Jesus and the Lottery: What We Learn By Losing the Megamillions

The other night I heard the Mega Millions was $648 million and two people won. I looked at the winning numbers and they were integers I was familiar with. I now regret not playing.

That said, I have played the lottery a few times … and lost each time. There’s that moment after you lose where you feel the need to console yourself. “Well, who needs all that money anyway?”   “It probably would have changed me too much.” “I still have my family and health” and the ever-classic, “I still have Jesus.”

In this light, Jesus is seen as the ultimate parting gift. 

I can’t help but wonder if Jesus hears these inner monologues and thinks to himself, “How about that, I leave the splendor of heaven, incarnate myself in human form, suffer and die for the evils of the world and invite all of humanity to a restored world of love and life forever … and I’m seen as the consolation prize.”

We would assume that Jesus doesn’t talk to himself like that – this is my projection of course but the point remains, if [Read more…]

Reflecting on the Life & Death of Nelson Mandela Part 1

Nelson Mandela has been an inspiration to many for decades now. It should not be a surprise that his name will fill headlines for weeks and months to come. Social media will forever quote him and the soon to be widely released movie Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom will be talked about throughout 2014. It’s been a few weeks since he’s passed away and my advice is to lean into it all because there is much to gain from Nelson Mandela has an inspiring “though flawed like the rest of us”  figure. More on that later.

Some will be too quick to dismiss the attention on Mandela because its fashionable to talk about him and thus, they will distance themselves from anything to be gained in fear of appearing to be influenced by anything trendy. Opportunities will be missed to grow. Some of these lessons will come back around but only some and why wait?

I’m actually old enough to remember the news of Mandela being released from prison. And because of the weird way memory works, his release is forever tied in my mind to Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson. Looking back on it, what stuck me about Mandela was I had never seen anyone released from prison with such [Read more…]

Reflecting on Celebrity Deaths: Paul Walker

I’m guessing the only time Nelson Mandela and Paul Walker have ever been mentioned in the same sentence was when we noticed they died in the same week. It’s sad when anyone dies so know that that I’m trying to do my best to not objectify either men during this time. Nor will I be comparing their respective accomplishments or the characters. Still, I find myself reflecting on a couple of things:

One, that such two different men are sharing the home pages of news sites and individual social media sites together – nearly two weeks after their passing now. I’m sure similar things seem odd in newspapers but from what I remember of the newspaper, such news appeared on different pages and not for this length of time.
Two, like everyone I was surprised to hear that Paul Walker died in a car accident. I mentioned in an earlier post that I feared his passing was drug related but I found no [Read more…]

Elf, Costanza’s Festivus, St. Nicholas and Gift-Buying at Christmastime – Advent 2013 – Part 2

For the context, here’s Part 1.

So where does this leave us in practical terms this of gift-buying and more importantly, celebrating this Christmas this year?
Well first a confession. As a parent of three kids 5 and under, toy shopping can be a lot of fun. Batman hoodies, Lego sets, princess stuff, man, it’s easy to get carried away and that’s just on Groupon. I’m not sure how helpful it is to use the gifts of the Magi to justifying our theology of shopping this Christmas season but gift-giving is part of our Christmas culture and I am not afraid to like this.

Further, I like Santa, I like Elf, I like real Christmas trees, and holiday traditions (Really, how can you not like Elf?). Now, I’ll differ on the deeper-rooted message of many holiday movies. But they are only trying to make us laugh, not offer us meaning and purpose.

I don’t like materialism, I don’t like consumerism and I don’t like idolatry but you can still have traditions and keep the meaning of Christmas central – it just takes effort. And I believe that you can have both. It’s like when people ask, can you really have a wedding reception with dancing and alcohol right after a sacred Christian ceremony? Yes, I think Jesus’s first miracle makes that clear. (I can hear my Baptist friend say, “Wait a minute, the Gospel of John doesn’t say anything about dancing.” Yeah, they were sitting around discussing the Pentateuch over wine and bread all week).

I digress and we return to answer the question, “How then shall we shop?” Over the years, my family has taken different [Read more…]

Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and Thinking About Christmas Shopping – Part 1

I’m still thinking about Black Friday and the start of Advent and here are a few words on Black Friday from my previous post.

“… somehow I found myself defending the shoppers of this crazy day marked by mayhem, materialism and marketing (yes my alliteration skills are improving – thanks Eminem – I watch the last battle in 8 Mile every chance I get.)

Now, I too, resent the retailers and marketers for some of these disgraceful tactics of opening on Thanksgiving Day, ridiculous discounts on popular products only available in limited quantities and attempting to create a hysteria over products (this year’s XBox One and PS4). I’m not defending any of this crap and it’s always important to call it out but let’s be careful.
That said, I was surprised by all the posts on Twitter and Facebook I saw against shopping on Black Friday. Some were harsh, some came off as self-righteous and some felt too much “us verses them.” This deserves a post on its own soon too but it certainly marked the weekend for me.”

Here’s the follow up. From my vantage point, there are two aspects that need to be thought through for those who want to dwell in the beauty/meaning of Advent/Christmas.
First, the shopping. I hear the business analysts on CNN telling us how much of our economy is affected by the holiday shopping season. It’s a sad reality that we are all guilty of contributing to in some way. There’s always a subtle message that we need to shop to build the economy and then another tucked in when the host asks a retail expert something like, “Ok, well what should we get the people we love this year?” The expert wearing a big smile holds up a bunch of cool products and says, “Well, we are fortunate to have so many great options this year …” Generally a good time to turn off the tv and walk away from the calculated manipulation.

Back to Black Friday.
There is clearly something concerning with seeing lines of hundreds of people outside Wal Marts, Targets, Best Buys and other stores standing in the cold for hours. Then suddenly they burst into the store, sprint to a particular section and hold on for dear life for the desired discounted product only available in limited quantities in a place that is now filled at a dangerous capacity and emotions are running high. Woe to those who use this for their gain.

However, this is not the experience of every shopper or at least the ones some of the ones I talk to. Over the years this has actually become somewhat of a [Read more…]

Looking Back on Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Paul Walker and the Start of Advent

This felt like quite the eventful weekend with Thanksgiving, Black Friday, the untimely death of Paul Walker and the start of Advent. Just about each of these deserve a post on their own and I’ll make that a goal this week.

Thanksgiving Day
I hope all went with yours. Ours was spent with family friends that included newlyweds, two recently engaged couples, a newborn, about a dozen kids under 10, silly games, a spontaneous worship service, great food of course (that included traditional turkey and middle eastern delicacies like grape leaves!) and conversations about law, faith, Lady Gaga and the history of how we Egyptians created civilization (God may have helped a little).

Throughout the weekend, I’ve been wanting to find time and at least think/journal about what I’m thankful for that does not include faith, family or friends. On one level, there’s not much else. On another, I find it stretching and hoping to get there. One thing that does come to mind is that I am grateful to find myself in a church context that allows for change. On one level, it welcomes it, on another, our organizational structure and culture are very careful with it. Change affects people and we need to be careful but good change is great for others and so we need to pursue what is truly better. Yeah, I’ll think I’ll try to blog about this soon.

Black Friday
Also hopefully this week I’ll post a bit on some thoughts on Black Friday but somehow I found myself defending the shoppers of this crazy day marked by mayhem, materialism and marketing (yes my alliteration skills are improving – thanks Eminem – I watch the last battle in 8 Mile every chance I get.)

Now, I too, resent the retailers and marketers for some of these disgraceful tactics of opening on Thanksgiving Day, ridiculous [Read more…]

Anne Lamott, the Accidental Pastor

In the first post, I spoke on the context of seeing Anne Lamott in Bedford MA a couple weeks ago and despite my sarcastic and playful storytelling in the first post, I really do like Anne, quite a bit actually. She’s an extremely gifted writer that pulls you in and she’s among the most charming yet most raw speaker I’ve heard.

Yeah, I find myself thinking she should be more intentional as opposed to the “What do you folks what to talk about?” deal and maybe not begin by announcing her “rules.” But here’s the thing, if she followed normal protocols and proper etiquettes, she’d be less unique and she’d probably feel compromised. You also feel that every night is very unique from the next as nothing is canned and talking about the new book gives her an anchor point. In any case, I can not help but appreciate Anne Lamott from her books and seeing her speak a couple times now and here’s a bit of why.

Anne is Pastoral

My favorite part of Anne Lamott and what I hope to glean from her is she gives people permission to feel what they really feel. Many of us do that for some on some level but she is gifted in allowing an entire room full of people to be at ease [Read more…]

On Seeing Anne Lamott Talk About Her New Book Stitches in Bedford, MA

(Photo from the Bedford Citizen)

Just about once a week my wife asks me, “Did you see what Anne Lamott wrote on her Facebook page today?” It’s either incredibly profound making me think, “It must be awesome being Anne” or a hilarious rant that makes me think, “Maybe it isn’t that fun being her.”

Couple weeks ago my wife and I went to see Anne with some good friends. Our wives are big fans and we thought this would be a fun night together. We were not disappointed and we had a great time discussing the night afterwards. This is a little of what we talked about.

If I can take a minute and describe the context.
The evening was to begin at 7 and the traffic was crazy. Nearly everyone was late arriving to the First Parish in Bedford, MA, including Anne. Had I not driven through backyards, cemeteries and small ponds, we might have been late too (I’m telling you my wife is a big fan). Our friends had saved us great seats and we had a few moments to take in the decor of the room which included quotes from Scripture and other spiritual maxims, an assortment of quilts and a disco ball above the pulpit. Nothing too out of the ordinary. I also noticed that out of the 200 people gathered, I was among 10, maybe 15 men. I was surprised that my wife and I were among the few people under the age of 40 in the room. Young people who appreciate Jesus but frustrated with organized religion would love Anne Lamott. (Worked for us :)

Anne finally arrived along with the hosting pastor and a few others. They literally got out of the car, walked in the door, on to the [Read more…]

When the Prayers Aren’t Working

To say it plainly, I’ve been praying for a few things lately that are just moving from bad to worse. Each update feels like either a step in the wrong direction, a gigantic leap in the opposite direction or at best a stand-still. Nothing that makes me say, “Oh thank God” – at least not in the way that I want to say it.

I know sometimes God says, “No.”
I know sometimes God says, “Wait.”
I know sometimes God probably desires the same things I do but is a believer of free will and so brings strength and deliverance in other ways.
I believe He is at work, I get this.

At the moment, much of my frustration does not affect me personally. My home, my family and most of those in my personal circle are doing fine in that “busy but healthy, no crisis, doing ok” mode. But this is what I find helpful about the practice of journaling your prayers. Why am I bothered right now? What am I mad about? Why am I walking around feeling that some of my prayers aren’t working?

I wrote about my friends who are hurting. I wrote about the people with health needs. I wrote about my friends who are grieving, some of whom spending the holidays for the first time without a particular loved one.

Then Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines and we saw the reports of the many who perished, and the many who are grieving and in need. It  just piles on. Every discouraged friend, every piece of bad news, everything that you’ve put in any holding pattern crashes down now.

My cynicism and faith have it out these days. All the questions get asked again. The pain, frustration and the anger swells a bit. And so I’m prompted to keep praying. It’s not really useless, it’s where it all is at the moment. It’s the deep part of the wave or the moments after the sharp blade cuts the skin and the blood and the nerves signal there’s been a breach or the aching pain in the soul that a MRI will never find.

Somewhere in all of this, God is at work. I really believe that. I do not think that God needs me to say the “right words” which is good because I find it impossible to be superstitious. From what I can see from our Scriptures, He gets rather angry when we don’t approach him with a full heart of honesty. A God who wants my raw, unfiltered, honest words – that sounds like a worth believing in.

So I keep praying. I also limit my social media and try my best to not isolate myself from these thoughts nor to numb myself either. At the same time, I try not to obsess and lose myself in them either. I cannot solve these matters my sinking under the weight of them. Again, all this prompts me to pray more.

Of course, I want results and to see deliverance. Of course I want my friends whom I have been praying for to call and say, “The most amazing thing happened!” But I what I also want is to be living with His joy and in His surrender.

“Joy in the Lord” is not necessarily happiness, but more a confidence in God which leads to a form of happiness (but not really the glee kind).  And surrender is not always weakness. It would seem spiritual surrender comes not when you’re tired, not when you’re desperate, not when you realize your adversary is stronger than you as we know that it’s noble to fight to the death. Spiritual surrender tends to come when you realize the person you are fighting against is not your enemy but your helper, your provider, your ally.

How good it is to pray to and share my honest heart with this ally – even when your prayers don’t feel like they’re working.
May we discover the virtues found in perseverance and live the words of the Psalmist, “The joy of the Lord is our strength.”

When the Baseball Team You Hate the Most Wins and You Live in Their City

You know you’re taking baseball too seriously when you see another team’s logo and have a physical reaction. I’m a New York sports fan and this is my first time living in Boston when a New England team has won something. And of course, it had to be the Red Sox.

This is a team whose players last season were so selfish and hardened that they turned on their manager, turned on each other, turned on management and ate chicken wings and drank beer in the bullpen during games. This is a team that had Josh Beckett who missed a start due to an “injury” and went golfing instead.  He defended himself by saying something to the effect of, “We get so few personal days a year that if I want to play some golf, I shouldn’t have to explain myself.” Among my few consolations is that Becket was not in this World Series parade.

Then there are all these brand new hats and jackets and stickers and banners and billboards popping up just about everywhere. People are obsessed with these shaggy beards and countless bandwagon jumpers have have decided to start growing them – and some of them are women.

Just a few weeks ago I heard a couple Red Sox fans literally say, “Here comes the skid.” Another agreed and hung his head. This was a common sentiment around here. Now I know they had the epic collapse of 2011 and “The Curse of the Bambino” but please, show some enthusiasm for your team.

If I may, consider taking a page from the Yankees fans – though we are currently missing every player in our infield, our pitching has been decimated by injury, retirements and Joba, we’re still poised to win it all next year. MLB beat reporter Buster Olney could say that Ron Guidry and Mike Pagliarulo are doing conditioning training in Florida right now and many of us would be optimistic that these two could contribute after nearly a two decade absence from the game. Further, if Don Mattingly’s contract negotiations break down to keep managing the Dodgers, I think we still have #23 available. Just sayin’. But regardless, I was fortunate to attend the Yankees WS parade in 2009 and feel very confident of winning our 28th championship next season.

Again this is very different from the attitude up here. Despite having the best record in the American League, one of the local sports radio jockeys literally picked every team the Red Sox faced to beat them and then said afterwards, “I can’t believe I was wrong.” Frankly that type of cynicism should not be rewarded and I’m not saying he should be fired but perhaps he could relocate to a different sports team’s network.

But the real truth is that it’s a luxury to hate a baseball team. And in the world of sports free agency it hardly makes sense to hate any player. That’s what I learned when Johnny Damon left the Red Sox to be a Yankee. I first thought, “I can’t stand this idiot. I have to like this guy now?” Then he started hitting doubles, stealing bases and scoring runs and I started cheering for the idiot. Again, hating players hardly makes sense and hating a baseball team is a luxury.

But baseball (and often sports in general) serves as a great microcosm of life. When the marathon bombings happened, this city did three things. One it grieved for the loss of life and the many injured. Second, it celebrated as many great moments of heroism and perseverance it could find and said, You may have attacked us but this city is strong – Look. And third, the city of Boston kept on hustling, as evidenced by these loud, shaggy-bearded, some terribly over-paid, low expectations Red Sox team.

As I said on my Facebook page:

Congats RedSox FB Status




Though they talk funny up here and their arguments for the Red Sox being the best team ever are absurd, truth be told, it’s a great place to live. As some of you know, I’m a pastor and some of you are thinking it’s just a matter of time before I turn this into something spiritual. I”ll refrain this time. The best I can do is admit that I love hating this team but they should enjoy their well-deserved World Series win and I’m happy for my city.

98 days until pitchers and catchers report.