I would say that I am an avid follower of the Boston Red Sox. I watch the games (typically on television) and listen to all levels of commentary from sports radio. I worry when the bases are loaded with Yankee base runners and cheer when the team pulls it out in the ninth. I offer suggestions for lineups and complain about roster moves. I use “we” and “us”, not “they” and “them”; I have been known to say such things as “we are going to the playoffs” and “the bullpen lost us the game”. I may call myself an avid follower of the Red Sox, but I am not. I am simply a fan.
Merriam-Webster defines a fan (actually, a fanatic) as ‘a person who is extremely enthusiastic about and devoted to some interest or activity’. That is what I am as relates to the Red Sox. Whatever the outcome might be of a single game or the entire season, my life and livelihood are never disrupted. I will never get a million-dollar contract after a great year or cut after a poor one. I need not save the date for the day I ride through Boston at a Duck Boat parade. Alex Cora, the field manager, and Dave Dombrowski, the general manager, are never going to ask my opinion or consider my suggestions for the team. I am not part of the “we”; I am not one of “us”.
Some of us have a similar sense of ‘following’ Christ as we do ‘following’ a sports team: we can attend the game, or not; we can have strong opinions about how things ought to go, but they amount to nothing more than talk show fodder; I can say that I am a part of the team, but never put on a uniform or play my position. I do not attend the team meetings or do the conditioning work in the off-season. Sometimes we act as if all we want is the glory based upon the sacrifice of another without having to do anything more than watch when I feel like it. We mistake following Christ as nothing more than being a fan of God’s only begotten.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Matthew 16:24
So, are you a fan of Jesus or an actual follower? Jesus had a completely different conception of “following”. When we follow Jesus, it means a denial of self. We must be willing and able to refuse ourselves: our opinions, preferences, schedules and feelings. Then we are free to accept the Lord’s best for us. When we follow Jesus, it means taking up our cross. We must be willing to humble ourselves; certainly the cross of Jesus’ day was an instrument of death, but it was more than that – it was an instrument of dehumanization and disgrace (after all, Jesus could have simply said that we need to lay down our lives, but taking up our cross frames our acceptance of shame for His glory). Following Jesus will cost us everything.
But we cannot simply leave things there. Yes, there are costs to following Jesus, and they are dire and deep. But, as Paul proclaims, the gains of following Jesus are so much greater. We are shown forgiveness. We are blessed with adoption. We are given purpose and hope. We are equipped to live abundantly.
Follow Jesus, not as a casual fan but as a member of His team.
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.
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.
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.
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.
On Monday, our whole family went to the local mall and sat for a family portrait. My wife, Jeanine, had wanted us all to take a new picture for some time, but with college schedules and work schedules, there never seemed to be the time. But thanks to Groupon© and the wonderful people at Portrait Simple©, we were able to capture the spirit of the family on film (well, whatever digital images are captured upon). In hindsight, I am so glad we had it done, since it had been six years since our last family portrait was taken and we all have changed so much.
As we were preparing for the appointment, there was a great deal of pushback from at least one of the children. There were questions asked about the necessity of picture-taking and the costs attributable to said picture-taking. Why do we take pictures? Why do we, in ever increasing measure in this age of the smart phone, seek to capture every memory and moment with pictures? What is it that we hope to keep? What is it that we long to preserve? These are the things that I think about as I watch a stranger style my daughter’s hair through his fingers and adjust my son’s head to frame the perfect image.
We take pictures because we want to remember who we were. One of the secondary joys of this photo-taking process is, as I place the new photos in their frames, that I get to take a look at all the photos of the past sandwiched in the frames. I get the chance to see when we had one, then two, then three and now four cherubs. I get to recall snapshots of our beautiful family. It is pictures that enable us to think back to who we once were
We take pictures because we want to remember where we have been. I have hundreds of digital files of vacations, holidays and birthdays, all to capture those moments. Some are fuzzy, others are messy, but all of them reflect our life together. It is pictures that ring back the sounds, smells and sight of special times.
We take pictures because we want to remember what we have overcome. Our family pictures have children with broken bones and missing teeth. We have candids taken in cruddy apartments while children are crying. But it is what is contained in these pictures that enables us to see how far we’ve come – from awkward and gangly to radiant and strong.
The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. Colossians 1:15
Pictures – photographic images – enable us to capture a moment in time, albeit a retouched and carefully selected moment in time, which serve as reference points to earlier, simpler or happier times. They represent the ideal, not real but not false either. They are intended to elicit emotions and trigger memories. For this reason, we will continue to take family portraits: some years there may be more in the frame and some years there may be less, but every time they will represent who we are (or who we could be).
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.
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.
By the time you read this, summer will have arrived for my family. The younger boys will (finally) be done with school and our summer plans will have begun. These plans include Calvary’s Splash Canyon Vacation Bible School, many of the Free Fun Friday events funded through The Highland Street Foundation, visits to Nantasket beach, and getting ice cream at Sully’s on Castle Island. We will also be taking a road trip to visit friends and family along the East Coast, spending time in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Washington DC. Finally, our summer will be filled with late mornings, long walks, and plenty of summer fare (steamers, corn on the cob, watermelon, hamburgers, potato salad). Sadly, before we know it, it will be September 6 and school will begin again.
Summer vacation will be just ten weeks (sixty-nine days to be exact) for children enrolled in Boston’s public school system, which includes my school-aged boys; ten weeks of unstructured play, ten weeks of daytime television, ten weeks without homework or studies. This well might be my middle son’s last unencumbered summer vacation, as we are prayerfully anticipating his graduation from High School this time next year, and at that time he may be too old to hang out with the family. My wife and I will have a number more summers with our youngest, but he, too, is getting older and may not want to visit the New Bedford Whaling Museum or sit in the sand with mom and dad. I feel that we must seize this opportunity to spend this extended time together as a family before it is too late.
Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. Psalm 90:12 (NIV)
I am asking the Lord to teach me, enabling me to gain wisdom, as I number the next sixty-nine days. I am numbering eight days of vacation: sixty-one days; five days of VBS: fifty-six days; nine other Sundays: forty-seven days. Help me, Lord, to spend some part of these next forty-seven days together with my family. Help me, Lord, to make a memory every day this summer with my wife and with my children; actually, help me, Lord, to do this beyond the summer – on day seventy and day eighty and day eight hundred, if God should grant it possible.
I wonder: what memory could we make today with a loved one, or what recollection can we plant for another day in our intervening hours with a friend? Truth be told, we are not guaranteed tomorrow, let alone a whole summer vacation: all we have is now. Some of the things I put off until another day may be lost altogether as preferences change and people mature. Will you join me as I carpe æstatem (which is Latin for ‘seize the summer’)? Perhaps that means consuming a pint of whole-belly clams at The Clam Box or spending the night under the stars at a state park. Whatever it means for you, do it; don’t wait for a better day or a warmer night. Summer memories await… carpe æstatem!
During a recent Bible study, the following question was posed: Who has been an example of Christlikeness for you? The question was asked as part of the larger context of the great commission where, in part, Jesus directs His followers to make disciples by “…teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Since we can only teach what we already know, implicit in the commission is each disciple’s obedience to Christ’s commands. Wisdom further implies that Jesus’ disciples would utilize and model the knowledge we have acquired. Essential to making disciples, therefore, is exemplifying Christlikeness, and thankfully, I have plenty of people who demonstrate obedience to Jesus.
Since this blog is written for public consumption (and once it is posted, it can never completely disappear), I am not going to include names. That being said, I have mental pictures of numerous people who regular live out Jesus’ great commandment:
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:37–40 (NIV)
While no one is perfect, I can picture in my mind many who love the Lord with all they are: they give sacrificially to His work, they meditate daily on His word, and they share consistently His transforming power. I can also see in my recollections many who love their neighbor as much as they love themselves: those who have crossed cultural boundaries to tell others the good news of Jesus, shared time they didn’t have to care and comfort strangers in need, and spoke words of truth to those who needed a dose of reality.
All these things, and more, exemplify Christlikeness in a world that desperately needs neighbors with a character akin to Jesus. We are constantly bombarded by accounts on our newsfeeds and newscasts of inhumanities perpetrated against the least among us. Because we are a nation of laws (and those laws are subject to interpretation by politicians and pundits), we need people who choose to live, however imperfectly, according to a higher standard: God’s law. We, as a society, need individuals who are willing to love God wholly and love their neighbors indiscriminately. We need people who are willing to exemplify Christlikeness, even at great personal cost.
So, I return to the question I began with: Who has been an example of Christlikeness for you? My answer is simple: All those who choose to express sacrificial love instead of selfish self-interest. In saying this, my answer is also complex: Those who are an example of Christlikeness can be found anywhere, since they have no other commonalities outside of love (as there is no experiential, economic, political or ethnic indicators of a disciple of Jesus). While not everyone is an example of Christlikeness, anyone could be. Anyone could follow the law of sacrificial love rightly expressed to God and others.