For those of you living in Boston, today you will experience the earliest sunset of the year (4:11:38pm). This is both good news and bad news, since the length of your daylight will continue to decrease until December 20. Astronomically, we could say that these are dark days: for the next month, we will experience nearly 15 hours of ‘night’. Metaphorically, we can also say that these are dark days: everyday, through every media source, we witness incidences marked by a lack of direction, a lack of warmth or a lack of morality.
The Bible has much to say about darkness. It was the penultimate plague that was inflicted upon Egypt (Exodus 10:21). It is the dwelling place of God, as witnessed by Moses on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 20:11), by Solomon in the temple (1 Kings 8:12) and through the psalmist (Psalm 97:2). It was what overshadowed the cross of Christ for three hours during His crucifixion. It is the place of chaos (Genesis 1:2), temptation (Ephesians 5:11), ignorance (Matthew 6:23) and death (Job 10:21). It is the place of sinful desires (John 3:19) and the place without light (Acts 2:20) – lifeless, cold and confusing.
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. Isaiah 9:2
It seems that every day another man in authority is accused of harassment or abuse. It seems that every week there is another account of mass violence. The fact is that every moment is filled with an immoral act (a lie, a theft, an assault or an infidelity) somewhere in the world. There is no shortage of crimes suitable for the local and national news outlets, and those reported on at 6 and 11 are just the tip of the iceberg of what Robert Burns wrote as “man’s inhumanity to man”. We are people walking in darkness, shivering and stumbling in sin.
But in that darkness a light has dawned. This is not the flicker of a candle or a 100-watt lightbulb; it is more than the flashlight on your smartphone or a lighthouse on the coast. It is a great light, like the sun; it is the light of the world, which the Gospel of John tells us is the light of life. This light is Jesus, who has entered the darkness and overcome it. He is the source of life, purpose and power. He has destroyed the secrecy of temptation, the strangeness of confusion and the sting of death. Because of Christmas, the light has overwhelmed the darkness.
I hope that you delight in all the lights of Christmas – those on the trees, in candleholders, woven into sweaters, at church, on lawns and in the sky – and rejoice that the light of the world, the great light, has come into our world and has illumined our darkness. Perhaps this truth will enable us all to focus on the joy of this light and, perhaps, seek the goodwill of all those who walk with us during these dark days.
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
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.
The Red Sox are rebuilding, again. On Monday, they exited the playoffs with a season-ending loss at the hands of the Houston Astros. On Wednesday, the organization and the field manager parted ways, effectively ushering the hometown team into a season of transition and change. Rumors have already begun about trades and free-agent signings; only time will tell who will stay, who will go and who will join the team. Despite their recent successes (winning the American League East Division title for the last two seasons and winning the World Series five seasons ago), the team’s inability to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs was unacceptable. The front office personnel at Fenway Park has decided that the answer to “what have you done for me lately?” is “not enough”.
I am thankful the God does not have the same business plan as the Red Sox. I am grateful that a few seasons with less-than-optimal results (despite a modicum of success) does not disqualify me from being part of His team. I rejoice that when my production or power has waned, He will not replace me with someone who could do better. As opposed to a sport where, in 2017, a batter is nearly as likely to strike out (21.6% of all plate appearances) as get a hit (22.8% of all plate appearances), it is remarkable that the Lord allows us to miss the mark so frequently without relegating us to the bench.
…as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. Psalm 103:12
While most of us have never played baseball professionally, we all have our list of failures. We all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God. We all have stepped out of bounds and trespassed against one another. We all have made mistakes, lapses in judgement, erred and fouled up. We all have reasons why our dismissal would be warranted. We all have places in our track record where our disappointments greatly outnumber our successes. What does God offer us when we are in the midst of these less-than memorable moments? He offers us yet another chance to get it right.
The struggles of life and the challenges of baseball are surprisingly similar. I have never faced a 100mph fastball, but I imagine that making contact with the curveballs of life is equally difficult (considering how often I have swung and missed them). I have struck out relationally, flied out morally, grounded out conversationally, and fouled out professionally. I have never stood in front of the Green Monster at Fenway, but I have misplayed routine interactions and lost my focus while fielding temptations. Through it all, God has encouraged and corrected me, discipled and guided me, so that I would do better the next time.
The results of following the Red Sox and following Christ could not be more different. As a lifelong Red Sox fan, I am used to saying, “wait until next year” – when (hopefully) the big bat arrives, when the ace pitcher performs and when they win the pennant. As a Christian, I am used to saying, “forgive me” (as I strike out, underperform and fail) – which results in (certainly) His restoration of my soul and refreshment of my spirit. I will take God’s comfort over a hometown championship any day.
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.
“[A named loved one] was just in a car accident….” While this might not be the content of the worst possible phone call, it would certainly make the top (or the bottom) ten list. Fortunately for all involved, there were no physical injuries when a tow truck sideswiped the car my child was driving; in fact, the car was still drivable, sort of. The passenger side windows were smashed and the doors mangled above the hood/trunk line, but otherwise, the vehicle was intact. We were insured and the truck driver was found to be ‘at fault’, and so, after about a month of claims estimates, adjustments and body work the car was repaired and life has returned to normal.
Yet, life has not returned to normal. While I am truly grateful to God that the ramifications of this car accident were more or less cosmetic and that my loved one was unharmed, I am now worrying about the next time. I am aware that accidents are part of life and that no one is immune from tragedy. I am reminded that I cannot protect those closest to me from harm. The events of the last month had made me painfully cognizant that bad things happen to good (and bad) people. I have come to realize that any goodbye could be the last goodbye.
We wait in hope for the LORD; he is our help and our shield. Psalm 33:20
There are a great many things in which we can put our hope: our health, our wealth, our wits, our insurance policies, our retirement plans, our relationships, our government, or our religion. Unfortunately, all these things will eventually fail us. Every created thing has an expiration date, an ontological obsolescence, and will one day cease to perform their intended function. The only thing we can trust is what is uncreated: the living God, who has chosen to reveal Himself through His written word. Because He is outside the realm of chaos and decay that we inhabit, the Lord alone is worthy of our unrequited trust. He can help us and protect us from the dangers of this troublesome world.
God has a resolution to my most recent source of worry: He provides a means where we need never say ‘goodbye’ to those who we love. Simply stated, when we trust in the Lord Jesus Christ as our Savior (specifically, that He descended from heaven and became fully human, only to live a sinless life among us, die in our place and rise as victor over our sin) and our Lord (specifically, that He, in light of His sacrifice for us, has mastery over every aspect of our lives), we will live forever with God and His children. Knowing Jesus as my Lord and Savior, and knowing my children know Jesus as their Lord and Savior, allay my fears (mostly). I can say ‘goodbye’ and know, no matter what, it really means “see you later.”
That is the kind of peace of mind that no insurance company can provide.
As hard as it is for me to believe, I have been offering my ‘musings’ every week for over five years. I am certain that in that span of time my posts have repeatedly touched upon similar themes – the constancy of change, the ubiquity of hardship and the realities of domestic life. Hopefully, I have been faithful in my appreciation of God’s amazing grace throughout all the ups and downs of life and the ever-changing challenges and joys of ministry in ‘hub of the universe’. I would like to think, having chronicled my thoughts for all this time, that the process has enabled me to glorify the Lord.
However, as soon as I think that I have made some progress in my reliance upon the goodness of God, I have mornings like Wednesday. As I was walking up to the church in anticipation of a great day at vacation Bible school, I noticed a caravan of DPW trucks stationed across the street from the church’s driveway. It seems that the sidewalk needed to be replaced and that Wednesday, July 26, was the day that the work needed to begin. I believe that I may have mumbled something under my breath that questioned if the cosmic forces were conspiring against me.
But nothing catastrophic happened: the work crew did their exacting work, the cars all navigated the serpentine route down Ashmont Street, and all the children who were planning on attending VBS arrived and enjoyed the program. In fact, some great things occurred, despite my initial fears to the contrary: God blessed us with a dozen children and more than a dozen volunteers (including a few new faces); the weather was gloriously mild (enabling the kids to play in the back lot); and I was utterly fascinated by the choreography of the ten DPW workers, each with a unique set of tasks, as they replaced the sidewalk when they returned to finish the job on Thursday. I was assuming that my glass was half empty and, as usual, God gave me the whole cow.
Over and over again, God grants me grace despite my ‘doom and gloom’ prognostications. I worry that the trucks will impede my plans, but God has something better in mind. Over and over again, God sends showers of blessings when I expect damaging rains. I question my circumstances, but God has answers I could never imagine. When I think to myself that the sky is falling, my ‘Chicken Little’ mentality only serves to discourage me when God seeks to encourage my soul. I must choose to trust in the One who causes the sun to rise and set with the details of my day.
“But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” 1 Corinthians 15:57 (ESV)
I suppose that the busyness of our street the other morning (and all the other things in life that are not going as I would prefer) has reminded me that I need to set my focus on God’s promises and not my problems. As I have been hearing at VBS this week, above the din of activity across the street, God is mighty. How foolish of me to wonder if God could still accomplish His will when a couple of trucks are blocking the way (He CAN!).
What a difference five months makes. On Monday, July 3rd, when there was nothing but repeats on television, I flipped through the channels, finally arriving upon the programming of the NFL network. They were rebroadcasting Super Bowl LI, which took place on Sunday, February 5th. I sat in my recliner, celebrating the eve of Independence Day, and watched ‘America’s New Team’, the New England Patriots, contend against the Atlanta Falcons for the Lombardi Trophy and professional football’s championship.
I watched the game when it was broadcast live. I was optimistic when the 1st quarter ended with neither team scoring. That optimism waned as Atlanta held a 21-3 lead as Lady Gaga took the field for the halftime show. The hopes of a 5th championship nearly disappeared when the Falcons scored one more time midway through the 3rd quarter. 28-3. No one had ever overcome as much as a 14-point deficit in the Super Bowl, and now the Pats were down by 25. Maybe the Patriots were not as good as their fans imagined. I remember watching with unbelief and sadness that the hometown team was going down to utter defeat. I remember thinking that perhaps New England could, at the very least, make the game competitive.
Watching the replay of the game earlier this week was a much different experience. I was not troubled by Tom Brady’s early and poorly thrown interception. I was unaffected by Gostkowski’s missed point-after attempt. I delighted in the ineptitude of the New England defense in the 1st half and the Atlanta offense in the 2nd half. The final 23 minutes were when all the fun took place. 28-3. 28-9. 28-12. 28-20. Edelman’s miracle catch with 2 minutes and change to go in the game. 28-28. The Super Bowl was going into overtime for the first time in the history of the game. Patriots win the coin toss. 34-28. Patriots win. NFL Champions. Queue up the duck-boats.
It takes an emotional toll on a spectator when the outcome remains unknown, but there is no trepidation when that same spectator knows how it all will end. That was the difference between February 5th and July 3rd. The second broadcast was thoroughly enjoyable – even the bad plays and the foolish fouls – because I knew that the New England Patriots were victorious.
Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. 1 Thessalonians 4:13
This is how those who know Christ as Lord and Savior ought to think about the future, just like we were reviewing a recorded sporting event. We know how it ends. We need not hopelessly grieve as if we are unaware of the outcome. We can, and should, anticipate the blessed hope of Christ’s victory over sin, death and Satan. We will certainly have periods of awfulness and ache, but they will lose their power in light of the impending joy at the conclusion of our journey.
In the words of Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman, “Hey! Let’s go, boys. It’s going to be a hell of a story.”
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.
Recently, I had the opportunity to deliver a sermon on one of my favorite Bible passages: Mark 4:35-41. This portion of scripture recounts Jesus’ stilling of the storm. I find this section of God’s word particularly impactful because of the question someone in the boat asks of Jesus: “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” That is a question that each one of us has asked (or will ask) whoever we understand to be our Supreme Being when our lives are on the brink of shipwreck. When we come to the end of ourselves, when our brains and our brawn have been exhausted, we all want to know if God will be there to deliver us from danger.
From the very beginning of their voyage, everyone in the boat knew Jesus’ command – “Let us go over to the other side.” Their problem was that they lacked a full understanding of who was resting in the boat with them; they failed to recognize that the man who fell asleep amid the rising swells was God the Son. They did not recognize that the one who directed the disciples to cross the sea would not lie or be denied. They were unable to comprehend that, no matter how strong the storm (and even if the boat was sunk), they would make it through the wind and waves safe to the other side. They were going to survive those frightening hours because God keeps His promises. We, too, will survive the storm.
This inability to recognize Jesus as anything more than a teacher, an expert in the Law of God, is the crux of this account. It has always fascinated me that the disciples, at least four of whom had years of nautical experience as fishermen, would wake the resting Rabbi for assistance. Perhaps this question of concern was founded in their thought that a “man of God” was blessed by God and His prayers would avail much. Maybe they remembered His miraculous power expressed in healing and deliverance, thinking that maybe He could act miraculously again. The point is, someone in that boat thought that Jesus was special and wondered if He could save them. We, too, have times when we wonder if Jesus can save us.
Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. 1 Peter 5:7 (NIV)
Why did Jesus calm the sea? He did not still the waves to assure safe passage; that would have happened anyway. He did not rebuke the wind to demonstrate His power over the natural order; they already knew He could do that. He did all this to bring peace to the hearts of twelve frightened grown men; He showed that He cared for them, not just their circumstances. The danger in reading passages like this that it can lead us to assume that God will always tame the troubles that terrify us. That would miss the point that Jesus came to tame our fear, not simply take them away.
We all have anxious moment when we wonder if God cares, or even know, about us. Here is a reminder that He does. He cares enough to weather the storms with us and still the storms within us.