Considering all we have been through over the last 12 months, I have come to the conclusion that New Year’s resolutions are, at best, aspirational or, at worst, futile. Perhaps you thought, on December 31, 2019, that this next year was the year you would get a gym membership and exercise more consistently but after 80 days all the fitness clubs closed, and you were left a little less resolute. Or perhaps you thought you would adjust that unhealthy lifestyle and [fill in the blank] less, only to discover that it was all you had to do during the quarantine. It is painfully apparent that there is no certainty to the future.
Yet, our human nature, or perhaps our spark of divinity imbued through the Imago Dei, longs for our improvement. Therefore, the Apostle Peter writes the following to the Church:
For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. 2 Peter 1:5-7
Whether we are in the midst of a pandemic or in the center of God’s will (N.B.: these two places are not mutually exclusive), there are areas of our lives where we could be doing better. Honestly, I have learned a great deal about myself in the months of quarantine, and I recognize that there are things I desire to improve. I suppose January 1st is just as good a day to begin as any other.
Above all else, I desire this year to increase my perseverance, which Merriam-Webster defines as, “continued effort to do or achieve something despite difficulties, failure, or opposition”. I long to be more patient, more forbearing, more tenacious. My trouble is that perseverance is not something that a gym or a grocery store can supply. Perseverance comes through faith in the promises and providence of God over the long haul. It means, for me, delighting in the delays as part of God’s design and rejoicing in the roadblocks as they work toward my refinement. For me, I will know that I am developing perseverance when I no longer experience opposition with annoyance but with amazement.
But that is my struggle. Your struggle is likely different. Why not make an effort this year to work on what is weighing you down? If you need accountability, I am available to provide an occasional prod. If you need prayer, feel free to reach out and we can bring these concerns to God together. If you need motivation for change, simply replay the past year in your mind and marvel at how much you have adapted, adjusted, and altered because of this disease; is not your health as important? You have shown yourself to be resilient. Let the changes you make this year be on your terms. Let me encourage you to read the Bible a bit more this year, attend worship a bit more this year, practice kindness a bit more this year, and marvel at God’s goodness a bit more this year. Clearly, COVID cannot constrict the construction of your Christ-like character; become what you believe you are this year.
When we were vacationing last week, we spent a few hours with our nephew and his family. As we were walking through their backyard, our niece-in-law was showing us her extensive garden. She showed us the lettuce and carrots, some of which had been eaten by rascally rabbits. Then, pointing to some large leaves (which we speculated might have been collard greens or kale), she said, “Those were supposed to be beets, but I think the seeds were mislabeled.” I admit that I do not have a green thumb, but I have grown a few vegetables over the years; what I know about seeds is simple – that many of them look similar and it is not until you see their growth that you know for sure what they will produce.
This reality has reminded me of two biblical truths, one positive and one negative. First, the ‘bad news’: Jesus taught his disciples that you don’t pick figs from thornbushes. Next, the ‘good news’: God’s good creation is designed in such a way that every plant produces fruit according to its kind.
By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Matthew 7:16-18 (NIV)
You don’t pick grapes from thornbushes. You don’t pick figs from thistles. You don’t plant carrots and get apples. Cucumber seeds produce cucumbers, even when they are labeled as tomato seeds. The biblical truth (and agricultural truth) is that you get what you planted, not what you thought you planted. This is, however, not all bad news. Some of us, those who were labeled as “stupid” or “damaged” or “worthless”, need to be reminded that our envelope doesn’t determine our end. We are what we are, not what others say we are.
Every plant produces fruit according to its kind. The rosebush produces roses. The pea plant produces peas. The grapevine produces grapes. You understand my point. Even though we might be mislabeled or missorted, we all are capable of producing, and only producing, fruit in accordance with our nature. When we are properly fed, watered and pruned, we are all beneficial. This is, unequivocally, good news: God has made you, just as you are, so that you will produce your own particular kind of fruit. You can do no other task.
Susan’s garden, and the scriptural musings that those plants by the back fence have piqued, have left me with a question: what were you born to do? Whatever the answer, regardless of the ways you’ve been labeled, cultivate your core and bear fruit accordingly. Allow yourself to be fed by God over time and develop deep roots. Creatively pursue the passions of your heart, knowing that the fruit of an apple tree, for example, could be a cider, a sauce or a pie. The world needs what only you can offer.
This month, as we have in previous years, my wife, Jeanine, and I are attempting to see all the movies that have been nominated for the best picture Oscar©. Due to this challenge, we watched Sam Mendes’ World War I drama 1917, which depicts a harrowing day experienced by two British soldiers. I cannot say, at this point, if I would vote for it as the best picture (we still have a few more films to see), but I will say that it has one of the most moving scenes I have watched on film in quite a while. After facing the vast variety of experiences that comes with each life – from the beauty of cherry blossoms in bloom to the gruesome ravages of war – one of the film’s protagonists hears the haunting words of a Civil War folk song called “The Wayfaring Stranger”.
I am a poor wayfaring stranger
Travelling through this world of woe.
And there’s no sickness, no toil or danger
In that fair land to which I go.
I’m going there to meet my father,
I’m going there no more to roam;
I’m only going over Jordan,
I’m only going over home.
I know dark clouds will gather round me,
I know my way will be rough and steep;
But golden fields lie out before me
Where all the saints their vigils keep.
I’m going there to meet my mother,
I’m going there no more to roam;
I’m only going over Jordan,
I’m only going over home.
I thought about that song this week, as the news cycles repeatedly reminded us of the brokenness inherent within each life – young people whose lives were taken much too soon, others who were struck by a viral epidemic, and governmental leaders accused of high crimes and misdemeanors. We are all traveling through this world of woe. I wonder how many are facing the realities of sickness, toil and danger with the perspective referenced in this song from a previous generation. Despite fifteen decades of advances in medicine, technology, education and civility, we are still “wayfaring strangers”.
Instead, they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. Hebrews 11:16 (NIV)
In those seasons of sorrow, be assured that there is a land – prepared for all who trust in the benevolence of God – that is devoid of sadness, filled with golden fields and occupied by those we love. The physical world we see every day is not all that there is or all that God has provided for us; there is a home that is awaiting all those who are aware that it is just beyond our gaze. There is a war still being waged all around us, despite the occasional glimpses of beauty. There is also a place of peace with boundless splendor awaiting those who faithfully traverse the rugged terrain of earth.
As depicted in 1917, there are circumstances in life when we are faced with exhaustion and entertain thoughts of surrender. In those moments, remember that Christ has prepared for us a home.
For me and my family, the last 6 weeks have been a lesson in trust. It included answering a Craig’s List ad for an apartment rental, reserving a truck from U-Haul during their busiest weekend of the year, taking one son to freshman orientation 50 miles away and registering another son for Middle school in a new town. At every step along the way I worried that I was just building what amounted to sandcastles as I waited for the tide to come in and wash our plans away. My mind ran through every negative scenario that would leave us without a truck or a roof or an address necessary for school enrollment.
While my thoughts spiraled downward, every single detail relative to all these moving parts of our life had positive outcomes; truth be told, most of the details were actually more favorable than I could have anticipated. The realtor handling our new apartment offered (without provocation) to reduce both his fee and the monthly rent. The representative at U-Haul made available (with little provocation) the truck for an additional 18 hours. The college orientation was so well-structured that David was moved in about 15 minutes after we arrived on campus. The placement exam and enrollment process for Joshua was flawless. At every turn, we found blessing where I was fearing barriers.
The LORD had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.” Genesis 12:1 (NIV)
Looking back over what has transpired over the past few months, I am yet again confronted with my own weaknesses: that I trust God too little and fear uncertainty too much. This is all in direct contradiction to what I have experienced over and over again: God continually allows my feet to fall in favorable places – through the lights and through the shadows – and consistently teaches me that I am wasting too much energy worrying about things I ought not contemplate. God is faithful even when I have little faith. God is trustworthy even if I have trouble trusting anyone but myself.
God is good, whether I know it or not. He knows where we are, He knows where we are going and He knows how He will get us there. He knows our worries and concerns and provides comforts and consolations. My trouble is that I trust what I can see. I am a master of the short game and I think that life is a sprint. If it is right in front of me, I can accept it. But God plays a long game and life is a marathon. There are aspects of my life that I know nothing about (things that are miles down the road and years from materializing) but that are perfectly ordered by our omniscient and almighty God.
I thank the Lord for the lessons I have learned in recent days: that I am woefully inadequate to attend to all the details of life, that God has unfathomable blessings in store for those who obey Him and that I need to trust Him more. O Lord, help my little faith.
It all started with a simple exercise during our Sunday School class: write down one thing you think you need but do not have. My sweet and kind-hearted eleven-year-old boy, in tiny letters on his paper wrote two words which broke my heart – ‘less change’. Those in the class quickly offered consolation, telling one another that change is inevitable and can lead to positive things. But for at least one pre-teen, this is all too much: moving to a neighboring town, changing schools, having a life-long roommate go off to college and watching other family members transition to places of their own. It makes me sad that my son, despite the brave face, is hurting.
Yes, we are moving again. For those keeping score, this is the 7th time in our thirty year marriage that we are packing boxes and renting trucks. After 20 years (and 1 month) in Boston, we are moving 2 miles south of the city to Quincy. [As a side note: if you will be in the Boston area on Friday, August 30th, or Saturday, August 31st, we could use some help. Contact me.] For the only time in any of our lives, Jeanine and me included, one of us will be required to change school systems and make new friends and adjust to new paradigms. I am confident that God will order Joshua’s steps and that he will thrive in this new adventure, but I still worry. If you pray, would you pray for Josh?
This move has forced Jeanine and I to make necessary, but personally difficult, decisions. Certainly, we are determining what possessions we are moving, what we are donating and what we are tossing (and for all those Marie Kondo devotees out there, nothing in this process is sparking joy). But there are other decisions that have been made: we decided that our budget could only afford three bedrooms in our new living situation, and so our three oldest children, over the next month or two, are transitioning to college and beyond. In this, too, I am confident that God will guide my family into blessings I cannot yet comprehend.
The steps of a man are established by the Lord, when he delights in his way; though he fall, he shall not be cast headlong, for the Lord upholds his hand. Psalm 37:23-24 (ESV)
It should come as no surprise to anyone who has read the Bible that God uses the process of change to bring about our maturity and development. Abraham was told to move. Mary and Joseph were led to relocate. Peter was commanded to change careers. It should come as no surprise to any of us that God may lead us in similar ways. New jobs, new schools and new homes may cause worry in the strongest of hearts, but when we know it is a part of God’s way we can take delight in knowing that whatever comes, He will uphold us.
For all those who feel that they need ‘less change’, hold out hope in knowing that the Lord will be with you on the other side of whatever change you are experiencing.
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.
It was supposed to be the fastest two minutes in sports, but the Kentucky Derby turned out to be the longest 20 minutes in horse racing. As a way of providing a quick recap from the race that took place a couple of weeks ago, here is what the stewards of Churchill Downs officially recorded: the lead horse, Maximum Security, strayed from his lane and impacted the progress of another horse, War of Will, which in turn interfered with two others, Long Range Toddy and Bodexpress; because of this infraction, Maximum Security was disqualified and considered not to have participated, and the second place finisher, a horse named Country House, was declared a winner. Earlier this week, ten days after the race, the owners of Maximum Security filed a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn the disqualification.
I have an insufficient knowledge of the rules of thoroughbred racing to posit an opinion about the merits of the disqualification or the lawsuit. Was one horse’s veering from its path into the path of another sufficient cause to force the forfeiture of the substantial purse and the even more substantial legacy that goes with winning the Kentucky Derby? I cannot say. But then again, hypothetically, was my traveling ten miles over the speeding limit, along with everyone else, sufficient reason for a state police officer to cite me for speeding? Hypothetically again, was my fabrication about a little thing like coffee consumption sufficient cause for people to question my truthfulness?
But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. 1 Corinthians 9:27 (ESV)
Call it what you will: a competitive edge, a social construct, an ethical dilemma or a way of doing business; if it is unlawful, unethical or ungodly, it ought not to be done. Those who do these things are in danger of disqualification. Paul’s advice: stay in your lane. He tells us the secret to his spiritual integrity – if it takes away from the message we are telling or tarnishes our witness to the gospel, it is not worth the price. When we step over the line, we risk everything: it is possible that we could also forfeit our reward and forgo our legacy.
The antidote for disqualification is discipline or, as other translations put it, beating our bodies. We need the Holy Spirit to ride us like a righteous jockey, coaxing us with the crop to continue running on the right track and spurring us on to expend our greatest effort and achieve God’s goal. We need the Word of God to be a faithful trainer, strengthening us through resistance exercises and building our endurance through running the course. We need the Church to be a constant companion, challenging us when we are slogging through the mud and encouraging us to finish the race.
We are so much more than racehorses. We, who know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, are children of the Almighty and we ought never do anything that might jeopardize our birthright – the crown of life reserved for the victor. Trust the Holy Spirit, the Word of God and the Church to keep us on track and finish the race properly.