[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.” 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.
 Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation and Obedience (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991) 294.
It has finally happened: the Governor has announced the beginning of our state’s phased re-opening plan. This week, we found out that places of worship are included in phase 1. This means that we are allowed to meet for worship with specific restrictions (we must remain under 40% occupancy capacity, restrict seating availability to social distancing standards, and refrain from pre- or post-ritual gatherings, among a number of other things). It will look very different for a season, but we are able to come together – separated by no less than six feet – to praise the Lord on Sunday.
That being said, other considerations come into play as we move forward. I am wrestling with the tensions inherent between ability and responsibility. We are able to gather, but would it be responsible for all of us to immediately attend? Those over 65 are still at risk, even when precautions are taken. Those with compromised health are still advised to remain ‘safer-at-home’. Front-line workers (those providing health, safety and food services) may not feel comfortable putting others at risk. For us, as a church, therefore, we will continue, for the foreseeable future, to provide digital options for all our programs and ministries. If you would like email updates regarding what is available and where it can be found, please comment below with your email address or visit www.calvary-boston.org and click on the ‘visitor’ button.
And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus. Acts 5:42 (ESV)
The Bible tells us that ministry can take place in the ‘temple’, the house of worship, as well as the ‘house’, our residences. Perhaps we can learn a lesson from the early church and continue the teaching and preaching of the truth of Scripture wherever we find ourselves. As I have written previously, we are not required to be in a building to be the church; we can worship at a tabernacle or at a table and we can praise and proclaim Christ sitting on a couch as well as a on church pew. For the immediate future, we ask that you join us for worship however you feel is best for you – in person or online.
Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. Acts 20:28 (ESV)
While the building is now open for worship, we are still not able to minister in all the ways we did before the pandemic. We cannot offer in-person Sunday school or Bible studies, we cannot provide child-care or communion, and we cannot host coffee hours or pot-luck dinners. But we can still, and must still, care for one another. If you are in need, let me know – I am willing and able to meet with you via Zoom, Google Meet, FaceTime or Duo. If you are celebrating, let me know – we would love to rejoice with you (in fact, send me a 15- 20 second video via email and we will include it in our Sunday service). If you are grieving, let me know; we need not bear our burdens alone.
While this summer will be unlike any one any of us can remember, we still have one another. As we insulate ourselves from the harm of COVID-19, may none of us isolate ourselves from the hope of Christ. We are here for you.
As I sit at my dining room table (a.k.a. my ‘home office workspace’), I ask the same question I have asked in one form or another for the previous 45 days: when do things go back to normal? More to the point, as a pastor of a small church I have a more specific query: when can we go back to church? At first blush it is a simple question: when will the stay-at-home advisory be lifted and on which Sunday will we be able resume meeting at our selected house of worship? As I contemplate this conundrum, my thoughts race to all the precautions and safeguards that would need to be considered and implemented for a resumption of corporate ministry.
As my mind performs what can only be described as mental gymnastics, twisting and bending various bits of information and analysis into a cogent plan, I find myself distracted by a song, first recorded in 1991 by AVB, that keeps repeating in my head. Its chorus reminds me: “You can’t go to church as some people say – the common terminology we use every day. You can go to a building, that is something you can do, but you can’t go to church ‘cause the church is you.” Perhaps I have been asking myself the wrong question. Perhaps a better inquiry is this: ‘How can I be the church today?’
And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. Colossians 1:18 (NIV)
The church is not the building, nor is it the activities that take place in the building. The church is much more than an hour-long celebration of Christ centered around some songs and scripture. The church is the body of Christ – a metaphor describing the people who have been brought together by God’s grace to glorify Him (in word and deed) and have been scattered throughout every segment of society to declare His praises (again, in word and deed). If you know Jesus as Lord and Savior, that is who you are.
So, in this season of scattering, we need to be the church. We need to declare His praises with our conversations, within our household walls (delighting in and doting on our loved ones) and beyond our habitations (uplifting our local ‘heroes’ and offering hope to the discouraged). We need to demonstrate our trust in His promises (sacrificing our self-interest and securing the needs of those without essential resources). Until the doors to public spaces are opened, we can enter into private spaces through telephone calls and hand-written letters. We can engage one another through video chats and ‘yelling-from-across-the-street’ interactions. In these days of discouraging news and depressing distancing, we need the church to be the church, full of all her light and joy. We need you to be you.
I assure you, some weekend soon we will be able to go to church. Until then, we can do church; we can be church.
One of the joys that comes from the challenge my wife and I have given ourselves in seeing all the Best Picture nominations each year is answering the question, when someone asks, “What would you recommend?” That question invariably leads to a conversation where I am free to express my values, preferences and worldview. This year, for a number of different reasons, I would recommend any of them: some films marvelously expressed the importance of family, others wonderfully demonstrated the indomitable human spirit, and still others powerfully depicted the troubling consequences of marginalizing the outcast. If you would like a more in-depth conversation, get in touch with me and we can talk.
Making recommendations can be tricky. The points and plot-twists that I appreciate are just that, what I appreciate. Every film I watch is filtered through my own eyes, which have witnessed particular life experiences that are exclusive to myself, and you will not see things in the same exact way. There might have been aspects of the story that found deep resonance in your heart that went by unaffected to mine. When we add into the mix the complex variables of theatrical genres, directorial choices and subject matter, discussing what another person should consume can be difficult. Recommendations are, by nature, suggestive and thus require consideration of the audience.
Around this time of year, I become a ‘movie evangelist’: someone who shares the good news of cinematic perfection and encourages others to experience the joys I have come to know. I do not take this task lightly. I consider my audience (their temperaments and tastes) and convey a recommendation. Want to see a great family movie? “Little Women”; a cinematic masterpiece? “1917”; an unexpected delight? “Jo Jo Rabbit”; a cautionary tale? “The Irishman” or “Marriage Story”.
And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. Luke 24:27 (NIV)
Most of us could talk about our favorite movie for hours. I have been praying that we would be as conversational about the Gospel as we have been about cinema. I long for those around me to have the same fervor to tell others what they have been reading in the Bible and share with them how it reflects the good and bad aspects of our society. I desire a church community that sees the benefit in conversing with others about the riches that could be taken away from the truths expressed in God’s word. I wonder what would happen if we talked about Jesus the way we talk about movies or (if you are not a cinephile, i.e. a movie lover) the way we talk about sports or fashion or books.
What part of the Bible would you recommend I ‘see’ and why?
For the record, I would be happy to see “1917”, “Ford v. Ferrari”, “Jo Jo Rabbit” or “Little Women” win the Oscar on Sunday night and, for posterity, I predict “1917” will take home the statuette.
As a church, we have begun the new year by participating in a denominational initiative called “21 Days of Prayer”. This year our intercessory practices and our focus has been directed by a resource titled Praying the King’s Agenda. This booklet has helped us hear what Jesus has said to us in His word and then pray about it in humble obedience. Each day the participants of this program have read a command from the Lord and, after some guided reflection, prayed for a faithful response to that command.
Recently (Day 17 of the program), I was directed to ask help of the one who said, “I will make you fishers of men.” The daily command of Jesus is found in Matthew 4:19 (“And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.’”) Jesus spoke these words to the first of his disciples as he gave them a purposeful direction. He gave them direction (“Follow me”) and purpose (“I will make you fishers of men”). He gives us the same direction and purpose.
Most of us are comfortable with the idea that we are commanded to follow Jesus: to walk with him, to stay with him and to submit our plans to him. This is the first step in any walk of faith. We are called to accept Jesus as our Lord. We may not all heed the command, but we all can understand it.
Many more of us are hesitant to embrace the second half of this verse, to acknowledge his purpose for our lives. We hear about becoming “people fishers” and we shake our heads. Maybe we have an aversion to fishing or cannot relate to the metaphor. But I do not think that the significant truth is about the fishing; it is about the making. We are called to follow so that Christ can make us into what we are: for Peter, Andrew, James and John – who were fishers of fish – it was making them fishers of people; for us – who are accountants, artists, cashiers and coders – it may be making us those professions for God. This is the second step in any walk of faith. We are called to follow Jesus toward discipleship.
At once they left their nets and followed him. Matthew 4:20 (NIV)
As I was directed to pray about this command, I was struck by the response of the initial audience. They dropped their nets, their livelihoods and their preferences and went after the Lord. They followed Jesus and, over time, he reshaped their talents, training and abilities into purpose. Christ desires the same for us; to transform what we are already doing into something more glorious and fulfilling.
This is something the Lord does in us and for us; He will make us what we are intended to be. Therefore, it is in our best interest that we ask Jesus for help, help to follow and help to surrender. Those four young fishermen had no idea what wonders awaited them when they went with Jesus. Neither will we, unless we follow him and allow him to make us more than we can imagine.
There are a whole bunch of people around me who are acting like the prophet Jonah, as recorded in Jonah 4 (Jonah is despairing to the point of death over the withering of a weed as he witnesses the repentance of the people of Nineveh). Like the Old Testament prophet, they are disappointed that things did not go their way, pouting due to a perceived personal slight and an actual adversary’s blessing. These community members are distraught over the Patriots’ early exit from the NFL playoffs – not that they had a losing season (they won three times the games they lost this season) or failed to make the playoffs (unlike 20 other teams), but that they simply did not advance to the Super Bowl.
Instead of rejoicing in the blessing that the home team has appeared in nine or the last eighteen Super Bowls, they are mourning their demise; they might find partners in commiseration in fans of the Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars or Houston Texans, who have never been to the championship game. Instead of reflecting on the good times experienced in six NFL titles (and six more by the professional sports teams in the Boston area), they disparage the players and coaches; I suggest these sentiments not be shared with the fans of the Vikings, Bills, Bengals, Falcons, Panthers, Cardinals, Titans or Chargers, who have never won a single Super Bowl.
As human beings, we are susceptible to the temptation of maximizing our self-importance and minimizing the value of others. We expect our lives to be a series of progressive blessings and we resent when others are blessed besides us, or – the horror – instead of us. Jesus share a parable about it when he shared the story of a vineyard manager who paid the first workers in the field (who worked a full day) and the last workers (who worked less than an hour) the same amount. Can you imagine? Those first workers (who we naturally identify with) got what was fair; the last workers (slackers if you ask me) received way more than they deserved. Jesus concludes his object lesson with the response of the vineyard foreman:
“Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ Matthew 20:15 (NIV)
As a fan of the New England Patriots, I have been compensated handsomely over the past nineteen seasons. And the greater truth remains that God can (and does) bless others with compensation just as handsome as mine. There will be a new champion in a new town – maybe Minnesota, Nashville or Houston for the first time – and I am good with that. I am glad that God is so generous. And know this: His generosity is not limited to football games but extends to every area of life. We are wise to rejoice with those who rejoice instead of mourning that it is not our day in the sun. And who knows, maybe Duck Boats will still carry a champion (the Bruins, Celtics or Red Sox) this year!
It seems hard to believe that “Y2K” was twenty years ago. Do you remember all the troubles that were anticipated, all because experts were not sure if computers, which were programmed with a two-digit place setting for the year, would operate as normal when they registered 2000 or crash when they reverted to 1900? We were filled with anxiety as we waited to see if the utilities would continue to operate and banking software would still be running after the ball dropped. As it turned out, we worried for nothing: the world was unphased by the change in millennium as all the electronic components of 21st century life performed as required.
Much has happened over the past ten years for my family as well. We enjoyed 4 graduations, we celebrated a number of big birthdays (including both Jeanine and I turning 50 in the 2010s), we moved residences three times, and we travelled more than a hundred thousand miles. If I can be honest, I have worried about a great deal of things over the past ten years – will the kids finish High School, be accepted into a college of their choice and come home on occasion? Will we be able to find a suitable residence for our family’s needs? Will the days ahead be kind? I thank God that the previous decades have been filled with great blessing.
Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest? Luke 12:25-26 (NIV)
I have been joking with my wife and children that the Mike of 2020 is “easy, breezy” (which my youngest now has co-opted as “Covergirl Dad”), but my resolution is serious – I am consciously trying to release my inner anxiety about the things that I cannot control and release the reins on the things that I can control; thus, I will be easy and breezy. This desire to be more relaxed has made me inventory the things that I control, which turns out to be a surprisingly short list: I control my decisions, my reactions and my responses.
This year, and decade, I will make a concerted effort to make and maintain wise decisions, and not regularly revisiting the angst inherent in the process. I will try to express genuine reactions which are filled with grace and edification. I will offer thoughtful and profitable responses, refusing to delve into the bad habit of pessimism. I will not worry about whether I made the right decision, the appropriate reaction or the proper response. I will ‘go with the flow”. And in order to do this, I will seek the Spirit’s leading each new day and trust His transforming power at work within me.
If I hope to cease in my worrying, if I am dedicated to an easy, breezy disposition, I will need to place all my angst and anxiety somewhere. So I am claiming 1 Peter 5:7 as my memory verse for 2020:
Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. 1 Peter 5:7 (NIV)
Part of my preparations for celebrating Christmas this year is that I have been reading the novella A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. While I have seen the films and adaptations on television (my personal favorites are Mr.Magoo’s Christmas Carol and Scrooged), I had never read the relatively short story of Ebenezer Scrooge and the three visiting Spirits. On the page or on the screen, the plot is well-known: Scrooge is a successful business owner with great accumulated wealth who is inundated with charitable requests as Christmas approaches; as returns home on Christmas Eve, he is visited by the ghost of his business partner and then three Christmas Spirits; these Spirits show Scrooge his Christmases past, present and yet to come; these visions have a profound effect on his miserly and calloused heart.
We are all tempted to be a bit like Ebenezer Scrooge at Christmas. We also receive a barrage of demands for our time and our finances and our kindnesses to care for those with pressing needs. We might be inclined to think only of ourselves and not about our fellow man and woman. We might need to be reminded of what is more important than earthly gain. But where can we find three Spirits on such short notice?
There is another character in Dickens’ novella that serves as a contrast to Ebenezer Scrooge: Bob Cratchit. Cratchit is Scrooge’s clerk and he is all that Scrooge is not; despite his lack of material resources, he is generous and kind. Cratchit has his reasons for cynicism – a terrible boss, an insufficient income and a sick child – but he is continually focused on others. Cratchit is the one who goes to church and he is the one who prays for his heartless boss. He is the one who carries within himself the joy of Christmas despite having several reasons for the contrary. While Scrooge was the one who was converted to compassion, Cratchit was continually kind.
This being said, A Christmas Carol is more of a moral fable than a spiritual allegory. In Dickens’ tale, Christmas is the setting, not the story. None of us are as hardened as Scrooge and none of us are as virtuous as Cratchit. All of us can be more compassionate and all of us can share more joy. Instead of comparing ourselves to a archetypal fictional miser or milquetoast, we are better suited to reflect the character of real individuals.
The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. Luke 2:20 (NIV)
These shepherds were, in many ways, like Scrooge – driven by their vocation to sacrifice most relationships, they accumulated wealth and were ostracized by society. But one day they received a message from God and that transformed their hearts and lives. They were changed by the good news of great joy that a savior had been born, and after seeing the Christ child, returned to their workplace with gladness in their hearts. When they saw (when we see) the great gift we have been given, we shout, “Glorious” – how glorious is our God, His creation and His plan for each one of us to care for each one of us.
If you listened to my message on Sunday, I mentioned in passing an ordeal I had been going through regarding a prescription refill. I had exhausted all my refills, so I called the health center to schedule a physical; I was informed that my PCP was no longer at that facility and I was reassigned; I was given the next available appointment – and a 7 week wait. At this point, I asked if I could get my prescriptions refilled and was given assurances they were in process. A few days later, as I ran out of one of my medications, I called the pharmacy, who was still waiting for authorization, so day after day I called and the health center marked my request as urgent. 10 days after I began the process, I determinedly walked over to the facility, talked to the receptionist, face-to-face, and she took my request to the back, returning after a while with the good news that my prescriptions were sent off to the pharmacy; a few hours later I finally received what I needed to maintain my health.
In hindsight, I have come to realize the importance of face-to-face interactions. I have come to understand the power of looking into another person’s eyes and voicing a genuine frustration. I have come to appreciate standing in front of another human being and receiving assurances that I have been heard and valued. After interacting with disembodied voices for more than a week with no progress, seeing another human being and being seen by another human being was what was necessary for my issues to be resolved. And now, because of technological conveniences, I fear that face-to-face interactions are few and far between.
I am concerned that we, as a society, are in danger of losing something important because we do not interact with one another in person. We can maintain contact with friends through social media. We can check in on family members with a text. We can experience spiritual growth through an app. We can shop for nearly all our essentials via the internet. We can receive instruction on nearly every topic by watching YouTube. In most areas of life (professional service calls are a singular exception), it is not required that we actually engage in human interactions…but it is desperately needed.
I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face. Peace to you. The friends here send their greetings. Greet the friends there by name. 3 John 14 (NIV)
Take it from one who has recently improved his physical health by meeting with someone face-to-face, your efforts in actual engagement will be rewarded. Take the risk and put the phone down. Sit a spell with a friend over a cup of tea or walk together along a river. Pop into a local hardware store and talk to the owner behind the counter about thermostats or trash cans. Attend a Bible study, even if it is filled with strangers. Talking to someone will benefit your relational health, learning with someone will enhance your intellectual health, worshipping with someone will develop your spiritual health. Let’s get together, face-to-face, for your sake and mine.
A few days after we moved to our new neighborhood a few weeks ago, we decided to be a bit adventurous and go out to a restaurant down the street from us. We chose to go to Yaowarat Road, an eatery named for a street in Bangkok’s Chinatown, which specializes in Thai/Chinese cuisine. When we first arrived and read the menu, I thought about going elsewhere, as there were few dishes I understood or thought we would enjoy. But we ordered what we comprehended (as well as some Pad Thai, which was not on the menu) and it was all delicious. It was a wonderful meal that I could have missed if I was unwilling to take a risk.
I was reminded about my supper at Yaowarat Road as I studied about a practice the Bible calls “the breaking of bread”. This phrase is complex: it is typically a reference to the ordinance of communion (referencing the Lord’s breaking the bread at the Passover table); it could, however, be referring to any meal shared by the people of God (as would be the case of Passover, which involves breaking bread, and the feeding of the five thousand, which also specifically states that the Lord broke the loaves). It is this more general meaning that I have been reflecting upon.
Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. Mark 6:41 (NIV)
One of the most unifying aspects of ministry is dining together, the time when the church comes together to break bread. A fascinating dynamic is at work when we share a meal, whether it be at a pot-luck or a restaurant. Our choices of cuisine say something about us: they show our preferences and our tolerances, they reveal our habits and our palates, and they demonstrate our knowledge and our experiences. When we share a meal with another, we display ourselves on that plate. Serving up jerk chicken tells us something. Ordering dessert tells us something else. Eating off another plate tells us yet something more.
Breaking bread also expresses our acceptance of one another. When we eat what another person has prepared or ordered, we are saying that your traditions and tastes matter. We might use more (or less) seasoning or another cut of meat or a different protein, if we were given the choice. But we allow another person to build the menu and we are given a glimpse of themselves. If we are lucky, we discover something delectable that we knew nothing about; if not, we might need an antacid for a day or two. Either way, our culinary knowledge and our fellowship is enlarged.
So, take a risk and break bread with someone – invite them to your home or your local diner and eat a meal with a fellow saint. If you are hesitant, I invite you to join me for dinner at the church this Wednesday night for one of my favorites. I hope you’ll have a heaping helping of hospitality.