Every Wednesday night we, as a church gather for prayer. I have gotten into the habit of beginning our time of intercession with the recitation of a psalm, and each week I select the Psalm corresponding with that particular day of the year. In the case of last Wednesday, as it was the 190th day of the year, we read the 190th Psalm (for those aware of biblical content, yes, there are only 150 psalms; we actually read Psalm 40 for the second time). In the middle of that scriptural song are the following statements:
I do not hide your righteousness in my heart; I speak of your faithfulness and your saving help. I do not conceal your love and your faithfulness from the great assembly. Psalm 40:10 (NIV)
Before I comment on the truths of these words, let me tell you a little about my time of quarantine. In the span of the last 117 days, my household has celebrated a graduation, a birthday, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. In that time numerous packages have entered the home stealthily so as not to be detected by the person of honor. They were literally and figuratively under wraps and covered. This clandestine maneuvering was without malice and was momentary; we wanted these presents to be a surprise. Eventually, the appropriate time arrived and the gifts of love were discovered, displayed and delighted in.
I wonder, as I read again the words of the Psalmist, if I am as forthcoming with the gifts God has given me. When I receive his righteousness – being treated rightly, justly and fairly – do I declare to all who can hear me how good God is? Do I, when someone remarks that they esteem my new appearance or appliance, give all the credit to the sensibilities of the gift giver, God Almighty? Or do I refrain from expressing His affections for me, whether due to misplaced pride or fear of offense? Do I cover up what God is doing in my life? Am I guilty of the sin that the Psalmist is so sensitive to stem?
I am well aware that the last four months have been hard on all of us, perhaps the hardest season many of us have been forced to bear. But I am also aware that God has been God in the midst of this pandemic, providing us with enough and protecting us from the rough. It is our privilege to share this reality with those around us. It is as simple as saying, “I could not have made it without Jesus”, or “Thank God for His many blessings.” It is important that our hearts be full of the knowledge that God is good all the time, and it is equally as important that this truth pour forth from us and not be bottled up deep within our core.
Do not cover up or conceal what the Lord is doing in your midst; perhaps what God is doing in your life is something that someone near you needs you to speak into their life. Be well and tell others that God is good.
As I write this post a team of workers with heavy machinery is replacing the sidewalks, curb stones and street in front of our house. I am captivated by all the activity that is taking place: I am awestruck by the precision of the excavator operator, as he removes dirt and debris around valve covers and drains with no apparent effort; I am fascinated my those responsible for the placement of the heavy stones, leveling and tapping them expertly in a row; I have become mesmerized by the activity just outside our front windows as each person performs their role as if engaged in a synchronized dance. While I do not appreciate the noise beginning at 7 every morning, I am thankful for the object lesson their labors have given me.
When we moved into our current residence 10 months ago, the water main had just been replaced. Shortly after our arrival, the gas lines that run through the neighborhood were also replaced, leaving our street a mess of potholes and uneven patches. The road surface would fill with puddles after a rainstorm and the sidewalks in spots were dangerously uneven. This week, all that is beginning to change, as people who know what to do and have the time to do it well are restoring what has been damaged. Assuming all the work is completed, our street will remain pristine for the next five years.
It all reminds me of what can happen when everyone does their part to build up what has been ravaged by time or trauma. Whether it is public works or personal health, we all have a role in edification – the building up of one another – through acts of service, through words of affirmation and/or through time together. There is no meaningless effort nor unnecessary task. The business of building requires designers and architects, as well as vehicle operators and day laborers. The business of edification likewise requires thinkers and planners, as will as skilled workers and heavy lifters.
From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. Ephesians 4:16 (NIV)
The apostle Paul, in his letter to the church in Ephesus, describes the local church as a body. This body grows when every part does its unique work. In Paul’s analogy, the people of God are strengthened, in community, when the ‘hands’ do what the ‘hands’ can do (and only what the ‘hands’ can do), as well as every other part – eyes, ears, kidneys, and the rest – does what they are designed to do. This imagery, for me, has two important ramifications: first, that each of us are essential for our effectiveness and health; and second, that we are effective and healthy when we only do what we are here to do.
Together, proximately or virtually, we will grow and build our body in love as each of us do what God uniquely enables us to do. I have an asphalt, concrete and granite reminder of this reality just outside my door.
[Jesus said,] “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” Matthew 25:35–36 (NIV)
I have been thinking about this passage for the past few weeks. Specifically, I have been ruminating about the Lord’s self-description as a stranger. What did Jesus mean that he was a stranger? Isn’t he better characterized as a friend or a sibling? Isn’t he immanently known by those who follow him? How could we possibly engage in a relationship with the Living God and not recognize him as a stranger?
According to Walter Brueggemann, strangers are “people without a place.” Strangers are those who enter into a community devoid of basic support structures – they are separated from familial, vocational, financial, religious and political networks. This, I believe, is the underlying truth of Jesus’ self-expression: part of the human condition is enduring times of placelessness and part of the life of the church is inviting the placeless in.
My musings about the stranger began about a month ago, when my daughter travelled to Washington D.C. to pack up her college apartment. About 70 miles from anyone she knew and more than 100 miles from her destination, she experienced car troubles and found herself broken down on the side of a rural road. She was placeless – alone and separated from everyone and everything she knew. Thankfully, she had AAA and a cousin to rescue her, but she still was stranded for more than an hour. She was placeless, a stranger. And God is good: the hours she spent in Mullica Hill, NJ were warm and sunny and throughout the ordeal a number of women from the community inquired about her well-being.
My musings continued over the next few weeks as our city and our nation witnessed demonstrations against, among many issues, what I would call ‘systemic strangering’: the pervasive displacement of our black and brown siblings through the misuse and abuse of authority. Because many had nowhere to go to alleviate their suffering and address their basic needs, they assembled en masse across this nation to shed light on their exclusion. But God is good: conversations of engagement and songs of lament are now taking place among His people.
My musings also encompass our current pandemic. As disease and death unite the world in our common crisis, we are sorrowful that there is nowhere we can go and no one to turn to find complete relief. We are all placeless together. Even in this, God is good: in the midst of our strangerness, we find collective common ground in our community walks and our mutual disappointment with those still refusing to consider the needs of the vulnerable, the real strangers in our midst.
Do you have room in your heart, or in your schedule, to invite in the stranger? Do you recognize the divine gift we have to offer, a place of belonging (figuratively in the present and literally before long) to those who have nothing to offer but themselves? When you do, you are welcoming in the Lord.
 Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation and Obedience (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991) 294.
I read a story of some good news earlier this week. According to ABC News, it seems that over 10 years ago, Forrest Fenn, a wealthy and cryptic New Mexico art dealer, hid a treasure chest with gold and gems estimated to be worth millions of dollars somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. Well, it was reported that someone finally found the fortune after more than a decade of intense searching. The treasure hunt was not without danger and, in fact, over the years, authorities say five people have died trying to find the hidden riches. Fenn has confirmed that a man has discovered his hiding spot, but nothing more about the new millionaire has been discovered.
Imagine hearing that someone has hidden a vast fortune in a specific, yet equally vast, area. What would you do with that information? Would you proceed with life as usual? Would you satisfy your curiosity and spend your weekends and vacations solving clues and searching for gold? Would you quit your job and sell your house, devoting all your attentions to unearthing the bounty? Would you be willing to risk your life for the opportunity to secure your future? Would you dismiss the possibility as an elaborate hoax or a sensational publicity stunt? I, too, wonder what I would do had I known what had been hidden in the hills.
[Jesus said,] “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.” Matthew 13:44 (NIV)
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden….” This shortest parable of Jesus reminds us that the reign and rule of God Almighty is present in our everyday life, yet it is also hidden. However, evidences of God’s sovereign majesty are also discoverable. This is certainly good news for us today; this pandemic may obscure God’s sovereignty and ongoing racial tensions may camouflage God’s kingdom, but they cannot eliminate the presence of God which is all around us. It can be seen in the acts of compassion performed by essential workers every day. It can be heard in the voices of young people declaring justice for all. It can be felt in the pains of all those who sense that more needs to be done.
“When a man found it, he … sold all he had and bought that field.” This is a simple story which is easily applicable: you strike oil in a vacant lot; you do whatever it takes to buy that lot; you enjoy the riches that lie beneath. The Bible declares that glimpses of the kingdom of heaven are all around us. We are therefore obligated to unearth these glimpses wherever we discover them and, by extension, bless those around us with the goodness, greatness and glory of God’s reign. There is a treasure awaiting all those willing to work for it; the kingdom of heaven – the perfect plan and purposes of our Sovereign Lord – is available to all who seek it.
What will you do with this information?
Allow me to state, up front, that I cannot understand, as a middle-aged white man, the frustrations and fears which are associated with being a person of color in America. I cannot honestly declare that I know what it feels like to be stopped by the police based primarily, if not solely, upon the color of my skin. I have no frame of reference where I am able to equate walking in my community with the possibility of being attacked. While I cannot express empathy (where we would share in a mutual emotion) with those mourning and protesting across the country, I can and do express sympathy (where we come alongside one another as we share our unique experiences).
What I can do, as a minister of the gospel and pastor of a city-cited church, is listen to the voices of the oppressed and marginalized. I can also share relevant and revelatory biblical truth. To do that, I would like to share something that someone smarter than me has said:
The Scripture is what tells us that the idolization of the flesh is sin (Gal. 5:16-24), that hatred of those made in the image of God is sin (1 Jn. 3:11-15), that mistreating people with the justice system is sin (Prov. 17:15; 23:10), that ignoring the cries of those being mistreated is sin (Deut. 23:14-15; Jas. 5:4). And the Scripture tells us that that sin, without repentance, brings the judgment of God (Rom. 6:23). That is true not only for those who personally rebel against God’s holiness and justice but also those who “give approval to those who practice them” (Rom. 1:32). That is a dreadful reality, to which those of us in Christ are called to serve as ambassadors pleading, as though Christ were pleading through us, “be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20). – Russell Moore
Each and every human being is made in the image of God. Each and every human being is fearfully and wonderfully made by the Almighty. Each and every human being is God’s handiwork and created in Christ Jesus to do good work. While holding tight to these truths, we also hold onto the biblical mandate to care for and champion the cause of those whose voices have been silenced: in the time of Christ and the apostles, the voiceless were the widows and orphans, the sick and unclean, the Samaritans and the Gentiles; in our day, they are people of color, as well as the homeless, the hungry and the trafficked.
To follow Christ means to follow Christ. Jesus was a member of the favored demographic, albeit from a back-water region of the nation, who confronted injustice and spoke for the down-trodden. He had his own challenges (he had no place to lay his head and was harassed by the authorities) but remained diligent in making sure that the issues and concerns of the dismissed were addressed. We are to follow Him along that same path. We must stand in opposition to injustice, hear the cries of those who have been silenced and labor to ensure that the dividing wall of hostility, which Christ destroyed, remains dismantled.
May the needed changes come through the people of God.
It has finally happened: the Governor has announced the beginning of our state’s phased re-opening plan. This week, we found out that places of worship are included in phase 1. This means that we are allowed to meet for worship with specific restrictions (we must remain under 40% occupancy capacity, restrict seating availability to social distancing standards, and refrain from pre- or post-ritual gatherings, among a number of other things). It will look very different for a season, but we are able to come together – separated by no less than six feet – to praise the Lord on Sunday.
That being said, other considerations come into play as we move forward. I am wrestling with the tensions inherent between ability and responsibility. We are able to gather, but would it be responsible for all of us to immediately attend? Those over 65 are still at risk, even when precautions are taken. Those with compromised health are still advised to remain ‘safer-at-home’. Front-line workers (those providing health, safety and food services) may not feel comfortable putting others at risk. For us, as a church, therefore, we will continue, for the foreseeable future, to provide digital options for all our programs and ministries. If you would like email updates regarding what is available and where it can be found, please comment below with your email address or visit www.calvary-boston.org and click on the ‘visitor’ button.
And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus. Acts 5:42 (ESV)
The Bible tells us that ministry can take place in the ‘temple’, the house of worship, as well as the ‘house’, our residences. Perhaps we can learn a lesson from the early church and continue the teaching and preaching of the truth of Scripture wherever we find ourselves. As I have written previously, we are not required to be in a building to be the church; we can worship at a tabernacle or at a table and we can praise and proclaim Christ sitting on a couch as well as a on church pew. For the immediate future, we ask that you join us for worship however you feel is best for you – in person or online.
Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. Acts 20:28 (ESV)
While the building is now open for worship, we are still not able to minister in all the ways we did before the pandemic. We cannot offer in-person Sunday school or Bible studies, we cannot provide child-care or communion, and we cannot host coffee hours or pot-luck dinners. But we can still, and must still, care for one another. If you are in need, let me know – I am willing and able to meet with you via Zoom, Google Meet, FaceTime or Duo. If you are celebrating, let me know – we would love to rejoice with you (in fact, send me a 15- 20 second video via email and we will include it in our Sunday service). If you are grieving, let me know; we need not bear our burdens alone.
While this summer will be unlike any one any of us can remember, we still have one another. As we insulate ourselves from the harm of COVID-19, may none of us isolate ourselves from the hope of Christ. We are here for you.
As I sit at my dining room table (a.k.a. my ‘home office workspace’), I ask the same question I have asked in one form or another for the previous 45 days: when do things go back to normal? More to the point, as a pastor of a small church I have a more specific query: when can we go back to church? At first blush it is a simple question: when will the stay-at-home advisory be lifted and on which Sunday will we be able resume meeting at our selected house of worship? As I contemplate this conundrum, my thoughts race to all the precautions and safeguards that would need to be considered and implemented for a resumption of corporate ministry.
As my mind performs what can only be described as mental gymnastics, twisting and bending various bits of information and analysis into a cogent plan, I find myself distracted by a song, first recorded in 1991 by AVB, that keeps repeating in my head. Its chorus reminds me: “You can’t go to church as some people say – the common terminology we use every day. You can go to a building, that is something you can do, but you can’t go to church ‘cause the church is you.” Perhaps I have been asking myself the wrong question. Perhaps a better inquiry is this: ‘How can I be the church today?’
And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. Colossians 1:18 (NIV)
The church is not the building, nor is it the activities that take place in the building. The church is much more than an hour-long celebration of Christ centered around some songs and scripture. The church is the body of Christ – a metaphor describing the people who have been brought together by God’s grace to glorify Him (in word and deed) and have been scattered throughout every segment of society to declare His praises (again, in word and deed). If you know Jesus as Lord and Savior, that is who you are.
So, in this season of scattering, we need to be the church. We need to declare His praises with our conversations, within our household walls (delighting in and doting on our loved ones) and beyond our habitations (uplifting our local ‘heroes’ and offering hope to the discouraged). We need to demonstrate our trust in His promises (sacrificing our self-interest and securing the needs of those without essential resources). Until the doors to public spaces are opened, we can enter into private spaces through telephone calls and hand-written letters. We can engage one another through video chats and ‘yelling-from-across-the-street’ interactions. In these days of discouraging news and depressing distancing, we need the church to be the church, full of all her light and joy. We need you to be you.
I assure you, some weekend soon we will be able to go to church. Until then, we can do church; we can be church.
“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” These words, first spoken by John Heywood in 1546 and considered the oldest idiom in the English language, may not be true; they do, however express my reality. Nothing I have gleaned from my seminary education or my more than twenty years of pastoral experience has prepared me for ministry during a pandemic. I am finding that I have been forced to ‘master’ a number of new skills and, in the process, I am also finding that I am quickly reaching my mental capacity for new processes and programs. It turns out that I might be an old dog and, while I can learn new tricks, that I might be having trouble performing.
This old dog/new trick paradox rubs raw against my desire to “give of my best to the master.” God deserves our very best, so I want our Sunday morning livestream (which until 4 weeks ago I had no frame of reference for achieving) to go out flawlessly. I want the YouTube videos (again, no frame of reference) to look professional. I want my Zoom meetings (I had no idea what zoom was a month ago) to feel like face-to-face meetings. None of it, honestly, is great: some of what we are producing is passable, at best, and some of it is not.
Maybe you are feeling the same way I am feeling. Maybe you are sensing that you are not doing anything well. Maybe there is someone reading this that is thinking that changing from PJs into sweats was your only accomplishment today (let me be the first to say, “GOOD FOR YOU!”). Allow me to offer you a word of encouragement: you are doing a great job at holding it all together during this time of unprecedented confusion.
But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” James 4:6 (ESV)
Perhaps, in part, this is happening (in my life) so that I can learn humility. Shocking as it might sound, I am not great at everything. I am learning through this pandemic that ‘okay’ is okay. I am reminding myself the same thing I wrote about in August 2017, “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly (G.K. Chesterton).” If there is one thing I have learned from the last month, it is that good news can be captured and shared via video clips of subpar quality. Those who are recording recovering patients leaving hospitals or grateful citizens banging pots out their windows to appreciate healthcare heroes could not care less about the pixelization or poor sound quality of their contribution toward our collective goodwill.
Give yourself a break. Give those around you a break. Practice humility. Accept limitations. Delight in sufficiency. Celebrate little victories. Immerse yourself in good news. Release the frustrations associated with perfection and embrace the joy attributable to the ordinary. Do your best and attempt the rest. Enjoy the grace of God that He gives to the humble. Keep on doing what you are able to do until we can do it altogether all together.
As I have been spending much more time at home, isolated for the health and safety of those I love, I have had a great deal of time to think about the health crisis we are all enduring. I have come to see in a variety of ways that COVID-19 is a great equalizer. The virus does not discriminate, as it has infected celebrities, professional athletes, politicians and royalty (as well as ordinary individuals) across the globe. The WIFI networks that we are all using to communicate with the world has been equally spotty for those who are rich and those who are poor. Frustrations over ‘stay-at-home’ orders have overwhelmed the introvert and the extrovert alike. Our communal discouragement and feelings of inadequacy in home-schooling our children are universally sensed by democrats, independents and republicans. We are, literally, all in this together.
It would be a relatively simple exercise for me to draw parallels between this virus and the prevalence of sin, and I am sure that a quick google search would take you to thousands of thought pieces about their similarities. Certainly, we ought to take time to contemplate the universal reach of both and compare the consequential results of both. However, if you are like me, you’ve been bombarded with troubling news for weeks and would appreciate a break from the barrage of saddening statistics and prevention protocols. I want to take a few moments to share some encouraging thoughts instead.
One of the great equalizers I see in the pages of scripture is God’s gift of grace. Grace, as the Bible describes it, is the blessing of unmerited and unearned favor. It is the heavenly blessing of atonement and adoption that may be extended to all and experienced by all.
For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. Titus 2:11 (NIV)
Grace, the offering of a restorative relationship with the creator of the universe, does not discriminate, as it has reached celebrities, professional athletes, politicians and royalty (as well as ordinary individuals) across the globe. Grace, the joy of knowing that God has given us much more than we deserve, is known by both the rich and the poor. Grace, the kindness of forgiveness and forbearance by the one who knows us completely, is available to introverts and extroverts alike.
As I spend unplanned but precious time with those I love, I appreciate the grace that God has given me. I do not deserve, but am grateful for, the network of kind people that surrounds me (I have been befriended much more than I befriend), the relative health I enjoy (I am healthier than my life choices warrant), the absence of consequence attributed to wrong-doing (I am pardoned much more than I admit) and the serendipitous joys that cross my path (many of which I fail to recognize). My life is full of grace – undeserved, unearned, unexpected.
As we adjust to a present reality, let us, for the sake of those around us, remember grace: let us be open to experiencing that grace together and expressing that grace to one another. We are all in this together.