This Sunday afternoon, in celebration of my 20 years of service, Calvary Community Church will be putting on a luncheon in my honor. While I loathe being the center of attention, I am grateful for the gesture of love and appreciation. The irony of this event is that, while it recognizes that I have been pastoring the same church for two decades, I have not actually been pastoring in the same ministry for 20 years. In a post a few weeks ago, I wrote that most of the congregants have changed over my tenure. But that is not the only thing that has changed since 1997.
Our culture, and therefore our church’s ministry, has changed in the last few years. Some of these changes have been stylistic – from organ accompaniment to piano or from singing with hymnals in hand to projecting digital images of lyrics – but some of the changes have been profound:
- Our society was changed by terrorism (September 11, 2001) – our world, including our expressions of faith, changed when planes crashed into the World Trade Center Towers, the Pentagon and a field in rural Pennsylvania. Some were drawn to God, some were repelled. But ministry changed…we were no longer invincible, no longer safe, no longer favored. New questions were raised and doubts about God’s benevolence and power surfaced, leaving the church to offer hope to the newly hopeless.
- Our society redefined tolerance (November 18, 2003) – our moral landscape changed when the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts upheld a lower court’s ruling in the case of Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health, thereby legalizing the marriage of two consenting adults without regard to gender. The law of the land (ultimately upheld by the Supreme Court of the US) thus conflicted with the traditional interpretation of the Bible and local congregations were required to again consider questions thought inconceivable to prior generations.
- Our society was given untethered access to technology (June 29, 2007) – our understanding of media and knowledge changed when Apple released the IPhone, allowing anyone with the resources to afford the phone and the service plan access to the internet virtually anywhere. Seemingly overnight, we went from transferring information conversationally to transferring it electronically. We heightened our levels of awareness and distraction with our ability to record and transmit everything. We began engaging in social media and neglected social interaction. The church, whether it was ready or not, was required to engage with the digital world while maintaining its historically relational and textual characteristics.
- Our society embraced a new form of activism (September 17, 2011) – our involvement with the world around us changed when people gathered for Occupy Wall Street, ushering in a new style of activism that blended the orchestration of peaceful assembly with the spontaneity of a flash mob. Diverse groups of individuals were able to communicate their dissatisfaction with cultural oppression en masse, without designated leadership, and have their voices heard. This led to other groups (e.g. Black Lives Matter and Women’s March) raising awareness of the plight of the disadvantaged. The church, who has championed the cause of the downtrodden for centuries, is now beginning to embrace this social activism as young Christians lead the saints into a world where there is justice for all.
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Hebrews 13:8 (NIV)
In a few weeks, I am going to participate in a young man’s Ordination Council (a gathering of denominational leaders who interact with a candidate’s statement of theology, challenging the candidate to think deeply about their philosophy and content of ministry). I remember my Ordination Council in 1999. I was so young, so naïve, so sure of what I believed. Then, over the past two decades, the landscape shifted in profound ways. However, no matter how the culture may change, the Christ remains the same. The message has never wavered, whether it is recorded in ink or pixels. A culture worried with terrorism and wearied by intolerance has been washed in the Blood of Jesus. A culture steeped in technology and straining for justice has been saved from sin through the sacrifice. The church has changed over the past twenty years – as the adage goes, “You could not step twice into the same river” – but the Gospel remains the same. And so we shall continue to share the good news until all have heard it.
Yesterday was the first day of 11th grade for my son, David, and the first day of 4th grade for my son, Joshua. Speaking for parents everywhere, the first day of school is absolutely wonderful. The children were dressed in new clothes and their backpacks were filled with new school supplies. Everyone sensed the excitement due to the possibilities of a new year with new teachers. Social media will inevitably be filled with photos of our bright-eyed scholars ready for the commencement of new classes. And, while the young ones are at school, precious hours of peace and quiet returned to homes everywhere.
I have memories (through a thick fog of time) surrounding a number of “first day”s of school: buying Garanimals at Bradlees, writing my name in my new Trapper Keeper, wondering if any of my friends were going to be in my class, trepidation over the navigation of hallways and locker combinations, walking down Park Street (first to the Clapp School and then to the E. A. Jones School). I remember nearly all of my teachers’ names. I can still see the hallway and stairway where one of my first grade classmates (who will remain nameless) had a meltdown of epic proportions due to what we now call separation anxiety. First days of school leave an indelible mark.
These memories, however, are fading as I get older. School days are no longer part of our adult lives. We do not buy new clothes for ourselves at Labor Day sales and we detest the incredibly long lines at Staples. Many of us have not been in a classroom setting (outside of parent-teacher conferences) in decades and assume a mindset that education is only for the young. According to Pew Research, 27% of adults did not read a single book last year. The world around is constantly changing, but, sadly, some of us see no need to hone our intellectual resources.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Acts 2:42
One of the counter-cultural practices of the Christian church is a devotion to life-long learning. This weekend, communities of faith all over the region will be holding, in one form or another, a “Rally Day” to resume Christian Education classes. Through Sunday School classes, Bible studies and C. E. discussions people of all ages will devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching. People of diverse backgrounds will gather in church basements and conference rooms and read the Scriptures together. Women and men of all ages will share experiences and insights, equipping one another to face the challenges of life.
At Calvary, Sunday will be the first day of school. While we will not expect you to have sharpened #2 pencils or matching shirts and khakis, we do encourage you to devote yourselves to learning more about the Lord. Whether it be in Dorchester or wherever Christ has called you, I hope you will get together with constructively curious people this weekend and equip yourselves with the Sword of the Spirit, readying one another for whatever the world may bring.
I have witnessed a plethora of expressions of love this week. Last Saturday, I watched local and national news stories of demonstrators in my fair city confronting hate and championing human kindness. On Monday, I watched a children’s librarian, overwhelmed by the community interest in an eclipse viewing party, joyously and affectionately care for 500 or so people by offering sun-glasses, sun-hats and sun-daes. Over the last few days, I watched family, immediate and extended, lovingly prepare and provided for a young woman who was moving into her first apartment. Even yesterday, I watch a young man show what could be love by entering the awkward territory of building IKEA furniture with his paramour’s dad. It is good to know that expressions of love (familial, romantic and brotherly) are still visible each day.
In saying this, I am not suggesting that any of these expressions were either perfect of fully embraced. There was a minority of demonstrators on Saturday (small in number but newsworthy) who chose to use the opportunity for reconciliation to instigate their form of rebellion. There were insufficient resources on Monday for the crowd, so a number of people took what they came for, a number of people went away disappointed and a number of people remained and enjoyed the benefits of sharing. There were heated words and hurt feelings these past few days as travels to the Goodwill store and travails inherent in moving took so much longer than seemed, by some, to be necessary. It seems that expressions of love are not always easy to embrace.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7
Without going into great expository detail, as this is one of the more familiar passages of Scripture, let me state that I take these verses to mean that expressing love is messy. Those who express the love that Paul is talking about will be subject to misunderstanding and mockery. They will be required to sacrifice themselves and strengthen others. Love means overlooking fault and overcoming self. Love is not something that comes naturally or instinctually; despite the mantras and the memes, we must learn to love (as our sinful human nature will always nudge us toward the opposite). Love is a choice and, when chosen, can be a catalyst to change the world in big and small ways.
God bless those who gathered at Boston Common last weekend whose sole intention was to counteract hatred – may that be what people remember. God bless the staff of the Adams Street branch of the Boston Public Library for enabling a few hundred to share in community around a few dozen pairs of “eclipse glasses”. God bless family, and Jake, who made a stressful day so much more than bearable; they made it memorable. My you, too, witness a little bit of love in your little corner of the world.
“[A named loved one] was just in a car accident….” While this might not be the content of the worst possible phone call, it would certainly make the top (or the bottom) ten list. Fortunately for all involved, there were no physical injuries when a tow truck sideswiped the car my child was driving; in fact, the car was still drivable, sort of. The passenger side windows were smashed and the doors mangled above the hood/trunk line, but otherwise, the vehicle was intact. We were insured and the truck driver was found to be ‘at fault’, and so, after about a month of claims estimates, adjustments and body work the car was repaired and life has returned to normal.
Yet, life has not returned to normal. While I am truly grateful to God that the ramifications of this car accident were more or less cosmetic and that my loved one was unharmed, I am now worrying about the next time. I am aware that accidents are part of life and that no one is immune from tragedy. I am reminded that I cannot protect those closest to me from harm. The events of the last month had made me painfully cognizant that bad things happen to good (and bad) people. I have come to realize that any goodbye could be the last goodbye.
We wait in hope for the LORD; he is our help and our shield. Psalm 33:20
There are a great many things in which we can put our hope: our health, our wealth, our wits, our insurance policies, our retirement plans, our relationships, our government, or our religion. Unfortunately, all these things will eventually fail us. Every created thing has an expiration date, an ontological obsolescence, and will one day cease to perform their intended function. The only thing we can trust is what is uncreated: the living God, who has chosen to reveal Himself through His written word. Because He is outside the realm of chaos and decay that we inhabit, the Lord alone is worthy of our unrequited trust. He can help us and protect us from the dangers of this troublesome world.
God has a resolution to my most recent source of worry: He provides a means where we need never say ‘goodbye’ to those who we love. Simply stated, when we trust in the Lord Jesus Christ as our Savior (specifically, that He descended from heaven and became fully human, only to live a sinless life among us, die in our place and rise as victor over our sin) and our Lord (specifically, that He, in light of His sacrifice for us, has mastery over every aspect of our lives), we will live forever with God and His children. Knowing Jesus as my Lord and Savior, and knowing my children know Jesus as their Lord and Savior, allay my fears (mostly). I can say ‘goodbye’ and know, no matter what, it really means “see you later.”
That is the kind of peace of mind that no insurance company can provide.
I heard the following quote from a podcast earlier this week:
“If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” – G.K. Chesterton
Upon hearing it, I did a quick Google© search to check its veracity. It is, in fact, genuine. Chesterton (a writer, poet and lay theologian from England) did write these words at the end of the fourteenth chapter of his 1910 book What’s Wrong with the World. The context for the quote was the education of children and the point of his comments were to do what is necessary, even if it is done poorly.
Our society, at first blush, seems to contradict Chesterton’s words by telling us that if it is worth doing, it is worthy doing well. Chesterton’s point, and my reasoning for quoting him, does not disagree with this prevailing wisdom. When we endeavor to accomplish a task – in the home, in the workplace or in the church – we ought to do our best. We must not enter into the essential activities of life half-heartedly. That being said, we rarely are able to accomplish our best, whether it be due to an inaccessibility of resources, an insufficiency of energy or a lack of passion.
When our best work and our real work are incongruent, we tend to get discouraged, and when we get discouraged, we quit. We flip the above-stated cultural mandate on its head and think to ourselves, “if I cannot do this well, I should not do it at all.” That is where Chesterton comes in, reminding us that it is perfectly acceptable to do something, even if it is done badly. We are always to do things to the best of our abilities, understanding that there are days when our best is bad. On those days, instead of giving up the fight, we can resolve to do better the next time.
My life is full of moments when I am doing what is worth doing, but doing it badly. There are times when I am hungry and I diet badly. There are times when I am angry and communicate badly. There are times when I am lonely and manage my time badly. There are times when I am tired and pray with the family badly. There are times when I preach badly, teach badly, father badly, husband badly, perform sonly duties badly and witness badly. But I do not quit, and instead commit to doing better the next time.
But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 2 Corinthians 4:7
As Paul reminded the early church in Corinth, we are simple, easily broken, earthen vessels. Anything we do, any excellence we accomplish, any power we display is not from us; it is from God. We cannot (and are not expected to) do everything well every time. We will, occasionally, do things badly. But we will do them because they are worth doing. I pray we all will always be doing good, even when we can only do it badly.
Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Galatians 6:9 (NIV)
As hard as it is for me to believe, I have been offering my ‘musings’ every week for over five years. I am certain that in that span of time my posts have repeatedly touched upon similar themes – the constancy of change, the ubiquity of hardship and the realities of domestic life. Hopefully, I have been faithful in my appreciation of God’s amazing grace throughout all the ups and downs of life and the ever-changing challenges and joys of ministry in ‘hub of the universe’. I would like to think, having chronicled my thoughts for all this time, that the process has enabled me to glorify the Lord.
However, as soon as I think that I have made some progress in my reliance upon the goodness of God, I have mornings like Wednesday. As I was walking up to the church in anticipation of a great day at vacation Bible school, I noticed a caravan of DPW trucks stationed across the street from the church’s driveway. It seems that the sidewalk needed to be replaced and that Wednesday, July 26, was the day that the work needed to begin. I believe that I may have mumbled something under my breath that questioned if the cosmic forces were conspiring against me.
But nothing catastrophic happened: the work crew did their exacting work, the cars all navigated the serpentine route down Ashmont Street, and all the children who were planning on attending VBS arrived and enjoyed the program. In fact, some great things occurred, despite my initial fears to the contrary: God blessed us with a dozen children and more than a dozen volunteers (including a few new faces); the weather was gloriously mild (enabling the kids to play in the back lot); and I was utterly fascinated by the choreography of the ten DPW workers, each with a unique set of tasks, as they replaced the sidewalk when they returned to finish the job on Thursday. I was assuming that my glass was half empty and, as usual, God gave me the whole cow.
Over and over again, God grants me grace despite my ‘doom and gloom’ prognostications. I worry that the trucks will impede my plans, but God has something better in mind. Over and over again, God sends showers of blessings when I expect damaging rains. I question my circumstances, but God has answers I could never imagine. When I think to myself that the sky is falling, my ‘Chicken Little’ mentality only serves to discourage me when God seeks to encourage my soul. I must choose to trust in the One who causes the sun to rise and set with the details of my day.
“But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” 1 Corinthians 15:57 (ESV)
I suppose that the busyness of our street the other morning (and all the other things in life that are not going as I would prefer) has reminded me that I need to set my focus on God’s promises and not my problems. As I have been hearing at VBS this week, above the din of activity across the street, God is mighty. How foolish of me to wonder if God could still accomplish His will when a couple of trucks are blocking the way (He CAN!).
Please excuse me if this post is a bit ‘scatter-brained’, but my wife and I just returned from a few days in New York City. It was wonderful – we saw a Broadway musical (“Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812”, a song-and-dance, nearly all libretto adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which was so much better than how I just described it), stayed in a tiny hotel room, did some window shopping along 6th Avenue and ate at the world-famous Katz’s Delicatessen. The best part was the time Jeanine and I had together on the train – the four hours of adult conversation each way was wonderful.
As I sought to connect my thoughts with motivation for the spiritual journey, I thought about writing about the despair of Russian story-telling and quickly decided against it. I thought about the tiny hotel room and the benefits of hospitality in an unfamiliar environment, but our amenities were nothing to write home about. My thoughts keep going back to that warm brisket with ground mustard on light rye sandwich that I enjoyed at Katz’s (as well as the corned beef with mustard on Italian sandwich Jeanine savored). That is what really made me think about God.
Saying all this about a sandwich may be tantamount to gluttony, but being there was a bit like being in church. For those who have yet to experience all that is Katz’s, allow me to share a few things: first, there are no counter seats or tables for two, just four-tops along the walls and long tables which seat eight in the middle of the floor; then, you must walk up to a (meat) cutter, who will prepare your feast before your eyes; and last, people from every walk of life will be there (while we were dining, there was someone there with bodyguards who was obviously someone special). It was like church because it epitomized community, generosity and acceptance.
So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find. Matthew 22:9
The opportunities we have for community dining are quickly passing away. That is tragic. As we were eating, a chair’s width away from us was a bowl of matzo ball soup and we were humored by the size of the ball amidst the broth (it was about equal to a softball). We were shared pleasantries with a businessman who squeezed in behind us. There was lively banter between perfect strangers all around us. It was the closest thing to a church supper I’d experienced outside of church, and it was awesome.
With the norm of dining out being fancy meals that can fit on a tea saucer, it was a breath of fresh air to see and consume the sandwiches we were served. I watched the cutter take out a whole brisket and, after a bit of trimming, slice half of it. I watch him fan out the meat and place it three layers high on the bread, as well as offer me a taste as I watched. It had to be two pounds of meat – more than necessary, more than generous. He did the same for Jeanine’s sandwich and then sent me on my way with my food and a plate of pickles. It was the closest thing to grace I’d experienced in a while – for I received so much more than I imagined.
As we sat there wondering who the man in the suit (surrounded by two guys with earpieces) was, we speculated that maybe he’s the mayor, or a politician, or a business leader. Whoever he was, he too, waited in line (in truth, one of the earpieces did) and had to sit at a community table. No one got special treatment. Everyone was treated the same, and that treatment was exceptional. As I ate my sandwich, I was blessed with the knowledge that I was being treated the same way every celebrity who had entered the deli was treated, and if the décor was an indication, plenty of celebrities had passed through the doors. It is the closest thing to heaven I’ve witnessed in a while – everyone treated equally, regardless of who they are or what they’ve done.
The experience has whet my appetite for the real thing – heaven – where we will live in community, be blessed with generosity and experience acceptance. Maybe heaven will have heaping mounds of brisket, too.
What a difference five months makes. On Monday, July 3rd, when there was nothing but repeats on television, I flipped through the channels, finally arriving upon the programming of the NFL network. They were rebroadcasting Super Bowl LI, which took place on Sunday, February 5th. I sat in my recliner, celebrating the eve of Independence Day, and watched ‘America’s New Team’, the New England Patriots, contend against the Atlanta Falcons for the Lombardi Trophy and professional football’s championship.
I watched the game when it was broadcast live. I was optimistic when the 1st quarter ended with neither team scoring. That optimism waned as Atlanta held a 21-3 lead as Lady Gaga took the field for the halftime show. The hopes of a 5th championship nearly disappeared when the Falcons scored one more time midway through the 3rd quarter. 28-3. No one had ever overcome as much as a 14-point deficit in the Super Bowl, and now the Pats were down by 25. Maybe the Patriots were not as good as their fans imagined. I remember watching with unbelief and sadness that the hometown team was going down to utter defeat. I remember thinking that perhaps New England could, at the very least, make the game competitive.
Watching the replay of the game earlier this week was a much different experience. I was not troubled by Tom Brady’s early and poorly thrown interception. I was unaffected by Gostkowski’s missed point-after attempt. I delighted in the ineptitude of the New England defense in the 1st half and the Atlanta offense in the 2nd half. The final 23 minutes were when all the fun took place. 28-3. 28-9. 28-12. 28-20. Edelman’s miracle catch with 2 minutes and change to go in the game. 28-28. The Super Bowl was going into overtime for the first time in the history of the game. Patriots win the coin toss. 34-28. Patriots win. NFL Champions. Queue up the duck-boats.
It takes an emotional toll on a spectator when the outcome remains unknown, but there is no trepidation when that same spectator knows how it all will end. That was the difference between February 5th and July 3rd. The second broadcast was thoroughly enjoyable – even the bad plays and the foolish fouls – because I knew that the New England Patriots were victorious.
Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. 1 Thessalonians 4:13
This is how those who know Christ as Lord and Savior ought to think about the future, just like we were reviewing a recorded sporting event. We know how it ends. We need not hopelessly grieve as if we are unaware of the outcome. We can, and should, anticipate the blessed hope of Christ’s victory over sin, death and Satan. We will certainly have periods of awfulness and ache, but they will lose their power in light of the impending joy at the conclusion of our journey.
In the words of Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman, “Hey! Let’s go, boys. It’s going to be a hell of a story.”
The other night, my wife and I watched “The Founder”, a biopic about Ray Kroc, the ‘founder’ of McDonald’s. As someone largely unfamiliar with the history of the ‘Golden Arches’, through the film I was introduced to culinary geniuses Maurice and Richard McDonald and the ‘speedee system’ they developed (the source of the great success the restaurants that bore their name enjoyed). They designed a kitchen and business model that provided good food with no plates, no carhops and (most importantly) no waiting – it was revolutionary. Kroc, who sold milkshake blenders at the time, made a sales call at the walk-up ‘diner’ and was immediately smitten.
The McDonald brothers had a great product and a great process, and they wanted to share them with people beyond those living in San Bernadino, California. That was where the genius of Ray Kroc came in, as a franchise specialist. In the span of six years, Kroc expertly established franchises in dozens of locations across America and grew tired of the need to gain the McDonald brothers’ approval for every franchise and any systemic changes. Kroc broke his contract with the brothers and forced them to consider the expense of a lawsuit. They eventually settled on a price ($1 million to each brother, after taxes) and Kroc moved on with everything – the product, the process and the name “MacDonald’s”. It is a cautionary tale of what can happen when a wolf gets into the henhouse.
You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. James 4:4
As I watched the movie, I thought of the connections that this account of the rise of McDonald’s had with the church (i.e. the people of God, not the buildings).
First, there is an emphasis on the part of the brothers to focus on what is important. Part of their success was offering what people wanted and eliminating everything that was not needed. Early in the film, Dick McDonald tells Ray Kroc that they offered all sorts of items on the menu and were struggling, causing them to reevaluate. They discovered that 87% of their sales were three items – burgers, fries and soft drinks. They decided that this (and milkshakes) was all that would be on the menu. As the church, we would do well to remember what we are here to offer – the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Then, there was an emphasis on the part of the brothers with putting people first. Much of the disagreements between the McDonalds and Kroc was the purpose of the restaurants – was it to be a commercial enterprise intent of making money or a service intent on enabling families a night out at a reasonable price? I think we all know how that turned out. The church is likewise tempted to choose prosperity over people.
Finally, there is an emphasis on the part of the brothers to refuse any form of compromise. Toward the end of their contractual relationship, Kroc wanted to save costs with a new product, powdered milkshakes that needed no refrigeration. The brothers refused the idea because milkshakes are made with, like, milk. Likewise, the church must steer clear of compromise if we seek to make a difference for Christ.
The church – the people of God co-laboring in Christ – has something wonderful to offer the world. Let us pray that no one robs us of our joy in serving Him.