All my life I have been encouraged to be a good boy (or a good man). Growing up, I must have heard the command to “be good” a thousand times, whether it was just before visiting a friend’s house or the local library. After I was particularly incorrigible as a child, I was warned that I might be dropped off at the “bad boy store” by my frustrated mother – in hindsight, I recognize the absurdity of the reality of this establishment, but at the time the notion that I could be chattel for this nefarious business worked well in keeping me on the straight and narrow. However, I was not always a good boy.
As I grew up into manhood, I have tried to be a good man. I think I have succeeded, to a greater of lesser degree. However, “the bad man store” may have a new item for sale. In my defense, the event I am about to describe occurred during the Patriots game on Sunday. As I was watching the game (the outcome of which at the time was still in question), trouble came to our house. As she was making sure our youngest was ready for bed, my wife hit her head – hard – on the upper bunk of the boys’ bed. While there was no blood, there was a bump. It least that is what I was told. I had little compassion and provided no care. I was not a good husband or a good father. I was wrong, and I sincerely apologize to my wife for my lapse in judgement. I am not always a good man.
When I became a follower of Christ, I tried to be a good Christian. I have a long list of good and godly behaviors – with appropriate measures of church attendance, charitable giving and acts of service – but I am not a good Christian. I am in danger of being shipped off to the “bad Christian store” because my practice of the faith is incomplete, my priority of Christ’s lordship is inconsistent and my passion for the gospel is anemic. I continue to sin. I continue to fail. I do not pray as much as I should nor share my faith as frequently as I should. I am not always a good Christian.
But who can discern their own errors? Forgive my hidden faults. Psalm 19:12
My problem is that I am lulled into believing that I am (overall) good. I compare myself to others and I see myself as measuring up pretty well against the competition. But, as the Psalm above states, I am unable to rightly evaluate my own goodness. I need forgiveness for the things I cannot see in myself. I need the truth of God to be my standard and not my own heightened sense of self. In comparison to the standards of the Scriptures (which are beneficial for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness), I am, by nature, a bad boy, a bad man and a bad Christian.
But that is not how God sees me: because I have trusted Jesus as Lord and Savior, I have been justified (declared not guilty by God through His acceptance of Christ’s sacrificial satisfaction of God’s wrath) and sanctified (anointed, appointed and equipped to accomplish His will). I am seen by God as good, and that motivates me to demonstrate this divinely imbued goodness. It also motivates me to remember that this goodness is not from me, but from the one who redeemed me so that I might do some good. I thank God that He enables me to be a good person, a sinner saved by His grace.
For those of you discouraged by a 4:32PM Sunset in Boston on Sunday, you will be glad to know that an 11-member panel, created by the Massachusetts Legislature last year, spent months examining the pros and cons of effectively establishing daylight saving time year-round and eliminating the practice of setting clocks forward and back twice every year. Their decision: move the Commonwealth into the Atlantic Time Zone (aligning ourselves with the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island) if all the Northeast region (including New York) agrees to change their time zone with us.
This strikes me as nothing more than a hollow victory. The commission’s trouble with “going it alone” is that transportation, broadcasting schedules and sporting events could all be adversely affected. I, for one, could get used to The Tonight Show at 12:35AM, football at 2PM and early flights from Logan at 7 in the morning. It would be a challenge calibrating ourselves with the rest of the country, but I would be willing to try. But, because it is nearly impossible to buck the cultural norms, we in the Northeast will not experience a sunset after 5PM until February 4th; the groundhog may see the sun before I will during my drive home from work.
And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. 2 Timothy 2:24
Speaking of cultural norms, we were discussing the above referenced verse of scripture and my wife remarked at how difficult it is to keep the little details of this passage. If you think changing your Time Zone is counter-cultural, try not quarreling or being kind to everyone or releasing resentment.
- Anyone familiar with social media knows that quarreling (or fighting) is our national pastime: there are posts (and then comments about those posts) that are divisive and combative, attacking the “opposition” both personally and indiscriminately. A follower of Christ ought not engage in these senseless squabbles.
- If you are a driver, you know that kindness is in short supply. I realize that someone allowing me to turn into traffic is unrealistic, but I do wonder if honking the horn as the light turns green or passing on the right (through unoccupied parking spaces) on a single lane street or ignoring the ‘right lane must turn’ sign and weaving to the left at dangerous speeds are necessary. A few verses after the above passage, Paul tells Timothy that he should be gentle with those who oppose his teaching; a follower of Christ should be restrained in exercising whatever power that follower has.
- Life, no matter how it is lived, will contain times of deep disappointment. All but one team finishes the season without a title. Every person will find oneself in one sort of line or another, and whatever line you find yourself in, the other one is moving faster…and has fewer bitter and angry people occupying it. A follower of Christ should release resentment as soon as it is sensed.
God has called us to – and equipped us for – better than our culture prescribes. No matter what time we find ourselves in, we are called to be counter-cultural: peaceable, kind and hopeful. I suspect those godly attributes will be highly regarded during the long nights ahead.
There has been a series of conversations at our house about what costume our 9-year-old son will be wearing on Halloween. He has decided that his costume will be made from a cardboard box (he feels that it is tradition: in past years, he has been a Lego®, a birdhouse, a television, and a clock). Beyond that, the options are incalculable: he could go out into the neighborhood disguised as a board game, a rocket ship, a refrigerator or a hundred other ‘boxy’ things. For one night a year, my son will get the opportunity to pretend that he is someone or something else.
When he gets older, he will get the opportunity to pretend that he is someone or something else all the time. Lord willing, he will learn how to fashion and wear a mask to disguise his true self in the business world, the social spaces and marketplace. We all, as we mature, put on masks to protect our frail vulnerabilities and preserve our fragile sensitivities. We all learn that there are things about us that we choose to keep to ourselves: we temper our opinions, our preferences and our accomplishments to avoid being rejected by those around us. We all wear masks and pretend that we belong.
Except, we cannot wear the masks all the time. They chafe upon us and distort our vision. They prevent us from expressing our emotions and enjoying nourishment. So, we take them off and show ourselves to those we love and to those who love us. In those moments we find comfort and strength in being know as we truly are.
Beside all this, there is one who knows us, whether we don our masks or not; the one who created us knows us completely. We cannot hide our thoughts from Him. We cannot keep our opinions from Him. We cannot shield our motives from His eyes. It serves no purpose to wear a disguise in His presence, as He see through our cardboard boxes and knows who we are. There is a word in the New Testament that describes our attempts at pretending we are someone or something else, a word which literally means ‘a play actor’: hypocrite. It is this word that Jesus uses to describe those who perform a role in public places to protect themselves:
“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. … And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. … When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting.” Matthew 6:2, 5, 16
One night a year is sufficient time to wear a costume and pretend that you are a superhero or a celebrity or a washing machine. Perhaps you will need a disguise at the next corporate outing or family reunion. You need not wear these things just to make people like you. You need to know that the One who made you knows what is behind your mask, and loves you just as you are.
There is an ongoing effort by Millennials and Gen Zers (those 35 and younger) to eliminate doorbell usage. They argue that these bells, chimes and buzzers have become: a) unnecessary, since most young people now use their cell phones to text or call and announce their arrival at your door; b) dangerous, since one might be seeking entrance into the wrong residence, which might be followed by incurring the wrath of frosty (and often annoyed) neighbors; and c) panic-inducing, since we all know that ‘no one’ uses the doorbell anymore, we can only imagine what awful form of old person or sales rep is the cause of that startling and unexpected buzz or bell. I have experienced this change in practice myself every time the pizza delivery person calls from the car in front of our house or my teenage child’s friend texts from our front porch.
The world is constantly changing. Fifty years ago, you’d expect people to occasionally knock on the door or ring the bell; people would “drop by” unexpectedly, so the sitting room or parlor or living room needed to be always ready for guests and mother had a tin of cookies hidden for “company”. Now, no one comes to visit unannounced, partly because people today are so rarely home (what with work and the gym and the kids’ sports and PTA meetings) and partly because people today cherish their privacy (we let others know about us through social media or over coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts, not through visitors being allowed to rummage through our medicine cabinet or magazines). We know the rules of the cul-de-sac: if the garage door or the window shade is down, do not ring the bell unless you’ve been invited over.
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. Luke 10:38
It seems to me that since we no longer want people to come to our home unannounced, we ought to consider the practice of inviting them over for a meal, a cup of coffee, a game, a party or a chat. Perhaps you could have family dinner with a college student you met at church or watch the Patriots play with the older gentlemen across the street. Perhaps you could have coffee with the mother of one of your child’s friends while they played video games or let the single mom you are friendly with when you are both at the grocery store wash a load of clothes in your machine while you talk about “This Is Us”. Be like Martha and open your home.
One last thing about “dropping by” and doorbell ringing: remember that October 31st is Halloween, and if you have a bell, let it be rung. Take advantage of the fact that kids in costumes will be ringing your doorbell eleven nights from now. Introduce yourself to the parents you haven’t met and give out the big bars to the little children – especially if the neighborhood knows yours is a Christian home.
The Red Sox are rebuilding, again. On Monday, they exited the playoffs with a season-ending loss at the hands of the Houston Astros. On Wednesday, the organization and the field manager parted ways, effectively ushering the hometown team into a season of transition and change. Rumors have already begun about trades and free-agent signings; only time will tell who will stay, who will go and who will join the team. Despite their recent successes (winning the American League East Division title for the last two seasons and winning the World Series five seasons ago), the team’s inability to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs was unacceptable. The front office personnel at Fenway Park has decided that the answer to “what have you done for me lately?” is “not enough”.
I am thankful the God does not have the same business plan as the Red Sox. I am grateful that a few seasons with less-than-optimal results (despite a modicum of success) does not disqualify me from being part of His team. I rejoice that when my production or power has waned, He will not replace me with someone who could do better. As opposed to a sport where, in 2017, a batter is nearly as likely to strike out (21.6% of all plate appearances) as get a hit (22.8% of all plate appearances), it is remarkable that the Lord allows us to miss the mark so frequently without relegating us to the bench.
…as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. Psalm 103:12
While most of us have never played baseball professionally, we all have our list of failures. We all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God. We all have stepped out of bounds and trespassed against one another. We all have made mistakes, lapses in judgement, erred and fouled up. We all have reasons why our dismissal would be warranted. We all have places in our track record where our disappointments greatly outnumber our successes. What does God offer us when we are in the midst of these less-than memorable moments? He offers us yet another chance to get it right.
The struggles of life and the challenges of baseball are surprisingly similar. I have never faced a 100mph fastball, but I imagine that making contact with the curveballs of life is equally difficult (considering how often I have swung and missed them). I have struck out relationally, flied out morally, grounded out conversationally, and fouled out professionally. I have never stood in front of the Green Monster at Fenway, but I have misplayed routine interactions and lost my focus while fielding temptations. Through it all, God has encouraged and corrected me, discipled and guided me, so that I would do better the next time.
The results of following the Red Sox and following Christ could not be more different. As a lifelong Red Sox fan, I am used to saying, “wait until next year” – when (hopefully) the big bat arrives, when the ace pitcher performs and when they win the pennant. As a Christian, I am used to saying, “forgive me” (as I strike out, underperform and fail) – which results in (certainly) His restoration of my soul and refreshment of my spirit. I will take God’s comfort over a hometown championship any day.
Yesterday was quite a day of sports in our neck of the woods – the Boston Red Sox, the New England Patriots and the Boston Bruins were all in action. It is a wonder to see all these professional athletes utilizing their talents, gifts and natural abilities. What we do not witness while watching these games is all the time spent of training: hours in the batting cages and fielding ground balls, innumerable sessions of weight-training and blocking drills or countless mornings of ice time practicing their slapshots. We celebrate the excellence of the players on the field or rink, knowing that those who are playing have worked harder than we can imagine in order to get to where they are.
The same is true for musicians, writers, plumbers, surgeons, sales representatives and every other vocation (and avocation, as well). Our effectiveness in any endeavor is dependent upon our efforts in honing the requisite skills for the task. It is not enough to have a gift – whether you are a piano prodigy or a math whiz – if you never put in the hours practicing your craft. That is why the Apostle Paul writes the following words to his protégé Timothy:
For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. 2 Timothy 1:6
Sometimes we are tempted to think that the spiritual gifts that God bestows upon us are effectively different than all the other gifts He gives us, but according to Paul, that is just not true. We need to fan into flame any and every gift we’ve been given by God.
That phrase – ‘fan into flame’ – is a hapax legomenon (it only appears once in all of scripture) and therefore is really difficult to contextualize. It is a single Greek verb formed by the combination of the roots forms of again, living and fire. It means to make a fire live again, to be rekindled or a flame to be revived. It is not the process of starting the fire, but maintaining it. When my family goes camping, it is my job (as the dad) to start the fire and I involve the kids in the process of keeping it going. When it comes to spiritual gifts, God’s job is to start the fire. Our job is to do what we can to keep it robust – adding more wood to the fire, blowing on the embers, making sure it is not quenched by rain.
Whatever gift, talent or natural ability you have been blessed with, let Paul’s words encourage you to fan that fire into flame. Work at your craft so that your passions never simply smolder. Commit to practice what you are already good at so that there is more sizzle than smoke. Do not neglect the spiritual gifts you have been given; practice them. Whether it is preaching or prophecy, helping or hospitality, leadership or giving, or any of the other gifts mentioned in Romans 12:6-8, 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, 28 or Ephesians 4:11, do whatever is necessary to rekindle and revive the fire that God started within your soul. Maintain whatever God has begun in you.
This Sunday afternoon, in celebration of my 20 years of service, Calvary Community Church will be putting on a luncheon in my honor. While I loathe being the center of attention, I am grateful for the gesture of love and appreciation. The irony of this event is that, while it recognizes that I have been pastoring the same church for two decades, I have not actually been pastoring in the same ministry for 20 years. In a post a few weeks ago, I wrote that most of the congregants have changed over my tenure. But that is not the only thing that has changed since 1997.
Our culture, and therefore our church’s ministry, has changed in the last few years. Some of these changes have been stylistic – from organ accompaniment to piano or from singing with hymnals in hand to projecting digital images of lyrics – but some of the changes have been profound:
- Our society was changed by terrorism (September 11, 2001) – our world, including our expressions of faith, changed when planes crashed into the World Trade Center Towers, the Pentagon and a field in rural Pennsylvania. Some were drawn to God, some were repelled. But ministry changed…we were no longer invincible, no longer safe, no longer favored. New questions were raised and doubts about God’s benevolence and power surfaced, leaving the church to offer hope to the newly hopeless.
- Our society redefined tolerance (November 18, 2003) – our moral landscape changed when the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts upheld a lower court’s ruling in the case of Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health, thereby legalizing the marriage of two consenting adults without regard to gender. The law of the land (ultimately upheld by the Supreme Court of the US) thus conflicted with the traditional interpretation of the Bible and local congregations were required to again consider questions thought inconceivable to prior generations.
- Our society was given untethered access to technology (June 29, 2007) – our understanding of media and knowledge changed when Apple released the IPhone, allowing anyone with the resources to afford the phone and the service plan access to the internet virtually anywhere. Seemingly overnight, we went from transferring information conversationally to transferring it electronically. We heightened our levels of awareness and distraction with our ability to record and transmit everything. We began engaging in social media and neglected social interaction. The church, whether it was ready or not, was required to engage with the digital world while maintaining its historically relational and textual characteristics.
- Our society embraced a new form of activism (September 17, 2011) – our involvement with the world around us changed when people gathered for Occupy Wall Street, ushering in a new style of activism that blended the orchestration of peaceful assembly with the spontaneity of a flash mob. Diverse groups of individuals were able to communicate their dissatisfaction with cultural oppression en masse, without designated leadership, and have their voices heard. This led to other groups (e.g. Black Lives Matter and Women’s March) raising awareness of the plight of the disadvantaged. The church, who has championed the cause of the downtrodden for centuries, is now beginning to embrace this social activism as young Christians lead the saints into a world where there is justice for all.
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Hebrews 13:8 (NIV)
In a few weeks, I am going to participate in a young man’s Ordination Council (a gathering of denominational leaders who interact with a candidate’s statement of theology, challenging the candidate to think deeply about their philosophy and content of ministry). I remember my Ordination Council in 1999. I was so young, so naïve, so sure of what I believed. Then, over the past two decades, the landscape shifted in profound ways. However, no matter how the culture may change, the Christ remains the same. The message has never wavered, whether it is recorded in ink or pixels. A culture worried with terrorism and wearied by intolerance has been washed in the Blood of Jesus. A culture steeped in technology and straining for justice has been saved from sin through the sacrifice. The church has changed over the past twenty years – as the adage goes, “You could not step twice into the same river” – but the Gospel remains the same. And so we shall continue to share the good news until all have heard it.
Yesterday was the first day of 11th grade for my son, David, and the first day of 4th grade for my son, Joshua. Speaking for parents everywhere, the first day of school is absolutely wonderful. The children were dressed in new clothes and their backpacks were filled with new school supplies. Everyone sensed the excitement due to the possibilities of a new year with new teachers. Social media will inevitably be filled with photos of our bright-eyed scholars ready for the commencement of new classes. And, while the young ones are at school, precious hours of peace and quiet returned to homes everywhere.
I have memories (through a thick fog of time) surrounding a number of “first day”s of school: buying Garanimals at Bradlees, writing my name in my new Trapper Keeper, wondering if any of my friends were going to be in my class, trepidation over the navigation of hallways and locker combinations, walking down Park Street (first to the Clapp School and then to the E. A. Jones School). I remember nearly all of my teachers’ names. I can still see the hallway and stairway where one of my first grade classmates (who will remain nameless) had a meltdown of epic proportions due to what we now call separation anxiety. First days of school leave an indelible mark.
These memories, however, are fading as I get older. School days are no longer part of our adult lives. We do not buy new clothes for ourselves at Labor Day sales and we detest the incredibly long lines at Staples. Many of us have not been in a classroom setting (outside of parent-teacher conferences) in decades and assume a mindset that education is only for the young. According to Pew Research, 27% of adults did not read a single book last year. The world around is constantly changing, but, sadly, some of us see no need to hone our intellectual resources.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Acts 2:42
One of the counter-cultural practices of the Christian church is a devotion to life-long learning. This weekend, communities of faith all over the region will be holding, in one form or another, a “Rally Day” to resume Christian Education classes. Through Sunday School classes, Bible studies and C. E. discussions people of all ages will devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching. People of diverse backgrounds will gather in church basements and conference rooms and read the Scriptures together. Women and men of all ages will share experiences and insights, equipping one another to face the challenges of life.
At Calvary, Sunday will be the first day of school. While we will not expect you to have sharpened #2 pencils or matching shirts and khakis, we do encourage you to devote yourselves to learning more about the Lord. Whether it be in Dorchester or wherever Christ has called you, I hope you will get together with constructively curious people this weekend and equip yourselves with the Sword of the Spirit, readying one another for whatever the world may bring.
Twenty years ago today (September 1, 1997) I began serving as the pastor of Calvary Community Church in Dorchester. I have been thinking about this day, and this posting, for quite a while, wondering what I would say about my tenure as a minister of the gospel in the greatest community in the world. I thought about the numbers relating to ministry – attendance figures, baptisms and weddings I had performed, babies I had dedicated, or sermons I delivered – but, to be honest, these numbers would be unimpressive. I thought about sharing interesting anecdotes about the church, but I have already shared most of these stories with those reading this and my remaining stories would be uninteresting. In the end, all I have are the lessons I have learned over all these years.
First, I have learned to cherish the relationships that God has given me while I am blessed to have them. While the numbers of worshippers have not appreciably changed in the last two decades, the people have; in fact, I count three (and 8/9th) people that were present on my first Sunday still regularly attending worship. Some have gone on to glory, others have moved out of the area and others attend other churches. Yet, through all the transition, God has blessed us with visitors, musicians and co-laborers who have expanded our world, challenged our complacency and enhanced our worship. I praise God that so many have called Calvary home for a week, a season, a year or longer.
Then, I have learned to seize the opportunities that God has given me when I recognize them. While I have not been given a city-wide or national stage to proclaim the gospel, I have been blessed to share God’s love with our neighbors. Praying at a Flag Day program, talking in a front yard, serving water at the Dorchester Day Parade and welcoming the community for public events are just a few things that come to mind when I consider how God is working through our church. I praise God that we have impacted so many lives, inside and outside the walls of our building, in so many interesting ways.
Finally, I have learned to appreciate the faithfulness that God has lavished upon me all the time. While I have never, in my tenure at Calvary, enjoyed an abundance of resources, God has always given me and my family (immediate and church) what is sufficient for my needs. We’ve paid our bills (mostly on time), had the volunteers and musicians, maintained a residence and been cared for. God’s faithfulness is ever-present – in forgiving my sin and fixing my lapses in judgement, in bringing in saints every single Sunday, in always giving me a word to share. All that I have done is because God has enabled me. I praise God for all of it.
Praise the LORD, all you servants of the LORD who minister by night in the house of the LORD. Psalm 134:1 (NIV)
So much has changed over the last two decades, but then again, so much remains the same. God is still drawing wonderful people to our little church, still affording us opportunities for gracious interactions and still showering us with His great faithfulness. Until that changes, I will be here wondering how God will next work among us. I hope you will be here, too.
I have witnessed a plethora of expressions of love this week. Last Saturday, I watched local and national news stories of demonstrators in my fair city confronting hate and championing human kindness. On Monday, I watched a children’s librarian, overwhelmed by the community interest in an eclipse viewing party, joyously and affectionately care for 500 or so people by offering sun-glasses, sun-hats and sun-daes. Over the last few days, I watched family, immediate and extended, lovingly prepare and provided for a young woman who was moving into her first apartment. Even yesterday, I watch a young man show what could be love by entering the awkward territory of building IKEA furniture with his paramour’s dad. It is good to know that expressions of love (familial, romantic and brotherly) are still visible each day.
In saying this, I am not suggesting that any of these expressions were either perfect of fully embraced. There was a minority of demonstrators on Saturday (small in number but newsworthy) who chose to use the opportunity for reconciliation to instigate their form of rebellion. There were insufficient resources on Monday for the crowd, so a number of people took what they came for, a number of people went away disappointed and a number of people remained and enjoyed the benefits of sharing. There were heated words and hurt feelings these past few days as travels to the Goodwill store and travails inherent in moving took so much longer than seemed, by some, to be necessary. It seems that expressions of love are not always easy to embrace.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7
Without going into great expository detail, as this is one of the more familiar passages of Scripture, let me state that I take these verses to mean that expressing love is messy. Those who express the love that Paul is talking about will be subject to misunderstanding and mockery. They will be required to sacrifice themselves and strengthen others. Love means overlooking fault and overcoming self. Love is not something that comes naturally or instinctually; despite the mantras and the memes, we must learn to love (as our sinful human nature will always nudge us toward the opposite). Love is a choice and, when chosen, can be a catalyst to change the world in big and small ways.
God bless those who gathered at Boston Common last weekend whose sole intention was to counteract hatred – may that be what people remember. God bless the staff of the Adams Street branch of the Boston Public Library for enabling a few hundred to share in community around a few dozen pairs of “eclipse glasses”. God bless family, and Jake, who made a stressful day so much more than bearable; they made it memorable. My you, too, witness a little bit of love in your little corner of the world.