Category Archives: Church

Gratitude

Research has shown that practicing gratitude boosts the immune system, bolsters resilience to stress, lowers depression, increases feelings of energy, determination, and strength, and even helps you sleep better at night.  In fact, few things have been more repeatedly and empirically tested than the connection between gratitude and overall happiness and well-being.  Experts confirm, over and over again, that those who would consider themselves happy are those who also consider themselves grateful.

Even though there is a preponderance of evidence for the benefits of thankfulness, most people do not practice gratitude.  In a survey done by Janice Kaplan for her book The Gratitude Diaries, she found that while “more than 90% of people think gratitude makes you happier and gives you a more fulfilled life … less than half regularly express gratitude.”  When was the last time you said anything more than an obligatory “Thank You” to the waitstaff at a restaurant or a wave of appreciation for the kind soul who held the door open for you at the bank?  Have you experienced the benefits of a lifestyle of gratitude?

Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.  Colossians 3:16

The words of Paul tell us that those who have been transformed buy the good news of Christ will be singing to God with gratitude.  This act of singing may be figurative, or it may be a first century way of saying what the researchers of today contend: gratitude brings a melody to mind.  It is quite possible that Paul knew the same link between happiness and gratitude that Kaplan has now written about.  It is likely that the God who created us, in all our complexity, inspired the Apostle to pen the connection between singing and gratitude woven into our DNA.

Perhaps you would accept a challenge, an experiment to test the veracity of modern sociology and ancient biblical interpretation: we could practice expressing our gratitude with the objective of placing a song on our lips.  We could be thankful, to God to others, for the blessings they bring into our lives.  We could show appreciation for the acts of service friends and strangers perform on our behalf.  We could return kindness when we experience it.  We could discover whether or not these disciplines of gratitude make us happier and allow us to feel greater contentment.  We could be happier.

In this season of harvest, we have much to be thankful for: most of us have more than we need, whether it be as little as a bed instead of a dirt floor or as much as a home with as many bathrooms as inhabitants.  God has orchestrated all the functions of nature to allow our bellies to be filled and our bodies to be useful.  We, each and every one of us, have reason to express gratitude.  It is a good time to give thanks unto the Lord.

ICU (or “I See You”)

If you listened to my message on Sunday, I mentioned in passing an ordeal I had been going through regarding a prescription refill.  I had exhausted all my refills, so I called the health center to schedule a physical; I was informed that my PCP was no longer at that facility and I was reassigned; I was given the next available appointment – and a 7 week wait.  At this point, I asked if I could get my prescriptions refilled and was given assurances they were in process.  A few days later, as I ran out of one of my medications, I called the pharmacy, who was still waiting for authorization, so day after day I called and the health center marked my request as urgent.  10 days after I began the process, I determinedly walked over to the facility, talked to the receptionist, face-to-face, and she took my request to the back, returning after a while with the good news that my prescriptions were sent off to the pharmacy; a few hours later I finally received what I needed to maintain my health.

In hindsight, I have come to realize the importance of face-to-face interactions.  I have come to understand the power of looking into another person’s eyes and voicing a genuine frustration.  I have come to appreciate standing in front of another human being and receiving assurances that I have been heard and valued.  After interacting with disembodied voices for more than a week with no progress, seeing another human being and being seen by another human being was what was necessary for my issues to be resolved.   And now, because of technological conveniences, I fear that face-to-face interactions are few and far between.

I am concerned that we, as a society, are in danger of losing something important because we do not interact with one another in person.  We can maintain contact with friends through social media.  We can check in on family members with a text.  We can experience spiritual growth through an app.  We can shop for nearly all our essentials via the internet.  We can receive instruction on nearly every topic by watching YouTube.  In most areas of life (professional service calls are a singular exception), it is not required that we actually engage in human interactions…but it is desperately needed.

I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face.  Peace to you.  The friends here send their greetings.  Greet the friends there by name.  3 John 14 (NIV)

Take it from one who has recently improved his physical health by meeting with someone face-to-face, your efforts in actual engagement will be rewarded.  Take the risk and put the phone down.  Sit a spell with a friend over a cup of tea or walk together along a river.  Pop into a local hardware store and talk to the owner behind the counter about thermostats or trash cans.  Attend a Bible study, even if it is filled with strangers.  Talking to someone will benefit your relational health, learning with someone will enhance your intellectual health, worshipping with someone will develop your spiritual health.  Let’s get together, face-to-face, for your sake and mine.

Any Given Sunday, on a Thursday

I had the great privilege last Thursday of joining my oldest son in celebrating his birthday by going to Gillette Stadium in order to watch the Patriots compete against the New York Giants.   Neither of us had ever seen the Patriots play anywhere other than on television.   It was, in many ways, an unforgettable experience.  We got to see Tom Brady’s completion to Sony Michel, making him the quarterback with the second-most passing yards in NFL history; we got to see a punt blocked and passes intercepted;  we got to see a win and the team we root for remain undefeated.  We got to see it all.  And it was glorious…mostly.

The traffic getting to the game was heavy.  We followed the back roads, knowing the highways would be crammed.  As we approached Foxboro, we were greeted with brake lights and orange cones.  We crept, along with hundreds of other cars, toward the parking lots.  Finally, we arrived in Lot 50, a quarter of a mile walk from the stadium.

The costs attributable to the game (tickets, parking and concessions) were substantial.  We paid $30 for parking and much more for second-market tickets.  We walked past the concession stands and decided to take a pass of a $10 malt beverage.  There was over-priced fare at other stands as well as team merchandise at the Pro Shop kiosks.  We could have easily dropped $1,000 during the night.

The comfort level of the seating was lacking.  We had to walk to our 3rd tier seats, zigzagging along the access ramps and climbing the stairs of our section.  After we adjusted to the perspective from being so high, we crammed our legs into the plastic formed seats.  Sitting in the elements (the weather was windy but dry that night), we were surrounded by every kind of fan – everyone from the loud and obnoxious to the quiet and casual.

The quality of what was presented was spotty.  The game itself was average.  There were an equal number of good and poor plays.  The Giants are not a team of great talent, and they played as expected.  It was a good game, but not much of it would be highlighted on SportsCenter.

The time involved in participating was excessive.  We left the hose at 4:30 and returned home at 2 in the morning.  While we didn’t tailgate, we could have (the parking lots open 4 hours before kickoff).  The game was a wonderful three hours or so.  The inching along in the parking lot to get onto route 1 was a frustrating 90 minutes.  It was a long and glorious night.

The experience was wonderful.  I got to spend time with someone I love doing something we love together.

… not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.  Hebrews 10:25 (NIV)

Why is it that 65,000 people can withstand the traffic, the cost, the time and the discomfort of a mediocre football game, but cannot do the same for a worship service at a local church?  I understand that the two experiences are not the same for many – our NFL experience was a once-in-a-lifetime experience – but I am puzzled that so many (especially season ticket holders) would risk rain and snow and spend large amounts of money and time to watch men play a game instead of attending a worship service.  Why is it that some would relish the petty annoyances of traffic and parking lot gridlock while others will not tolerate a longer message and a service extended past 12:15?

Thanks for letting me rant.  If you ever choose to come to Calvary, I promise that the parking will be free.

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.

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 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.

“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.”

Going Beyond with Boldness

At Vacation Bible School earlier this week, one of the lessons was about ‘going beyond with boldness’.  As I taught the seven 3rd through 6th graders in my class about courageously trusting in the Lord, about doing and saying what is right even when it is hard, we explored the life and faith of Esther.  According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “Esther, the beautiful Jewish wife of the Persian king Xerxes I, and her cousin Mordecai persuade[d] the king to retract an order for the general annihilation of Jews throughout the empire.”  Esther is the supreme example what God can do through a person who demonstrates boldness.

With a twenty-first century worldview, it might escape the awareness of the casual reader of the Old Testament that speaking to your husband about a decree would require extreme boldness.  But the author of the book of Esther, in the first chapter, tells us what happens when a queen displeased King Xerxes: during a party with his friends, Queen Vashti was summoned in order to show her beauty; the queen refuses to go; so, the king exiles her from his presence and procures a new wife.  If that is what happened to the queen after an informal request, what would happen to Esther when she decries an official proclamation?  Yet, she courageously stood up for what was right.

“For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”  Esther 4:14

Esther is a role-model for all the spine-deficient among us.  After deciding that God, in fact, raised her to the position of queen for just this purpose, she devises a plan and musters the strength to speak of this injustice perpetrated against the people of God.  But when she had an audience before the king, she buckles and only invites him to a banquet.  She chickens out, reminding us all that even the strongest sometimes shiver before they shine.  Then, after two days of drinking, Esther speaks up and secures the safety of her people, boldly proclaiming the truth of God.  Despite the real possibility of losing everything – even her life – she courageously stands up for God.

We are not that different from Esther.  We see and hear of injustice and wrongdoing every day.  We, too, may have come into our position – a place of power and prosperity – for such a time as this.  We could speak to the authorities of today and address the issues of today.  We could go beyond what we think is possible with boldness.  We need modern-day Esthers, those who are apprehensive but aware, and tentative but trusting.

One final word from the lesson plan: the name Esther means ‘star’.  Just as there are stars in the night sky that have died centuries ago and their light is still reaching the earth after travelling for thousands of years, so too the examples of ‘stars of the faith’ may have died long ago, but still shine today.