Category Archives: Church

Highly Favored

Being an introvert by nature, I tend to think out (in greater detail than may be healthy) scenarios that may of may not ever be founded in reality.  After this week’s Sunday School lesson on James 2, I have been fixated on what I might do if a celebrity came to Calvary to worship.  My mind conjured questions: What person of influence, wealth or status might grace us with their presence?  How would they be greeted?  What engagement might be biblically appropriate?  I follow the rabbit-trails of thought that make me reason that a new member of a local sports franchise might come to Calvary; Patriots players are out (they play on Sundays), as are Red Sox players (playoffs and all), so I think about Gordon Hayward, the Celtic star who once said in an interview that “[going to church has] always been a staple; something I try to do.”

So, what would I do if Gordon Hayward came to church on Sunday?  Would I do more than I would for a neighbor?  Would I offer him a special seat?  Would I ask him to offer a few words during the ‘announcements’ in the service of worship?  Would I ask for a photo or an autograph?  Would I post a quick update to social media, stating, ‘Guess who came to church this morning’?  Would I ask for tickets to the next game, purely for ministry purposes?  What would the Bible tell me is right and proper?

My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism.  James 2:1 (NIV)

The Scriptures tell us that we must not show favoritism, the practice of giving unfair preferential treatment to one person or group at the expense of another.  We must not give something better to some at the expense of others.  The words of James’ letter to the churches tells us that we give special attention to the rich by offering a good seat while demanding that the poor stand in a back corner.  So, if Gordon Hayward comes to Calvary this Sunday, I will treat him like anyone else: I will shake his hand and ask what brought him to church; I will seek his prayer requests and opportunities for praise as I extend the opportunity to everyone in attendance; and I will share with him the good news of Jesus Christ.

Instead of favoritism, we ought to show favor, the practice of showing kindness beyond what is due or usual.  We are expected to show favor to all those who come in the doors of the church.  So that if a visitor, whether wealthy and powerful or weak and poor, joins in worship at Calvary I will treat them all with kindness – I will speak with dignity, offer inclusion, express equity and advance grace.  If we offer preferential treatment to everyone, we are not showing favoritism but favor.  On that day, we will give the best seat to anyone who opens the door – saint or sinner – with the hope that grace will abound.

Do me a favor: visit us some Sunday morning and we will show you favor in return.

Advertisements

Common Courtesy

I am tired of it all.  I am done with being cut off in traffic when the other car entering the flow refuses to ‘zipper’ in,  with being interrupted before I can complete a sentence, with reaching the buffet table and finding empty dishes because the guy in front of me took more than appropriate, with running out of the public park because dog owners de-leash their pets – a cannot tell by its gait that she’s friendly – and with neglecting to bag her poop, with having a door close in my face because the person in front of me sneaks passed the coffee shop door as it closes (as if they are auditioning for “Mission Impossible”) and with the general absence of please and thank you by society.  Call me a curmudgeon if you’d like, but I am desperate for some common courtesy.

In today’s vernacular ‘courtesy’ is synonymous ‘free’ or ‘extra’ – courtesy calls from a service provider, courtesy vans from the auto body shop or courtesy phones found in hotel lobbies.  But its original meaning had more to do with characteristics of politeness and manners.  It is this latter definition that I miss in today’s interactions; I miss males acting as gentlemen and females acting as ladies.  At some point in my lifetime, our culture shifted and began valuing entitlement and individual rights over mutual respect and civility.  Many of the lessons I learned in elementary school – the practices of sharing, waiting one’s turn and refraining from unkind comments – are summarily ignored by a large segment of our population.

We need to be reminded of the words of Jesus:

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.  Matthew 7:12

This sentence, commonly called “The Golden Rule”, is perhaps the second most familiar statement of Christ (the first being John 3:16).  God Incarnate told His followers nearly 2,000 years ago that we are to treat other people the way we want to be treated.  With a greater or lesser degree of success, we all have been wrestling with our obedience to this command since it was first uttered.  We attempt to work the angles, balancing our needs with the needs of others, often failing because we resolve the tension with faulty math: if I hold the door for one or two people, those two turn into an untold number; I then end up at the end of the line and face delays that no one should be required to face; therefore, I cannot hold the door for you.  My needs are paramount.

But when everyone makes similar computations, and I fear that this is our present reality, Jesus’ words are ignored and no one is treated they way they want to be treated.  Everyone does what they want and common courtesy is but a relic of the past, like hand-written letters and house calls.  All is not lost, however, and God’s word will never return empty: if a few of us choose courtesy and champion kindness, the culture can change over time.   Join me in following the golden rule; it might encourage other to do the same toward you.

Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash  

 

Jingle Jangle Jingle

As part of a discussion with my family over Sunday’s sermon, my eldest stated that he was humored by the possibility of God’s bestowal of the spiritual gift of provocation.  His comment was based on the phrase “spur one another on” in Hebrews 10:24, a peculiar Greek word (παροξυσμός) which literally means “with a point”; the only other time the word is used in the New Testament (Acts 15:39) it is translated as “a sharp disagreement”.  The writer of the book of Hebrews was inspired to tell the church to look for ways to sharply provoke our fellow believers.

The term ‘spur on’ is a wonderful word picture of this process of provocation.  It conjures images of a race horse and jockey, working together as a team, to reach the optimal outcome.  The jockey is kicking his mount in the hind quarters and the horse is increasing its efforts.  At the end of the race, the horse, which endured the sting of provocation, is the champion and the jockey, the source of the provocation is the one who drapes the victor in flowers (quick question: horseracing’s Triple Crown was won this past June: what was the horse’s name?  And who was his jockey?  More of us can remember Justify, but few would come up with jockey Mike Smith).  ‘Spurring on’ may not be pleasant for the horse in the moment, but the resulting rewards cannot be underestimated.

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds….  Hebrews 10:24

The writer of Hebrews tells us to consider (literally, to look upon) one another for the spurring on toward love and good deeds.  The Holy Spirit inspired a first century author to urge the church to look for ways to provoke one another.  This provocation, this calling forth with sharpness, propels the believer toward acts and attitudes that convey love and compassion.  It appears that these virtues – love and compassion – are not always instinctual, logical or natural.  We all have times when we revert to pettiness, anger and selfishness and need a good kick in the pants to motivate us to pursue the goal set before us.

So, perhaps there is a spiritual gift of provocation, a God-given ability to call one another forth with sharpness so that we all may glorify God to the fullest.  Perhaps there is also a need among God’s people to accept that ‘spurring’ with grace and gratitude, knowing the intent of our ‘jockey’ is the attaining of our very best effort.  No one wants to hear that they need to love the heartless or hurt for the homeless; most of us are comfortable loving who we love and helping who we help.  Then we wrestle with the truth that God’s love and mercy is greater than our expressions of them, and that we need someone to remind us that we are able to do more than we think we are capable of doing.

So, appreciate those whom God uses to spur you on.  Appreciate those whom God uses to agitate you to love deeper and provoke you to act kinder.  Appreciate those with sharp words intended to soften your heart.

What We Are

We had an interesting visitor to the church the other day: a location scout.  It seems that there are plans for a major motion picture to film in Boston this fall and they were looking for a church to shoot a scene.  The scout told me they were looking for a place to film a sparsely attended funeral and she came by to take a few pictures of our sanctuary.  In the ten minutes that the location scout was taking her shots of the building, my thoughts went on a flight of fancy: what if our church was selected and we had Hollywood heavyweights filling our pews; what if our sanctuary made it into a movie; what if it were nominated for an Academy Award?

Whether or not we are chosen as a location for this movie, our church will not be captured on film.  The truth is that the church is not the building.  The building is a beautiful composition of plaster, wood, metal, asphalt and glass.  The church, on the other hand, is an even more glorious composition of personalities, abilities, experiences and passions.  The building is a specific place, but the church is a specific people.  While the building, with its carpeting and lighting, might be viewed on the big screen, our church, with its emotions and affections, cannot be experienced as entertainment.

Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house.  Colossians 4:15

The above-referenced passage reveals an important truth found in numerous other passages in Scripture: there is a distinction between the church and the place where it meets (in this case “in her house”).  The early believers did not ‘go to church’ but went to a place to be with the church, to gather with sisters and brothers of faith to worship, to pray, to educate and to minister.  Church is not where the Bible tells us to go or what the Bible tells us to do, but who the Bible tells us to be.  The church is the family of God, the body and bride of Christ, and temple of the Holy Spirit.  So, maybe our building will be in the movies, but the church is too great to be preserved on celluloid.

For most, this weekend represents the end of summer and the beginning of autumn, the time when schools and colleges resume their classes.  It is also the time when churches resume their regular schedules and programs.  It would be a great time to think about gathering with the church and share your gifts, strengths and passions in ways that foster growth and increase His kingdom.  For most of us, that will mean going to a ‘house of worship’ – I dare not say going to ‘church’ – and getting together with the church – what the Greek calls ekklesia, “the ones called out”.  Join others as we celebrate that we are more than a special place on the map; we are the one whom God has called out of the culture of this world and brought together as a family of faith.

That cannot be contained in any camera’s lens.

What a Feeling

Earlier this week, my family went to see Disney’s latest movie, “Christopher Robin”.  It was a sweet, if somewhat simple, story of a grown man remembering the importance of family and friends.  As I watched, I was transported to my childhood, through the recollection of familiar songs and sayings of a bear and his friends, and my early adulthood, as I remembered watching on VHS these same stories with my children.  For me (and those my age), it was a trip down memory lane and into the hundred-acre wood, making me long for simpler times.

These thoughts I am having are ‘nostalgia’, which is defined as ‘a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition’.  The term comes from the Greek word nostos (home) and algia (pain): it is literally ‘home-sickness’.  Nostalgia is all about feelings: longing for the good old days or the hoping that we can make America great again.  But nostalgia (like all feelings) is not necessarily anchored in reality, for the good old days may not have been all that good for some in our society and the America of generations past may not have been as great as we recall.

Instead of embracing sentimentality based on feelings, the Bible commands us to elicit memories based on facts.  The last few weeks, at Vacation Bible School and through Sunday morning messages, I have read in the scriptures what we are commanded to remember: as the Israelites were crossing the Jordan River and entering the Promised Land they were commanded to erect a tower of 12 stones from the riverbed (an Ebenezer, a ‘stone of remembrance’) to remind future generations of the deliverance Lord had granted them; and through the letters Jesus dictated to the churches in Asia Minor they were commanded to remember the great height from which they had fallen.  They were commanded to remember the facts of God’s gracious and merciful interactions with them, not the emotions of the moment.

Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent.  Revelation 3:3

The church is commanded to remember what we have received (tangible blessings and actual gifts) and what we have heard (reliable teachings and sworn testimonies).  We are not commanded to commemorate how we felt about what we have received or heard.  In fact, an argument could be made that nostalgia emotions and feelings are man-made idols which could take the place of God if we are not careful.  Instead of worshiping the God who has revealed Himself in the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, we are tempted to offer our sacrifices to the gods of happiness and comfort.   Unfortunately, those who choose feelings over facts end up with nothing.

It is good to remember what has happened in the past – what God has done and said – but it might not be best to wish we went back.  May the source of our joy in the present be what is real and not simply what we feel.

Hunger Games

My children tell me I have a lot of strange rules (e.g. I do not allow random singing at the kitchen table during meals).  At one time, I used to demand that there would be no snacking after 4PM, with the rationale being that I wanted the kids to eat their supper when it was time for dinner.  However, after years of hungry kids disregarding my wishes, I have given up the fight and silently tolerate the consumption of chips, croutons and trail mix at 5:47, thirteen minutes before mealtime.  There is no stopping someone when they are hungry, and, with laser-like focus, my children will find something to eat whenever those hunger pangs strike.

Hunger, the pain that comes when an appetite is not satisfied, is a powerful force.  It breaks our focus and drains our strength.  It weakens our will and halts our productivity.  It is the reason why parents everywhere load granola bars into their children’s backpack when the time for standardized testing rolls around.  It is the reason why breakfast is the most important meal of the day.  It is the reason why we should never shop for groceries on an empty stomach.  One of our most primal urges, one of our basest instincts, is to satiate our hunger.

I will be fully satisfied as with the richest of foods; with singing lips my mouth will praise you.    Psalm 63:5

We all know what to do when we experience physical hunger: we find something to eat – sometimes healthy and sometimes not.  But, are we aware that we do the same things with our other hungers?  We satisfy our emotional hunger at times with emotional burgers (cat videos) and at other times with emotional salads (writing poems).  We satisfy our mental hunger occasionally with intellectual ring dings (“Fifty Shades of Grey”) and occasionally with educational cantaloupe (“Hannah Coulter”).  We satisfy our relational hunger with doughnuts (Facebook) and egg whites (face-to-face conversations).  The good news is that, according to the Psalmist, God satisfies our hunger; the bad news is that we all have times when we choose to consume what is not on His menu.

Nowhere is this more evident than when it comes to our spiritual hunger.  Throughout the scriptures we are promised the lavish abundance of the Lamb’s marriage supper.  When we feast upon the blessings of Christ, we are given forgiveness, eternal life, spiritual giftedness and spiritual fruit.  There are times when we choose spiritual celery (which has no nutritional value) or spiritual caramel corn (which is not good for us).  We hunger for forgiveness, for example, but instead of receiving satisfaction from God we seek justification from the culture.  We substitute the good for the good enough.

These hungers we experience are necessary.  It is in our best interest to listen to them.  Our focus, strength, will and productivity will suffer if we neglect to keep watch over our appetites.  Appreciate the banquet table the Lord has prepared for you and accept no lesser substitute. Allow your satisfaction to come from God and you need not spoil your appetite on what the world has to offer.

A Small But Significant “Splash”

Today is the final day of my annual week of craziness and sleep deprivation, otherwise known as VBS week.  This year we went to “Splash Canyon” and heard some amazing stories of God’s fulfillment of His promises: He protected Moses as he floated down the Nile in a basket; He provided the Israelites access to the promised land as they walked between heaps of water on the dry Jordan River bed; He healed Naaman by as he washed in the Jordan; He saved 276 men, including Paul, as they were shipwrecked in the Mediterranean; and He established our salvation as Jesus was baptized in the Jordan.  While I am exhausted due to the activity, I feel blessed by God that I could be a part of it all.

Every year that I direct a Vacation Bible School program, I am humbled by the responsibility that parent’s place in us.  They allow their most precious treasures, their children, to participate with our church in hearing Bible stories, playing games, making crafts, eating snacks, singing songs and picking out handfuls of candy each day.  They trust us with their child’s physical well being, moral character development, spiritual formation and social interaction.   With so many other options available to families (summer camps, sports  programs, community center day programs or other Vacation Bible Schools), I am grateful for the parent’s that chose to join us for “Splash Canyon”.

According to Lifeway Kids , in 2016, more than 2.5 million children attended VBS (with over 70,000 making a profession of faith) and $6.5 million was raised for missionary causes.  That is quite an impact for about 30 hours of ministry.  While our church’s impact is quite a bit smaller, it must not be dismissed as insignificant.  I wonder what God might do through the seeds that have been planted this week.  Are we, through these five days of fun activities, building up the elders, pastors and missionaries of the mid-twenty first century?  Are we, through playing duck-duck-goose and making necklaces with pony beads and remembrance stones, creating lasting memories of God’s goodness which will serve as anchors for these kids when the storms of life hit?  I would like to think the answer is, “Yes”.

For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ.  And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God.  1 Corinthians 2:20

I want to thank everyone who enabled us to conduct this year’s Vacation Bible School, who volunteered their time and resources to glorify God and bless the lives of more than two dozen children.  I also want to thank all those who are praying for the children who attended.   It was a great week and, God willing, just the beginning of something great in the lives of all who participated.

The Melting Pot

There is a place in my neighborhood that is a microcosm of my neighborhood.  As the noontime hour approaches, you can see every demographic:  there are police officers in uniform, fire fighters in Blue BFD T-shirts, DCR lifeguards from Malibu Beach, grandchildren dressed in Vineyard Vines pants (pegged at the ankle) visiting their grandparents, National Grid workers in safety vests, lawyers in business suits, moms with strollers, politicians and fast-food clerks.  It is there where every ethnicity and lifestyle of Dorchester is represented, and men and women of every age are present.  Where is this perfect melting pot that includes everyone, from Boston Brahmin to the denizen of the triple-deckers?  As a pastor, I would like to say that I am talking about the church, but, alas, I am not.  The place that I am talking about is the deli counter at Lamberts.  At lunchtime, the line for sandwiches includes everyone that calls Dorchester home.

Ah, Lamberts, where you can get the finest sandwich eight bucks can buy.  All you have to do is hand the meat slicer your choice of roll and a list (either verbally or in writing) of ingredients, and a few minutes later, you are handed a piece of heaven wrapped in butcher paper.   But it is in that long line leading to the counter that you can brush shoulders with literally anyone and everyone.  As I wait for my turn, I wonder if this is what heaven will be like, complete with the distinct sound of dropped ‘r’s and the obligatory ‘wicked’.

“Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.”  Colossians 3:11 (NIV)

The original design for what we call the local church, according to the apostle Paul, was that it included everyone.  No one was to be excluded based on religious, cultural, national, economic or gender (cf. Gal. 3:28).  In practice, the local gatherings of the family of God routinely miss the mark.  Why can’t the people of God be like the line at Lamberts?  Why isn’t the make-up of the ‘bride of Christ’ the same as those waiting for sandwiches?  Why isn’t the church as diverse as those frequenting the local deli?

I suppose the answer to all these questions is simple: reputation.  Lamberts has the long line for their offerings because they are known, largely through word of mouth, as a provider of excellent lunches for everyone.  What is the reputation of the church?  Justified or not, Dr. Martin Luther King was quoted as saying, “…it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.”  In the fifty-eight years since those words were uttered, the church has taken great strides, but there is more to be done so that the community surrounding our houses of worship verify that the local church has changed.  I hope that one day soon the same crowd at Lamberts is present at Calvary.  All we can do is spread the word, with genuine sincerity, that all are welcome to worship the Lord.

Free Delivery

Unless you yourself have been living in a cave for the past three weeks, you know about the rescue of the dozen Thai boys and their soccer coach.  This rescue can be only described as miraculous.  On Saturday, June 23rd, the team was reported missing, their bicycles found at the mouth of a cave as monsoon rains poured down.  Search and recue teams were dispatched, but the flooded caves proved too treacherous for the local authorities.  National and international divers were recruited, and, despite the odds, the whole team was found by a diver on July 2nd, nine days after reported missing.  Weak from starvation and compromised by low oxygen levels in the cave, the team was cared for (underground) as the rescue team formulated an extraction plan.  Ultimately, with the use of a ‘buddy diver’ system, the boys and their coach were rescued six, seven and eight days later (on July 8th, 9th and 10th).  After more than two weeks of darkness, for the boys and their loved ones, they all were safely resting in a hospital located 37 miles away from that murky cave.

To many observers, lost in the details of this miraculous delivery are the fatal circumstances of Major Saman Gunan, the former Thai Navy Seal who died when his oxygen ran out while navigating the path in and out of the cave on July 6th.  Without the sacrifice of a few, there would not be reason to rejoice.  The good news – that the boys were delivered from certain death – is undergirded by greater news – that there are always some who will be willing to die that others may live.  The good news celebrated by ordinary people is secured by extraordinary people amongst us: fire fighters, police officers, rangers, soldiers, sailors and more.  Join me in celebrating the ones who dare to face death for the sake of others.

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.  Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die.  But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  Romans 5:6-8

Saving innocent good boys is commendable work.  Saving guilty troublemakers (the neighborhood kids that are throwing rocks at houses and cars while calling our parents terrible names and stealing their property) is another matter.  While no one would say, “Let them die!”, that same ‘no one’ will not risk their very lives, instead doing what they can, to save them.  No one simply human, that is.  The one who is fully human and fully divine would not only risk His life but will give His life to save all those who oppose His Father.   He gave His life for you and me.

We all have been driven deeper into darkness through the chaos of the rising waters and were at the point of death, needing deliverance.  Thank God that He bought us into the light, giving His own life as a means of our rescue.

Indicator Lights

My family and I have just returned from a road trip to our nation’s capital. Along the way we stayed with and enjoyed the company of friends and family.  The trip was not without incident however.  While we were still within Boston’s city limits, one of the car’s indicator lights illuminated: the Tire Pressure Monitoring System’s low pressure indicator.  I immediately pulled over and checked the tires and saw no flat and decided to sally forth (it was torrentially raining at the time).  That was when the ‘game’ began.  For the next eleven hours of our trip, I would repeat the following steps: fill the tire with air to 40 PSI, drive for 55 minutes, observe the TPMS indicator light go on, drive for another 15 to 30 minutes, and pull over to find another air hose.  Only once, in Connecticut, was the air hose missing at the rest area pump.  As a side note, the New Jersey service stations were the best: mechanic quality pumps, free of charge.

After some experiencing some unexpected stops and some soggy shoes, we safely arrived at our destination.  The next day, I went to a repair shop not far from where we were staying (after one last fill of the tire) and they were able repair the pin-hole breach for $20.50.  I am grateful for that little orange light on my dashboard that looks like the cross section of a flat tire with an exclamation point in the center: I told me when I was in danger of causing greater damage and needed to address my air.  It told me how far I could go and when I needed to stop.

We all could benefit from an air monitoring system.  The Greek word for air is ‘pneuma’, and it is from these Greek roots that we get words like pneumatic (air powered) and pneumonia (“sick air”).  The Greek word ‘pneuma’ is also translated in the Bible as the word for spirit.  That is truly what I wish I had: an indicator light warning me that the Spirit within me is dangerously low and in need of filling before permanent damage occurs.  The thought of my need for this SPMS (Spirit Pressure Monitoring System) came to me several times during our trip, always in hindsight.  Imagine the decisions that would be made (or not made) if we all knew that our spirit was riding low at that moment.

“Instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit.”  Ephesians 5:18

The context of the above quoted words of Paul point to two possibilities (both of which can be reasonably defended) – either we leak and need regular refilling to combat the challenges of the culture or we need regular reminders that we must rely upon our continual condition of being filled to combat the challenges of the culture.

Without an indicator light shining right in front of my face, I might neglect routine maintenance.  This applies to the air in my tires and the spirit in my life.  Regarding the latter, that is why the disciplines of faith are crucial: prayer, Bible reading, corporate worship.  If I maintain these practices, I will avoid a spiritual blow-out and protect myself and those around me.