Occasionally, I wrestle with a topic to write about in this weekly blog; this was one of those weeks. As a number of themes turned in my mind, I prayed that God would help me in my efforts to formulate a concise and meaningful reflection worthy of posting. Ironically, my attentions were drawn over and over again to prayer: as I discussed with other pastors a biography we read on J. Hudson Taylor, the conversation was about prayer; as I led the Lenten study on Matthew 26, the scriptures addressed prayer; when I put a 2006 Veggie Tales DVD into the player for the kids I watched as their moms attended the Women’s Bible Study, “Gideon: Tuba Warrior”, we unexpectedly watched a vignette about George Mueller (who was a champion of prayer).
Hudson Taylor was the founder of China Inland Mission, which brought the gospel to the Chinese, through ‘faith missions’ (the sending of missionaries with no promises of temporal support, but instead a reliance ‘through prayer to move [people] by God’), serving eastern Asia from 1854 – 1905. He utterly relied on prayer for his provision and direction throughout his life. As we discussed the life and faith of this great follower of Christ, a few of us were transparent enough to voice our regret that our prayer lives were, in comparison, woefully lacking in fervor and faithfulness. Hudson’s contemporary George Mueller built and directed numerous orphanages in Bristol, England while never making a single request for financial support; he remained debt-free as he relied solely on concerted prayer for God’s provision.
He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” Matthew 26:37-38
The above-mentioned verses report part of what took place in the garden of Gethsemane hours before Jesus was arrested. Jesus and his disciples had just concluded their commemoration of the Passover and had gone to this place just outside the city to pray. Unlike other times, when Jesus went to a solitary place, on this occasion he asks his three closest friends to stay and keep watch – to pray – with him. At the time of deepest sorrow, our Lord prayed with others. Our savior’s last act of human volition was to conduct a prayer meeting with his companions. I cannot help but ask myself if I would do the same thing.
It all makes me wonder: do we pray better when we pray together? Are we all a bit more like Moses than we care to admit, that we simply cannot keep our hands raised in prayer and intercession without the help of others (see Exodus 17:8-16)? Are we willing to learn from Jesus the lesson that we are better able to accomplish God’s will when we ‘keep watch’ together? I am not, in my own strength alone, able to pray as I should. Perhaps we could get together, say on a Wednesday night, and hold up one another in prayer.
After last Sunday’s sermon I had a conversation with my wife about its delivery. It was based on Acts 16:11-24, when, among other things, Paul commands a spirit of divination to come out from a servant girl. This was done because Paul, according to verse 18, became troubled by her incessant shouting; the word choice by Luke is one of annoyance, that she got on his nerves much more than she got to his heart. In my message I said that this part of a ministry of compassion, service based upon sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others, but I was wrong: while the servant girl was shown sympathy or concern, Paul was seemingly only intent of keeping her quiet.
Not so with the subject of another conversation I had later last week among a group of colleagues. My friend Bob shared some thoughts on Mephibosheth as recorded in 2 Samuel 9. This man with the unusual name (meaning “the one who shatters shame’) was disabled – dropped by a nurse as a child causing him to be lame in both legs – and disgraced, the grandson of the conquered king. He was living a quiet and desperate life in a place called Lo-debar (“no pasture”). At the same time, King David (his dearly-departed father’s best friend and his casualty-of-battle grandfather’s mortal enemy) was wondering if there was anyone in Mo’s family to which he could show God’s kindness. What David does is truly compassionate.
David asks the sympathetic question: “Where is he?” There is no regard for why it happened, or how it happened, or when it happened. There is no concern over the investment or the objective. There is only a question of how quickly he could help.
David shows a sympathetic spirit: he offers for Mo to dine at the king’s table for the remainder of his life. The king was not inviting him as a servant but as a son, with no expectations of repayment or reward. There is only an offer of grace.
Imagine Sabbath-day dinner at the palace: Amnon, the oldest boy, strong and witty; Absalom, the good looking one; Tamar, the princess; Solomon, always talking about something he read; and let’s not forget that Mephibosheth, legs at two different angles, humble and quiet, sits in the midst of it all. That is the picture of compassion, that kindness that originates in the heart for the sake of alleviating the suffering of another.
And Mephibosheth lived in Jerusalem, because he always ate at the king’s table; he was lame in both feet. 2 Samuel 9:13
We all know that expression of compassion, for we are all Mephibosheth. God the king made a promise before we were born to care for us. He searched us out while we hid in fear in a barren land. And He blessed us with all things, allowing us to dine and recline with Him at His table. Broken as we are, crippled as we are, humble as we are, we were given more than we deserve. We ought to remember that the next time we come across someone who demands our pity and concern. In that moment, may we all act compassionately from the heart, not simply appropriately so as to settle our nerves.
My wife, Jeanine, and I completed our annual quest to view the Best Picture Oscar® nominations before the telecast. Each year, I have tried to predict who would win with only limited success (currently I am batting .500; 3 right predictions in 6 years). My prediction will be revealed at the end of this post, but first I want to think about our culture as reflected in these 8 cinematic masterpieces.
This blog is not written by a movie critic; I am a minister of the gospel. As such, it is unlikely that the Academy is considering my particular demographic in their determination of what is ‘best’. That being said, I watch these films with the hope that I can gain a glimpse of a deeper truth embedded in these movies. What I have come to see is that all these films include elements of systemic ‘selectivism’ within our culture:
- The plot of Black Panther revolves around the divisions our world faces regarding race, asking the audience, in the guise of a superhero blockbuster with spectacular special effects, why wouldn’t the richest nation on the planet use its resources to deliver all the earth from societal injustice;
- The fact-based Blackkklansman retells the story of a black officer in Colorado Springs who becomes a card-carrying member of the KKK, thwarting the ‘organization’s’ plans for violence, and, in so doing, depicts the hate-filled rhetoric some spewed against those of other races, religions and orientations;
- The biographical Bohemian Rhapsody is largely the account of Queen front-man Freddie Mercury who feels like an outsider due to his mis-identified ethnic upbringing and his sexual orientation, culminating with him and his bandmates becoming “a group of outcasts making music for other outcasts”;
- The Favourite, described by one critic as a ‘punk Restoration romp’, is an elaborate depiction of the court and courtesans of Queen Anne in the early 18th century where the women lead and the men waste time and money in hedonistic pursuits;
- The true story of Green Book tells of an unlikely friendship forged by a black pianist and the white driver/muscle he hires for a road-trip concert tour through the Midwest and South in the early 1960s, enabling segregation, racism and ignorance to cast a dark shadow into the theater;
- Roma is a slice-of-life account of the interactions between a family and some young domestic workers in Mexico in 1971, telling the movie-goer about the living in a culture of class distinction, male dominance and revolution;
- The remake A Star is Born is about a self-destructive headlining musician and a young songwriter who fall in love, telling the story of the sacrifices we make (and refuse to make) for those we care about while championing the cause of the ‘unattractive underdog’;
- Vice, a fact-based and speculation-filled movie about the rise to power of former Vice President Dick Cheney, pulls the curtain back so we can see the machinations and manipulations that those in power are willing to employ when seeking to increase that power.
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28 (NIV)
To a greater or lesser degree, these films all deal with what may be the greatest issue in our culture: division based on gender, race, wealth or sexual orientation. Some do it with great skill (Blackkklansman, Green Book and Vice) while others must be on so high an artistic level that simple movie-goers like me cannot fully comprehend (Roma and The Favourite). There is hope: the cultural zeitgeist inherent in these films seems to be reinforcing what the Bible affirms – that every human being is of equally incredible worth and that we ought to champion those who take up the cause of protecting and preserving the value of every soul. As I watch the Oscars® on Sunday night, I will celebrate the stories of Queen Anne, the Duchess of Marlborough, Ron Stallworth, Flip Zimmerman, Don Shirley, Tony Vallelonga, and Freddie Mercury – reminders of the intrinsic value of every human being.
And the Oscar® (if I were given a vote) goes to Green Book.
My daughter is currently spending a semester abroad at American College of Thessaloniki in Greece. In addition to taking a full slate of classes, she will (as part of the abroad program) be travelling through Greece to experience its unique culture and (because of proximity) be travelling throughout the Schengen Area of Europe to see the world. Already, her mother and I have seen pictures and heard anecdotes of all the beautiful places and the delicious foods our daughter has enjoyed. We are genuinely happy for her for this incredible opportunity and cannot wait until April to live vicariously through her.
While my wife and I have never been to Europe (we do not even have passports), we have the next best things. We have access to maps which can inform us of all the geography, roads and boundaries of Europe: we can know where everything is. We have access to episodes of “Rick Steves’ Europe” on PBS and “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern” on Travel Channel, both of which have done multiple programs on Greece: we know can everywhere to go. We have access to literature like Eleni Gage’s “North of Ithaka” and Nikos Kazantzakis’ “Zorba the Greek”: we can know everything to expect. But that would only give us knowledge, and no matter how much knowledge we might gain, it would not be the same as living in Greece.
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. John 10:10
As a parallel, there are plenty of people who know a great deal about living in Christ – through studying the Bible, attending worship services and reading biographies – but are not experiencing life in Christ. There is a great deal of difference between reading about God’s grace and experiencing His blessings or between singing of His mercy and experiencing His forgiveness. Simply because someone can quote Scriptures does not guarantee that they are living them out, just as knowing what is on the menu at Top of the Hub doesn’t mean you’ve eaten there. Knowledge of the culture of Christ’s kingdom is not the same as being absorbed by that culture, any more than reading about Greece is the same as being there.
So, I challenge all those who are reading this to experience what you know. Knowledge is important – even essential – in the navigation of life, whether we are referring to life which is physical or spiritual. But “book learning” is not sufficient. We need to apply that knowledge experientially, to immerse ourselves (intelligently) in the culture of Christ. We need to experience the fruit of the Spirit, the virtues of grace and mercy, and the love of God expressed in a billion little ways. Live out the life of Christ in all its glorious splendor.
The culture of Christ, like every culture, is experienced through community. If you, or someone you know, are looking for a community with which to experience abundant life in Christ, consider visiting us at Calvary.
Later today, my daughter will spend 18 hours travelling over 4,500 miles, flying from Boston to Thessaloniki in Greece. When she gets there, she will study abroad for her spring semester and be far from home for 3 months. It is, without a doubt, a wonderful opportunity for her. However, I am anxious about all the logistics that a trip of this nature requires: will she make her connecting flights, communicate with reputable locals to get to the college campus and be compatible with her roommate? I fear that my anxiety will not subside until the first week of April, when Rebekah returns to the sweet land of liberty. Until then, I will pray.
But what should I pray? That the airplanes remain in the sky between uneventful takeoffs and landings? That everyone in Europe is kind and caring? That she will enjoy 90 days of Aegean bliss, akin to the images of Grecian villages in “Mama Mia”? I have to admit that I would like to offer these prayers, except that they all seem so self-serving, as if I am saying that in this world where so many are in the midst of genuine suffering, I want God to place my little girl in a bubble of security. There must be more to prayer than simply supplying the sustainer of the heavenly spheres with my personal wish-list.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:6-7
As my daughter departs for her next adventure, I am choosing to take the Apostle Paul’s advice to the church in Philippi to heart. I am choosing, in this situation, to not be anxious as I present my requests to God. I will make these requests with all the gratitude I can muster, recognizing the enormity of my circumstance (able to offer prayers in the presence of our Great High Priest and offer petitions before the King of Kings). After I have emptied my heart of all the anxiety that it harbored, I will be blessed with the peace that replaces it. I may not understand God’s remedies to my requests, but I will remember that He loves my daughter even more than I do. And that will be more than enough.
As I pray for my daughter over the next three months, I recognize that my intercession will not change God’s will; it will, however, give voice to what I would like God’s will to be – protection and blessing for those I love. This will bring me to the threshold of faith (as the author of Hebrews says, that which gives us confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see) where I enter the place of God’s grace, trusting that He will always answer my prayers with what He knows is best, whether I comprehend its goodness or not.
So, please join me in prayer: continue to bring your heart’s cry before the throne of the Almighty and trust that He will perfectly answer your every request…and enjoy the peace that will keep watch over your heart and mind, whatever the resolution.
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.
Yesterday, at exactly 11:16PM, my middle son, David, turned 18 and in so doing became a legal adult. He is able to vote for the next elected official and enter into binding contracts. He is able to sign himself out of class if he chooses and he will now be reported by name on census forms. He is more than a big boy; he is a man, physically and statutorily. I wonder, as I reflect upon this momentous occasion, if he is ready for the adult world and if he has the character of an adult in the world today.
As I reflect upon his life, I pray that he will continue to develop his character of:
- Charity – David and I had the opportunity to visit the former Charlestown Navy Yard on a regular basis. As we made our way to weekly appointments, we would walk by expired parking meters. After a few weeks, we scoured the car for loose change (and then filled our pockets before we left the house) so that we could anonymously refill the meters. I pray that he will continue to be that kind of man.
- Hospitality – David regularly invited friends to our home for afternoons of video gaming. He’d ask, on their behalf, for his mom to procure snacks and soda so that his guests would be cared for (they even ate, over a week or two, a case of Vidalia-flavored potato chips). I pray that he will continue to be that kind of man.
- Accomplishment – As part of your participation in the scouts, I remember the courts of honor I attended, celebrating David’s advancement through the ranks and his proficiency in certain skills worthy of merit badges. He has a treasure trove of skills and abilities that he ought to be proud of. I pray that he will continue to be that kind of man.
Similarly, encourage the young men to be self-controlled. In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us. Titus 2:6–8
- Adventure – Through storming through the front door like a warrior or through playing in the driveway with abandon, David receive stitches in his palm on one occasion and his leg on another. I hope my son will, forsaking recklessness, will risk something to taste life fully. I pray that he will continue to be that kind of man.
- Responsibility – one formative experience, as he is oft to repeat, was when his mom gave a “time-out” to David’s favorite toy (Dusty, the talking Vacuum Cleaner). With glee, he recounts that there are consequences to bad behavior (even when performed by the inanimate). He learned that he was responsible for himself and those he leads. I pray that he will continue to be that kind of man.
- Whimsy – I have a picture in my office of my now adult son in a banana suit while volunteering at VBS. He also wore the suit at a recent PAX East Expo. It was funny, quirky and unexpected. I pray that he will continue to be that kind of man.
- Service – David has been active in the church; as an usher, as a representative for the “Got Goat” program, working the sound board. He has utilized his skills in service to God and others. I pray that he will continue to be that kind of man.
May we all strive to be adults of character, as I pray my middle boy will.
Happy Birthday, David.
This Sunday is Father’s Day, the time when we celebrate the dads in our lives. Being the father of four, I can attest that being a dad is not a undertaking for the faint of heart. Generations ago, men had it easier, if Ward Cleaver or Mike Brady of classic television sitcoms are any indication – work every day during the week, escape to the home office when you are home and play golf on the weekends; the only time a dad interacted with their children was to dispense disciplinary chastisement or moral clichés. Today’s dads are expected to work inside and outside the home, attend a fair number of their children’s extra-curricular and school events, and spend quality time with their family. As I reflect on these things, I realize that being a father is one of the hardest and greatest roles God has blessed me to perform.
There is a man, a father, in the Bible that inspires me as a dad. His name was Jairus. He was a synagogue leader (and therefore a man of faith) and the father of a 12-year-old daughter. But he was a father in crisis: despite the religious practices he, no doubt, engaged in (praying, offering sacrifices and fasting), his daughter was dying. What would you do if your baby was deathly ill? If you are Jairus, you go to an itinerant rabbi whom you heard had accomplished miracles. However, before he could return with the man of Galilee, a servant of his tells him that it is too late: his daughter is dead.
Hearing this, Jesus said to Jairus, “Don’t be afraid; just believe, and she will be healed.” Luke 8:50
Instead of giving up, Jairus gave his troubles over to Jesus. He continued the long walk home and, instead of trusting the eyes of his servant, he trusted the words of a stranger. As he came into his home, there was weeping and mourning appropriate to the circumstances. But Jesus would not have any of it.
He went in and said to them, “Why all this commotion and wailing? The child is not dead but asleep.” But they laughed at him. Mark 5:39-40
What is a dad to do? You take a leap of faith and everyone you care about thinks it is a joke. But, then again, what did he have to lose? If Jesus was unable to do anything, his daughter was still dead…but what if HE WAS ABLE to do something amazing?
There are days that I feel like Jairus, asking Jesus to secure a healthy future of my child. I have nothing I can offer but trust: trust that my 10-year-old will safely navigate the streets of Boston from school to home, trust that my 17-year-old will pass that difficult class, trust that my 20-year-old will be protected from the dangers prevalent in our national capital and trust that my 23-year-old will arrive home safely from that job 131 miles away. People may say that my intercessions are realistically useless or that my circumstances are ridiculously hopeless. Still, the dad in me will trust in the one who is able to do immeasurably more than I can imagine.
Happy Father’s Day to all those who are blessed to be called “Dad”.
According to the National Retail Federation, the average Mother’s Day shopper will spend $180, or a total of $23.1 billion. That is a lot of flowers and jewelry. It seems that we all want to celebrate the blessing God has given us through giving us mothers. In recognition of Mother’s Day on Sunday, allow me to share the story of a remarkable mom who lived a few thousand years ago. She was poor, widowed and responsible for a child. Things have gotten so bad for her that she had given up hope. But God has other plans for her and her child.
We really know little about this mother. While we do not know her name or her lineage, we do know she was married, but her husband died and left her with no source of income: according to the scriptures, all she had to her name was a jar of flour and a pitcher of oil. We also know that she was not part of the “People of God”: she was an “unclean” Gentile. Lastly, we know that she was commanded by God to help a certain prophet of God named Elijah: she was commissioned to use that last of all she had to feed this stranger.
Before I conclude the story, allow me to digress. I am not at all surprised that God used a mother, especially a single mother, to save Elijah. Is there any other class of human being so willing to sacrifice as a mom? When there are five mouths and four slices of pie, it is the mom who says, “I’m too full from dinner for dessert; you guys have it.” When it is three AM and thundering, it is the mom who gets displaced so that her child can be comforted. She picks up the underwear, wipes up the barf and cleans up the bathroom. There is seemingly no need too demanding or distance too far to travel for a mom.
Getting back to the story, this mother prepares her last meal for herself, her son and her visitor. But the flour and oil never run out. She and her household (including the guest) were fed for three years, miraculously. Despite the fact that they were in the midst of a global famine, God was able to meet her needs. Just when one might think everything is going to get better, tragedy strikes when the son of this woman becomes ill and stops breathing. No one would blame her for her outburst:
She said to Elijah, “What do you have against me, man of God? Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?” 1 Kings 17:18
After all she had sacrificed, was this really how her story was going to end? No. Elijah immediately cries out to God and her son’s life is restored to him. Then they all lived happily ever after (though not together).
I thank God that the mothers I am most familiar with (both biological and metaphorical) have yet to lose hope. They sacrificed for the sake of those they loved, expressed outrage when something hurt those they loved and never gave up hope for those they loved. Some of that has to do with their personal resolve – they are all formidable people of character – but some of it has to do with their faith in the God who can resource and restore them as He did for a Phoenician widow, her son and her house-guest.
Happy Mother’s Day to all those who have given more than they will ever get back from their families.
There was an article in the New York Times that opined about the costs and benefits of present-day conveniences. According to columnist Time Wu, conveniences are “more efficient and easier ways of doing personal tasks”. Conveniences come in a nearly endless number of forms, everything from appliances (washers, dryers and microwaves) to technologies (digital streaming, cell phones and search engines). They save us time, toil and treasure. The world of my childhood would be foreign soil to my ten-year old son; the convenience of debit cards instead of cash or checks, the convenience of homework at home with Google and Wikipedia instead of researching at the library with the World Book Encyclopedia, the convenience of GPS and EZPass instead of glove compartment maps and a cupful of quarters. Conveniences make life better.
However, there is another side to conveniences, a less beneficial side that warrants our attention. As Wu writes, “With its promise of smooth, effortless efficiency, it threatens to erase the sort of struggles and challenges that help give meaning to life.” Ultimately, there is a benefit to inconvenience, whether it is getting lost and discovering the pathway back to civilization or baking a pie from scratch instead of ordering one online through Uber Eats. It is rewarding to toil and use reason. We might become better people because we are required to wait or, worse yet, to go without.
In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples. Luke 14:33
Discipline is never convenient. Eating healthy takes effort: making a salad takes longer than tearing the foil off a Pop Tart. Exercise takes effort: spending time at the gym will be more demanding than spending time on the couch. Education takes effort: solving a pesky equation with a pencil will take more time than watching a YouTube video of someone else solving for x. The Christian life is no different. When Jesus taught about the demands of discipleship, He told his followers to consider the costs. He called His followers to live a life which included inconvenience. He told them to give more than demanded, work longer than most and sacrifice greater than merely necessary.
Most of the things that make life easier are convenient. Most of the things that make life better are inconvenient. The question for each of us is whether we want easier or we want better. Do we want the ease of microwave turkey or the goodness of Thanksgiving dinner? Do we want the ease of hearing an explanation or the goodness of researching it ourselves? Do you want the ease of activism by hashtag or the goodness of laboring for righteousness? When we are passionate about something, the Cliff Notes will not suffice; we will want to invest our blood, sweat and tears to pursue it.
Evan Williams, a co-founder of Twitter, was quoted in Wu’s piece as saying, “Convenience decides everything.” Maybe he’s right in general. I do that hope he is wrong about us.