Tag Archives: Church

WWYD?

My family watches a more-than-average amount of television, and we all have our favorite shows.  There is one program that we tend to watch together that elicits a great deal of conversation – “What Would You Do?”.  For the uninitiated, “What Would You Do?” is a hidden camera show, produced by ABC news, where unsuspecting people are recorded as they witness a wide variety of moral and cultural dilemmas, eventually to be interviewed about their reactions by the program’s host, John Quiñones.  One segment might involve a bystander’s reaction to an apparently inebriated bar patron heading for their car, while another might touch on issues of a restaurant diner’s immigration status, always leaving the viewer with the question, “What Would You Do?”

As we watch the show, and in the discussions afterward, we all give our opinions about what the proper reaction should be, thinking that, if we were there, we would be one of the good folks that would talk with John Q following the scenario.  We would never be the ones who tolerate discrimination or ignore outright need.  We all conclude, by the end of each episode, that we would love to be on the broadcast.  We are looking forward to the day when we are visiting a diner in New Jersey, overhearing a conversation about the travesty of women’s professional sports, only to hear the voice of John Quiñones behind us, saying, “Excuse me, folks, those people are actors….”

It leaves me with a question: would we be better people if we thought our actions and reactions were being watched by others?  On “What Would You Do?”, they always have people who intervene, who care enough to confront the bigotry or bad behavior demonstrated by the show’s actors.  They typically also have people, often whose identities have been digitally obscured, who do nothing or, worse than inaction, are advocates for what most consider to be wrong.  Watching those strong and sensitive strangers defend the defenseless or notice the needy encourages me to do the same, whether anyone is watching or not.

Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.  1 Peter 2:12 (ESV)

If you have read this blog before, you might be expecting me to remind you that God sees what you do (which is true), but that is not my takeaway today.  Peter reminds us that those around us see what we are doing, and that every scenario depicted on “What Would You Do?” or played out in real life is an opportunity to reflect the goodness and glory of God.  When we, as followers of Christ, do the right thing – support the figurative and literal widows and orphans, care for the physically and spiritually sick, show compassion for those imprisoned by the system or by the self – we tell all those around us that God loves, and by extension we love, the broken and bruised.  Whether it is broadcast on national television or not, we are always right to address wrong.

I would still like to one day be on the show.  Until then, I will imagine that there are hidden cameras when I overhear absurdity or observe abject poverty.  What would you do?

Generation Consolation

During the past few months as we have been at home together, my family has been watching more syndicated game shows than usual.  Many of these shows (e.g. “25 Words or Less”, “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy”) grant to the non-winners what is commonly referred to as a ‘consolation prize’, a parting gift given with the intention of lessening the blow of losing the game.  These gifts might be as small as a gift certificate to Lobster Gram® or as substantial as a few thousand dollars.   After thirty minutes of hard work, it is good to know that no one walks away empty handed.

“Consolation” is an interesting word to me.  It is derived from a Latin prefix and root combination which originally meant ‘to soothe with” (the prefix ‘con’ and the root ‘solari’, from which we get the English word solace).  In our cultural context, consolation is the comfort we receive by others after a loss or disappointment.  When we offer consolation, we are giving someone else – either with words or actions – something like a balm or a salve in order to lessen the sting of loss.   Consolation, in my mind, is somewhat akin to applying aloe vera to a bad sunburn.

During this pandemic, I have received consolation from an unlikely source: the book of Jeremiah.  Jeremiah is called “The Weeping Prophet” by biblical scholars due to all the difficulties he encounters while serving God.  For the past two months, we have been discussing this book of the Bible during our on-line study and we have read about Jeremiah being mocked, beaten, dropped into a muddy well to die, imprisoned and impugned.  Most of the book recounts hardship after hardship for our messenger of God.   However, during this litany of crushing disappointments, there is a section (chapters 31-33) that commentators call “The Book of Consolation”.

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah.”  Jeremiah 31:31 (NIV)

Because of their disobedience and disregard for God, the people of Jerusalem were about to be displaced by the Babylonians.  Because of their sin, they were going to suffer.  But this suffering would only be for a season (albeit an extremely long season of seventy years).  The coming generations would be restored and renewed.  God promised through His word.  The people would return to Jerusalem and God’s blessings would be reinstated.  “The days are coming….”

We, too, can be consoled and soothed with the reality that “the days are coming” when God will make all things right.  The good news for us is that the new covenant has already been made, through the blood of God the Son, so that all who call upon Him in faith shall be saved.  The good news for us is that God has begun the process of restoration by allowing us the opportunity to be in good relationship with Him, through Christ, and that He who has begun this good work will be faithful to complete it.   May we all find consolation in that, even though we may be also enduring disappointment and loss.

Interceding Interaction

I have become a ‘fair weather fan’ when it comes to my beloved Red Sox.  I can simply no longer watch their games.  They are currently sitting in last place in the American League, due in no small part to the facts that they have no pitching, they are struggling to hit the ball and they lead the league in errors.  But it is not their record that is making this season unbearable; it is their apparent lack of heart on the part of the players.  I can only assume this malaise is evident due to the pandemic protocols – no fans in the stands, no player on-field interactions, and social distancing in the dugout – that has robbed “America’s Pastime”, at least in Boston, of its magic.

There is something special about social interaction that cannot be captured on a Zoom call or over the phone.  As much as I hate to admit it, we require human contact in order to thrive.  I wonder if things would be different were the veterans on the Red Sox allowed to embrace the younger players to encourage them, especially as things are going from bad to worse.  On a larger scale, are we, as a culture and as a planet, suffering to a greater degree because we cannot, literally and figuratively, shoulder one another’s load?  Do we, as a people, really need a hug?

Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing. 1 Thessalonians 5:11 (NIV)

This, unfortunately, is a lost season for the Red Sox.  However, it need not be the same for us.  I am confident that we are able to reclaim much of what has been taken by this virus and its consequences.  My suggestion for reclamation is that we rediscover the power of prayer.  What has prayer got to do with being physically present with one another?  I am glad you asked.

First, the language of prayer conveys physical presence.  When we pray, we are lifting one another toward God.  Offering up biblical prayers, like the Lord’s Prayer, evoke a real bonding of hearts and minds with one another and with God.  We are together when we pray.

Second, the discipline of prayer develops intimacy.  We listen more and share more when we intercede for one another.  We are willing to expose our hopes and our hurts more freely in the context of prayer.  We are tender when we pray.

Third, the practice of prayer offers avenues of reconnection.  When I pray for you, I become invested in the ‘rest of the story’ and become eager to see how things turn out.  When I pray, I am more likely to follow through and resume the conversation.  We are touching base when we pray.

Finally, the reality of prayer draws us away from the problems and draws us toward the provider.  Prayer enables us, together, to recognize that we haven’t got the answers to some of the toughest questions, and to recognize that we all, irrespective of demographics, needs God’s intervention.  We are trusting when we pray.

While we cannot embrace one another just yet, we can engage in prayer with and for one another.  That is no small thing.

Change of Plans

It has taken me 20 weeks of this pandemic, or perhaps 23 years of pastoral ministry, or maybe even 54 years of existence, to conclude that I do not handle disruption well.  I can become internally agitated when a reasonable request is made while I am preparing for Sunday’s service at my dining room table.  Prior to COVID-19, my soul may have become disturbed within me when I heard news of a weekend snowstorm.  As long as I can remember, I have had incidences of the hairs on my neck bristling when my plans were disrupted by the delays of those I dearly love.  It might be a problem.

Even those with a cursory understanding of the plot line of the Bible would know that God is frequently found disrupting the lives of people and nations for His purposes.  Moses was living large and enjoying life what God appeared to him and told him it was time to move.  Abraham was enjoying the fruits of long-delayed parenthood when God announced that it was time for a mountain-climbing trip with Isaac that would result in only one of them returning home.  Esther, David, Peter, Paul, and Timothy all were faced with disruptions.  We rarely know why, but God finds disruption necessary.

If you are like me, you have a choice: see disruptions as an attack against your ideal timetable or see disruptions as an avenue for God’s adjustments.  Is it possible that the Master of the Universe may have other plans and priorities for your productive hours?  Is it possible that the Lord Almighty may be reminding us that snowflakes, germs, and spotty Wi-Fi are not an enemy to our efficiency?  Is it possible that these disruptions are, in fact, the crucial appointments amid our chaotic days?  What if you and I were to see disruptions as blessings instead of blights?

There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.  Proverbs 14:12 & Proverbs 16:25 (ESV)

Solomon, in his words of wisdom, was compelled by the Holy Spirit to state the exact words twice.  This double dose of truth disturbs me.  I would like to think that my way (disruption-free hours of uninterrupted productivity and purpose) is right, but it is not; it is destructive.  It is destructive for at least two reasons: first, I am denying the truth that I savor disruption, if it is a distraction of my own choosing (scrolling through Facebook is healthy but that request to help bring in the groceries is a step too far); second, I am often so engrossed in what I want to be doing that I mostly unaware of what God might be wanting me to do.  I am going my ‘right way’ and lying to and limiting myself in the process.

The biblical model for so many whose stories are contained in its pages is to embrace the disruptions, without grumbling, as guidance from God.  Through hurricanes, He will give us rest.  Through traffic jams, He will teach us patience.  Through a loud neighbor just beyond the windowpane, He will drive us to compassion.  Then, perhaps, we will learn that disruptions are God’s way of directing us toward greater things.

May these words be just the disruption you needed today.

Numb and Number

The other night, we had a drive-in experience in our backyard; a video screen, projector, a VCR and an extension cord enabled us to watch “Hercules”.  All the equipment was readily available to us, but until the other night, we had not taken the time to put it together.  This is just the latest thing we have done because we have the time to do it.  We have also spent time playing board games (my personal favorite has been “Ticket to Ride”) and card games (including the ‘oldie-but-goodie’ “Pit”, which our children had never played).  We have also spent time exploring the neighborhood by foot.  This pandemic has given us the opportunity to do things that we never get around to doing.

There are other things that have remained undone.  I still have boxes which are still unpacked or stored away from our move eleven months ago.  I still have books sitting on a radiator that I am intending to read.  I still have summer clothes in the basement that I have yet to put in my bureau.  I have a craft beer maker that is unopened (granted, I would still have to buy some yeast, which I have also yet to do).   Despite the fact that this pandemic has given me a great deal of time at home to do whatever strikes my fancy, there are still things I have never gotten around to doing.

Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.  Psalm 90:12

I wonder how many times I said, prior to 2020, “I wish I had the time to __________.”   I wonder how many times I said, prior to COVID-19, “I will get around to _________ some day.”  Lord, teach me to number my days.  Lord, instruct me to calculate all twenty-four hours.  Lord, educate me on the usage of each cycle of 1,440 minutes.  Assuming I take 6 hours to sleep and 2 hours to address hunger and hygiene, that gives me 16 hours each and every day for my vocations and avocations.  What am I doing with that time?  Am I utilizing this precious resource for mindful productivity and recreation or am I wasting it on mindless amusement and entertainment?

Today is day 143 of quarantine; we have been home for 3,432 hours.  What have you been doing for the past 20 weeks?  The Psalmist has convicted me to redeem the remaining days and hours of the quarantine, however long it lasts.  I want to spend more time in constructing (building value into my life as well as the lives of others) and less in consuming (burning daylight in otherwise empty pursuits).   I want to cherish the time I have with my children and my wife.  I want to maximize this time of ‘voluntary seclusion’ so that, when I look back at this season of my life, I have no regrets.  Lord, help me to capture a moment today where I see and share just one of your many blessings.

Lord, teach us to number our (quarantined) days.

The Heat of the Matter

It has been hot in Massachusetts for the last few weeks, with heat indices approaching 100° on many days.  It has been so hot, in fact, that the new street in front of our home that I wrote about a few weeks ago has softened and now contains a good number of tire tracks.  We are fortunate; we have a few window unit air conditioners that can take the sting out of the oppressive heat and humidity.  But, under the shadow of COVID-19, there are a number of places we would have gone to beat the heat that are, this summer, unavailable.

In previous years we, as a family, might have gone to the local mall or the movie theater to escape the high temperatures and enjoy some climate-controlled coolness.  Our summers past have included visits to museums and dips in public pools to find some relief.  There is none of that this year.  The cinemas remain unopened, the malls are too crowded, the museums are not welcoming the general public and the pools are, by and large, closed.   Even the beaches, where it has also been unusually warm, are not completely safe as the sunbathers and swimmers contend with shark sightings and the lingering effects of this pandemic.

It is days like these that make a person ‘squirrelly’ – hot and bothered and itching to be somewhere else.  I imagine that most of us have had more than a few days like that.  What do we when we face times like that?  Simmer and stew?  Stomp and scream?  Toss and turn at night and pace and pout during the day?  It is not in our nature, I believe, to suffer in silence.  We need someone to know, someone to care, someone to assure us that things will improve.  Those are the days that I appreciate God’s gift of prayer, the blessing of conversation and intercession with the one who knows us best and cares for us most completely.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”   Matthew 11:28-30 (NIV)

I don’t know about you, but the heat takes something out of me, and I am weary.  With the news of the spread of COVID-19, I am burdened.  I am grateful that Jesus offers to share His yoke with me (for those unfamiliar with the term, a yoke is a farming implement that harnesses two animals, presumably of similar strength, together).  I am offered to share my load with God incarnate, who declares that my contribution to the work will be easy and light.  When can we begin?  It makes me feel like that three-year old at the grocery store in the race-car shopping cart, thinking that he is exerting all the effort to move the cart, but the reality is that his father is pushing from behind.  Our Father in Heaven is pushing us along as well.

If you are weary and burdened, due to climate or contagion or some other catastrophe, come to him.  He will give you rest.

Felons and Felines

I read a news story about a prominent web security specialist who had his laptop stolen from the back of his SUV while he was out to dinner (mind you, this act of thievery occurred ‘b.p.’ – before the pandemic). This expert in cyber safety was perplexed by the thief, wondering how how they knew that the electronics were there, under a blanket and behind tinted glass?   The desk sergeant who took the incident report at the local police station stated what the victim had over looked, “Thieves are now using Bluetooth scanners on their phones; they can tell what is in the car before they break into it.”  It turns out that your electronics are continually emitting signals that can be paired with other wireless devices, and those signals alert these would-be robbers to the presence of our laptops, tablets and phones.

Those who seek to separate us from our stuff and certainly cunning and crafty.  If we are wise, we will be aware of their schemes and act in such a way to avoid their attacks.  If we are smart, we will be vigilant in locking our doors and well-versed in the latest security practices.  But that is still not enough; we need to fight complacency, that nagging temptation to let down our guard and assume that everything will be alright if we leave that back gate unlatched for one night (but that is the night that the skunk skulks in and strews trash all through the yard).

We all are prone to become complacent, whether it is ‘forgetting’ to wear a mask during this pandemic or ‘figuring’ that someone else will pick up your debris and dirty things.  We all are susceptible to being blissfully unaware of some potential danger or defect that is present in our life.  This is true in the physical world and true in the spiritual world.  We are inclined to sleep-walk through some situations to the point where Satan gains a foothold in his attempts to destroy us.  It is the concern that Peter addresses in the following verse:

Be alert and of sober mind.  Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.  1 Peter 5:8 (NIV)

The first step in overcoming the enemy is vigilance: we are called to be alert (to stay awake and aware) and sober-minded (to maintain clarity of thought and purpose).  The second step is knowing the nature of the enemy: a thief will thieve, a predator will hunt its prey, and the enemy will spew enmity.  Taken together, these words from Peter encourage us to be familiar with our surroundings and be clear about the dangers they contain.  We are not commanded to cower in fear, assuming the worst, but to commit to face all that seeks to rob us of our joy, anticipating the best God has to offer.  Every time we log onto the internet, we must be aware of the lion lurking.  Every time we engage with the culture, we must maintain a clear mind so as not to miss what might be hiding in the shadows.

Be careful out there and be caring for one another.  Friends don’t let friends be devoured by big cats.

Repairing the Road

As I write this post a team of workers with heavy machinery is replacing the sidewalks, curb stones and street in front of our house.  I am captivated by all the activity that is taking place: I am awestruck by the precision of the excavator operator, as he removes dirt and debris around valve covers and drains with no apparent effort; I am fascinated my those responsible for the placement of the heavy stones, leveling and tapping them expertly in a row; I have become mesmerized by the activity just outside our front windows as each person performs their role as if engaged in a synchronized dance.  While I do not appreciate the noise beginning at 7 every morning, I am thankful for the object lesson their labors have given me.

When we moved into our current residence 10 months ago, the water main had just been replaced.  Shortly after our arrival, the gas lines that run through the neighborhood were also replaced, leaving our street a mess of potholes and uneven patches.  The road surface would fill with puddles after a rainstorm and the sidewalks in spots were dangerously uneven.  This week, all that is beginning to change, as people who know what to do and have the time to do it well are restoring what has been damaged.   Assuming all the work is completed, our street will remain pristine for the next five years.

It all reminds me of what can happen when everyone does their part to build up what has been ravaged by time or trauma.  Whether it is public works or personal health, we all have a role in edification – the building up of one another – through acts of service, through words of affirmation and/or through time together.  There is no meaningless effort nor unnecessary task.  The business of building requires designers and architects, as well as vehicle operators and day laborers.  The business of edification likewise requires thinkers and planners, as will as skilled workers and heavy lifters.

From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.  Ephesians 4:16 (NIV)

The apostle Paul, in his letter to the church in Ephesus, describes the local church as a body.  This body grows when every part does its unique work.  In Paul’s analogy, the people of God are strengthened, in community, when the ‘hands’ do what the ‘hands’ can do (and only what the ‘hands’ can do), as well as every other part – eyes, ears, kidneys, and the rest – does what they are designed to do.  This imagery, for me, has two important ramifications: first, that each of us are essential for our effectiveness and health; and second, that we are effective and healthy when we only do what we are here to do.

Together, proximately or virtually, we will grow and build our body in love as each of us do what God uniquely enables us to do.  I have an asphalt, concrete and granite reminder of this reality just outside my door.

A Stranger Place

[Jesus said,] “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”  Matthew 25:35–36 (NIV)

I have been thinking about this passage for the past few weeks.  Specifically, I have been ruminating about the Lord’s self-description as a stranger.  What did Jesus mean that he was a stranger?  Isn’t he better characterized as a friend or a sibling?  Isn’t he immanently known by those who follow him?  How could we possibly engage in a relationship with the Living God and not recognize him as a stranger?

According to Walter Brueggemann, strangers are “people without a place.”[1]  Strangers are those who enter into a community devoid of basic support structures – they are separated from familial, vocational, financial, religious and political networks.   This, I believe, is the underlying truth of Jesus’ self-expression: part of the human condition is enduring times of placelessness and part of the life of the church is inviting the placeless in.

My musings about the stranger began about a month ago, when my daughter travelled to Washington D.C. to pack up her college apartment.  About 70 miles from anyone she knew and more than 100 miles from her destination, she experienced car troubles and found herself broken down on the side of a rural road.  She was placeless – alone and separated from everyone and everything she knew.  Thankfully, she had AAA and a cousin to rescue her, but she still was stranded for more than an hour.  She was placeless, a stranger.  And God is good: the hours she spent in Mullica Hill, NJ were warm and sunny and throughout the ordeal a number of women from the community inquired about her well-being.

My musings continued over the next few weeks as our city and our nation witnessed demonstrations against, among many issues, what I would call ‘systemic strangering’: the pervasive displacement of our black and brown siblings through the misuse and abuse of authority.  Because many had nowhere to go to alleviate their suffering and address their basic needs, they assembled en masse across this nation to shed light on their exclusion.  But God is good: conversations of engagement and songs of lament are now taking place among His people.

My musings also encompass our current pandemic.  As disease and death unite the world in our common crisis, we are sorrowful that there is nowhere we can go and no one to turn to find complete relief.  We are all placeless together.  Even in this, God is good:  in the midst of our strangerness, we find collective common ground in our community walks and our mutual  disappointment with those still refusing to consider the needs of the vulnerable, the real strangers in our midst.

Do you have room in your heart, or in your schedule, to invite in the stranger?  Do you recognize the divine gift we have to offer, a place of belonging (figuratively in the present and literally before long)  to those who have nothing to offer but themselves?  When you do, you are welcoming in the Lord.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation and Obedience (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991) 294.

Needed Change

Allow me to state, up front, that I cannot understand, as a middle-aged white man, the frustrations and fears which are associated with being a person of color in America.  I cannot honestly declare that I know what it feels like to be stopped by the police based primarily, if not solely, upon the color of my skin.  I have no frame of reference where I am able to equate walking in my community with the possibility of being attacked.  While I cannot express empathy (where we would share in a mutual emotion) with those mourning and protesting across the country, I can and do express sympathy (where we come alongside one another as we share our unique experiences).

What I can do, as a minister of the gospel and pastor of a city-cited church, is listen to the voices of the oppressed and marginalized.  I can also share relevant and revelatory biblical truth.   To do that, I would like to share something that someone smarter than me has said:

The Scripture is what tells us that the idolization of the flesh is sin (Gal. 5:16-24), that hatred of those made in the image of God is sin (1 Jn. 3:11-15), that mistreating people with the justice system is sin (Prov. 17:15; 23:10), that ignoring the cries of those being mistreated is sin (Deut. 23:14-15; Jas. 5:4).  And the Scripture tells us that that sin, without repentance, brings the judgment of God (Rom. 6:23).  That is true not only for those who personally rebel against God’s holiness and justice but also those who “give approval to those who practice them” (Rom. 1:32).  That is a dreadful reality, to which those of us in Christ are called to serve as ambassadors pleading, as though Christ were pleading through us, “be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20).  – Russell Moore

Each and every human being is made in the image of God.  Each and every human being is fearfully and wonderfully made by the Almighty.  Each and every human being is God’s handiwork and created in Christ Jesus to do good work.   While holding tight to these truths, we also hold onto the biblical mandate to care for and champion the cause of those whose voices have been silenced: in the time of Christ and the apostles, the voiceless were the widows and orphans, the sick and unclean, the Samaritans and the Gentiles; in our day, they are people of color, as well as the homeless, the hungry and the trafficked.

To follow Christ means to follow Christ.  Jesus was a member of the favored demographic, albeit from a back-water region of the nation, who confronted injustice and spoke for the down-trodden.  He had his own challenges (he had no place to lay his head and was harassed by the authorities) but remained diligent in making sure that the issues and concerns of the dismissed were addressed.  We are to follow Him along that same path.  We must stand in opposition to injustice, hear the cries of those who have been silenced and labor to ensure that the dividing wall of hostility, which Christ destroyed, remains dismantled.

May the needed changes come through the people of God.