Through a series of unrelated events, the grounds of the church have undergone a transformation this week. A $4 part at Lowe’s® fixed the church’s line trimmer and so we were able to “whack” the weeds along the fences lining the perimeter of our property that had been growing for about a month. A vehicle that resided in the parking lot for longer than prudent was finally claimed by a charity and towed away. A group of volunteers filled a 15-yard capacity dumpster with yard waste from unscrupulous landscapers who had been dumping their lumber, uprooted shrubbery and lawn clippings in our wooded backyard for years. Add a routine mowing of the grass into the mix and we went from overgrown and unruly to tidy and trimmed in just a few days.
As I think about all that was done to beautify the “house of the Lord”, I marvel at the simplicity of the task: remove all that does not belong. As I write this, I realize that I must clarify the prior statement – the work was simple, but it was not easy. It was not easy for the tow truck driver or the dumpster delivery person. It was not effortless for the teens who labored in 90-degree weather or the people who resourced the church for ministry. It is simple to remove the superfluous, but it is rarely easy.
A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. Luke 6:45
In too many ways, my heart is like the church property. It is full of weeds, abandoned property and debris. It did not start that way: Those weeds were an occasional unnecessary diversion, that abandoned car was a once-treasured (but poorly maintained) treasure, and the trash was just an accumulation of the things with which I could not seem to part. I did not intend to disregard my heart’s condition, but I prized functionality over efficiency and, with little effort, pushed the debris to the side and vowed to deal with it later. I embraced hording over health and paid little attention to the junk that accumulated on the edges.
But then, in those moments of self-absorption, I am reminded of the simple truth of God’s word and I commit to making the effort to remain obedient. I remember that I am delivered from sin by grace through faith (as God’s gift to me) not by my own industry or ingenuity; I cannot do anything to save my sorry soul, but I can do quite a lot as a result of my redemption. I can weed out the unwanted, jettison the junk and plant the seeds of salvation in the center of my heart. I can commit to the work of obedience for the sake of my heart’s health and my soul’s harvest. It is simple, but not easy.
I am so glad for the work that so many have done that restored the church’s parking lot. As I stand and admire their efforts, I am reminded of the internal efforts I am committed to exert. May we all tend to the gardens of our souls.
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.
On Monday of this week we celebrated my wife’s birthday. Without sharing a specific number (a woman never tells her age), I will say that it was a ‘milestone’. She and I went ‘in town’ to a fancy restaurant for lunch, then returned home for presents and cake with the kids, and finally had supper together (all the while enduring the hottest June 12th on record). While some may say that our festivities were meager given the circumstances for celebration, it was exactly what the birthday girl wanted – a time to break from the routine of laundry, dishes and ‘taxi service’ and simply enjoy the blessings of life with those we love.
I don’t believe I am ‘telling tales out of school’ in saying that milestone birthday can be hard. In the days leading up to her birthday, as was the case 16 months ago with my milestone birthday, my wife voiced some uneasiness in acknowledging another candle was being added to the cake. It is at these times that we all tend to reflect on those missed opportunities, regret those unwise decisions and recalibrate to what now seems possible. We joke with one another about being “over the hill” (as long as it isn’t our birthday we’re talking about) and wonder if our best days are behind us.
Milestones, like big birthdays, also remind us of where we’ve been and how far we’ve travelled. I have known my wife since she was sixteen and celebrated it with her ever since she was eighteen. We’ve celebrated a few times during summer break from college, once while planning our wedding and as even newlyweds and new parents. We’ve celebrated at her parents’ home, at our six different homes and at dozens of diverse restaurants. We’ve celebrated some birthdays after long days at work, others on warm weekends and one at a High School awards ceremony. Each year has been different. All those celebrations have now become mental snapshots of a life well lived and a life well loved.
I know that I have given Jeanine a present or two each of the years we’ve been together, but, for the life of me, I cannot remember a single one with any specificity. I think this is because, in my opinion, the best gift given on her birthday is not the one she receives from us but the one she is to us. She is the anchor of our family, preventing us from drifting toward disaster. She is the glue in her relationships, keeping us together. She is the optimist in the most pessimistic of predicaments. All those who know Jeanine understand that the world is a better, kinder, sweeter place because she is in it.
May your fountain be blessed, and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth. Proverbs 5:18
As the cliché goes, age is just a number. While that may be true, birthdays are special; it celebrates the day God gave us one another. I praise God that I could spend so many days celebrating the important people in my life, especially Jeanine. Happy Birthday to you.
I had been getting error messages from my computer at work for some time. I was able to work around them and do my job without much inconvenience…until Tuesday. That is when I got the BSOD (the blue screen of death), which stated, “Your PC ran into a problem that it couldn’t handle, and now it needs to restart”. This computer issue was now a serious inconvenience and an exasperating consumer of my time. Fortunately, I was able to restart the computer (after a number of failed attempts), back up the files and reload a new CPU. The church office is now back up and running.
The process of replacing the computer has enabled me to take stock of a few things.
First, I realize that I am a creature of habit. I like things the way I like things. The keyboard upon which I now type feels different (softer?) than my old one. Some of the desktop icons I am used to seeing are now missing (but at this point in time I have no idea what they were or what they did, but more on that later). Updated hardware sometimes facilitates updated software, and some of my familiar programs appear different. This realization is good for me, though: some habits are unhealthy (perhaps even a cause of the BSOD) and others are time consuming. Maybe I am better off experiencing change.
I also realize that I am an undiagnosed digital hoarder. The office PC had more than 45,000 files stored on its hard drive, accumulated over the span of five years. Until I began having problems with the CPU, I had kept everything – every document, picture, PDF file, sound clip and program – on the hard drive. I ran no backups, downloaded virtually nothing to discs, deleted no software I hadn’t been using. I kept everything, even the icons for programs I hadn’t used in years. This realization is also good for me: my productivity and efficiency can improve if I clean up the computer occasionally. It would be better if I ran a backup, purged the unnecessary and saved on removable media important but not urgent data.
One more thing I realize is that deterioration and drive failures are a natural part of life. While I appreciate the power and capacity of this new computer, I am aware, as I step over the carcass of dated technology currently residing on my office floor, that this CPU, too, will pass. I will need a new computer, a new monitor and new software at some point in the future, either to improve or replace what I am blessed to use today. This realization is good for me to grasp as well: entropy, a gradual decline into disorder, is real and must be dealt with as we go about our lives. I am better off knowing that nothing on earth lasts forever.
By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” Genesis 3:19
I also realize that what is true for my electronic existence is also true for my physical existence. I am made for proficiency and efficiency, needing this reminder to cast off the clutter and prepare for change. One day this mortal frame will wear out; I can only hope that all I contain will be able to be accessed by those who come after me.
Over the past two weeks, I have travelled with my youngest son back in time courtesy of two historic dwellings. Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of serving as a chaperone for his third grade to the Pierce House, built in 1683 and located about four blocks from Joshua’s school. Then, last Monday, the family went to 83 Beals Street in Brookline, the “modest” home built in 1909 where the thirty-fifth president of the U.S. was born. Both these houses have been restored to reflect an earlier time period and give those who visit a unique glimpse of life for those living in the past.
The Pierce House was restored to reflect its namesake’s ownership, Colonel Samuel Pierce. Prior to the Revolutionary War, the Pierces farmed and worked a 20-acre plot of land and the house was furnished and fashioned to depict colonial life in New England. It gave my son and his classmates the opportunity to experience life from another person’s perspective. One activity the children played during the field trip was a trading game: each student was given a role in the community (wheelwright, farmer, shoemaker, etc.) and a shopping list, requiring them to interact with others to secure what they needed to survive. From this humble home, I hope my nine-year old gained an understanding of the value of community.
We visited the birthplace of John F. Kennedy on what would have been his one hundredth birthday. While the brochure describes the house as “modest”, it seemed opulent for the times (electricity, indoor plumbing and maids’ quarters). The home was restored to its appearances in 1920, according the “living cultural translator”, a maid-of-all-work named Marie. She told us about the modern convenience of the toaster and the Cupcakes she was working on to celebrate Jack’s third birthday. She seemed proud to work for such a prominent family and grateful for the opportunities her new life in her new country provided. From this well-appointed home, I hope my nine-year old gained an understanding of the value of hard work.
So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Ephesians 4:11-13
These two homes gave me pangs of melancholy. As I stood watching third-graders trading food and fabrics with their classmates, I longed for a time before supermarkets and department stores when we knew our neighbors and their importance to the community: everyone had something to offer and everyone helped everyone else. As I stood in a Brookline kitchen, I longed for a time before Apple© products and electronic apps when we sought to serve others and share our lives with more than a small circle of like-minded individuals. I long for a place where the values of the past are appreciated in the present.
This nostalgic sadness subsides as I think about the role of the church in our culture: it can be the place where we find real community and the place where we foster real opportunities to serve. Perhaps your longings for a better world, if you have them, can be satisfied at a house of worship near you.
I take an unhealthy delight in typographical errors on notices and signs. The dry cleaner on the corner offers a “pans hem” service for $8. There was a Dunkin Donuts© in Connecticut with a bathroom that was out of order, a handwritten note imploring patrons to “pleas bare with us”. There are websites and late-night talk show segments devoted to “Bad Signs”. One of these signs was for a children’s software company whose tagline was “So Fun, They Won’t Even Know Their Learning”. Despite the errors (in grammar, spelling or context), the information is still conveyed – that the cleaner offers tailoring for pants, the coffee shop begs for their customers’ patience and that they are retaining knowledge while enjoying the computer products.
Almost every blog posting I write has some typographical error. Sometimes it is grammatical, crafting sentences where I lack verbal agreement or confuse plurals with possessives. Sometimes it is spelling, such as when I use form for from or an for any (often words that slip through auto-correct but are misspellings for what I intend). Sometimes it is contextual, when I think effect is correct instead of affect or use complement for compliment. While I am not fond of disclosing my imperfect nature to the cyber-universe, I am blessed to have a few readers who are caring enough to make me aware of my mistakes (mind you, this is not an invitation for anyone and everyone to point out my many flaws).
This is one of the wonderful aspects of life in Christ and living for Christ – God doesn’t require our perfection, but our faithfulness.
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
In the words of Scripture prior to this verse, Paul mentions our ministry, our knowledge of God, the gospel and the light – all of which could be the treasure he mentions. Then, in the above verse, he likens us to jars of clay (common earthen vessels) susceptible to cracks and chips and vulnerable to failure due to imperfections. One implication of Paul’s teaching is that our value is in our content and not our form. In other words, what we say is more valuable than how we say it and what we do is more valuable than how we do it.
My goal in ministry, sharing the knowledge of God and shining the light, is not eloquence and exactitude (as is evident with a blog post a few weeks ago containing more errors than a little league game) but expressing the truth of God to all those whom God blesses this earthen vessel to reach. So, I no longer wander about if I could of had an affect on the readers personnel growth if I could only write good (I know, at least 6 errors in that last sentence). I only hope that God can use this imperfect platform and performer to point to Him, the author and perfecter of our faith.
Even a misspelled sign can give direction if its message is true. Of this, I am living proof.
This Sunday we celebrate Mother’s Day. It is the day that we, as a society, honor the people in our lives who have sacrificed their sleep, their youth, their livelihoods and their plans to provide for us. We all have someone in our lives worthy of celebration – a mother (or mother-figure) who has loved, comforted, taught and trained us; a person who has given us advice, assistance and correction when we needed it; and someone who was willing to give all they had to help us achieve all we are intended to be. No human being, and therefore no mother, is perfect; they are simply closer to the ideal than the rest of us.
From last Mother’s Day to this, it has been a particularly difficult year for the three mothers in my life. The mother I was born to has been hampered by some minor health, home and hearth concerns. The mother I am married to has seen one child graduate college only to be rocked by an uncertain job market and unestablished credit, one child graduate High School only to live at a college 500 miles away, all while she was required to perform her functions as a mother in a downsized environment. The mother I gained through marriage has had the toughest year: she suffered the loss of her son in December and an extended hospitalization and rehabilitation since March. Life has not been easy for the mothers of my family.
As I witnessed how these three remarkable women coped with the challenges of life thrust upon them, it seems that I am the one who is still learning the lessons of life from these moms. Their stalwart persistence teaches me that God provides all that we need: a few dollars or a few kind words just when we are at our wits’ end. Their steadfast love teaches me that the difficulties of our day are diffused when we bear the burdens of someone else. Their sincere concern for their children teaches me that love is empowered only when it is released for the betterment of another. I am blessed by the love and care of these moms.
My son, keep your father’s command and do not forsake your mother’s teaching. Proverbs 6:20
The events of the last year, and the ways that these wonderful women navigated them, reinforces in my mind the notion that we need our moms. We also need to uplift the mothers among us. Let me encourage you to celebrate the mothers around you. If your mom is still living, acknowledge the integral role she has played in your life. If all you have is memories, share one this Sunday. Recognize the full spectrum of motherhood in your community – greet the new moms, the single moms, the empty-nested moms, the mourning moms, the expectant moms, the motherly role models, the future moms, the moms who care for others’ children and the prodigals’ moms. It is a tough world and we can use all the love and encouragement we can get. Praise God this weekend that He has given us great mothers.
Happy Mother’s Day!
As I was standing out in the schoolyard, waiting for Joshua’s dismissal, I was thinking about all the umbrellas. Did I mention it was raining? Our relationship with umbrellas is a complex one. We don’t think about our umbrella until we need it; we’d never search for one on a sunny day. They break in the wind and rain, but we don’t replace them, regretting that decision the moment a bit of inclement weather arrives. We stick them in closets or in trunks, along with the winter boots and ice scrapers, and then are unable to get our hands on them when we need them.
Some people like little, compact umbrellas that can fit in a purse or briefcase, just big enough to protect our heads from the drops (but insufficient to keep our shoes and shoulders dry). Some people prefer the big, golf-sized umbrellas that you can use as a walking stick, sufficient to protect you and a few companions from whatever may fall from the sky. As I waited in the schoolyard, every variety of umbrella converged: black umbrellas for the business types, rainbow-striped ones for the free spirited, pink parasols for the princesses and clear plastic domes for the utilitarian folks among us.
There were also people with no umbrella – these are the people I was wondering about. Did they not possess an umbrella? Did they own one at one time but lost or misplaced it? Did they have one at home, but figured that their hood or their hat or that overhang would keep them sufficiently dry? Did they have a bad experience with an umbrella in the past, perhaps a terrible wind or bout of hail, and swore to never trust an umbrella again? Did they think that the weather was something they could handle and that a little bit of water never hurt anyone?
I was also wondering if people think of God in the same ways we think of umbrellas. Are they thinking that God is good when we need Him, but unnecessary on bright and sunny days? Do they keep God in the closet and then forget about Him? Have they had a bad experience and blamed God for their discomfort? Is God little more than a fashion accessory? Well, God is not merely a cosmic or spiritual umbrella, useful only in protecting us from what may fall from the skies.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. Isaiah 43:2
God cannot be relegated to the closet until we feel He could be useful; He is continually making His presence known. God does not come in a myriad of sizes and colors; He is more than we can imagine and greater than we think. God does not simply keep us dry when we find ourselves in the throes of an April shower; He can enable us to pass through floodwaters and flames. If you want to be equipped to face the challenges of life, be sure you have an umbrella in your trunk, but make sure God is by your side.
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.