It has happened again; God has allowed those around me to repeat a recurring theme through interactions I have had over the last 7 days. I heard it first during a denominational meeting when a speaker encouraged me to ‘shrink the win’. I heard it again while attending a virtual retreat as a facilitator asked me to reflect on ‘small places of growth’. I heard it for a third time when I had lunch with a few colleagues when one of the participants commented on ‘the small victory’. I heard it lastly at our prayer meeting when one of our intercessors reminded us of God’s ‘little blessings’. God has been orchestrating my engagement with others as a means to focus my attention off the major problems of life and onto the (many times) minor peeks of sunshine.
God has been asking me to adjust my perspective. In the days since the stay-at-home order was issued in the Commonwealth, much of the news and statistics about my region have been horrible. The pandemic has exposed us to a great deal of death, damage, and dysfunction within our communities. I in no way want to diminish the pain or loss that so many have suffered since March. But I also do not want to make the mistake of seeing the last 220 days as filled entirely with bad news. There is some light in the midst of this whelming darkness that is visible to those who are looking for it.
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.” Lamentations 3:22-24 (NIV84)
What are these glimmers of hope, these baby steps of growth, these small victories and little blessings about which God has been speaking to me? This seasons-long quarantine has afforded the globe to be home with just a little more than television and internet, and this, in turn, provided the disparities of life to be displayed. The world was watching, and many good people were pressed to action. Medical inequity was broadcast and many responded with donations of PPE and calls to address the needs of inadequate care in nursing homes and among the poor. Racial injustice was then captured on cellphones and many were outraged to the point of demonstration and a long-delayed dialogue about race began to rise. Economic hardship gripped many and so neighbors helped neighbors with what they could share.
Many of us have spent time with the people we love, learned new skills or enjoyed new hobbies. Many of us, because of the mild and dry weather, walked more and dined more on the sidewalks of our city squares. The church went out digitally to the world instead of asking the world to come out to church. We learned to adapt, to adjust and to practice mercy. We made signs to appreciate the sacrifices of those who risked and shared tears with who lost. We grew in compassion and care for one another. Small victories.
I am still praying that this pandemic is over soon, but until then, I am choosing to embrace the reality that there can be great warmth and light from a dumpster fire.
I have become a ‘fair weather fan’ when it comes to my beloved Red Sox. I can simply no longer watch their games. They are currently sitting in last place in the American League, due in no small part to the facts that they have no pitching, they are struggling to hit the ball and they lead the league in errors. But it is not their record that is making this season unbearable; it is their apparent lack of heart on the part of the players. I can only assume this malaise is evident due to the pandemic protocols – no fans in the stands, no player on-field interactions, and social distancing in the dugout – that has robbed “America’s Pastime”, at least in Boston, of its magic.
There is something special about social interaction that cannot be captured on a Zoom call or over the phone. As much as I hate to admit it, we require human contact in order to thrive. I wonder if things would be different were the veterans on the Red Sox allowed to embrace the younger players to encourage them, especially as things are going from bad to worse. On a larger scale, are we, as a culture and as a planet, suffering to a greater degree because we cannot, literally and figuratively, shoulder one another’s load? Do we, as a people, really need a hug?
Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing. 1 Thessalonians 5:11 (NIV)
This, unfortunately, is a lost season for the Red Sox. However, it need not be the same for us. I am confident that we are able to reclaim much of what has been taken by this virus and its consequences. My suggestion for reclamation is that we rediscover the power of prayer. What has prayer got to do with being physically present with one another? I am glad you asked.
First, the language of prayer conveys physical presence. When we pray, we are lifting one another toward God. Offering up biblical prayers, like the Lord’s Prayer, evoke a real bonding of hearts and minds with one another and with God. We are together when we pray.
Second, the discipline of prayer develops intimacy. We listen more and share more when we intercede for one another. We are willing to expose our hopes and our hurts more freely in the context of prayer. We are tender when we pray.
Third, the practice of prayer offers avenues of reconnection. When I pray for you, I become invested in the ‘rest of the story’ and become eager to see how things turn out. When I pray, I am more likely to follow through and resume the conversation. We are touching base when we pray.
Finally, the reality of prayer draws us away from the problems and draws us toward the provider. Prayer enables us, together, to recognize that we haven’t got the answers to some of the toughest questions, and to recognize that we all, irrespective of demographics, needs God’s intervention. We are trusting when we pray.
While we cannot embrace one another just yet, we can engage in prayer with and for one another. That is no small thing.
It has taken me 20 weeks of this pandemic, or perhaps 23 years of pastoral ministry, or maybe even 54 years of existence, to conclude that I do not handle disruption well. I can become internally agitated when a reasonable request is made while I am preparing for Sunday’s service at my dining room table. Prior to COVID-19, my soul may have become disturbed within me when I heard news of a weekend snowstorm. As long as I can remember, I have had incidences of the hairs on my neck bristling when my plans were disrupted by the delays of those I dearly love. It might be a problem.
Even those with a cursory understanding of the plot line of the Bible would know that God is frequently found disrupting the lives of people and nations for His purposes. Moses was living large and enjoying life what God appeared to him and told him it was time to move. Abraham was enjoying the fruits of long-delayed parenthood when God announced that it was time for a mountain-climbing trip with Isaac that would result in only one of them returning home. Esther, David, Peter, Paul, and Timothy all were faced with disruptions. We rarely know why, but God finds disruption necessary.
If you are like me, you have a choice: see disruptions as an attack against your ideal timetable or see disruptions as an avenue for God’s adjustments. Is it possible that the Master of the Universe may have other plans and priorities for your productive hours? Is it possible that the Lord Almighty may be reminding us that snowflakes, germs, and spotty Wi-Fi are not an enemy to our efficiency? Is it possible that these disruptions are, in fact, the crucial appointments amid our chaotic days? What if you and I were to see disruptions as blessings instead of blights?
There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death. Proverbs 14:12 & Proverbs 16:25 (ESV)
Solomon, in his words of wisdom, was compelled by the Holy Spirit to state the exact words twice. This double dose of truth disturbs me. I would like to think that my way (disruption-free hours of uninterrupted productivity and purpose) is right, but it is not; it is destructive. It is destructive for at least two reasons: first, I am denying the truth that I savor disruption, if it is a distraction of my own choosing (scrolling through Facebook is healthy but that request to help bring in the groceries is a step too far); second, I am often so engrossed in what I want to be doing that I mostly unaware of what God might be wanting me to do. I am going my ‘right way’ and lying to and limiting myself in the process.
The biblical model for so many whose stories are contained in its pages is to embrace the disruptions, without grumbling, as guidance from God. Through hurricanes, He will give us rest. Through traffic jams, He will teach us patience. Through a loud neighbor just beyond the windowpane, He will drive us to compassion. Then, perhaps, we will learn that disruptions are God’s way of directing us toward greater things.
May these words be just the disruption you needed today.
The other night, we had a drive-in experience in our backyard; a video screen, projector, a VCR and an extension cord enabled us to watch “Hercules”. All the equipment was readily available to us, but until the other night, we had not taken the time to put it together. This is just the latest thing we have done because we have the time to do it. We have also spent time playing board games (my personal favorite has been “Ticket to Ride”) and card games (including the ‘oldie-but-goodie’ “Pit”, which our children had never played). We have also spent time exploring the neighborhood by foot. This pandemic has given us the opportunity to do things that we never get around to doing.
There are other things that have remained undone. I still have boxes which are still unpacked or stored away from our move eleven months ago. I still have books sitting on a radiator that I am intending to read. I still have summer clothes in the basement that I have yet to put in my bureau. I have a craft beer maker that is unopened (granted, I would still have to buy some yeast, which I have also yet to do). Despite the fact that this pandemic has given me a great deal of time at home to do whatever strikes my fancy, there are still things I have never gotten around to doing.
Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. Psalm 90:12
I wonder how many times I said, prior to 2020, “I wish I had the time to __________.” I wonder how many times I said, prior to COVID-19, “I will get around to _________ some day.” Lord, teach me to number my days. Lord, instruct me to calculate all twenty-four hours. Lord, educate me on the usage of each cycle of 1,440 minutes. Assuming I take 6 hours to sleep and 2 hours to address hunger and hygiene, that gives me 16 hours each and every day for my vocations and avocations. What am I doing with that time? Am I utilizing this precious resource for mindful productivity and recreation or am I wasting it on mindless amusement and entertainment?
Today is day 143 of quarantine; we have been home for 3,432 hours. What have you been doing for the past 20 weeks? The Psalmist has convicted me to redeem the remaining days and hours of the quarantine, however long it lasts. I want to spend more time in constructing (building value into my life as well as the lives of others) and less in consuming (burning daylight in otherwise empty pursuits). I want to cherish the time I have with my children and my wife. I want to maximize this time of ‘voluntary seclusion’ so that, when I look back at this season of my life, I have no regrets. Lord, help me to capture a moment today where I see and share just one of your many blessings.
Lord, teach us to number our (quarantined) days.
It has been hot in Massachusetts for the last few weeks, with heat indices approaching 100° on many days. It has been so hot, in fact, that the new street in front of our home that I wrote about a few weeks ago has softened and now contains a good number of tire tracks. We are fortunate; we have a few window unit air conditioners that can take the sting out of the oppressive heat and humidity. But, under the shadow of COVID-19, there are a number of places we would have gone to beat the heat that are, this summer, unavailable.
In previous years we, as a family, might have gone to the local mall or the movie theater to escape the high temperatures and enjoy some climate-controlled coolness. Our summers past have included visits to museums and dips in public pools to find some relief. There is none of that this year. The cinemas remain unopened, the malls are too crowded, the museums are not welcoming the general public and the pools are, by and large, closed. Even the beaches, where it has also been unusually warm, are not completely safe as the sunbathers and swimmers contend with shark sightings and the lingering effects of this pandemic.
It is days like these that make a person ‘squirrelly’ – hot and bothered and itching to be somewhere else. I imagine that most of us have had more than a few days like that. What do we when we face times like that? Simmer and stew? Stomp and scream? Toss and turn at night and pace and pout during the day? It is not in our nature, I believe, to suffer in silence. We need someone to know, someone to care, someone to assure us that things will improve. Those are the days that I appreciate God’s gift of prayer, the blessing of conversation and intercession with the one who knows us best and cares for us most completely.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30 (NIV)
I don’t know about you, but the heat takes something out of me, and I am weary. With the news of the spread of COVID-19, I am burdened. I am grateful that Jesus offers to share His yoke with me (for those unfamiliar with the term, a yoke is a farming implement that harnesses two animals, presumably of similar strength, together). I am offered to share my load with God incarnate, who declares that my contribution to the work will be easy and light. When can we begin? It makes me feel like that three-year old at the grocery store in the race-car shopping cart, thinking that he is exerting all the effort to move the cart, but the reality is that his father is pushing from behind. Our Father in Heaven is pushing us along as well.
If you are weary and burdened, due to climate or contagion or some other catastrophe, come to him. He will give you rest.
I read a news story about a prominent web security specialist who had his laptop stolen from the back of his SUV while he was out to dinner (mind you, this act of thievery occurred ‘b.p.’ – before the pandemic). This expert in cyber safety was perplexed by the thief, wondering how how they knew that the electronics were there, under a blanket and behind tinted glass? The desk sergeant who took the incident report at the local police station stated what the victim had over looked, “Thieves are now using Bluetooth scanners on their phones; they can tell what is in the car before they break into it.” It turns out that your electronics are continually emitting signals that can be paired with other wireless devices, and those signals alert these would-be robbers to the presence of our laptops, tablets and phones.
Those who seek to separate us from our stuff and certainly cunning and crafty. If we are wise, we will be aware of their schemes and act in such a way to avoid their attacks. If we are smart, we will be vigilant in locking our doors and well-versed in the latest security practices. But that is still not enough; we need to fight complacency, that nagging temptation to let down our guard and assume that everything will be alright if we leave that back gate unlatched for one night (but that is the night that the skunk skulks in and strews trash all through the yard).
We all are prone to become complacent, whether it is ‘forgetting’ to wear a mask during this pandemic or ‘figuring’ that someone else will pick up your debris and dirty things. We all are susceptible to being blissfully unaware of some potential danger or defect that is present in our life. This is true in the physical world and true in the spiritual world. We are inclined to sleep-walk through some situations to the point where Satan gains a foothold in his attempts to destroy us. It is the concern that Peter addresses in the following verse:
Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. 1 Peter 5:8 (NIV)
The first step in overcoming the enemy is vigilance: we are called to be alert (to stay awake and aware) and sober-minded (to maintain clarity of thought and purpose). The second step is knowing the nature of the enemy: a thief will thieve, a predator will hunt its prey, and the enemy will spew enmity. Taken together, these words from Peter encourage us to be familiar with our surroundings and be clear about the dangers they contain. We are not commanded to cower in fear, assuming the worst, but to commit to face all that seeks to rob us of our joy, anticipating the best God has to offer. Every time we log onto the internet, we must be aware of the lion lurking. Every time we engage with the culture, we must maintain a clear mind so as not to miss what might be hiding in the shadows.
Be careful out there and be caring for one another. Friends don’t let friends be devoured by big cats.
[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.