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.
The other day I had the privilege of gathering with a group of pastors to watch and discuss the movie Calvary. The basic plot of the film revolves around a week in the life of a parish priest serving a small village on the coast of Ireland. At a pivotal scene in the movie, the following conversation takes place between Father James and his daughter:
Father James Lavelle: I think there’s too much talk about sins and not enough about virtues.
Fiona Lavelle: What would be your number one?
Father James Lavelle: I think forgiveness has been highly underrated.
If you’ve been watching the news or following the internet streams of current events, you may come to the same conclusion as that priest – we talk about sin too much and forgiveness not enough. We can quickly and easily make a mental list of all the wrongs we have suffered, all the offenses we’ve witnessed and all the transgressions we’ve committed. I fear that the church often defines people by their sin (past or present): ‘he cheated on his wife’, ‘she was hooked on heroin’ or ‘those parents aren’t married’. Is it possible to change the discussion and begin listing virtues instead of vices? Can’t we say, ‘she remains committed to her marriage despite their difficulties’ or ‘he has been clean and sober for 1,000 days’?
Perhaps it is easier to remember the offense and become calloused by sin. It may be easier, but not better; easier, but not right. If we understand forgiveness – a financial term before it became a spiritual term – we know that it means that we no longer demand payment of a debt; that our right for recompense is cancelled. In light of scripture, we also know that our debt has been cancelled (since another fully paid for it in full) and therefore we ought to be gracious in extending the forgiveness that was fully extended to us.
Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Ephesians 4:32
Ursula Ward, whose son, Odin Lloyd, was murdered nearly two years ago, understands the difference between what is easy and what is good. Earlier this week, she was in a Fall River court house giving testimony. Toward the end of her victim impact statement before the judge who presided over her son’s killer’s trial she said, “I forgive the hands of the people who had a hand in my son’s murder, even before or after.” Her testimony forces me to pray for two things: first, that the Lord spares me from enduring the kind of suffering Ms. Ward is experiencing; and second, that if that cup could not pass, that I would have the faith and fortitude to forgive.
Will you imagine with me how much better life would be if we just chose to talk about sin less and forgiveness more? I know that the wages of sin is death and I know that the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ, His son. Lord, allow us, before we pass judgment with our words, to pass on grace with our demeanor.