship on Christmas Eve, stuff stockings and settle down for a long winter’s nap. We can, like subway commuters and census participants, lose track of what is important as we engage in the things that are urgent. I pray that, in the midst of all the people, noise and activity of the next few days, you hear the angels’ song and delight in the birth of our Lord.
Last Sunday, I spent part of my vacation visiting a church not far from home. The fact that I went to church on vacation is not my point in this posting. Where we went is also not my point, nor is my point the fact that it was a wonderful service. What I felt as I sat there, on the other side of the pulpit, can be summed up in one word: distracted. I was distracted by the worship leader’s broken guitar string (and how he was going to handle the set-back). I was distracted by the graphics on the screen (and the exceptional quality of said images that the church projected through two large television screens). I was distracted by those sitting next to me (my boys have nothing softer than a stage whisper) and those sitting a few rows in front of me (who were shifting in their seats randomly and consistently).
My point is this: we all, even when we have the best of intentions, get distracted by the things that bombard our senses every Sunday. Perhaps, like me, you hear the radiator hiss or the bench squeak. Perhaps, like me, you see the head three rows ahead bob back and forth or the lamp on the platform flicker off and on. Perhaps, like me, you smell the lip balm of your wife or the phantom aromas of pot-lucks past. Perhaps, like me, you feel an odd breeze or sense your leg falling asleep. Before you know it, like me, you are missing what the Spirit is saying.
A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. Luke 7:37
As I think about my distracted mind last Sunday, I think about the Pharisee who invited Jesus to his house for dinner. In those days, eating a meal with someone was a big deal: it represented the importance of the relationship. As Jesus and the Pharisee were discussing any number of pressing matters, a woman comes in and proceeds to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears. The Pharisee (and apparently Luke) are fascinated by this woman, wetting His feet with her weeping, wiping them away with her hair and anointing them with perfume and kisses. Quite the spectacle.
At some point Jesus, knowing the Pharisee’s thoughts and his distracted condition, breaks through and tells the Pharisee a parable about forgiveness. This serves as a good reminder to all of us: Jesus knows our thoughts and how we are easily distracted, and He is willing and able to capture (and recapture) our attention to show us what we need to see. Jesus is faithful to His adopted siblings, pulling us away from our daydreams and off our rabbit trails and redirecting our thoughts toward His counsel. That is what I needed last Sunday, a nudge to ignore the behavior of that woman in front of me and focus (if only for a moment) on the Lord before me.
We all get distracted at times (even on Sunday mornings at 11:40 in Dorchester). It is good to know that God not only understands, but assists us in catching what we need to hear even when we are not listening.
The other morning, my mother-in-law underwent a procedure to treat her cataracts. At ninety-one, she was hesitant to have it done (she was unwilling to endure the pain, to be anesthetized, or to have a doctor mess with her eyes). After weeks of prayer and encouragement by a multitude of sources, she went to the surgical clinic and allowed the procedure to be done. The surgery was a success. Twenty-four hours later, at the follow-up appointment, two surprising developments took place: 1) she told the nurse that the experience was better than she expected, and 2) her vision test showed that her eyesight was greatly improved.
Worry is, by all appearances, a mighty adversary. It will tell us that the costs are not worth the gains. It will remind us of that one time, long ago, when we were mistreated and assure us it will happen again. It will highlight the adverse effects that professionals must legally disclose and tell us that we will be the ‘one-in-a-million’ to suffer. It will keep us up at night, make us lose our appetites and force us to pace the floor. Few know the truth, however, that worry is a paper tiger. Worry is only a shadow on the wall.
“Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” Matthew 6:27 (NIV)
As I read these words of Jesus, I think to myself, “Maybe I can; I am pretty good at it.” Despite my conviction that God’s word is true and that God grants perfect peace – complete contentment and wondrous well-being – to all who trust in Him, worry is a constant travelling companion of mine. Its relentless whisper rings in my ears, causing me to fret about everything from car accidents to broken bones, from power outages to excessive costs. I readily admit that this level of worry is not rational; it is nothing more than exhausting – of energy, of hope and or peace.
“So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Matthew 6:31-33 (NIV)
The remedy for worry is worship: to trust in the promises of our loving Heavenly Father for what we eat, what we drink and what we wear (as well as what we endure, what we await and what we hope to avoid). Worry is silenced when we rely upon God to provide whatever we need, whether it be peace or patience or perseverance. Worry is unmasked when we rest in God’s presence. Worry is defeated when we occupy our thought with the goodness, kindness and love of our creator. The paper tiger of worry is tamed by the authority of His name.
I hope that my quickly recovering mother-in-law (and I) will be able to see this truth.
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.