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.
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.
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.
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.
I have always enjoyed roller coasters. I delight in the anticipation from the slow but steady climb and the exhilaration caused by the rapid descent. I am enthralled to no end when these experiences of undulation repeat themselves at an ever increasing rate of speed. I like the old-fashioned wooden coasters, with their drop-bars, shimmies and creaks. I like the newer, metal coasters with their harnesses, loops and corkscrew twists. Unlike the carousel or teacups, the roller coaster is the highlight of my visit to the theme park. I will try any one of them; any one, except the emotional roller coaster.
I went on an emotional roller coaster ride on Wednesday, beginning at 8:30 in the morning, when the dealership’s service manager called with news about my car (they had been performing routine maintenance on it for about twenty-four hours). The voice on the phone told me that the calipers had seized and needed replacing, costing an additional $530. Feeling the pinch of the rock on one side and the hard place on the other, I agreed to the added expense. [Down we go.] Then I remembered that we purchased an extended warranty with the vehicle, and because we had moved about a year ago, I knew where I could find all the paperwork for the car. [Up we go again.] Securing the documents and reading them, I was overjoyed that calipers were covered under warranty. [The ride was over].
But the roller coaster didn’t slow down after all. Upon closer inspection, the warranty covered parts and labor for the first five years or 60,000 miles, whichever occurred first. Since we purchased the car less than five years ago, the only question was the mileage, which was, when I dropped it off at the dealer, 61115. Because of 1115 miles, we were liable for the cost we couldn’t really afford. [And down we go again]. All I could do was wait for the work to be done and the final invoice to be calculated. Finally, at 12:30, I received a call from the same service manager. It turns out the technician was able to free up the calipers and springs so that they would work properly and the repairs (and the expense) were unnecessary. [You may now safely exit the ride.]
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. Isaiah 43:2
It doesn’t take three years in seminary to know that roller coasters are not mentioned in the Bible. However, we can turn to the Bible to find assurances that God is with us through the ups and downs of life. The ups and downs of my week ended, this time, on the up side. Maybe next time we will be less fortunate. I want to delight in all things, for God is with me, sitting right beside me throughout the waves. To paraphrase Matt Redmond’s song “10,000 Reasons”, whatever may pass and whatever lies before me, let me be singing when the coaster drops.
“[A named loved one] was just in a car accident….” While this might not be the content of the worst possible phone call, it would certainly make the top (or the bottom) ten list. Fortunately for all involved, there were no physical injuries when a tow truck sideswiped the car my child was driving; in fact, the car was still drivable, sort of. The passenger side windows were smashed and the doors mangled above the hood/trunk line, but otherwise, the vehicle was intact. We were insured and the truck driver was found to be ‘at fault’, and so, after about a month of claims estimates, adjustments and body work the car was repaired and life has returned to normal.
Yet, life has not returned to normal. While I am truly grateful to God that the ramifications of this car accident were more or less cosmetic and that my loved one was unharmed, I am now worrying about the next time. I am aware that accidents are part of life and that no one is immune from tragedy. I am reminded that I cannot protect those closest to me from harm. The events of the last month had made me painfully cognizant that bad things happen to good (and bad) people. I have come to realize that any goodbye could be the last goodbye.
We wait in hope for the LORD; he is our help and our shield. Psalm 33:20
There are a great many things in which we can put our hope: our health, our wealth, our wits, our insurance policies, our retirement plans, our relationships, our government, or our religion. Unfortunately, all these things will eventually fail us. Every created thing has an expiration date, an ontological obsolescence, and will one day cease to perform their intended function. The only thing we can trust is what is uncreated: the living God, who has chosen to reveal Himself through His written word. Because He is outside the realm of chaos and decay that we inhabit, the Lord alone is worthy of our unrequited trust. He can help us and protect us from the dangers of this troublesome world.
God has a resolution to my most recent source of worry: He provides a means where we need never say ‘goodbye’ to those who we love. Simply stated, when we trust in the Lord Jesus Christ as our Savior (specifically, that He descended from heaven and became fully human, only to live a sinless life among us, die in our place and rise as victor over our sin) and our Lord (specifically, that He, in light of His sacrifice for us, has mastery over every aspect of our lives), we will live forever with God and His children. Knowing Jesus as my Lord and Savior, and knowing my children know Jesus as their Lord and Savior, allay my fears (mostly). I can say ‘goodbye’ and know, no matter what, it really means “see you later.”
That is the kind of peace of mind that no insurance company can provide.