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.
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.
My mother-in-law, who turned ninety on the 28th of last month, had a fall at her home which resulted in her breaking six ribs. She is currently being cared for at a wonderful hospital in Boston, but addressing her pain, which is substantial, has proven difficult. If you were to visit her those first few days, you would hear her literally crying out to God in a loud voice; however, by all appearances, God did not reply. The extreme discomfort of those broken ribs (which cannot be immobilized) remained and the extreme fervency of her prayers (which could not be suppressed) remained unanswered.
My mother-in-law’s condition makes me think about all those who are crying out for relief – relief from the grief or anger of loss, relief from the pain or anguish of trauma and relief from the worries and doubts of the unknown – but relief does not seem to arrive. Is God silent when we seem to need to hear from Him the most? Is God distant when we have the greatest hunger for His presence? Is God uncaring when we long for the comfort that can only come from Him? By faith, I contend just the opposite.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. 2 Corinthians 1:3-4
Let me be the first to admit that I would appreciate my mother-in-law’s relief from her pain. Let me also admit that I tend to be blinded by the blessings of God when burdens are right before me. The loudest murmurs I hear are those of distress, but also present are the beeps of monitors, the hums of IV pumps and the voices of caring health professionals. My mind plays out a number of other sounds as well: the ringing of an unanswered phone which triggered concern in a daughter’s heart, the sirens of an ambulance that brought needed assistance to a woman in need and a lecture in a medical/nursing school that equipped the doctors and nurses at the hospital to provide expert care. These, too, are answers to prayer.
God is not silent, or distant or uncaring. He is speaking in our circumstances, even in the pains that are not fully relieved (which might be teaching us what we ought to avoid). He is close to us as we undergo the troubling conditions relating to our shared human nature. He cares for us, so much so that He endured every indignity that comes with life on earth and conquered everything that causes permanent damage – sin, death and damnation. While I would like the symptoms of this fallen existence to fade into solely painful memories, I accept that God usually comforts us in less obvious ways.
The good news is that Jeanine’s mother is slowly improving and pain killers are alleviating some of her discomfort. I pray that God, in time, alleviates the remaining difficulties. It is unfortunate that it takes pain to cause most of us to cry out to God. It is truly fortunate that He hears and cares, even if we cannot sense it.
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 part of a roundtable discussion group, I met with a dozen or so other ministry leaders on Wednesday to discuss a recent New York Times best-seller: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. It is a wonderful memoir of Vance’s upbringing in a dysfunctional extended family in Appalachia. At first, without going into the details, let me tell you that I resonated with the narrative Vance weaved around households riddled with abuse, addiction and hopelessness. It brought me back in time to my childhood and I immediately thought that I alone saw parallels between the author’s life and my own. It turns out that a degree of dysfunction is universal.
Few homes house perfect families. Parents argue – some quite loudly – and even use foul language. Drug and alcohol addiction cannot be restricted to particular regions of the United States. Serial divorce and remarriage is not limited to one social stratum. Nearly every family tree contains a branch (or several branches) that were established through unwed or teenage mothers. There are few families who have not been effected by mental illness, whether it is an immediate family member battling depression or a suicidal extended relation. To some degree, we all carry similar baggage, given to us in childhood and carried into adulthood.
In reading and reacting to this book, I realized that the homes in my neighborhood – as well as the pew in the churches in our community – are filled with people with baggage from their upbringing. As the saying goes, “You don’t know what you don’t know”; because almost no one shares all the challenges they are attempting to overcome, we rarely know the whole story. This requires us to treat one another with compassion, what the Greek bible writers call “splanchnizomai”. Those who have a medical education might be aware that the root ‘splanchno-’ relates to the visceral organs (the guts). So we, as human beings and as God’s people, ought to get a knot in our stomachs, an intestinal distress, as we interact with those navigating rough waters in a leaky rowboat.
Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Ephesians 4:31–32 (NIV)
Before we dismiss those who buy bottles of soda with food stamps as unfit, perhaps we ought to feel compassion for their situation, recognizing that milk and juice are often options too expensive for their budget and perhaps then offer to pick up a gallon of milk for them. Before we roll our eyes at the hopeless and jobless as we utter the words, “Get a job,” perhaps we ought to feel compassion for their situation, recognizing that education is not the same as intelligence and access to opportunity is not equally available to all classes and cultures and perhaps offer to share some social capital with those without any of their own. There are already enough people in the world willing to judge others; we could empathize instead and bring help and hope to those who need it.
We have the privilege of sharing – with those who feel unloved, those who title themselves worthless and those who have heard that they would never amount to anything – the fact that they are loved, they have worth and they can accomplish great things. We have the privilege to bring grace – unmerited favor – to those who know little more than heartache. We can share our struggles and listen to theirs, knowing that God cares for us and will comfort us in our times of need. We are all broken, at least a little. But praise God: He makes us whole.
When you spend more than twelve hours on the road, driving from Maryland to Massachusetts, you have a great deal of time to think. Because of the weather conditions last Saturday, our 382 miles trip took much longer than I anticipated. It was a challenging and stressful drive over snowy and slushy highways. The satellite radio and the DVDs from Redbox© made the travelling a bit more bearable while I focused on the road ahead. Throughout the journey, my thoughts turned to lessons about life and living, some superficial and some profound.
The first lesson I learned was that I ought not trust forecasts. We live in a society saturated in information, including phone apps that will show you live weather radar and predictions for storm patterns. As we were anticipating our trip home from Jeanine’s brother’s funeral, I watched and listened to meteorologists in Baltimore (via television) and Boston (via phone app) predicting that the storm was expected to move beneath us and travel out to sea before blowing into Massachusetts via the Cape. New Jersey, Westchester County and Western Connecticut were supposed to be spared more than a dusting. No such luck was to fall upon us. The computers were wrong and the storm took a more western course, forcing us to face light but accumulating snow every minute of our trip. Experts are not always correct.
I also learned that there are times, rare but right, that staying with others while disregarding the letter of the law is the proper course of action. Most of the highways we traveled (The New Jersey Turnpike, Garden State Parkway and Interstates 87, 287, 84 and 90) were three lanes in either direction. In the worst of conditions, these throughways became two sets of ruts travelling along the divided white lines. At times there was a series of 15 or so cars, all moving at 45 mph, all illegally crossing over their lanes and maintaining the safety of the roads. Obedience to the law is not always best.
There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death. Proverbs 14:12
The biggest lesson I learned was that I could stand to be more humble. Early on in the process, I made the decision to return to work on Sunday. We made our plans based on my choice to be home Saturday night. Throughout our time away I saw weather reports and I remained resolute. I received texts from people in the church advising me to reconsider and I remained resolute. My wife wanted me to change our plans and I remained resolute. I unnecessarily risked everything to show that I was right, but I was wrong. I feel that needs to be stated again: I was wrong. I was proud. I have since apologized to my wife and children for my arrogance. I am not always right.
Thank God that we, despite my own foolishness, arrived safely at home. In hindsight, I should have listened to those around me, led by the Spirt, instead of listening only to myself. There was a way that appeared to me to be right, and it certainly could have led to disaster. I am fortunate that I had the opportunity to learn these lessons and not harmed by the consequences of my unwise haughtiness. Let’s hope that you and I can all learn from my stupidity.
For reasons I do not quite understand (something about licensing and ownership), our local NBC affiliation is changing channels – from channel 7 to channel 10 – on January 1st. For a few weeks I will, by instinct, tune into the wrong station and then remember that things have changed. It is a reminder that things are constantly changing. Life is continually in a state of flux, shifting like waves in the ocean. I have seen this in my own circumstances in 2016: our oldest son graduating from college and moving back home, our daughter graduating from High School and attending college in Washington, DC, spending 3 weeks at home over the past four months, our whole family moving from one apartment to another.
Some changes are simple (like television stations or finding new locations for Christmas trees), while others are more challenging (dealing with new medication regimens and moving everything you own), but every change impacts life. Some changes we make are restorative (such as eating healthier or improving our sleeping patterns) and others are destructive (such as picking up bad habits or ending a relationship). As this year ends and another begins, many will be thinking about making changes, or resolutions, as a means of improving their everyday lives. Seek to make the changes that are restorative.
My concern for myself, as well as those I love and serve beside, are not the changes I initiate, but the changes that come through uninvited means. About a year ago, I made some resolutions, preferring to call them intentions, about trusting God more and praying more. I had no idea that 366 days later I’d be in a different home with slightly different decor or that I’d be dealing with hypertension for my remaining days on earth. I had little idea what it would feel like having a child living so far away or worrying about colonoscopies. My concern is that I have no idea what lies ahead in 2017.
Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. James 1:17 (NIV)
My hope, for the years that have passed and the year to come, is that God alone never changes. Everything good in my life (and yours) comes from the immutable Father in heaven. There is nothing that surprises or flusters the Lord of all creation. While my circumstances (as well as my weight, my address and my blood pressure) may change, the one who knows my needs and desires will never change. He will, as I follow Him and His word, continue to shower good and perfect gifts upon me, whether I understand them as gifts or not. My hope is in God, no matter how my life may change.
Allow me to wish you all a very happy new year. Whether you are a person who makes resolutions or not, I pray that all who are reading this will find the changes that the coming year brings redemptive and restorative. And I pray that the God who never changes will grant you every good and perfect gift He has purposed for your enjoyment.
“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.” Luke 2:8 (NIV)
Of all the people involved in the Christmas narrative, I find myself identifying most with the shepherds. While I am not a rugged outdoorsman with an extensive knowledge of ovine behavior, there are a few touchpoints with their lives that intrigue me. These men, and perhaps women, were hard working – braving the weather of ancient Palestine, warding off the dangers that surrounded them, satisfying the needs of those placed in their care – and strong willed. They were likely underappreciated by those around them (performing a necessary task but smelling like the livestock) and underestimated in their hometowns (battling the assumptions that they were simple-minded and poorly groomed). They were the “little people” that most of us pass by unnoticed.
But that all changed when God interrupted their lives. According to Luke, these shepherds were living out in the fields with their sheep, taking care of business, when suddenly a messenger of God appeared in the nighttime sky. Many others, before and since, have a similar experience; they were living their lives, doing their best, when suddenly, God breaks through the “business as usual” with His spectacular presence. Praise God that the shepherds realized what was happening and responded with reverence. They listened and believed. Interestingly, at least on this occasion, God didn’t interrupt the prayers of the temple or the plans of the king; He announced the miraculous to the common man.
What happened to that common man, what happened to those shepherds, is equally astounding. Those who lived out in the fields and smelled like the sheep they tended became the spokespeople for God. After seeing the child, just the way he was promised, they began telling those around them the good news – that the Savior has been born and the promised one has arrived. The Bible says that the people who heard the shepherds’ story were amazed, perhaps by the message and perhaps by the messengers. God broke through into the lives of ordinary people and allowed them to do something extraordinary.
The wonderful truth connected with the shepherds at Christmas is that God is the same yesterday, today and forever. The one who shattered the darkness near Bethlehem with His brilliant glory is still doing the same thing today. He is still sending messengers to ordinary people, announcing the arrival of Christ the Lord. I know this because He broke into my life with His glorious light, albeit not with literal brilliance. I was happily seeking out an ordinary life after being raised in an ordinary household. In one moment, I changed from an unremarkable banker to a reflection of Him. It wasn’t when I first trusted Him or when I was baptized, but rather when I saw and heard the truth and know I couldn’t keep it to myself.
My story led me to become a youth leader and a pastor, but I could have, like those shepherds of long ago, returned to my field with praise and glory to God. No matter where life finds us, we are all surrounded by God’s glory; we simply need to recognize it. Especially at Christmas, embrace the enchantment of the Nativity. Let those songs in the background become a beacon for Him. Allow those lights on the tree serve as a taste of the light of the Lord. And when God breaks through, listen.