Thursday, December 25, 2014


"And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn."  (Luke 2:7)

I read Luke chapter two for my "Bible devotional reading" early this morning.  Yes, it's that familiar passage that Linus reads in the classic Charlie Brown Christmas special.  It's very familiar, but if you stop and think about it (and "chew" on it as my friend the late retired Framingham State Professor Rachel Bangs used to say), it's amazing what insights and reflections that will stir up.  As I read the above verse today,  I wondered if Joseph felt really lousy about the fact that there was no room in the inn for Mary and newborn Jesus.  I wondered if he felt especially lousy that Jesus was laid in a manger (an animal feeding trough) and that they were out in essentially a barn with a bunch of [dirty] animals.  You know, the Jewish religion and culture was really into everything being "clean" or kosher.  I guess that whole situation wasn't too kosher.  I know from personal experience that when you're told you have to "man up" and take charge and really make a situation good and healthy and right for your family, and then for some reason you can't do it, it feels horrible!  A line my dear friend Gene Sorbo often uses is, "It's not something I would have signed up for."  I'm sure the circumstances and experience of Jesus' birth were not what Joseph would ever have pictured or desired or "signed up for".  Yet, today, we romanticize it and we love to hear Linus' voice read that passage!  Today, we understand that as "crazy" as it may have seemed, it really was God's plan.  God was in that first Christmas [although it probably happened in June and not December]!

The family I grew up in was not rich.  I know my father made a very modest salary as a Boston Police officer and later as a Registry of Motor Vehicles officer (like the Highway Patrol in many states).  As I look back, I'm amazed at the great Christmasses my parents provided when we were very little.  In my childhood, Christmas was an absolutely magical and special time.  My parents were also each pretty serious Roman Catholics (especially my mother) and I remember each Christmas Day starting with attending an early mass at St. John's Church.

Thirty-nine years ago today, I got quite a reality slap.  I do remember that throughout my growing up years, my father would give us little lectures that we should be grateful for what we have because many people are in poverty and do not have nice Christmasses.  Today, as a sixty-year-old who spent a number of years as a Protestant pastor, I know that there's a lot of sadness and pain that people experience during the holidays.  The worst part is, that sometimes, people are victims- they suffer at Christmas thorough no fault of their own- much as Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in a sense were "victims" of the culture of their day that left them in that smelly, dirty stable following Jesus' birth.  On both Christmas and Thanksgiving we always had my grandmother (my mother's mother) and her sister Celia as our dinner guests.   Mom's parents married late and had kids late (her dad passed in 1960) so I had an "old" grandmother even as a little kid.  In 1975, my grandmother lived in the elderly housing complex at Hagan Court [near Cobb's Corner] in our hometown of Canton, Massachusetts.  Her sister Celia lived near the heart of downtown Boston but would take public transportation to Canton and spend a few days with her older sibling during holiday times.  (We also used to get a kick out of the fact that my very confident and masculine father used to get nervous when they were over for dinner.  He'd humbly ask me, "Would you pass Mrs. Richard's plate?"  I was always just about to crack up laughing!)  In '75, my father took my sister Dianne to go up to Hagan Court and get the two old ladies.  They seemed to be gone forever on that errand!  I remember that my mother (who was highly prone to depression) was getting more and more agitated.  The turkey was in the oven for a long time and was just not getting done.  And, Gene and Dianne and the old ladies were just not arriving.

"Oh, why isn't this turkey getting done?!"  and  "Oh, where are they, why don't they get here?!"  were recited by her over and over and over.  Each time, they sounded even more negative.  It just was not a good atmosphere for Christmas!

Suddenly, I heard a far worse lament out of my mother's mouth:  "Oh, here's a police car, something's happened!"

Indeed, it was a Canton Police car.   Out of that car stepped my father and Dianne and no old ladies.  My father came into the house and tried to reassure my mother, but it was pretty much a lost cause.  In fact, there had been a car accident,  and my father and the car's other occupants were the victims.  A drunk driver had plowed right into their old Dodge Dart in downtown Canton!   My grandmother was shaken up, and Celia was injured.  The old women had been taken to the Norwood Hospital by ambulance.   Honestly,  I'm not sure what my mother did with the turkey at that point.  I guess she turned the oven off!  We all hopped into another of our cars and headed to the Norwood Hospital.  I remember spending at least an hour sitting in the emergency room.  The most common patients that I saw in that e.r. were children who had been injured playing with their toys or children who had been injured somehow in the home as they celebrated Christmas.  That e.r. was a very busy and stressful place!  Celia's face had slammed into a metal ashtray which had a sharp edge.  (This was in a 1963 model car built before anybody cared about safety!)  She came out with a "decent sized" bandage on it.  This left a slight but permanent scar and she did collect some insurance money for her injury.  My grandmother was not injured but was very shaken up.  It's ironic that a drunk plowed into my father's car!  At that time, he was a Supervisor at the Registry of Motor Vehicles' old 100 Nashua Street headquarters.  If you're a drunk, you don't want to hit that guy's car!

Eventually, we all got home, and managed to have a dinner, and open presents.  We all knew it could have been so much worse.  Someone could have been killed or seriously injured had [for instance] the drunk's car been going faster.  Yeah, that was my first "really different" Christmas.  I think I surprised a friend recently by telling him that at least half of the Christmasses in my adult life have been somewhat difficult ones.  In many years, there was enormous financial stress.  In the late nineties there were my parents' serious illnesses.  I remember visiting at their Canton home on Christmas Day 1998.  My father was pretty senile at that point.  My mother had cancer and was severely depressed.  She verbally lamented how bad that Christmas was, and in fact it was a lot worse than even 1975, for instance.  Those are tough memories.  But, there are many good memories, too.  In our final years in Framingham, Rachel [my youngest child] would always make pancakes for breakfast and we'd really have a great family time opening presents.   Today, due to my car recently dying and having to work this morning at my secular job, some of you know I've been temporarily staying at my kids' apartment.  My wife is preparing what will be a very late afternoon turkey dinner for us and Jon and Rachel are at the movies.  But, you know what?  As they say, "it's all good".   If this were a "normal" Christmas, I would never be sitting here at 1:45 p.m. E.S.T. writing a blog post!

Chevy Chase [or is it Clark Griswold?] learned it in that famous Christmas movie of his, didn't he?!  He wanted the "perfect" Christmas.  He did not imagine the sewer blowing up, or the jelly of the month club, or the dog and the squirrel tearing his house apart.  But in the midst of it, he learned some things.  And, I learned some things and I continue to learn some things at Christmas, as Joseph did all the way back there in 4 B.C.!   Good and bad things happen for a reason, but God is there.

Them's some thoughts at Christmas 2014- Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 15, 2014


"For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God?"  (I Peter 4:17)

"Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall."  ( I Corinthians 10:12)

I haven't been to see any production of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" this year, nor have I read the story this year.  I have (probably like most Americans) read that story and seen it acted out in drama many times.  As a kid and as a young adult, I was a "big" Christmas person.  I confess that since I joined the ranks of the "over thirty crowd" roughly half a lifetime ago, I have not been much of a Christmas person.  I love the Lord Jesus and I do enjoy Christmas carols and the Biblical accounts of His birth and early life.  I've frankly found the whole materialistic and high pressure secular Christmas holiday to be very hard to take at times; and I must admit to owning a pair of "Grinch" stockings that I wear only on Christmas Day- no kidding!   I've got to admit, though, that I loved watching the old "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" holiday special once again this year, and I do love Charles Dickens' story of the reformation of Ebenezer Scrooge.

Sometimes it amazes me what thoughts will pop into my head seemingly "out of the blue"!  Today, I had such a thought, and it's led me to write this piece and share it with you.  My thought was, "If you (or I) had a nighttime visit by the Three Spirits of the Ebenezer Scrooge story- how well would you (or I) fare?" 

I know.  Your first thought is probably, "But I'm nothing like Ebenezer Scrooge!  I'm not a mean and cheap miser!"  We like to think well of ourselves, but could it be that we'd be in for as much of a shock as Mr. Scrooge was?  One of my favorite television shows of all time is Northern Exposure which ran on the CBS television network in the early 1990s.  The show is about Dr. Joel Fleischman, a recent medical school graduate, who spends the first few years of his career as a physician in a tiny and remote community in central Alaska.  Joel is a young New York City Jew who despises his life in Alaska.  My son Jon's favorite episode of Northern Exposure is also my favorite episode:   It's the "Yom Kippur" episode from around the show's third season.  In that episode, Dr. Fleischman takes the Jewish Day of Atonement off, but he's in for a shocking surprise of Dickensian proportions!

Mystically, miraculously, and supernaturally, his elderly rabbi from New York appears inside his simple, rustic house.  The rabbi announces that he's got a VHS tape for Joel to watch.  At first, Dr. Fleischman wants nothing to do with it, but the rabbi is insistent.  In fact, faithful viewers know the VHS tape contains clips of previous episodes of the show.  Joel Fleischman sees himself as a friendly and competent physician who contributes much good to his community.  The video clips (of "Yom Kippur past") tell a very different story.  One shows the doctor yelling insulting and cruel comments to "Ed" a simple and idealistic twenty-something guy and also similar comments to Maggie O'Connell, a local "bush pilot".   Joel has a lot of excuses for the rabbi, who is not impressed.  For "Yom Kippur" present, it's not a video clip but a vision Joel sees of Marilyn his faithful Native American secretary/receptionist struggling to make ends meet on her meager salary.  The rabbi points out that she has a number of needy relatives she financially supports, leaving little for her.  Joel Fleischman had no idea.  There are also two "future" Yom Kippur visions.  In one, a Greyhound bus is pulling away from the town's bus depot and about a dozen local citizens talk about what a jerk Dr. Fleischman was and how glad they are that he is gone.   There's also a graveside scene regarding a sick man that Dr. Fleischman had no compassion for who is now dead.  The whole "Ghosts of Yom Kippur" thing has a profound effect upon Dr. Fleischman.  This Yom Kippur was not just a token Jewish holiday for him- it was a day of serious reflection and repentance.

Now, back to us.  If you're a fellow born-again Christian reading this, you may be thinking something like, "Well, yes, LOST people need to receive Christ as their personal Savior and Lord and be born again this Christmas."  And, yes, they do!   But what about you and what about me?

Has God ever given you one of those experiences like Joel Fleischman had?   Listen, after having had the small church I pastored closed up, and then being out of the ministry for five years, I've had a lot of time "in the woodshed" with God.  One of the reasons I liked Northern Exposure so much is that I'm a lot like Dr. Joel Fleischman!  No, I'm not Jewish and I'm not from New York,  but I can be selfish and critical and independent and impatient, and yet see myself as just the nicest and most pleasant guy who ever came down the pike!  It took a few years for me to come to grips with a lot of my own failures from pastoring, and honestly, I'm still coming to grips with them.

You know, Ebenezer Scrooge hated change.  He hated it!  He also hated accountability!  He did not like those guys from the charitable agency coming and asking for a donation.  He put his focus in the wrong place- on his business and on his money.   In my own case, I put the church and its success or failure first and foremost in my life.  I don't think my motives were completely wrong, but the final outcome of it all was, well, not good.  More than anything else, Ebenezer Scrooge was in denial.   He was in deep, deep denial.   In my own life and ministry, I was in denial.  Have you read the Lord's message to the Church at Laodicea [in Revelation chapter three] lately?  You may recall that this was the church which said, "I'm rich, I'm increased with goods!  I'm in need of nothing!"  Yet, the Lord said they were "wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked"!  Possibly their biggest fault was that they were blind- or frankly, in denial!

Most of us [and I'm talking about most of us born-again Christians]  need a good dosage of what Ebenezer Scrooge got in "a Christmas Carol" and of what Joel Fleischman got in that Northern Exposure episode!  This would absolutely revolutionize our personal lives and it would absolutely revolutionize our churches!  I say with tears that I wish I could preach this somewhere this month.  I can't.  But I can "preach" it here!  Listen, I have not "arrived" as we evangelicals say.  I am painfully aware of my sins and shortcomings, but as much as I don't like a lot of the secular aspects of Christmas, I'm so glad for that "sweet little Jesus boy" (in the words of that old Negro spiritual) who came to be born and give His live and His love so that I could be saved.  

If you've got the guts- take some serious time alone with the Lord and His Word this month.  Ask Him about your own life- past, present, and future.  In the words of an old chorus, "Let Him have His way with thee".  It just might end up being the most meaningful and transformative December you've ever had!

Thursday, December 11, 2014


" thing I know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see."  (from John 9:25)

(First of all, a "shout out" to the Rev. Rob W. who gave me a word of encouragement about writing this blog and inquired about why I don't post as much on it as I used to.  That word of encouragement is part of why I'm posting this story today!  It was at a Christmas function that he gave me that word of encouragement.  It's a good reminder that at this season we should seek to encourage and uplift others.) 

I experienced a true adventure yesterday!  It had its highs and lows;  it was definitely "educational", but as much as some aspects of it were not "fun" the overall result of it was very positive.  For that, I thank the Lord!

Today, at age sixty, my vision is the best that it has been in over fifty years!  I think of the faith and love of people like the late Ray Charles and the late Helen Keller, and I know I've got a lot to be thankful for regarding my eyesight.  I first experienced minor nearsightedness in the autumn of 1962.  Yes, during the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, I had my first formal eye exam and got eyeglasses to wear.  The nearsightedness gradually got worse over the years and decades.  There were many pairs of eyeglasses that I wore during those times.  In early 2012, I began having serious vision problems, even with my glasses on.   During 2012, things just got worse and worse.  By late 2012, I could hardly see to drive at night- and even driving during the day was becoming challenging.  After several eye examinations and referrals to specialists, it was determined that I needed cataract surgery in both eyes.  I was fifty-eight when I had my eye surgeries done in early 2013- about twenty years younger than most cataract surgery patients.  Today, they correct not only for cataracts, but even for nearsightedness!  So, I have remarkably good vision.  Now, one complication is that I experienced a detached retina in my right eye in the summer of 2013 and had emergency surgery in Boston to reattach it.  Had this been one hundred years ago, I'd have been left blind in that eye, but the surgery was remarkably successful!  I had to have several checkups following the retina surgery; the final one was in November of 2013.  

The above is all introductory material as to why I had an appointment with the retina specialist in Waltham, Massachusetts yesterday.  This was my "one year later" [following my last appointment] checkup.  Now, there is a critical error I made when scheduling this appointment a couple of months ago:  I was not thinking in terms of the time of day that I'd be leaving the appointment and that it would be "pitch dark" outside when I did!  I was not thinking about the fact that the pupils of my eyes would have been "dilated" for the eye exam,  and that this would badly affect my vision- especially concerning driving!   The good news is that I did very well on my eye exam.  A year ago, my vision was 20/30, it's now better-  closer to 20/20!  The doctor said my eyes are doing very well.  I don't need to see him nor an optometrist nor any eye doctor for at least a year unless any sudden problem develops.

I did know that on all of these eye appointments, your eyes are dilated.  The difference is, I've always left my appointments during the day.  The experience of driving and functioning with dilated eyes was always a little challenging, but as long as I concentrated and squinted  I could see to drive and do other things with minimal difficulty.   Yesterday, just prior to leaving the medical building which is located in the Totten Pond Road area of Waltham, just off Route 128, I realized my vision was quite cloudy.  When I got into the car and pulled out of the parking garage, all I could see were headlights that looked ten times brighter than they were supposed to, and all sorts of glaring and "halos".  Now, the glaring and "halos" are very similar to how a person with bad cataracts sees at night, but this experience including the very bright headlights and taillights was easily ten times worse than any of my bad visual experiences driving at night with cataracts!   I really wondered if I should be driving, and how I was going to get home  (well over fifteen miles away).   I pulled the car onto Route 128 (also known as Interstate 95) South and began driving.  It was very scary.  I remembered how difficult things had been when I drove at night with bad cataracts, and this was so much scarier even than that!   

I only "made it" to one exit!  I knew I had to get off of the highway!  I took the exit for Route 20 West, thinking this would be better.  It wasn't!  Now, I had headlights much closer to my field of vision!  I literally could barely see the road, let alone any Stop signs or anything else I really needed to see!  I took a few turns at intersections and after about ten minutes ended up right back at the spot where I'd first gotten onto Route 20!  All I could think of is, "I've got to find a parking lot where I can stop for awhile!"

I did see a combination Mobil gas station/convenience store/Dunkin' Donuts ahead.  I pulled into the parking lot.  I spent forty minutes in that lot, hoping my vision would get better.  After the forty minutes, my vision was a little better, but the key phrase is "a little".  I used to be terrified to drive on superhighways when I was a teenager and I'd recently gotten my driver's license.  You may laugh, but in those days when I was by myself driving on a superhighway, I'd yell just like Curly Howard of The Three Stooges as I was driving, "Woo, woo, woo, woo, woo, woo, woo, woo!"  No, I didn't "pull a Curly Howard" last night.  I was honestly too terrified to do even that!  It's only God who kept me from having an accident on Route 128 last night.  At the Route 9 interchange, the traffic on Route 128 was jammed and the speed was (no kidding) five miles an hour.  I decided to take the exit for Route 9 West, and I did.  Pretty soon, I was in Natick (which of course was the opposite direction I really wanted to be traveling in).   I got onto Route 27 South and commenced the trip through Sherborn and a bunch of towns before getting home.  (The highlight in Sherborn was a deer who was about to dart across the road but my horn blast scared him!)  

Yes, I finally got home, two hours and fifteen minutes after I'd left that medical building in Waltham!  Today, my vision is normal and fine!  I hated that experience last night, but it has made me think of a couple of things:  How thankful I am that the Lord got me home last night, and how thankful I am that [when my eyes are not dilated]  my vision is truly excellent.   Yup, I can see clearly now!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014


"Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.   
Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.    
For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."  (Matthew 11:28-30) 

I have just finished reading a most unusual book.   Ironically, I received this book "by accident".  It's probably not a book that I would ever have purchased [otherwise] nor had any desire to read.  Its title is pretty unappealing:  "Fail".   I have belonged to the IVP Book Club for probably thirty years.  IVP is a Christian publishing house.  During the years I was pastoring I purchased a number of books through them.  I'm not sure why I have not cancelled my membership in the club.  I almost never order books anymore.  Frankly, I just can't afford them.  "Fail" was part of a recent "Double Main Selection" offered by the book club.  A few weeks ago, I suddenly realized I had forgotten to cancel that "Double Main Selection".  I tried to cancel on-line, but I was too late.  The two books were shipped to me.  I left that mailing packet just sitting in my bedroom for a couple of weeks.  Reluctantly, I opened it up, glanced at the books, wrote out a check, and mailed in my payment which was already late at that point.

About a week ago, I started reading "Fail"The author, J.R. Briggs, is a pastor who has experienced some great disappointment and failure in his life and ministry.  This has led him to do heroic ministry to scores and scores of men and women who have "failed" at pastoring churches, or in their personal lives.  Almost none of the failure Briggs deals with are the kind of failures we usually hear about when we think about ministers who fail.  We usually think about the guy who ran off with his secretary, or the pastor who had a homosexual affair with the church organist, or the female pastor who embezzled funds from the church.  Briggs rather focuses on the type of failure he experienced:  "amoral failure".   The ministers who have experienced "amoral failure" are the ones who have seen the churches they pastor decline from average Sunday morning attendance of one hundred fifty to average Sunday morning attendance of thirty.  They're the ones who are honored for serving twenty years in the ministry on one Sunday evening and then fired at a surprise Board meeting on the next Sunday evening- only to then discover that no church has the slightest interest in employing them.  They're the ones who have a teenage daughter attempt suicide and then are asked to resign because they seemingly have no ability to inspire teenagers.  They're the ones who are grossly underpaid, run their credit cards over the limit, can't pay their bills, and are dismissed for being poor stewards.  And, in almost every case, they're the ones, like me, who believed the success or failure of the local church was entirely up to them- who may have gone through the motions of reading their Bibles and praying every day, but who tried desperately by "hard work" and manipulation to "build" and "hold together" a church, only to see their ministries crumble before their eyes.  They're the ones who are often suicidal and bitterly angry in the aftermath, and who sometimes walk away from God as a result. 

Initially, I found it to be a very tough book.  On the one hand, I seemingly couldn't get enough of it, but then after I'd read a chapter, I would have seen so much of myself in it and re-lived so much of my own feelings of pain and loss that I'd have to put the book down for awhile.  At this stage of reading, I commented to two close minister friends of mine that the book was very tough reading and that I only hoped it would have a happy ending. 

The enemy Briggs takes on in "Fail" is not church board members.  It's not denominational hierarchies.  It's not self-absorbed pastors.  Oh, he touches on the failures and problems of all of those, but the enemy he takes on is the completely unscriptural "success" culture of the evangelical Christian churches of North America.  Briggs is not entirely against those "church growth" and "ministry success" conferences, but he warns the reader that we can't take that stuff too seriously and that no matter how many vision statements we draw up or how many marketing strategies we implement in our churches, if we fail to love the Lord Jesus Christ will all or our hearts and give our loyalty to Him;  and if we fail to truly love people, disciple them, and build relationships with them, even if we do succeed in building megachurches we have totally failed before God.  Yes, it's that whole worldly success culture that he believes we need to flush down the toilet, and I agree. 

Some of the stuff in the book made me uncomfortable.  Briggs believes we have to be raw and authentic in our prayers.  He quotes one pastor who yelled the "F" word at God (and I don't mean "fail" I mean that word) and sees that as a good and healthy thing to do.  Listen, I've poured out my heart to God in a similar manner to Job in the Bible at times, but as far as yelling the "F" word at God, well, to me that's a bit much!  And, Briggs comes from more of the style and culture of today's young evangelicals (he was born in 1979- the year I graduated from Bible college) which encourages social drinking.  There are mentions of going to bars and having glasses of wine.  Listen, I know Jesus drank wine, but I'm from a teetotaler denomination that I'm just a lot more comfortable with, thank you. 

The bottom line is the book does have a [fairly] happy ending.  Briggs believes there is absolutely recovery and a bright future ahead for ministers who fail if they will really allow the Lord to do the work in their lives that He wants to do.  [Briggs includes a lot of practical advice about how to recover from ministry failure- the book is not all theoretical.] 

This book is new, just published in the spring of 2014.   This may seem like an extreme thing to write, but I honestly believe it should be required reading for every pastor and associate pastor, for every church board member, for every denominational executive, and for any mature Christian.  [I don't think I'd recommend it for any "new" Christians- too intense for them!]

 For more information about the book and ordering it, check out: