[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.
Allow me to state, up front, that I cannot understand, as a middle-aged white man, the frustrations and fears which are associated with being a person of color in America. I cannot honestly declare that I know what it feels like to be stopped by the police based primarily, if not solely, upon the color of my skin. I have no frame of reference where I am able to equate walking in my community with the possibility of being attacked. While I cannot express empathy (where we would share in a mutual emotion) with those mourning and protesting across the country, I can and do express sympathy (where we come alongside one another as we share our unique experiences).
What I can do, as a minister of the gospel and pastor of a city-cited church, is listen to the voices of the oppressed and marginalized. I can also share relevant and revelatory biblical truth. To do that, I would like to share something that someone smarter than me has said:
The Scripture is what tells us that the idolization of the flesh is sin (Gal. 5:16-24), that hatred of those made in the image of God is sin (1 Jn. 3:11-15), that mistreating people with the justice system is sin (Prov. 17:15; 23:10), that ignoring the cries of those being mistreated is sin (Deut. 23:14-15; Jas. 5:4). And the Scripture tells us that that sin, without repentance, brings the judgment of God (Rom. 6:23). That is true not only for those who personally rebel against God’s holiness and justice but also those who “give approval to those who practice them” (Rom. 1:32). That is a dreadful reality, to which those of us in Christ are called to serve as ambassadors pleading, as though Christ were pleading through us, “be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20). – Russell Moore
Each and every human being is made in the image of God. Each and every human being is fearfully and wonderfully made by the Almighty. Each and every human being is God’s handiwork and created in Christ Jesus to do good work. While holding tight to these truths, we also hold onto the biblical mandate to care for and champion the cause of those whose voices have been silenced: in the time of Christ and the apostles, the voiceless were the widows and orphans, the sick and unclean, the Samaritans and the Gentiles; in our day, they are people of color, as well as the homeless, the hungry and the trafficked.
To follow Christ means to follow Christ. Jesus was a member of the favored demographic, albeit from a back-water region of the nation, who confronted injustice and spoke for the down-trodden. He had his own challenges (he had no place to lay his head and was harassed by the authorities) but remained diligent in making sure that the issues and concerns of the dismissed were addressed. We are to follow Him along that same path. We must stand in opposition to injustice, hear the cries of those who have been silenced and labor to ensure that the dividing wall of hostility, which Christ destroyed, remains dismantled.
May the needed changes come through the people of God.
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.
It is incredible what can change in a week. Grade schools were still in session, restaurants were open and traffic into the city was bogged down with its usual congestion. The developments and press conferences that we’ve watched daily have given new meaning to “cancel culture”. We are now required to understand new terms like social distancing, COVID-19 and pandemic. As we, together as a global community, deal with the ramifications of all these changes, join with me in praying for those most deeply impacted: those with fragile health, that the precautions we all take will protect those most in danger; those who own, manage and/or are employed by small businesses that cannot operate ‘from home’, that the economic realities of this crisis will not lead to financial ruin; students, school staffs, educators and administrators, that the ramifications of time away will be mitigated by online community and instruction.
I am aware that some are afraid – fearful of infection, fearful of loss, fearful in uncertainty. I share your fears. I am concerned that someone in my family will get sick. I am anxious for the church and her continuing ministry should we be unable to meet for a month or more. For me, this week has been like an unending snowstorm. When it snows in greater Boston during the weekend, my anxiety level increases as I contemplate cancellations and the results of not gathering. I somehow think that the faith of God in the congregation depends upon 70 minutes of impactful worship and if we cannot get together, all hell will break loose (literally and figuratively).
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Matthew 16:18 (ESV)
The snow will stop falling. The pandemic will end. The world will go back to normal. God will still reign.
So, I am choosing to count the blessings. Blessing 1: political divisions have given way to community interest; instead of dividing over red and blue policies, we are uniting in our shared concern for one another. Blessing 2: optional fellowship has given way to intentional connecting; instead of engaging with others on our terms, I am seeing more interactions motivated by love. Blessing 3: a new appreciation for our schools and day-care providers; the creativity of emergency on-line learning, the providing of lunches and instruction and the healthy interactions of adults with our children are amazing. Blessing 4: the advancements in technology; with live-streaming, video conferencing, on-line giving, telecommuting, e-commerce and news apps, most can stay connected even when we practice social distancing. Blessing 5: free time with family for reading, recreation and rest.
As we continue to weather this storm, I encourage you to come up with your own list of unforeseen blessings this crisis has given you. I also encourage you to be a blessing to those around you – bring toilet paper to an elderly neighbor, order take-out to support a struggling establishment or call an old friend.
God will prevail.
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After watching the local news recently, I have come to the conclusion that most of us are obsessed with safety. We are willing to do whatever is required to be safe from illness, as is evident by the shortages of bottled water and hand sanitizer at our nation’s ‘big box’ retailers to prevent the spread of COVID-19. We are willing to invest significant resources to be safe from crime, installing video doorbells and high-tech security systems to prevent break-ins. Our hearts break due to our insecurities arising from natural disasters, expecting that sirens and first responders ought to keep us from the harm of tornados or wildfire. We expect that we, and those we love, ought to be safe from the dangers of life.
Despite all our sacrifices at the altar of safety, we remain at risk. Emergency rooms across the country will still be filled today with those who suffered injury. Prisons throughout the world will be filled today with people unjustly convicted to serious crimes. Homeless shelters and food banks in urban areas will be filled by individuals and families who have been ravaged by systemic poverty. We will continue to face illness and injustice. We will be overshadowed by disaster and need. We will be plagued with injury and crime. No matter what we give – offering our power, our possessions and our priorities – safety is persistently fickle.
It is for many a troubling reality that God does not promise safety for those who follow Him. However, we can be comforted by the reality that He does promise us Himself.
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 (NIV)
“I will be with you” – through the waters and through the flames. In the Bible, references to water typically represent chaos (e.g. the creation narrative) and references to fire typically represent judgement (e.g. the book of Revelation). We all know that life can be chaotic, messy and disruptive. When it is, and we feel unsafe, we can take comfort in the truth that God is with us. We also know that life is filled with the consequences of bad acts, committed by our own hands or by the hands of others. When it is, and we feel like the world is conspiring against us for our ruin, we can have peace in the truth that God is with us through it all.
We can choose to put our faith and trust in the thoughts and plans birthed by human ingenuity or put our faith and trust in the one who designed and created every human mind. We are wise when we take precautions, refusing to be consumed by the fears that come with uncertainty and insecurity. Whatever you face this week, you should know that God goes with you. This world is a scary place, but thankfully we are never alone.
When we were vacationing last week, we spent a few hours with our nephew and his family. As we were walking through their backyard, our niece-in-law was showing us her extensive garden. She showed us the lettuce and carrots, some of which had been eaten by rascally rabbits. Then, pointing to some large leaves (which we speculated might have been collard greens or kale), she said, “Those were supposed to be beets, but I think the seeds were mislabeled.” I admit that I do not have a green thumb, but I have grown a few vegetables over the years; what I know about seeds is simple – that many of them look similar and it is not until you see their growth that you know for sure what they will produce.
This reality has reminded me of two biblical truths, one positive and one negative. First, the ‘bad news’: Jesus taught his disciples that you don’t pick figs from thornbushes. Next, the ‘good news’: God’s good creation is designed in such a way that every plant produces fruit according to its kind.
By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Matthew 7:16-18 (NIV)
You don’t pick grapes from thornbushes. You don’t pick figs from thistles. You don’t plant carrots and get apples. Cucumber seeds produce cucumbers, even when they are labeled as tomato seeds. The biblical truth (and agricultural truth) is that you get what you planted, not what you thought you planted. This is, however, not all bad news. Some of us, those who were labeled as “stupid” or “damaged” or “worthless”, need to be reminded that our envelope doesn’t determine our end. We are what we are, not what others say we are.
Every plant produces fruit according to its kind. The rosebush produces roses. The pea plant produces peas. The grapevine produces grapes. You understand my point. Even though we might be mislabeled or missorted, we all are capable of producing, and only producing, fruit in accordance with our nature. When we are properly fed, watered and pruned, we are all beneficial. This is, unequivocally, good news: God has made you, just as you are, so that you will produce your own particular kind of fruit. You can do no other task.
Susan’s garden, and the scriptural musings that those plants by the back fence have piqued, have left me with a question: what were you born to do? Whatever the answer, regardless of the ways you’ve been labeled, cultivate your core and bear fruit accordingly. Allow yourself to be fed by God over time and develop deep roots. Creatively pursue the passions of your heart, knowing that the fruit of an apple tree, for example, could be a cider, a sauce or a pie. The world needs what only you can offer.
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.
This month, as we have in previous years, my wife, Jeanine, and I are attempting to see all the movies that have been nominated for the best picture Oscar©. Due to this challenge, we watched Sam Mendes’ World War I drama 1917, which depicts a harrowing day experienced by two British soldiers. I cannot say, at this point, if I would vote for it as the best picture (we still have a few more films to see), but I will say that it has one of the most moving scenes I have watched on film in quite a while. After facing the vast variety of experiences that comes with each life – from the beauty of cherry blossoms in bloom to the gruesome ravages of war – one of the film’s protagonists hears the haunting words of a Civil War folk song called “The Wayfaring Stranger”.
I am a poor wayfaring stranger
Travelling through this world of woe.
And there’s no sickness, no toil or danger
In that fair land to which I go.
I’m going there to meet my father,
I’m going there no more to roam;
I’m only going over Jordan,
I’m only going over home.
I know dark clouds will gather round me,
I know my way will be rough and steep;
But golden fields lie out before me
Where all the saints their vigils keep.
I’m going there to meet my mother,
I’m going there no more to roam;
I’m only going over Jordan,
I’m only going over home.
I thought about that song this week, as the news cycles repeatedly reminded us of the brokenness inherent within each life – young people whose lives were taken much too soon, others who were struck by a viral epidemic, and governmental leaders accused of high crimes and misdemeanors. We are all traveling through this world of woe. I wonder how many are facing the realities of sickness, toil and danger with the perspective referenced in this song from a previous generation. Despite fifteen decades of advances in medicine, technology, education and civility, we are still “wayfaring strangers”.
Instead, they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. Hebrews 11:16 (NIV)
In those seasons of sorrow, be assured that there is a land – prepared for all who trust in the benevolence of God – that is devoid of sadness, filled with golden fields and occupied by those we love. The physical world we see every day is not all that there is or all that God has provided for us; there is a home that is awaiting all those who are aware that it is just beyond our gaze. There is a war still being waged all around us, despite the occasional glimpses of beauty. There is also a place of peace with boundless splendor awaiting those who faithfully traverse the rugged terrain of earth.
As depicted in 1917, there are circumstances in life when we are faced with exhaustion and entertain thoughts of surrender. In those moments, remember that Christ has prepared for us a home.
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.