There is a word in Greek (thaumazō) that Luke used to describe what happened when human beings witnessed the power and glory of God. It is alternatingly translated as “to wonder, to be astonished, to be amazed, to marvel, and to be surprised”. It is the response of the people of Bethlehem after hearing the shepherds declare the birth of the Savior and the disciples after Jesus calmed the wind and the waves. It is how multiple people reacted to the miraculous acts of the Lord and how Peter felt when he saw the empty tomb. Throughout the Gospels, men and women come face-to-face with the words and works of God and are amazed.
This experience of occasional astonishment is, in my opinion, a stark contrast to those who attend our twenty first century worship services. When was the last time you wondered at the meaning of the words found in the Scriptures or were surprised by the works of the Holy Spirit in our midst? When was the last time God broke through the mundane and you marveled at the world around you? In our day and age, our impressions of life on earth is more like that of the author of Ecclesiastes: there is nothing new under the sun. Where has all the wonder gone?
I believe we get from life and from others what we expect from life and from others. Beyond “glass-half-full/glass-half-empty” biases, we see what we want to see. We are not surprised by God, either through His miraculous works or His marvelous words, because we do not think we will be. Babies are born and all but the immediate family shrugs. Healing comes to those who are sick and most of us yawn. Accidents are avoided by random delays and we are oblivious. Then we consider the biological functions necessary for sustaining life and the explosive power of the combustion engine, it is amazing that we “live and move and have our being”.
…and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. Luke 2:18
In fear and amazement they asked one another, “Who is this?” Luke 8:25b
…and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened. Luke 24:12b
Last weekend, with its reminders of the sacrificial death and glorious resurrection of Jesus, ought to pique our interest in the amazing. Easter is a lasting witness to the wonderful and marvelous works and words of God. It reminds us that while His claims may sound fantastic (i.e. based on fantasy), to our amazement they have all been proven true. This week, in communities of faith gathered in worship and in places of solitude intended for reflection, we allowed ourselves to be amazed, if only for a moment. I wonder what would happen if we allowed ourselves to look for the surprising every Sunday morning, or every morning for that matter.
I pray that this week you hear something amazing, see something wonderful and sense something marvelous. Let me know when you do.
Today is Good Friday, the day in which the Church remembers and reflects upon the death of Jesus. Each year, I focus on one of the gospels as they relate the events of Palm Sunday through Easter. This year I have been reading through Luke’s account of the Lord’s final days and am struck by what the good doctor states is Jesus’ final utterance (and arguably His “famous last words”): “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” In saying this, He is quoting from Psalm 31:5 and restating the assurances that David made of God about a thousand years before the cross.
From the context of Psalm 31:5, I do not believe this is a simple statement of resignation, as if Jesus is saying, “I give up”. Rather, it is a statement of confidence in the Father. Psalm 31 tells us that David saw his strength as coming from the knowledge that God is his refuge, deliverance, rescue, rock and redemption. It is in light of all this that David places all that he was, every aspect of himself beyond his physical existence, in the hands of God. Similarly, this is the same confidence that Jesus expresses from the cross.
This phrase is akin to the words that Jesus spoke in the garden a few hours earlier, “… not My will, but Yours be done.” It conveys the confidence that Jesus had in knowing that the plans of God and the guiding hand of God can be trusted. As the agony of the cross began to overwhelm the limits of His human body, Jesus doesn’t give up, but rather gives over control of His existence to the only one who can perfectly accomplish God’s will, the Father himself. And He is faithful, releasing Jesus from His mortal coil and redeeming us, lost sinners, from the power of death and sin.
Into your hands I commit my spirit; deliver me, LORD, my faithful God. Psalm 31:5
Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last. Luke 23:46
I pray that I’d have the confidence that David expressed or that Jesus exhibited. Sadly, I often see the opposite dynamic at work: when the going gets tough, I want to take matters into my own hands. Instead of committing my spirit into God’s hands, I futilely attempt to handle my trials and troubles myself. Instead of acting like David (who just prior to committing his spirit to God asks Him to “keep me free from the trap that is set for me”), I am more likely to stumble into danger by relying on my own sense of direction. How much pain could be avoided if I committed my spirit to His hands.
It is hard to see the empty tomb when we are enduring what, for us, seems to be the cross. It is at those times that we need to trust the hand of God, which comforted the Lord, rolled away the stone and raised the Savior. It is also the hand that can comfort, strengthen and save us.
I am praying that you have a blessed Good Friday and a Happy Easter.
In our church’s most recent newsletter (found at http://calvary-boston.org/newletter.pdf), I wrote about my reservations about public praise and my resolve to increase that praise in light of Jesus’s admonition on Palm Sunday. “If the people won’t cry out, the rocks will,” Jesus told the Pharisees. This rebuke of the religious elite has challenged me to praise God so that the Lord need not replace the praise that I ought to be offering with that of a stone. Part of Palm Sunday is celebrating the triumphal entry of the conquering king, knowing that He has conquered sin, death and the Devil.
But this is only part of the Palm Sunday narrative. The Gospel of Luke begins the day we know as Palm Sunday with a conversation between two unnamed disciples and Jesus. Jesus commands these two to enter into town and secure the services of a donkey. It was an important task, as it would fulfill a Scriptural prophecy about the Messiah. But it is just “transportation” ministry – two of the divine dozen, the chosen students of the Lord, being asked to call for an Uber® instead of doing something more important. Maybe they struggled with a temptation I occasionally face: thinking that they had been called to greater things than this.
“Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it.’” Luke 19:30-31 (NIV)
Imagine you were walking in the sandals of those two unnamed disciples as they witnessed the triumphal entry. Would you be tempted to say, “Hey, none of this would have been possible without me”? Would you want Jesus to acknowledge your contribution to the parade? Would you, at some later date, tell Matthew (your fellow disciple) to make sure he mentions your name when inspired to write about Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem? We can wonder how we might react to such a request from Jesus, but there is no question how these two unnamed disciples reacted – with humble obedience. They did what they were told without question or credit, pure and simple.
Knowing what transpired once Jesus mounted the donkey (the praise and adoration of the crowd), it makes me think that there is a link between obedience and worship. There must be something that connects our sacrifice and our singing. It seems that we cannot fully rejoice in the Lord until we have first committed our lives to the Lord. We praise Jesus – His power, His protection, His provision and His prodding – because we have seen Jesus. We have seen the evidences of His mighty acts and heard the expressions of His salvation. And having seen and heard what the Lord can do, we are willing to follow Him wherever He leads. Then, as we follow Him wherever He leads, we witness the praise and rejoicing He alone deserves.
It is good to know that all our efforts – our deeds and sacrifices – will produce, on earth and in heaven, glorious praise to our King. That is ultimately our greatest reward.
The other day I picked up our youngest son, Joshua, from a library program where he had been building robots with Legos®. It was amazing to see what could be built with things my son had at his disposal. From those four basic components (the EV3 computer, sensors, motors and Lego® pieces), he was able to build useful and powerful machines. Legos® have come a long way from when I was a kid: then, we could build a “blocky” plane or a car (which we could imagine to be the real things), but now you can design and control an actual moving vehicle.
Watching Joshua ‘play’ with these toys made me think about the church, the local representation of the kingdom of God. I always pictured, as all my kids and I played with the little plastic bricks, that this is what the Bible must have been referring to when Peter wrote that we, the saints, were being built into a temple. We may not all look the same (we come in different colors, lengths, widths and thicknesses), but we all can be useful in the construction plan of God. To steal a sentiment from The Lego Movie: in the hands of the Master Builder, we all can be special.
As you come to him, the living Stone – rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him – you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 1 Peter 2:4-5
Then, as Joshua was explaining these new components, I thought deeper about the matter. The computer unit provides the direction to the structure, much like the Word of God provides direction for the church. The sensors and motors translate that information from the computer into kinetic energy, just as the Holy Spirit translates the written Word into the Living Word as we gather as the church. And then, as one diverse but cohesive whole, the unit moves and accomplishes the purpose of the designer, whether we are talking of a Lego® robot or a local congregation. This is all in accordance with the designer’s plan.
Regarding this metaphor of the church being like a structure built with an interlocking brick system, it also reflects the truth that function is not defined by form. Anyone who has ever ventured into the Lego® Store knows that there are boxes of these bricks that that can make a “Super Soarer” for $9.99 and the US Capitol Building for $99.99. Does brick count make the project better? Not necessarily. Whether it is Legos® or churches, the size of the building is not as important as the enjoyment of the ‘build’. If you need a pencil holder, having a replica of the Millennium Falcon will not satisfy your need. And if your family’s experience with Legos® is anything like mine, all the set pieces get mixed together pretty quickly, and that is really when the fun and creativity starts.
I’m so glad I’m a part of the multi-colored structure that God is designing with our church. We may not be very big, but we are beautiful. We may not have a large brick count, but we are being used to bring our creator glory. And like Legos®, we (as a church) began as an idea in Scandinavia.
Today is Saint Patrick’s Day and, thanks to my father’s recent genetic profile from ancestry.com, I will be celebrating the holy day with the newfound knowledge that I am 2% Irish. There is much to commend Maewyn Succat (thought to be Patrick’s name at birth) to all believers: he was born into a religious family, with his grandfather serving as a priest; he suffered great adversity, having been kidnapped by pirates at age 16 and then living as a slave in Ireland for 6 years; he was miraculously rescued by God, to whom he had been praying fervently for deliverance, when he was told in a dream that his ship had arrived and then walked more than 200 miles to set sail; upon reaching England, far from home, he survived starvation when a wild boar wandered into his camp; at age 40, God told him in a dream to return to Ireland with the Gospel and build His church. He gives us all a testimony of what God can do through a person committed to trusting in the Lord.
There are a number of the interesting truths about Patrick’s life. First, he rejected the beliefs of his family for many years, but the great difficulties of his early life drew him to God with a fervent faith. Second, he was not the first missionary to Ireland, as he succeeded another man who had come to Ireland five years before he returned to the island. Third, one of the Patrick’s first converts from Druidism to Christianity was Milchu, the tribal chieftain who served as his master more than 20 years earlier. Patrick was used by God in mighty ways and He utilized every aspect of Patrick’s life (both blessings and burdens) to glorify the Lord.
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28
Saint Patrick reminds me that anyone can do great things through God. Anyone can endure a horrible past when they trust in Him. Anyone can show the power of forgiveness when they know the forgiveness of God. Anyone can mightily share their faith when they have experienced the grace of the Lord. Saint Patrick reminds me that nothing is impossible with God – He is able to reach anyone through anyone by any means. So, whether you are in the ideal location or the worst place imaginable, among the most wonderful people or the dregs of society, confident in your abilities or concerned about your inabilities, know that God can still be glorified through you.
Perhaps you will enjoy a bit of green lager or some corned beef and cabbage today. Maybe you will wear green or kiss someone who is Irish. Wherever and however the day finds you, I pray that we all remember the witness of a special man who God used to reach ‘the ends of the earth’ over 1,600 years ago. And I hope in remembering his story we are reminded of our story as well. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
On Monday, some details of my life caused me to become discouraged. I rarely become discouraged: while I am not what some would call an optimistic person (I have joked that my personal motto is “Expect the worst: either you’ll be right or pleasantly surprised”), but I am tenacious. I am not in the habit of giving up. As a sports fan, if I commit, I stay true until the final score – I will not leave a baseball game until the final out has been recorded or turn off the Super Bowl even if my rooting interest is 25 points behind. As a home cook, I find comfort in following the recipe, even if it requires a trip to the grocery store for select ingredients. As the pastor of a small church, I am persistent in proclaiming the truth of God’s word anticipating that on any given (Sun)day another soul will meet the Savior. This tenacity has served to foster within me a spirit of encouragement.
But life has a way of eroding encouragement, as when mistakes (or sin) on my part conspire with unsavory elements in our society and detoured my heart and mind toward despair. You will find no details here of what happened on Monday, only an echo of how a day of darkness made me aware of the value of seeking the light. I have come to the conclusion that God IS with those who travel through the valley of the shadow of death. He was with me through the loving acts of my sympathetic wife: she made sure I was eating and staying productive when all I could see was an insurmountable obstacle. He was with me through the providence of Tuesday’s men’s Bible study on Elijah. He brought me encouragement through His children and through His word.
“…for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.” Psalm 103:14
It is deeply comforting to know that God knows our physical form and remembers our physical frailties. He knows we are not invincible, indestructible or indefatigable. He knows we are subject to discouragement, depression and despair. He remembers that we are weak in body, mind and spirit. He remembers our general inability to resist the worldly and our general disinterest with the heavenly. He knows and remembers all this…and ministers to all our needs graciously without finding fault. He promises to give us wisdom when we lack it. He promises to give us rest when we about to falter. He promises to give us counsel and guidance when we are walking in darkness. He promises to encourage those who are discouraged.
I am thankful that my times of discouragement are rare. I am aware, also, that this is not the case for many. If you are struggling with discouragement or depression, please take comfort in knowing that God knows how you have been formed and He cares for you. Seek His provision, through His word and His people, to lessen your despair. Reach out to those around you to hold you accountable in maintaining proper levels of rest, nourishment and productivity. He will give hope to the hopeless, and He can help you.
I did not go to church on Sunday. For those who know me, I am sure this comes as a bit of a shock (honestly, my own children voiced some concern over my choice of activities on the Lord’s Day). In my defense, we spent the day traveling back from the Baltimore area, hoping to get home by 8PM because our younger boys had to get up early for school the next day. We felt we couldn’t wait until after noon and therefore church was out of the question. Despite the fact that I have not missed church in nearly five years, I do not feel an ounce of guilt for not attending worship last week.
Before anyone says that a Pastor is teaching that we ought not feel guilty for not going to church, let me tell you why I feel no guilt – I consider attendance at church a blessing and not an obligation. Some who are reading this, I am sure, think that going to church is something we have to do (whether we want to or not) to be right with God, sort of like taking cough medicine so that you can eliminate your chest congestion. Instead, I think that going to church is something I need to do, sort of like going to a gas station so that I can fill up on what I need so that I will not get stranded in the middle of nowhere.
It is through corporate gatherings for worship (going to “church”) that we sing familiar and foreign tunes that remind us of our lineage of faith and doctrine. It is through going to “church” that we catch-up with our spiritual siblings through prayer and intercession. It is through going to “church” that we hear the word of God so that we may glorify our great Savior and be encouraged, equipped, challenged and convicted through the shared experience of receiving His grace and mercy. It is through going to “church” that we can interact with people who God places in our lives who could be quite different, in multiple ways, than we are. It is a gift of God that we must not take for granted.
I rejoiced with those who said to me, “Let us go to the house of the LORD.” Psalm 122:1
While I felt no guilt for my absence from church last Sunday, I did miss being there. It is the same feeling I get when I am invited to a party that I cannot attend, knowing that I am not going to be a part of the joyful celebration and the jovial conversation. I missed the comradery, the communion and the compassion of our little flock of followers. I cannot wait to catch up next Sunday.
I say all this not so those who haven’t darkened the doors of a church would feel badly, but rather to share the joys I have in getting together with people of faith as frequently as possible. No one has been barred from heaven solely because of their church attendance record (nor has that ever been the basis for entrance). Our passage to the heavenly places comes from Christ alone. Going to church helps to remind us of what we have to look forward to when we get there.
As we have for the previous four awards seasons, my wife and I watched, in local theaters and in our living room, the nine movies nominated for the Academy Award’s Best Picture. This year we were enchanted by a western, a musical, a science fiction thriller, a play adaption, a war epic, a biographical film, a coming-of age story, a historical narrative and a tear jerker. Each film introduced us people facing challenges different (sometime much different) than our own. Each movie gave us something to talk about and wrestle with after we viewed it. And while the process of spending twenty or so hours watching movies may not appeal to everyone, it is a treat and a blessing to my wife and me.
Invariably, when the conversation turns to our project of seeing these Best Picture nominees, I am asked the question: what do you think will win? I have some trouble answering that, in part because artistic expression (and that is ultimately what all these movies are) is so subjective, and in part because every film (well, maybe with one exception) had elements of greatness. What do I think will win? The Academy will likely choose Lalaland. What do I think is overall the best picture for 2016, from among those nominated? This is a much more complicated question.
As I answer this question, I feel that I can eliminate half the nominees from my personal best: Arrival was good, especially in its character development and the deep conversation that followed was profound, but not great; Fences, with its exceptional acting performances, was too dialogue driven for my taste; Lalaland was artistically stunning but slow and lacked a plot for about a third of the film; and I found Moonlight, despite its important story, too confusing. I appreciate all these films and the questions they produced in me: what would life be like if we were not constricted by time? How do our dreams and failures shape our lives? Can love conquer all? Can we truly escape our environment?
The other five (Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High Water, Hidden Figures, Lion and Manchester-by-the-Sea) were better stories more beautifully told with exceptional acting. These five, at any given moment, fluctuate in my mind as best. They represent characters who are each faced with challenges (trying to save lives while others are taking them, fighting foreclosure, battling racial injustice, finding a way back home and overcoming an unfair and tragic past), overcoming them, to a greater or lesser degree. There are images and elements of each of these works of art that will remain with me for quite a while – moments of extreme pain and moments of overwhelming joy. At this moment, I offer my opinion and would recommend you seeing Hacksaw Ridge, my choice for Best Picture.
For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen. Romans 11:36
I do not say this simply because it is the most “faith-based” of the nominees, but because it is the most beautifully shot and compelling story captured on film. All these films, from my personal favorite to my personal worst, have elements which provoke my pastoral side. Each one is worth seeing so that their narratives, whether true or fictitious, can enable us to walk in the shoes of another for 140 minutes or can afford us the opportunity to experience life in a way that we would never experience on our own. We are surrounded by people broken by society and bruised by circumstance, and it is good to be reminded once in a while that we can overcome poverty, tragedy, rejection, oppression, prejudice and even the occasional success. In every story our lives tell, no matter our faith system or lack thereof, God has a marvelous way of breaking in and then shining through the cracks the world inflicts upon us. We all have a story to tell, one worthy of an Academy Award.
The other night as I was reflecting on the fact that the New England Patriots had just won their fifth Super Bowl©, it made me think of God’s grace and guidance. Sure, as a Pastor, I often connect random occurrences in life with Biblical themes; the progression of Sunday’s game and its outcome makes my job easy. For the Patriots, this was a season which required the team to deal with consequences for bad actions, demonstrated determination when excuses might have been easier and exemplified fortitude and the discipline of finishing strong. These are things we all could afford to reflect upon, and learn from, as we face the struggles of life.
As even the casual football fan knows, Tom Brady was suspended for the first four games of the season ultimately due to his refusal to cooperate with the NFL Commissioner’s investigation into “Deflate-gate”. After a lengthy process involving the courts, Brady agreed to accept his suspension, albeit with no admission of guilt. He then was forced to sit out the first four games of the season. While we can argue, and many have, about the fairness of the Commissioner’s decision, it was what it was. Tom Brady, and the team, suffered the consequences of his actions. Then he was restored to active status and played the remainder of the season. As I saw the Commissioner shake TB12’s hand and later hand him the Super Bowl© MVP trophy, I thought about grace. To an even greater degree than the NFL brass and its players, God is correcting and rebuking His children and then, after confession and contrition has been made, fully and completely restores them, separating their sin as far as the east is from the west. Do the crime, do the time, receive forgiveness and restoration, and go back out and compete.
Before the big game was played, it was reported that Tom Brady’s mother had been battling an undisclosed illness for eighteen months. Also, the Patriots had suffered significant injuries throughout the regular season, including an injury which sidelined their most powerful offensive weapon, Rob Gronkowski. No one would have blamed the Patriots if they had said that this was not their year, that the obstacles were too great and the challenges were too overwhelming. Instead, the team worked hard, utilized “lesser” members, and seized victory. To an even greater degree, God is drawing together and equipping His church to claim victory over darkness. He has brought together a wide variety of people with a wide variety of abilities, all broken in one way or another, to become stronger together than they would ever be separately. Do your job, do it to the best of your ability, trust those around you and taste victory.
Even the most optimistic ‘homer’ in New England may have thrown in the towel at six and a half minutes into the third quarter when the Falcons took a commanding 28-3 lead. It is almost inconceivable that the Patriots (who had scored 3 points in the first 36:29 of the game) could score 25 points in the remaining 23:31 of regulation. It is almost equally inconceivable, given the difficulties they had on defense, that they could hold the Falcons scoreless for the remainder of the game. But that is exactly what happened – touchdown, field goal, touchdown, two-point conversion, touchdown, two-point conversion. Tie game. Overtime. Touchdown. Champions. The accolades and the prize goes to those who finish strong. To an even greater degree, that is the attitude God desires in us. God’s people ought not to start strong and ultimately give out, but finish strong and ultimately win out.
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 1 Corinthians 9:24
Congratulations to the World Champion New England Patriots. I am grateful to God that He can use such an earthly endeavor as a football game to remind us of His great plans and hopes for us.