Breaking Bread

A few days after we moved to our new neighborhood a few weeks ago, we decided to be a bit adventurous and go out to a restaurant down the street from us.  We chose to go to Yaowarat Road, an eatery named for a street in Bangkok’s Chinatown, which specializes in Thai/Chinese cuisine.  When we first arrived and read the menu, I thought about going elsewhere, as there were few dishes I understood or thought we would enjoy.  But we ordered what we comprehended (as well as some Pad Thai, which was not on the menu) and it was all delicious.  It was a wonderful meal that I could have missed if I was unwilling to take a risk.

I was reminded about my supper at Yaowarat Road as I studied about a practice the Bible calls “the breaking of bread”.  This phrase is complex: it is typically a reference to the ordinance of communion (referencing the Lord’s breaking the bread at the Passover table); it could, however, be referring to any meal shared by the people of God (as would be the case of Passover, which involves breaking bread, and the feeding of the five thousand, which also specifically states that the Lord broke the loaves).  It is this more general meaning that I have been reflecting upon.

Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves.  Then he gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people.  He also divided the two fish among them all.   Mark 6:41 (NIV)

One of the most unifying aspects of ministry is dining together, the time when the church comes together to break bread.  A fascinating dynamic is at work when we share a meal, whether it be at a pot-luck or a restaurant.  Our choices of cuisine say something about us: they show our preferences and our tolerances, they reveal our habits and our palates, and they demonstrate our knowledge and our experiences.  When we share a meal with another, we display ourselves on that plate.  Serving up jerk chicken tells us something.  Ordering dessert tells us something else.  Eating off another plate tells us yet something more.

Breaking bread also expresses our acceptance of one another.  When we eat what another person has prepared or ordered, we are saying that your traditions and tastes matter.  We might use more (or less) seasoning or another cut of meat or a different protein, if we were given the choice.  But we allow another person to build the menu and we are given a glimpse of themselves.  If we are lucky, we discover something delectable that we knew nothing about; if not, we might need an antacid for a day or two.  Either way, our culinary knowledge and our fellowship is enlarged.

So, take a risk and break bread with someone – invite them to your home or your local diner and eat a meal with a fellow saint.  If you are hesitant, I invite you to join me for dinner at the church this Wednesday night for one of my favorites.  I hope you’ll have a heaping helping of hospitality.

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At War with Words

The other day, as part of my Sunday School preparation, I came across a word that I had no idea what it meant: remonstration.  It turns out that remonstration is the act or process of saying or pleading in protest, objection, or disapproval.  It is a good word, a word whose definition I never would have guessed on my own; I would have proposed that it meant “a repeated demonstration”, which we now know would be wrong, thus incurring an aware reader’s remonstration.   It is a good reminder that words have meaning and the words we utter must be treated with respect.

Anthropologists contend that words are the containers of culture.  We frame our communities by our words.  My geographic community is shaped by words like rotary, bureau and cellar.  My religious community is shaped by words like sin, savior and faith.  My social community is shaped by words like gender, inclusion and sanctuary.  The same is true for my financial community, my educational community and my familial community; each has its own words with their own nuanced meanings that those in my community understand like inside jokes.  Therefore, the words we use in very conversation have both conventional definitions and cultural meanings.

The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.  Proverbs 12:18

The wisdom of Solomon, recorded nearly three thousand years ago, stands in stark opposition to the present-day adage about sticks and stones.  Words, improperly handled, can hurt us.  Words, properly handed, can heal us.  This requires that when we communicate with others, we use our words accurately (conveying the correct definition) and contextually (conveying the cultural meaning).   That means we need to be careful about our word choices and our audience’s perceptions.   That means we need to pay attention to what we are saying as well as what is being heard.  We need to be reminded every once in a while that it is a lie when we say that words can never hurt us.

Every Sunday, I wrestle with words – both with what I want to say and what the congregation will hear – as I seek to share the truth of scripture.  The Bible is filled with terms that can be troublesome: what is heard when we utter words like slave, miracle, submission, murder, sin, church, prophesy, tongues, evil or perfect.  It is a constant battle to be accurate with the biblical text and be relevant with the listening culture.  We need to be careful that we know what we are saying and that we know what we are being understood as saying.  I encourage you to grapple with words, too.

This brings me back to remonstration, or what I would classify as the contact sport of the internet.  We certainly owe those we hold dear the responsibility of voicing our opposition to wrongdoing.  But we owe them the respect of remonstrating without injury.  We need to choose our words carefully, making sure we know what we are saying and what is being said.

The Repurposed Life

As I mentioned in previous posts, my family moved about a month ago, but that is not quite accurate.  In all actuality, we are still in the process of moving.  We are still unpacking boxes, rearranging furniture and repairing window coverings.  Because of the size of the rooms and the placement of radiators and closets, we’ve been faced with making decisions about what we keep, what we shed and what we repurpose.  We have had to determine whether a shelving unit is a better fit in one room or in another.  We have had to experiment with the placement of dishes and bookshelves.

In the process, I have realized a few things: that we are not required to hold onto everything, that many things can have multiple uses and that a few things are non-negotiable.  As we run out of shelf-space, books and baubles that we carried from our previous residence have become donations for the church’s yard sale.  As we assessed our counter-space, kitchen carts were stacked and became an insert for a linen closet.  Along the way, we came across pictures and memory-rich items that we had forgotten we had.  We are removing what we no longer need, reshaping what we have and respecting what we cannot live without.

Our home, a work in progress, reminds me of my own soul.

He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.  John 15:2

This verse from John is a snippet of a longer parable of Jesus which describes a vine, a gardener and a branch.  From this story we know that Jesus is the vine, the Father is the gardener and we are the branches.  We are living in connection to Jesus and the Father is regularly pruning us: we are not the ones who determine what is beneficial in keeping and what we is not, God is.  He is searching our souls and determines what is best lopped off and what is best remaining.

Like our domestic situation, I am convinced that God is continually exploring our living situation and expunging the things that are no longer needed, exposing what will remain and extending our joy.  He is regularly taking away our selfish attitudes and our self-interested motivations.  He is regularly reshaping our spiritual activities and our spiritual gifts.  He is reproducing fruit in our lives, all for His glory.  At the end of the day, He enables us to enjoy the abundant life He offers to all those who accept His pruning.

With the blessing of hindsight, I am sure that old and broken parts of me have been removed by God with the skills of a surgeon, that aspects of my makeup have been reassembled and rehabilitated by God with the skills of a master craftsman, and that I have become more fruitful than I have ever imagined – all through His abiding presence in my life.  As I place and replace the things in our home, I pray I remember the one who dwells in me.

The Watering Whole

Last week Jeanine and I went to the Open House at our son’s school.  At that time, we met all his teachers and sat in all his classrooms.  Throughout the night, we listened to each teacher share her grading policies and educational expectations.  We exchanged contact information and were apprised of the school-wide disciplinary structure.  All in all, it was pretty much what we’ve heard every other year.  There was one thing, however, that struck me as curious: Joshua’s math teacher pointed us to two websites (www.khanacademy.org and www.ixl.com) which would provide instruction and exercises for those students (or parents) needing extra help.  I was struck at that moment that this teacher had put the needs of her students above her own expertise.

As I thought about those two websites, I thought about all the avenues of instruction available to anyone with an internet connection.  There are websites that can improve family recipes, Youtube videos that can equip the viewer in anything from auto repair to graphic design and podcasts that inform us in nearly every school of thought.  Those two websites also made me question my willingness to share, or curate, electronic resources within the church.  Am I as willing as Josh’s math teacher to share duly vetted and beneficial resources so that those needing spiritual instruction and exercises can get additional help without me?

The scripture our church read the Sunday following that Open House was Acts 18:23-28, a passage that deals with an eloquent Bible teacher named Apollos.  These verses conclude with the statement that Apollos traveled to the city of Corinth and strengthened the church there.  The Apostle Paul was also ministering in Corinth and eventually the question of who to listen to arose among the believers.  Here is Paul’s response to that inquiry:

For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings?  What, after all, is Apollos?  And what is Paul?  Only servants, through whom you came to believe – as the Lord has assigned to each his task.  I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.  1 Corinthians 3:4-6

If the best Bible teacher in history is willing to forego the credit so that God may be exalted, who am I to resist doing the same?  So, following the lead of Ms. Corbo, allow me to recommend a few resources for extra help in spiritual development.  I would recommend every smartphone user download the YouVersion Bible App – so that you have the Bible with you everywhere, complete with reading plans and study tools.  I would also recommend The YouTube videos produced through www.thebibleproject.com, which has short (5 minutes or so) animations about a great many biblical themes.  Finally, if you are interested in thought-provoking interviews with a variety of godly voices, I recommend the weekly Vox Podcast with Mike Erre.

These are simply a few of my suggestions.  What e-resources would you recommend for spiritual enrichment?  Is there a devotional or an online study that edifies your soul?  Is there a newsletter or blog that you find beneficial?    Perhaps if we share our resources, God will make it grow.

Thirty Years

On Monday, my wife and I will celebrate our thirtieth wedding anniversary.  According to Hallmark.com (the worldwide source of information ‘when you care enough to send the very best’), the gift for this anniversary is pearls.  I find it funny how random some of these yearly suggestions are: wood is to be given on year 5; appliances are appropriate for year 18; tools are the traditional gift for year 29.  Jeanine and I are non-traditional in this regard, I guess.   We tend to mark the years of marriage by enjoying more sentimental gestures, such as thoughtful cards and fancy dinners without the children.

Truth be told, the gifts of a long marriage are not given on anniversaries, but rather every day in between.  Jeanine and I have been married for more that half our lives and, it can be reasonably asserted, we are not the same people who stood before a minister three decades ago.  We were bright-eyed and optimistic, confident that love conquers all.  Over the years, the light in our eyes has dimmed a bit and we are a touch more practical now, but with age comes the certainty that love does indeed conquer all.  That certainty, that calm assurance, that we have each other and know each other is, in my opinion, more precious than pearls.

A wife of noble character who can find?  She is worth far more than rubies.  Proverbs 31:10

I do not thank God as often as I should for Jeanine, this completely different-than-me angel who has blessed my life for more than 35 years.  I am so appreciative that she complements my weaknesses with her strengths and accentuates my abilities with her own.  She has lovingly challenged me to be a better man, a better husband and a better father.  She has willingly, with her typical encouragement, endured my career change and seven moves while raising four wonderful children without complaint.  God has given me an equal partner in life who has brought comfort and cleanliness and made our house a home.  Again, I do not thank God as often as I should.

As we age and mature, we change.  I thank God that Jeanine and I have grown together and not apart.  I thank God that we enjoy one another’s company more now than ever, appreciate one another’s voices more now than ever and savor one another’s refinement more now than ever.  I could not have imagined the beauty of our union when we first met at a Friendly’s in the early 1980s.  And I am not too proud to say that I have gained the most in our marriage (which compels me to strive to appreciate to an even greater degree this precious gift of my wife of noble character).

Finally, I thank God for the demonstration of sacrificial love that Christ provides which serves as a template for my wife’s and my relationship.  I thank God that we have committed to do the hard work of willful submission to one another.  I thank God for the challenges we have faced and the strength we have found in our bond.

My prayer is that we would all have occasion to celebrate these bonds.

The Long Way 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.

Another Trip to College

Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.  Proverbs 22:6

Monday morning at 10AM, Jeanine and I will be dropping off at college our middle son, David.  When we do, he will start his freshman year at Fitchburg State University.  This will mark the third time we have dropped off our child at college (for those unfamiliar with our story, seven years ago we abandoned to the world of academia a defenseless boy at Gordon College and three years ago we deserted in our nation’s capital a wide-eyed girl at American University).  For those wondering, repetition does not make the process of leaving a child to fend for himself any easier.

So, as David steps out of the shadows of our wings and begins to chart the course of his own flight, allow me to share a few words of wisdom for my own experiences:

  • First, I would want to tell him to allow seize every opportunity to accentuate all that is good within him. I want David to use these next four years to discover and define his passions and pursue them.  I’d want him to exhaust his electives with eclectic, not just easy, courses – art, drama, bocce, or women’s studies – with the intent on unearthing an unknown interest.  I ask that he join a club or society outside his field of study.  And, in the dining hall, I hope he expands his palate, eating more than just a backpack full of croutons.
  • Next, I would want to tell him to remember why he is where he is. He is there to get an education.  He is there to gain confidence in his independence.  He is there to shine like the sun in a world of darkness.  He is there to build life-long relationship with real people.  I’d recommend to him to maintain the discipline of going to every class every time it meets, of working hard and then playing hard and of partnering with like-minded individuals to prod themselves onto good works.  If his brother and sister are any indication of his future, he will return home a different, more assured, person; I’d want him to embrace that development.
  • Then, I would remind him that an elephant is eaten one bite at a time. As he enters the dormitory on Monday, I am sure that there are fears and trepidations that will cloud his thinking, as well as the worry that this undertaking is too much to handle – and in the moment, it will be.  But when he takes one step in the right direction, followed by another and another, before long progress will be seen.  I would tell him to keep moving forward, even if it is baby steps.

As my child steps out of the car and into a world of curated independence, I’d want him to know that he is capable of more than he thinks possible and stronger than he thinks necessary.

For all those leaving for college for the first time this week, and for their families who love them, I pray God’s richest blessing and watch care be upon us as we all pursue our dreams.

For those wanting to read my thoughts seven years ago, read https://calvaryboston.wordpress.com/2012/08/24/a-parents-hope-for-freshmen/ and for my thoughts three years ago, read https://calvaryboston.wordpress.com/2016/08/19/for-freshmen/

“Right Here in River City”

As I mentioned in my previous post, we will be moving next weekend.  It has been a trying three years at our most-recent residence.  There have been sweet and wonderful times (three years of birthdays and Christmases, living under the same roof with a wide variety of pleasant co-renters and celebrating a graduation), but the preponderance of our memories will likely be less than stellar (terrible neighbors, ubiquitous ride-share vehicles blocking the driveway and  a year-long aroma of cannabis in the stairways).  Within the cookie-cutter walls of the cookie-cutter Dorchester triple-decker we had our fair share of joy and love, despite the near-constant attacks seeking to steal them.

All this is, I suppose, the facts of life.  As the ‘80’s television theme song told me each week: “You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both and there you have the facts of life, the facts of life.”  Those who have more cultured tastes may also know the words of a Longfellow poem: “Thy fate is the common fate of all, into each life some rain must fall….”  Life is a mix of pleasantries and unpleasantries, of dreams and nightmares; our only hope is that the good outweighs the bad and the sun outlasts the clouds.

Therefore we do not lose heart.  Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.  For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  2 Corinthians 4:16-17

Paul tells us that our light and momentary troubles (which in the previous sentence is connected to ‘wasting away’) are achieving, or more literally working out, an all-surpassing glory.  Paul is saying, in essence, that the difficulties of our earthly existence are preparing us to fully enjoy the abundant life given through Christ.  Honestly, this concept frustrates me, mainly because I do not see my troubles as light and/or momentary; I see them as the contrary.  Being accosted by neighbors is not a light affliction and being bombarded by the cacophony of weekend partiers is not a momentary problem.

I can only assume that Paul is speaking comparatively and not qualitatively.  I can only reason that when we focus on the glorious future the Lord has secured for us, our everyday difficulties will seem insignificant.  When I set my eyes on the place that Jesus has prepared for us in His Father’s house, the troubles I have with my earthly dwelling are meager and the troubles I have with my neighbors are fleeting.

I have no idea what we will find in our new habitation, so we may be jumping from the frying pan and into the fire.  While I hope that is not the case, for I know that this new house will not be my final home.  And while I hope that the good days far outnumber the bad, I know that some trouble will follow me, as if I had boxed them up and drove them to the new address myself.  But I also know that they will never be too heavy or too long that I will be overcome, and what awaits me over the horizon, many years from now, will one day outweigh them all.

Wanting “Less Change”

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.

The Way of Lament

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.”