Tag Archives: joy

Needed Change

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.

Painted Rocks and Disposable Masks

It began, for me, on a Sunday afternoon a number of weeks ago as we were dropping something off at the home of a church member – we saw a small painted rock, a bit of cheer during this challenging time, on the curbstone in front of their house.  Since that time, I have been seeing painted rocks, many with inspirational slogans, all over the neighborhood as we walk.  They have been placed on stoops and in side yards, gathered around trees and set upon fenceposts.  I have no idea who put them there or when, but I do appreciate the lift they give my soul as I encounter them.

These are not the only rocks I walk by, mind you.  My ambling has enabled me to observe cornerstones, surveyor’s marks, painted sea walls, an old milestone, gravestones and etched building facades, all sharing a story, a memory and a history.  These stones, painted or chiseled, are permanent reminders of fleeting realities.  They are prompts to remember our collective past.  They represent to all those who travel by them that that building was once the Massachusetts Fields School or that this particular street was once the main route to Boston.  They mark lives and industries, they represent hope and heartache, they tell stories.

Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen.  He named it Ebenezer, saying, “Thus far the LORD has helped us.”  1 Samuel 7:12

As I see all these stones around me, I have been reminded of Samuel and his ‘Ebenezer’ (a Hebrew compound word which means, literally, ‘stone of remembrance’).  Samuel did not want to forget God’s faithfulness, so he erected a rock in the middle of a clearing to remember the event.  We could benefit from the same practice: we could experience so much joy if, as we moved about the trails of our lives we were given permanent prompts to remind us of God’s faithfulness throughout the trials of our lives.

I have been thinking about those stones as we navigate the current crisis.  I have been thinking about the ‘things’ that have suddenly found their way onto all of our counters and tabletops and have taken up residence in all of our cars.  I have begun to see the disposable face masks, the bottles of hand sanitizer and the drums of disinfecting wipes as ‘Ebenezers’ –  no longer do they serve as a reminder of a deadly virus but also as a reminder of the Lord who has helped us thus far, of the God who is delivering us through these tough times.

Ebenezers are all around us, if we are careful enough to notice them.  They are the permanent and unchanging objects, infused with meaningful memories, that surround us.  They are painted rocks and markings on a door frame.  They are hospital bracelets and broken wristwatches.  They are considered junk by everyone but us; to us, they are the epitome of joy.  They are the containers that hold the memories of God’s faithfulness and the tangible touchpoints reminding us that thus far the Lord has helped us.  They are precious indeed.

Hearing and Caring

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.

Share the Good New

We, as a family, had a busy weekend.

Despite the fact that we were still under a ‘stay-at-home’ advisory, we were blessed on Saturday to attend the college graduation my daughter, Rebekah.  We listened to a powerful commencement address by noted scholar and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. (live from his home in Cambridge, MA) and witnessed the conferral of degrees by American University President Sylvia Burwell.  We even saw our daughter’s name printed on the screen as her school and degree program was listed.  After the digital festivities, we enjoyed cake and dinner as a family.  While it was much less than we all dreamed, it was wonderful in its own right.

Sunday was Mother’s Day and we celebrated the mother of 19 Vassall Street, Jeanine, with our family’s tradition of feasting on Chinese food (although this year it had to be take-out).  This was followed by phone calls to the grandmothers, Carolyn and Pauline (both being hundreds of miles away), and then we concluded the day playing some family games (namely, Clue and Jackbox).  It was a blessing having all six of us together for both these special occasions.

Before I go on, know that I want life to return to some semblance of normal as soon as possible.  That said, I am going to look back at these days (at some point in the distant future) and miss some of the repercussions of sequestered living.  I am going to miss the sheer amount of time I am engaging with those I love: I am seeing my children and wife more and making more calls than usual.  I am going to miss the collective compassion of the community: we are supporting charities and offering kindnesses to a greater degree than any other time I can remember.  I am going to miss the ingenuity of so many in celebrating life: the creativity exhibited through the ideas, activities and resources that are being initiated (drive-by birthday parades, apartment complex concerts, miniature golf courses in hallways and back yards, proms / graduations / weddings / recitals held together at home) is staggering.

And as for you, brothers and sisters, never tire of doing what is good.  2 Thessalonians 3:13 (NIV)

Can we agree today, before we move on from this horrible season of death and disease, that we will continue to do what is good.  Will we agree that we will still check on the vulnerable among us when we no longer need to?  Will we agree to prioritize time with loved ones once we can devote our attentions to professional sports or work obligations?  Will we agree that we will remain creative and unique in our expressions of joy even after we can once again host a party at “Chuck E. Cheese”?  Will we agree that walking and hand-washing is beneficial in every season, not just now?

I am sure I will once again cringe at the suggestion of ‘F.G.N. (Family Game Night)’, a particular delight of my youngest child; but for now, I hope they regularly occur forever.  While we await the world to get back to its regular cycles, let us also remember the good of these days and commit to continuing these blessings when might be tempted to do otherwise.

The Wait of Motherhood

Let me start off by saying that I hate to wait.  I know that waiting – for the train or for the kids or for doctor – is a part of life, but that does not mean I have to like it.  Despite my personal preference, I am required, as are we all, to patiently endure a prolonged season of waiting for ‘life-as-normal’ to resume; eventually academia, commerce, recreation and church will return.  Until then, we wait.   As I write this post, it is Wednesday, May 6th, and it has been fifty days since the governor of Massachusetts implemented the ‘stay-at-home’ advisory, although it seems to me much longer.

God created a world with waiting woven into its fabric.  God, it seems, designed us to wait.  Creation includes the sabbath, a day set apart every week to refrain from our work.  God led His people through the wilderness but delayed their entrance into the promised land for 40 years.  God structured the agricultural schedule of the early Israelites with a 50-day waiting period between the gathering of the first fruits and the reaping of the harvest.  God had Jesus and His earthly parents wait in Egypt for three years before the family could safely return to their hometown.  God develops His gift of patience in us when we wait by Jesus’ tomb at Easter, when we wait in the upper room at Pentecost, and when we wait for His promised return on that great and glorious day.

“From the day after the Sabbath, the day you brought the sheaf of the wave offering, count off seven full weeks.  Count off fifty days up to the day after the seventh Sabbath, and then present an offering of new grain to the LORD.”  Leviticus 23:15-16 (NIV)

As I think about what I know about myself and my disdain for patiently abiding, as well as the celebration of Mother’s Day this weekend, I realize how good and godly the moms in our lives must be.  I deeply appreciate the contributions of the moms in my life.  Honestly, I couldn’t do it.  From the first moments of our existence, the waiting began: the two hundred and eighty days of our gestation, the hours waiting at the OB/GYN office, staying up in anticipation of the late night feedings, watching for the firsts (first smiles, first words, first steps).  As our children grow, the waiting doesn’t abate, as moms of adults remain vigilant as they await word of their children’s arrival at home or their departure from vacation.

I am so grateful for the women who have waited for me and have made my seasons of waiting a bit more bearable.  I appreciate that I am still able to see and speak with my mom and my mother-in-law, even though it must be through cell phones this year, and I pray for God’s hand of comfort for those who no longer have this ability.  I pray also for all the mothers I know, especially the new moms and those with children still at home – those providing guidance, recreation, education, nutrition, lasting good memories and stability in this time of such uncertainty.  Happy Mother’s Day to all of you.

And as we wait for that time of blessed reunion, either in this realm or the next, I hope we can take some time this weekend to thank God for our moms.

Can We Go to Church Yet?

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.

The Highest Class

This past Wednesday, my daughter, Rebekah, ‘went’ to her final college class; she walked up the stairs to her bedroom and opened her laptop.  As she shared this milestone with the family after the class had concluded, I got a little misty-eyed.  I thought about how hard she had worked over the past four years at American University, enabling her to graduate with honors in two weeks, only ‘virtually’ recognized.  I thought about all the friends, colleagues and sorority sisters she had made in DC, unable to support one another in these concluding events.  It breaks a father’s heart.

Then I thought about all the others – in Rebekah’s class, in other college classes, high school seniors, pre-school graduates.  I thought about new mothers, who will not have those precious 3-month or 6-month professional portraits of their drooling, chubby-cheeked cherub.  I thought about birthdays (first, fifteenth, sixteenth, twenty-first, fiftieth or eightieth) that will be celebrated in isolation.  I thought about silver and gold wedding anniversaries that cannot be held at their favorite restaurants and the life-long dream trips to Europe that cannot be rescheduled.  I thought about all that has been lost or taken away.

Then I thought about why.  Graduations, proms, weddings, parties, classes, reunions and the like have all been cancelled – nay, postponed or moved to digital platforms – so that we can keep those around us as safe as we can.  That being said, we all ought to take time to acknowledge those who are required to sacrifice their personal milestones.  If you know someone who is celebrating something in seclusion or going without so that life may go on, reach out and offer your congratulations or your consolation.  Call, text or write a note and tell them that you are grateful for the costs they have incurred.

It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations.  They presented him the words: “And this, too, shall pass away.”  How much it expresses!  How chastening in the hour of pride! – how consoling in the depths of affliction!  “And this, too, shall pass away.” – Abraham Lincoln, 1859

“And this, too, shall pass away.”  Government officials and company advertisements keep reminding us that things will get back to normal.  Inevitably, a vaccine will be created and we will all get together again.  We will have socials and soirees at some point.  Graduations, like my daughter’s, will be held; for her, it will hopefully be in December.  First haircuts can wait, photos can still be taken, anniversaries for 25 and a half years of marriage could become the new trend and birthday parties can be rescheduled (can you imagine the new school year for second graders when every weekend will have a birthday party at SkyZone?)  I cannot wait to have the social calendar filled again.  In the moments between now and then, let us help one another through this season of joys and sorrows.

Recalling your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy.  2 Timothy 1:4

Not Good But Great

“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”  These words, first spoken by John Heywood in 1546 and considered the oldest idiom in the English language, may not be true; they do, however express my reality.  Nothing I have gleaned from my seminary education or my more than twenty years of pastoral experience has prepared me for ministry during a pandemic.  I am finding that I have been forced to ‘master’ a number of new skills and, in the process, I am also finding that I am quickly reaching my mental capacity for new processes and programs.  It turns out that I might be an old dog and, while I can learn new tricks, that I might be having trouble performing.

This old dog/new trick paradox rubs raw against my desire to “give of my best to the master.” God deserves our very best, so I want our Sunday morning livestream (which until 4 weeks ago I had no frame of reference for achieving) to go out flawlessly.  I want the YouTube videos (again, no frame of reference) to look professional.  I want my Zoom meetings (I had no idea what zoom was a month ago) to feel like face-to-face meetings.   None of it, honestly, is great: some of what we are producing is passable, at best, and some of it is not.

Maybe you are feeling the same way I am feeling.  Maybe you are sensing that you are not doing anything well.  Maybe there is someone reading this that is thinking that changing from PJs into sweats was your only accomplishment today (let me be the first to say, “GOOD FOR YOU!”).  Allow me to offer you a word of encouragement: you are doing a great job at holding it all together during this time of unprecedented confusion.

But he gives more grace.  Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” James 4:6 (ESV)

Perhaps, in part, this is happening (in my life) so that I can learn humility.  Shocking as it might sound, I am not great at everything.  I am learning through this pandemic that ‘okay’ is okay.  I am reminding myself the same thing I wrote about in August 2017, “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly (G.K. Chesterton).”  If there is one thing I have learned from the last month, it is that good news can be captured and shared via video clips of subpar quality.  Those who are recording recovering patients leaving hospitals or grateful citizens banging pots out their windows to appreciate healthcare heroes could not care less about the pixelization or poor sound quality of their contribution toward our collective goodwill.

Give yourself a break.  Give those around you a break.  Practice humility.  Accept limitations.  Delight in sufficiency.  Celebrate little victories.  Immerse yourself in good news.  Release the frustrations associated with perfection and embrace the joy attributable to the ordinary.  Do your best and attempt the rest.  Enjoy the grace of God that He gives to the humble.  Keep on doing what you are able to do until we can do it altogether all together.

‘Til We Meat Again

It will come as no surprise to those who know me that my favorite meal includes hamburgers: every birthday supper that I can remember involved hamburgers, as did nearly every recommendation I made for our dining-out options as a family.  It is the perfect food, starting with a soft bun, continuing with a cool tomato and lettuce leaf, then accented with condiments and cheese, and completed with the juicy ground beef.  I enjoy every kind of burger – the good at Fuddrucker’s (with more toppings than meat), the bad at McDonald’s (thin and oniony),  and the messy at Red Robin (with a fried egg on top) – but I particularly enjoy a home-made grilled hamburger. 

Unfortunately, for the last three years, our family remained grill-less.  Sure, we had an electric ‘grill’ that griddle-fried meats outside, but (no offense to George Foreman) it was not the same.  However, my grill-less condition ended when I celebrated my birthday eight weeks ago.  That was the day that my family gifted me a gas/charcoal/smoker grill.  It took 51 days before the weather was warm enough, but finally (with the tremendous assistance from my three boys) we assembled the grill on Sunday afternoon.

Unfortunately, the grill did not come with a propane tank. So, after waiting another day, on Monday afternoon my wife and I patronized BJ’s for a tank and 6 pounds of ground beef.  We were ready to grill!

Unfortunately, the tank was empty and there are surprisingly few locations where a propane tank can be filled.  We would have to wait another day.  Finally, on Tuesday we went to Neponset Circle Car Wash and got 20 pounds of propane.  And then, at 5:30 Tuesday afternoon, I began grilling burgers in my backyard.  They were the best burgers I have consumed in quite a while; sure, they were arguably rare and perhaps more bloody than juicy, but they were delicious.

My home-made grilled burgers were definitely worth the wait.  Despite my contention that I abhor waiting, I admit that the anticipation that comes with expected blessings is fantastic.  If you have ever watched an unboxing video on YouTube or stirred restlessly on Christmas Eve, you know what I mean.  We are rapt with what might be in the box or what might be in the present or what might be for dinner.  My grill is a reminder that I can be consumed with the bitter taste that comes with waiting or content with the sweet savor of the blessings to come.

…but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint. Isaiah 40:31 (ESV)

Where is your heart today?  Is it heavy and burdened because you no longer want to wait?  Is it uplifted and invigorated with the sure and certain hope of things to come?  There are times when we must wait – for results, for relationships, for rewards – and that waiting can be draining.  At those times remember what you are waiting for and then enable God to refresh you in the process.  As for me, I will think about that as I enjoy some perfectly cooked ground beef surrounded by a grilled cheese sandwich.

Seeds and Fruit

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.