Happy belated Thanksgiving. There is just something special about spending this holiday with loved ones. One of the things that make the fourth Thursday in November Thanksgiving is tradition. We all have traditions: some prepare a fresh turkey and others roast a frozen one (or, God forbid, a ham); some will eat white meat while others will choose dark meat; for many families, it is anathema to make anything other than cracker stuffing, oyster stuffing, bread stuffing or dressing (whether it is in the bird, in a casserole dish or by stove top); even the vegetables are traditional, with a specific assortment of corn, turnips, pearl onions, green beans, squashes or peas; we will have cornbread, rolls or breads, but never all three; desserts are equally particular, with some preferring apple, blueberry, or squash pie and others wanting pumpkin or mince – and that is just questions about the food. Is it your tradition to play football or watch the parade before dinner or watch football or take a nap afterward?
No matter what we enjoy at the table (as well the joys of companionship before or after), there is something different about Thanksgiving and that difference is categorized by one word: abundance. When I was growing up, I was raised by a single parent who could afford few luxuries. We always had sufficient, but rarely had more … except on Thanksgiving. We always had a large fresh turkey with mounds of mashed potatoes and bowls of veggies. There were pies for dessert and ample leftovers for sandwiches later in the day. I have vivid memories of the bounty that my mother provided on a fixed budget.
You crown the year with your bounty, and your carts overflow with abundance. Psalm 65:11
As we think of the abundance we have experienced, it is fitting to express gratitude to God. While our culture celebrates abundance once a year, God bounteous goodness is presence every day. The psalmist declares that at His table our cup overflows. One of the prophets declared that the heavens contain greater blessings than we could ever store. In his parables, He tells of a wedding feast where there is no shortage of food. One of Christ’s most treasured promises is that he came to us to give us a life of abundance. One aspect of God’s divine nature is His grace, His unmerited favor, abundant and free. And because of His abundance, we respond with gratitude.
Give thanks to God for His provisional abundance, we who live in the wealthiest region in the world. Give thanks to God for His spiritual abundance, we who have His word as near as our smartphone and His Spirit even nearer. Give thanks to God for His sensational abundance, we who have a richness of experiences in sound and sight rivaling any other time in history. Give thanks to God for His informational abundance, we who are blessed with the digital super highway and the best scholars at our fingertips.
Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow!
All my life I have been encouraged to be a good boy (or a good man). Growing up, I must have heard the command to “be good” a thousand times, whether it was just before visiting a friend’s house or the local library. After I was particularly incorrigible as a child, I was warned that I might be dropped off at the “bad boy store” by my frustrated mother – in hindsight, I recognize the absurdity of the reality of this establishment, but at the time the notion that I could be chattel for this nefarious business worked well in keeping me on the straight and narrow. However, I was not always a good boy.
As I grew up into manhood, I have tried to be a good man. I think I have succeeded, to a greater of lesser degree. However, “the bad man store” may have a new item for sale. In my defense, the event I am about to describe occurred during the Patriots game on Sunday. As I was watching the game (the outcome of which at the time was still in question), trouble came to our house. As she was making sure our youngest was ready for bed, my wife hit her head – hard – on the upper bunk of the boys’ bed. While there was no blood, there was a bump. It least that is what I was told. I had little compassion and provided no care. I was not a good husband or a good father. I was wrong, and I sincerely apologize to my wife for my lapse in judgement. I am not always a good man.
When I became a follower of Christ, I tried to be a good Christian. I have a long list of good and godly behaviors – with appropriate measures of church attendance, charitable giving and acts of service – but I am not a good Christian. I am in danger of being shipped off to the “bad Christian store” because my practice of the faith is incomplete, my priority of Christ’s lordship is inconsistent and my passion for the gospel is anemic. I continue to sin. I continue to fail. I do not pray as much as I should nor share my faith as frequently as I should. I am not always a good Christian.
But who can discern their own errors? Forgive my hidden faults. Psalm 19:12
My problem is that I am lulled into believing that I am (overall) good. I compare myself to others and I see myself as measuring up pretty well against the competition. But, as the Psalm above states, I am unable to rightly evaluate my own goodness. I need forgiveness for the things I cannot see in myself. I need the truth of God to be my standard and not my own heightened sense of self. In comparison to the standards of the Scriptures (which are beneficial for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness), I am, by nature, a bad boy, a bad man and a bad Christian.
But that is not how God sees me: because I have trusted Jesus as Lord and Savior, I have been justified (declared not guilty by God through His acceptance of Christ’s sacrificial satisfaction of God’s wrath) and sanctified (anointed, appointed and equipped to accomplish His will). I am seen by God as good, and that motivates me to demonstrate this divinely imbued goodness. It also motivates me to remember that this goodness is not from me, but from the one who redeemed me so that I might do some good. I thank God that He enables me to be a good person, a sinner saved by His grace.
My heart remains heavy as I process the events of Sunday morning in Sutherland Springs, TX. According to numerous news sources, a man parked his truck at a gas station, walked across the street with a number of weapons and then opened fire on those around and within the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs as they gathered for the 11AM worship service. Twenty-six men, women and children were killed and more than 20 others were injured, leading to the pastor’s wife, Sherri Pomeroy, saying, “Most of our church family is gone….” The only word I am left with is this: tragic.
In the aftermath of this ever-increasingly common tragedy, numerous ‘shapers of culture’ (celebrities, politicians and media consultants) have said many things about many topics, and I am not sufficiently knowledgeable about the details of this event nor of its legal implications to offer my commentary. What I do know is this: there is no place on earth where we will be perfectly safe. We deceive ourselves if we think that churches or schools or country music concerts make those therein impervious to danger and risk. We are being unrealistic if we imagine that locks and detectors keep us far from harm.
(Jesus asked,) “Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” Luke 13:4-5
The bad news is this – bad things happen every day. Disease of the body and disease of the spirit is present in every place humanity dwells. There are earthquakes and hurricanes that devastate vast areas. There are wildfires and droughts that destroy lives and livelihoods. There are acts of violence that damage souls and bring death to innocents. There is little we can do about these things and nothing will prevent them from happening should they seek our demise. The bad news is that we cannot prevent what is evil from being evil. The bad news is that we are not safe.
However, there is good news. While we cannot prevent bad things from occurring, we can prepare for them, so that death by whatever circumstance cannot rob us of our relationships and our life. We have nothing to fear since we can claim the promise Jesus has made to all those who trust in Him
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” John 11:25-26
While it is true that life on earth is not safe, it also true that the God who loves us has provided us with blessings that can never be taken away. There are blessings beyond this physical realm – redemption, restoration, reunion and resurrection – that no act of violence or “act of God” that can rescind.
I hope and pray that the odds fall in your favor, that life-taking evil does not visit your camp. I also hope and pray that should your last day on earth occur much earlier than you planned, you will have prepared for this eventuality and placed your full faith in the One who provides life after death.
Image by DAVID J. PHILLIP / AP
For those of you discouraged by a 4:32PM Sunset in Boston on Sunday, you will be glad to know that an 11-member panel, created by the Massachusetts Legislature last year, spent months examining the pros and cons of effectively establishing daylight saving time year-round and eliminating the practice of setting clocks forward and back twice every year. Their decision: move the Commonwealth into the Atlantic Time Zone (aligning ourselves with the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island) if all the Northeast region (including New York) agrees to change their time zone with us.
This strikes me as nothing more than a hollow victory. The commission’s trouble with “going it alone” is that transportation, broadcasting schedules and sporting events could all be adversely affected. I, for one, could get used to The Tonight Show at 12:35AM, football at 2PM and early flights from Logan at 7 in the morning. It would be a challenge calibrating ourselves with the rest of the country, but I would be willing to try. But, because it is nearly impossible to buck the cultural norms, we in the Northeast will not experience a sunset after 5PM until February 4th; the groundhog may see the sun before I will during my drive home from work.
And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. 2 Timothy 2:24
Speaking of cultural norms, we were discussing the above referenced verse of scripture and my wife remarked at how difficult it is to keep the little details of this passage. If you think changing your Time Zone is counter-cultural, try not quarreling or being kind to everyone or releasing resentment.
- Anyone familiar with social media knows that quarreling (or fighting) is our national pastime: there are posts (and then comments about those posts) that are divisive and combative, attacking the “opposition” both personally and indiscriminately. A follower of Christ ought not engage in these senseless squabbles.
- If you are a driver, you know that kindness is in short supply. I realize that someone allowing me to turn into traffic is unrealistic, but I do wonder if honking the horn as the light turns green or passing on the right (through unoccupied parking spaces) on a single lane street or ignoring the ‘right lane must turn’ sign and weaving to the left at dangerous speeds are necessary. A few verses after the above passage, Paul tells Timothy that he should be gentle with those who oppose his teaching; a follower of Christ should be restrained in exercising whatever power that follower has.
- Life, no matter how it is lived, will contain times of deep disappointment. All but one team finishes the season without a title. Every person will find oneself in one sort of line or another, and whatever line you find yourself in, the other one is moving faster…and has fewer bitter and angry people occupying it. A follower of Christ should release resentment as soon as it is sensed.
God has called us to – and equipped us for – better than our culture prescribes. No matter what time we find ourselves in, we are called to be counter-cultural: peaceable, kind and hopeful. I suspect those godly attributes will be highly regarded during the long nights ahead.
There has been a series of conversations at our house about what costume our 9-year-old son will be wearing on Halloween. He has decided that his costume will be made from a cardboard box (he feels that it is tradition: in past years, he has been a Lego®, a birdhouse, a television, and a clock). Beyond that, the options are incalculable: he could go out into the neighborhood disguised as a board game, a rocket ship, a refrigerator or a hundred other ‘boxy’ things. For one night a year, my son will get the opportunity to pretend that he is someone or something else.
When he gets older, he will get the opportunity to pretend that he is someone or something else all the time. Lord willing, he will learn how to fashion and wear a mask to disguise his true self in the business world, the social spaces and marketplace. We all, as we mature, put on masks to protect our frail vulnerabilities and preserve our fragile sensitivities. We all learn that there are things about us that we choose to keep to ourselves: we temper our opinions, our preferences and our accomplishments to avoid being rejected by those around us. We all wear masks and pretend that we belong.
Except, we cannot wear the masks all the time. They chafe upon us and distort our vision. They prevent us from expressing our emotions and enjoying nourishment. So, we take them off and show ourselves to those we love and to those who love us. In those moments we find comfort and strength in being know as we truly are.
Beside all this, there is one who knows us, whether we don our masks or not; the one who created us knows us completely. We cannot hide our thoughts from Him. We cannot keep our opinions from Him. We cannot shield our motives from His eyes. It serves no purpose to wear a disguise in His presence, as He see through our cardboard boxes and knows who we are. There is a word in the New Testament that describes our attempts at pretending we are someone or something else, a word which literally means ‘a play actor’: hypocrite. It is this word that Jesus uses to describe those who perform a role in public places to protect themselves:
“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. … And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. … When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting.” Matthew 6:2, 5, 16
One night a year is sufficient time to wear a costume and pretend that you are a superhero or a celebrity or a washing machine. Perhaps you will need a disguise at the next corporate outing or family reunion. You need not wear these things just to make people like you. You need to know that the One who made you knows what is behind your mask, and loves you just as you are.
This Sunday afternoon, in celebration of my 20 years of service, Calvary Community Church will be putting on a luncheon in my honor. While I loathe being the center of attention, I am grateful for the gesture of love and appreciation. The irony of this event is that, while it recognizes that I have been pastoring the same church for two decades, I have not actually been pastoring in the same ministry for 20 years. In a post a few weeks ago, I wrote that most of the congregants have changed over my tenure. But that is not the only thing that has changed since 1997.
Our culture, and therefore our church’s ministry, has changed in the last few years. Some of these changes have been stylistic – from organ accompaniment to piano or from singing with hymnals in hand to projecting digital images of lyrics – but some of the changes have been profound:
- Our society was changed by terrorism (September 11, 2001) – our world, including our expressions of faith, changed when planes crashed into the World Trade Center Towers, the Pentagon and a field in rural Pennsylvania. Some were drawn to God, some were repelled. But ministry changed…we were no longer invincible, no longer safe, no longer favored. New questions were raised and doubts about God’s benevolence and power surfaced, leaving the church to offer hope to the newly hopeless.
- Our society redefined tolerance (November 18, 2003) – our moral landscape changed when the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts upheld a lower court’s ruling in the case of Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health, thereby legalizing the marriage of two consenting adults without regard to gender. The law of the land (ultimately upheld by the Supreme Court of the US) thus conflicted with the traditional interpretation of the Bible and local congregations were required to again consider questions thought inconceivable to prior generations.
- Our society was given untethered access to technology (June 29, 2007) – our understanding of media and knowledge changed when Apple released the IPhone, allowing anyone with the resources to afford the phone and the service plan access to the internet virtually anywhere. Seemingly overnight, we went from transferring information conversationally to transferring it electronically. We heightened our levels of awareness and distraction with our ability to record and transmit everything. We began engaging in social media and neglected social interaction. The church, whether it was ready or not, was required to engage with the digital world while maintaining its historically relational and textual characteristics.
- Our society embraced a new form of activism (September 17, 2011) – our involvement with the world around us changed when people gathered for Occupy Wall Street, ushering in a new style of activism that blended the orchestration of peaceful assembly with the spontaneity of a flash mob. Diverse groups of individuals were able to communicate their dissatisfaction with cultural oppression en masse, without designated leadership, and have their voices heard. This led to other groups (e.g. Black Lives Matter and Women’s March) raising awareness of the plight of the disadvantaged. The church, who has championed the cause of the downtrodden for centuries, is now beginning to embrace this social activism as young Christians lead the saints into a world where there is justice for all.
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Hebrews 13:8 (NIV)
In a few weeks, I am going to participate in a young man’s Ordination Council (a gathering of denominational leaders who interact with a candidate’s statement of theology, challenging the candidate to think deeply about their philosophy and content of ministry). I remember my Ordination Council in 1999. I was so young, so naïve, so sure of what I believed. Then, over the past two decades, the landscape shifted in profound ways. However, no matter how the culture may change, the Christ remains the same. The message has never wavered, whether it is recorded in ink or pixels. A culture worried with terrorism and wearied by intolerance has been washed in the Blood of Jesus. A culture steeped in technology and straining for justice has been saved from sin through the sacrifice. The church has changed over the past twenty years – as the adage goes, “You could not step twice into the same river” – but the Gospel remains the same. And so we shall continue to share the good news until all have heard it.
I heard the following quote from a podcast earlier this week:
“If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” – G.K. Chesterton
Upon hearing it, I did a quick Google© search to check its veracity. It is, in fact, genuine. Chesterton (a writer, poet and lay theologian from England) did write these words at the end of the fourteenth chapter of his 1910 book What’s Wrong with the World. The context for the quote was the education of children and the point of his comments were to do what is necessary, even if it is done poorly.
Our society, at first blush, seems to contradict Chesterton’s words by telling us that if it is worth doing, it is worthy doing well. Chesterton’s point, and my reasoning for quoting him, does not disagree with this prevailing wisdom. When we endeavor to accomplish a task – in the home, in the workplace or in the church – we ought to do our best. We must not enter into the essential activities of life half-heartedly. That being said, we rarely are able to accomplish our best, whether it be due to an inaccessibility of resources, an insufficiency of energy or a lack of passion.
When our best work and our real work are incongruent, we tend to get discouraged, and when we get discouraged, we quit. We flip the above-stated cultural mandate on its head and think to ourselves, “if I cannot do this well, I should not do it at all.” That is where Chesterton comes in, reminding us that it is perfectly acceptable to do something, even if it is done badly. We are always to do things to the best of our abilities, understanding that there are days when our best is bad. On those days, instead of giving up the fight, we can resolve to do better the next time.
My life is full of moments when I am doing what is worth doing, but doing it badly. There are times when I am hungry and I diet badly. There are times when I am angry and communicate badly. There are times when I am lonely and manage my time badly. There are times when I am tired and pray with the family badly. There are times when I preach badly, teach badly, father badly, husband badly, perform sonly duties badly and witness badly. But I do not quit, and instead commit to doing better the next time.
But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 2 Corinthians 4:7
As Paul reminded the early church in Corinth, we are simple, easily broken, earthen vessels. Anything we do, any excellence we accomplish, any power we display is not from us; it is from God. We cannot (and are not expected to) do everything well every time. We will, occasionally, do things badly. But we will do them because they are worth doing. I pray we all will always be doing good, even when we can only do it badly.
Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Galatians 6:9 (NIV)
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.