I was recently with a group of pastors where one of the participants prepared a devotional based on Acts 12. As we discussed this portion of scripture, the topic of prayer was brought up due, in no small part, to the mention (in verse 4) of the church earnestly praying to God for Peter, who was at the time in jail, and the mention (in verse 12) of the people gathered in Mary’s home who were praying throughout the night. Despite all this prayer, earnestly offered, the church was not prepared for Peter’s miraculous escape and were astonished when he knocked at their gate. The dynamics of engagement with God through prayer is a wonderful mystery.
I wish I could tell you how prayer works. I wish there was a formula where you could plug in your request and you would know the outcome. I wish I was not like the early believers written about in Acts 12 who powerfully and persistently prayed for Peter but were unable to comprehend the answer. It seems that we are consistently praying in one direction and the answer comes unexpectedly from another direction. Is it possible that our faith effects our ability to anticipate the answer, or do we pray with the realization that our faith will grow through the unanticipated ways the Almighty will work the resolution? Whatever the machinations or motivations for our prayers may be, we are called to present our requests before God.
[Jehoshaphat prayed,] “Our God, will you not judge them? For we have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” 2 Chronicles 20:12 (NIV)
I like Jehoshaphat’s prayer. Here is the king of Judah, the earthly ruler of God’s people, crying out to God because of an impossible situation – a vast army from Edom was just beyond the city gates. What would you pray for if you faced certain destruction unless the God of creation intervened? To strengthen your forces? To give success to your plans? Thankfully for us who are puzzled by prayer, Jehoshaphat’s petition takes a different tack.
“For we have no power….” It is as if Jehoshaphat is saying that God will have to do something if anything is going to be done. We would be wise to reflect upon the truth of these words: we cannot arrest cancer, we cannot end violence, we cannot create wealth, we cannot change a human heart. We pray because we are powerless to effect much of what we pray for.
“We do not know what to do….” Jehoshaphat has no plans, so asking for success in the abstract is fruitless. We would be wise to reflect upon the truth of these words as well: We are often unable to process all the details of our situation, let alone formulate action steps to bring about change. We are much better off to leave the process to the one who holds all things in order: God.
“…our eyes are on you.” Ultimately, Jehoshaphat determines that the only thing to do is watch for God’s movement and follow Him. A better prayer has never been uttered: to paraphrase, “Show me where you are and enable me to remain there.”
We have no overwhelming power, but Christ does. We have no earth-shattering plans, but Christ does. But we do have the ability of focus our attention on the things that matter…may that singular point of focus be Christ as we make every petition and request to Him.
In January, as a birthday gift from my family, I received a Fitbit© fitness tracker. Because of this high tech ‘wristwatch’, I have become aware of so many aspects of my life and health: this little gizmo tracks things like my steps, my sleep, my resting heart rate and my hours of activity. I am particularly obsessed with my step count and have begun to enjoy the sensation of personal accomplishment that comes from reaching my daily goal of eight-thousand steps. Plus, when you are walking 8,000 steps, generally over the same terrain, you begin to notice things that have escaped your attention if you were driving by. As I evaluate where my steps have taken me, I realize that where I walk is how I live.
Walking gives you the time to exchange pleasantries with those you are passing on the sidewalks or front porches along the path. Walking affords you the opportunity to observe the repairs being made to gorgeous old houses and those that are still desperately needed. Walking prepares you to keep your distance from that big unfriendly dog that is always guarding his fenced front yard (the fence of which is seriously too low). Walking provides you the time to check out what others are discarding and time to think about how you could use that dresser or night table on that great and glorious day when space is no longer a concern. Walking enables you to feel the sunshine and the gentle rain, invigorating the soul.
It has given me great joy to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as the Father commanded us. … And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love. 2 John 4,6
John’s second letter to the church tells believers that we must walk (or have the lifestyle) of truth and obedience and love. These are not individual commands but a singular multi-faceted directive. Part of my daily walk involves walking in the truth, putting feet to the gospel, walking in such a way that shows that God loves the residents of Geneva Avenue as deeply as the residents of Commonwealth Avenue. Part of my daily walk involves walking in obedience, putting feet to biblical integrity, walking in such a way that shows that God’s people stay on the sidewalks and resist trespassing onto the lawn. Part of my daily walk involves walking in love, putting feet to grace and mercy, walking in such a way that shows those who I encounter a willingness to offer my assistance and my understanding.
I have been asking myself a question as I walk: does how I go and where I go project the truth, obedience and love I have in God? In order to answer that question as I should, I need to remind myself that walking is more than a means of getting from one point to another, but an opportunity to slow down and engage in the life all around us. Walking is one way we serve the community as the body of Christ. It is more than an exercise for fitness; it is an exercise of faith.
Like many smaller churches, we have trouble meeting our ministry budget. In the past, we have engaged in appeals and fund-raisers, but still our revenues are insufficient to cover our expenses. Last week we discussed converting some of our land into a revenue source, but the scope and size of the project were not ideal. We voted not to proceed with this project, but we know something needs to be done.
As the meeting progressed, the words Jesus spoke to the crowd, known as the “Sermon on the Mount” reverberated in my mind:
“So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Matthew 6:31–33
We know that God knows what we need – food, drink, clothes – and that we ought not adopt an earthly obsession with chasing down these things. We know that God instructs us to instead engage in heavenly pursuits and chase after the kingdom and righteousness of God. This proper perspective leads the heavenly minded to gain the promises of God’s reign, as well as satisfaction of all their earthly needs. One application of this portion of scripture is personal: in a culture of “keeping up with the Joneses”, we must not get caught up in running after the trappings of earth and instead seek the treasures of heaven. Another application is ecclesial (church-related): Calvary ought not focus our energies on account balances but on kingdom building.
But what does it look like to “seek first His kingdom and His righteousness”? Unpacking the biblical meaning of the “kingdom” is as hard as nailing Jello© to the wall. Understanding the kingdom of God is akin to defining the United Kingdom: it includes both a reality (an actual place) and a conception (the nature and ethic of the ruling crown). When we are told to seek this kingdom, we seek the habitation of heaven (for ourselves and others) and we seek to demonstrate the culture of the King. We get a glimpse of this kingdom – the dwelling place and desires of the king – toward the end of Revelation:
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” Revelation 21:3-4
Perhaps this means we are supposed to seek the presence of God (through worship), the removal of suffering (through instruction and service), the elimination of death (through prayer and evangelism) and the end of mourning and crying and pain (through fellowship). These are the pursuits of those seeking His kingdom. If we can do that, while maintaining what is right, just and true for ourselves and others, all His manifest blessings for this world and the next will be given to us as well. Then, whether we balance our budget or blow it all, we will give honor and glory to God.
Last Monday, Memorial Day, was the cultural beginning of summer and tomorrow, June 1st, is its start, meteorologically. While I do not consider it summer until the air conditioners are placed in the windows (alas, no central air for us), I realize that it is that time again when we ask one another if we have made our vacation plans yet. For those of us in New England, it is the time we take the ice scrapers out of the car and replace them with beach chairs; it is the time when we begin to enjoy ice cream in cones while on a walk rather than in bowls while watching TV. It is a time for cookouts and campouts.
I hope you have plans for the summer – going to the lake or the mountains, spending time in the nation’s capital or at the in-laws, visiting a newest theme park or watching the latest blockbuster. I hope that these plans for the summer, whether at home or away, includes the worship of the Lord. I hope that your summer plans at your home church and the places you visit while on vacation allow you to offer our whole selves to God in grateful praise.
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship. Romans 12:1
As Paul says to the church in Rome, this offering of ourselves is primarily a sacrificial act intended to glorify God. The imagery he uses is one of an altar, the sacred place of righteous giving. As a way of responding to God’s mercy, we give ourselves – our time, talent and treasure – with gifts that are of varied amounts (some can give an hour or a dollar, while others have more to give) in completely voluntary ways. In light of all the blessings you enjoy because of God’s kindness, could you spend a bit of your summertime resources appreciating Him?
This offering, however, will have consequences. When we agree to offer our bodies, we offer all its parts. This act of generosity effects our talking, for our tongues have been offered. This act of generosity effects our toiling, for our hands have been offered. This act of generosity effects our traveling, for our legs have been offered. There may be plans, on vacation or at home, that will need to be curtailed or delayed because we are offering our resources to Him. The beach and the barbeque will have to wait. It is always better to exercise your faith in flip flops than to forgo the blessing of gathering altogether.
Our rightful response to the blessings God gives us – our vacations and vocations, our purses and our purposes – is to be living sacrifices. We are living sacrifices: continually, in every season and on every day, offering what He has given us to share. We are holy sacrifices: set apart for His purposes. We are pleasing sacrifices: demonstrating what is appropriate for Him. I hope that this attitude is the highlight of your next season.
“All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.” Abraham Lincoln
Sunday is Mother’s Day, when three out of four of us will purchase a greeting card and over two-thirds of us will buy flowers for our mom (or our children’s mom). It is the least we can do for those who have given us so much of themselves. There is something in our mother’s kisses that are more therapeutic than the best medicine and something in her voice that is more comforting than the best psychotherapy. Mom was likely the first to read to us, pray for us and cry with us. She made sure, for most of us, that we had a birthday cake on our special day and a new outfit for the first day of school. It is right and good to honor and remember the ones who endured painful labor and sleepless nights for her children: God bless Mom!
As I think about Mother’s Day, my thoughts come back to a commercial I recently saw for the Portal from Facebook. In the commercial, actor Neil Patrick Harris decides to call and celebrate his mother on Mother’s Day using the Portal from Facebook. He sees that she’s not alone; she has company: the mothers of Serena and Venus Williams, Odell Beckham Jr., Snoop Dogg and Dwayne Johnson among others. While Neil knows who they are, most people watching the commercial are unfamiliar with the women on the video-chat screen and are given only a clue by Neil’s references – Odell’s mom, Jonah’s mom and the like. These women, no doubt, have done great things in their own right but are willingly recognized as someone’s mom. We ourselves may not actually know some women’s names, only that they are so-and-so’s mom. God bless you, Neil’s mom.
I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also. 2 Timothy 1:5 (NIV)
One of the moms of the Bible who lived a life of seemingly quiet obscurity is Lois – the mom of Eunice, who was the mom of Timothy. All we know about this woman is what we read in the verse I have quoted. All we have as a historical record is that a sincere faith lived in her. There are so many unanswered questions: Did she have hobbies or a favorite story? Where did she grow up? How long was she married? Was she like the Proverbs 31 woman and worked outside (as well as inside) the home? Was she tall, attractive and wealthy or petite, plain and poor? All we know is her name, her heart and her grandson. But, in God’s economy, that is enough. God has blessed us with moms like Lois.
Happy Mother’s Day to all those who are known by the world only as someone’s mom. God knows you are much more than that: you are leaders of industry, educators, medical experts, investors, inventors and artists – and then you go out the front doors of your home and do even more. Happy Mother’s Day!
The other day, an article in Relevant Magazine came to my attention. It reported on a new Instagram© account, PreachersNSneakers, that shows influential Christian leaders wearing high priced fashion. According to the article, the internet poster shows, among many examples, one pastor wearing SBB Jordan 1 sneakers, which cost $965, and another pastor wearing $1,045 Adam & Yves Saint Laurent boots. With all fairness, it is unclear who paid for or provided the pictured church leaders with their footwear or clothing, whether it was a personal purchase, an unsolicited gift or a promotional perk. Whatever the source, the pictures are shocking the sensibilities of many in the Christian community.
The article made me think about my choices, especially a few weeks ago on Easter Sunday, of dress. I wore a new suit (purchased at a ‘Buy 1, Get 2 Free’ sale), a new shirt and tie (both acquired while on sale at Kohl’s), a pair of old, but polished shoes, and new socks. It is these socks that give me pause: they were a gift from my daughter, who purchased them in Rome at the Vatican’s gift shop; they were produced by the tailor of the Pope. They may be the most luxurious item I have worn in a great while.
I remember commenting on the socks throughout the morning, glowingly reflecting that my “Pope socks” were a gift. I have no idea how much they cost my daughter – perhaps as little as $10 or as much as $50 (to which my thoughts scream, “Heavens, no!”) I gave no thought to the challenges some in the congregation may be facing: was there a participant in worship that wondered if I had paid for socks that would have filled their car with gas or bought them a weekend’s worth of groceries? This train of thought has subsequently been derailed as I think of the luxuries I enjoy that may come at the expense of ministry – thoughts relating to how much I spend on coffee or dining out or fashion accessories.
Better a little with the fear of the LORD than great wealth with turmoil. Proverbs 15:16
It is easy to judge people we only read about because their sneakers are more valuable than our cars. It is harder to correctly assess these things as they relate to our own personal spending habits. The line between necessities and luxuries can be difficult to locate. Most of us do not need personally tailored suits or dresses, brand name sneakers or stilettos, or homes with ten bedrooms. But we do need shirts, shoes and shelters. The optics of excess lie in the details, both in what we spend and the cultural surrounding in which we spend. Manhattan has a different standard than Montgomery of what is a necessity versus a luxury .
I am choosing to continue wearing my “Pope socks” but I will graciously refuse to accept any gift which includes a pair of Yeezy Boost 350 V2s. I will continue to try to give more to others than I luxuriously spend on myself. Hopefully, that we keep me from appearing on Instagram in a Tesla®.
Logan Airport’s Terminal E may be the happiest place in Boston. It is where passengers of international flights arrive and where hundreds of people each hour walk through sliding glass doors to greet awaiting friends and family. We were there on Monday night, standing behind the half-wall separating the weary world-travelers from the waiting masses. My wife and I were hoping to gain our first glimpse of our daughter in the last three months, who had spent that time in Europe studying abroad. We saw impeccably clad flight attendants and uniformed flights crews, as well as men and women with heavily laden baggage carts. Then, finally, we saw the familiar face that we had come see. Our little girl was home.
While she was away, we spoke with our daughter via FaceTime, a marvelous app that allows Apple© users to video chat. Those weekly conversations were wonderful, and I praise God that she studied abroad in such a technologically advanced time in human history, but they were not the real thing. There is a vast difference between seeing someone on a 2½” x 4” screen and seeing them face-to-face, just as there was a difference for those of previous generations between reading someone’s words in a letter and hearing that same person’s voice. There is nothing quite like the real thing.
I can only imagine that this same sentiment was felt by Mary, the sister of Lazarus. Jesus was passing through the town of Bethany on his way toward Jerusalem – it was the day before what we now call Palm Sunday – and a dinner was held in his honor. Martha was cooking, Lazarus was sitting with friends and Mary suddenly appears in the midst of the group and pours perfume on Jesus’ feet. It was an act of extravagant devotion. After a moment of uproar over the resources wasted by Mary, Jesus silences the party guests with the words, “You will not always have me (among you).” Mary appreciated that Jesus had come ‘home’, and the only suitable means of expressing that joy was to perform some lavish gesture. For us, it was getting our younger boys out of the house and enduring rush hour traffic to greet our princess; for others, it was balloons or handmade signs or flowers.
That week that began with an expression of joy for sharing in His presence would end the following Sunday with an expression of love that now and forever serves as a guarantee that all those who trust in Christ will see Him again. Some great and glorious day there will be a reunion, a parting of the skies that will reunite the risen Lord with those He came to redeem, that will rival even the embraces experienced at Terminal E. The greatest of blessings afforded us through Easter is that, though Jesus has gone away, he will come back. We will see Him again. Hallelujah!
And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. John 14:3
During Sunday School last Sunday, we looked at the parable of the prodigal son. It may be the most well-known story in the scriptures: a young man asks his father for his share of his estate, which the father grants; upon receiving this windfall, the young man travels to a distant country and wastes the money on wine, women and song; after finding himself broke and alone, a famine struck the place where he was; in order to survive, the young man takes an awful, despicable job feeding pigs; after a while, the young man realizes how much better life was at home and determines to return hope, even if it is only as a servant; while he is travelling the road home, his father sees him far off in the distance and runs to him; the young man is fully restored and his return is celebrated. It is a wonderful story, a reminder that every one of us (the young man) can be welcomed back by God (the father) if we come to our senses and turn back to him.
But what if that is not really the point of the parable? What if the story is not about the young man? In context, this story is the third part of a trilogy of stories: the first part is about the extreme measures a shepherd will take to find one lost sheep and the second part is about the extreme measures a widow will take to find a lost coin; in context, the story is about the extreme measures a father will take to find a lost son. The actions of the sheep are unspectacular, the actions of the coin are immaterial, and (by extension) the actions of the young man are incidental. What if the parable of the prodigal son is really about the loving father?
What if the parable is not really about coming to your senses so that you can be restored? One of the details of the story that is often overlooked relates to a conversation between the father and the older son who remained with him:
‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.’ Luke 15:31
In the story, the father doesn’t forgive and forget; the young man doesn’t get a second chance or another share of the father’s estate. His birth-right was gone and it was not being given back – it was all remaining with the older son. One thing we could learn from this parable is that there are consequences to bad behavior: sin has ripple effects that could capsize relationships, ship-wreck careers and jettison treasures. What if the parable of the prodigal son is really about the gracious reconciliation afforded by the father?
What if the most well-known story Jesus ever told was not about us, not about me? What if it was about God, who lovingly allows us to make choices, lovingly allows us to go where we want, and watches the road so that He can be the first to welcome us home? What if it about a father wanting to celebrate finding what was truly lost and truly found? What if it was simply about the depths of a father’s love?
Now that would be some story, indeed!
Occasionally, I wrestle with a topic to write about in this weekly blog; this was one of those weeks. As a number of themes turned in my mind, I prayed that God would help me in my efforts to formulate a concise and meaningful reflection worthy of posting. Ironically, my attentions were drawn over and over again to prayer: as I discussed with other pastors a biography we read on J. Hudson Taylor, the conversation was about prayer; as I led the Lenten study on Matthew 26, the scriptures addressed prayer; when I put a 2006 Veggie Tales DVD into the player for the kids I watched as their moms attended the Women’s Bible Study, “Gideon: Tuba Warrior”, we unexpectedly watched a vignette about George Mueller (who was a champion of prayer).
Hudson Taylor was the founder of China Inland Mission, which brought the gospel to the Chinese, through ‘faith missions’ (the sending of missionaries with no promises of temporal support, but instead a reliance ‘through prayer to move [people] by God’), serving eastern Asia from 1854 – 1905. He utterly relied on prayer for his provision and direction throughout his life. As we discussed the life and faith of this great follower of Christ, a few of us were transparent enough to voice our regret that our prayer lives were, in comparison, woefully lacking in fervor and faithfulness. Hudson’s contemporary George Mueller built and directed numerous orphanages in Bristol, England while never making a single request for financial support; he remained debt-free as he relied solely on concerted prayer for God’s provision.
He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” Matthew 26:37-38
The above-mentioned verses report part of what took place in the garden of Gethsemane hours before Jesus was arrested. Jesus and his disciples had just concluded their commemoration of the Passover and had gone to this place just outside the city to pray. Unlike other times, when Jesus went to a solitary place, on this occasion he asks his three closest friends to stay and keep watch – to pray – with him. At the time of deepest sorrow, our Lord prayed with others. Our savior’s last act of human volition was to conduct a prayer meeting with his companions. I cannot help but ask myself if I would do the same thing.
It all makes me wonder: do we pray better when we pray together? Are we all a bit more like Moses than we care to admit, that we simply cannot keep our hands raised in prayer and intercession without the help of others (see Exodus 17:8-16)? Are we willing to learn from Jesus the lesson that we are better able to accomplish God’s will when we ‘keep watch’ together? I am not, in my own strength alone, able to pray as I should. Perhaps we could get together, say on a Wednesday night, and hold up one another in prayer.
There is a new coffee shop in the neighborhood of the church, Ripple Cafe, which offers hot and iced coffee, free wi-fi and comfortable seating. I visited the café last week and found their coffee and staff most pleasant. I could easily picture myself taking my laptop and ‘working’ there on a sunny spring or summer afternoon. I probably won’t do that, but I like to think I might; but then again, I said the same thing about the last three coffee shops that have opened in the neighborhood. I would like to think that I am the kind of person that has deep conversations and composes thoughtful sermons in a café.
But I am more a Dunkin Donuts kind of person. I want my coffee plain, with cream only, in a Styrofoam cup with a plastic cover. In fact, I think I might be a coffee snob (or whatever the opposite of a snob might be, an ‘anti-slob’): I have a tiny bit of distain for those who are willing to spend a few dollars more for an inferior serving of joe in a mermaid-logo cup and I scoff at the pretension emanating from other purveyors who serve their multiply hyphenated fare that they pass off as their exclusive caffeinated blend. I don’t need fancy titles, foamy additives or socially aware saying imprinted on cardboard sleeves; I want a good cup of coffee.
The truth is that I am not the center of the universe and not everyone shares my opinions about coffee. All the coffee shops and all the coffee drinkers can mutually co-exist. There might even be some positive interact with tea drinkers. Good people drink chai lattes, as do those who are dark of heart. Godly people consume espresso from tiny cups, as do the ungodly. I hear that some of the morally upright even drink iced tea, through I cannot comprehend why. There is a place for everyone, and everyone can find what they need in some place.
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28
I find it unfortunate that what is true about coffee shops is often also true about the church. The followers of Christ tend to flock to where they are served what they prefer – there are churches that cater to the porcelain demitasse crowd and churches that cater to the 20-ounce paper cup crowd. Occasionally, these diverse demographics are drawn together – at denominational meetings, retreat centers, funerals or weddings – and we politely sip what is offered, like it or not, but typically we stay where we get what we want. I sometimes wonder if we could, as the church, share fellowship with those who treasure every sort of coffee concoction.
In the kingdom of God, there is neither ‘large regular’ or ‘americano’, neither ‘Sumatra single-origin’ or ‘Maxwell House’, nor is there ‘K-cup’ or ‘organic’, for we are all one in Christ Jesus. And, for that reason, I will enjoy all the coffee my community provides, perhaps even trying something I might never choose otherwise, as I sit with my laptop at that cozy café near the church.