Through a series of unrelated events, the grounds of the church have undergone a transformation this week. A $4 part at Lowe’s® fixed the church’s line trimmer and so we were able to “whack” the weeds along the fences lining the perimeter of our property that had been growing for about a month. A vehicle that resided in the parking lot for longer than prudent was finally claimed by a charity and towed away. A group of volunteers filled a 15-yard capacity dumpster with yard waste from unscrupulous landscapers who had been dumping their lumber, uprooted shrubbery and lawn clippings in our wooded backyard for years. Add a routine mowing of the grass into the mix and we went from overgrown and unruly to tidy and trimmed in just a few days.
As I think about all that was done to beautify the “house of the Lord”, I marvel at the simplicity of the task: remove all that does not belong. As I write this, I realize that I must clarify the prior statement – the work was simple, but it was not easy. It was not easy for the tow truck driver or the dumpster delivery person. It was not effortless for the teens who labored in 90-degree weather or the people who resourced the church for ministry. It is simple to remove the superfluous, but it is rarely easy.
A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. Luke 6:45
In too many ways, my heart is like the church property. It is full of weeds, abandoned property and debris. It did not start that way: Those weeds were an occasional unnecessary diversion, that abandoned car was a once-treasured (but poorly maintained) treasure, and the trash was just an accumulation of the things with which I could not seem to part. I did not intend to disregard my heart’s condition, but I prized functionality over efficiency and, with little effort, pushed the debris to the side and vowed to deal with it later. I embraced hording over health and paid little attention to the junk that accumulated on the edges.
But then, in those moments of self-absorption, I am reminded of the simple truth of God’s word and I commit to making the effort to remain obedient. I remember that I am delivered from sin by grace through faith (as God’s gift to me) not by my own industry or ingenuity; I cannot do anything to save my sorry soul, but I can do quite a lot as a result of my redemption. I can weed out the unwanted, jettison the junk and plant the seeds of salvation in the center of my heart. I can commit to the work of obedience for the sake of my heart’s health and my soul’s harvest. It is simple, but not easy.
I am so glad for the work that so many have done that restored the church’s parking lot. As I stand and admire their efforts, I am reminded of the internal efforts I am committed to exert. May we all tend to the gardens of our souls.
Please excuse me if this post is a bit ‘scatter-brained’, but my wife and I just returned from a few days in New York City. It was wonderful – we saw a Broadway musical (“Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812”, a song-and-dance, nearly all libretto adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which was so much better than how I just described it), stayed in a tiny hotel room, did some window shopping along 6th Avenue and ate at the world-famous Katz’s Delicatessen. The best part was the time Jeanine and I had together on the train – the four hours of adult conversation each way was wonderful.
As I sought to connect my thoughts with motivation for the spiritual journey, I thought about writing about the despair of Russian story-telling and quickly decided against it. I thought about the tiny hotel room and the benefits of hospitality in an unfamiliar environment, but our amenities were nothing to write home about. My thoughts keep going back to that warm brisket with ground mustard on light rye sandwich that I enjoyed at Katz’s (as well as the corned beef with mustard on Italian sandwich Jeanine savored). That is what really made me think about God.
Saying all this about a sandwich may be tantamount to gluttony, but being there was a bit like being in church. For those who have yet to experience all that is Katz’s, allow me to share a few things: first, there are no counter seats or tables for two, just four-tops along the walls and long tables which seat eight in the middle of the floor; then, you must walk up to a (meat) cutter, who will prepare your feast before your eyes; and last, people from every walk of life will be there (while we were dining, there was someone there with bodyguards who was obviously someone special). It was like church because it epitomized community, generosity and acceptance.
So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find. Matthew 22:9
The opportunities we have for community dining are quickly passing away. That is tragic. As we were eating, a chair’s width away from us was a bowl of matzo ball soup and we were humored by the size of the ball amidst the broth (it was about equal to a softball). We were shared pleasantries with a businessman who squeezed in behind us. There was lively banter between perfect strangers all around us. It was the closest thing to a church supper I’d experienced outside of church, and it was awesome.
With the norm of dining out being fancy meals that can fit on a tea saucer, it was a breath of fresh air to see and consume the sandwiches we were served. I watched the cutter take out a whole brisket and, after a bit of trimming, slice half of it. I watch him fan out the meat and place it three layers high on the bread, as well as offer me a taste as I watched. It had to be two pounds of meat – more than necessary, more than generous. He did the same for Jeanine’s sandwich and then sent me on my way with my food and a plate of pickles. It was the closest thing to grace I’d experienced in a while – for I received so much more than I imagined.
As we sat there wondering who the man in the suit (surrounded by two guys with earpieces) was, we speculated that maybe he’s the mayor, or a politician, or a business leader. Whoever he was, he too, waited in line (in truth, one of the earpieces did) and had to sit at a community table. No one got special treatment. Everyone was treated the same, and that treatment was exceptional. As I ate my sandwich, I was blessed with the knowledge that I was being treated the same way every celebrity who had entered the deli was treated, and if the décor was an indication, plenty of celebrities had passed through the doors. It is the closest thing to heaven I’ve witnessed in a while – everyone treated equally, regardless of who they are or what they’ve done.
The experience has whet my appetite for the real thing – heaven – where we will live in community, be blessed with generosity and experience acceptance. Maybe heaven will have heaping mounds of brisket, too.
I had been getting error messages from my computer at work for some time. I was able to work around them and do my job without much inconvenience…until Tuesday. That is when I got the BSOD (the blue screen of death), which stated, “Your PC ran into a problem that it couldn’t handle, and now it needs to restart”. This computer issue was now a serious inconvenience and an exasperating consumer of my time. Fortunately, I was able to restart the computer (after a number of failed attempts), back up the files and reload a new CPU. The church office is now back up and running.
The process of replacing the computer has enabled me to take stock of a few things.
First, I realize that I am a creature of habit. I like things the way I like things. The keyboard upon which I now type feels different (softer?) than my old one. Some of the desktop icons I am used to seeing are now missing (but at this point in time I have no idea what they were or what they did, but more on that later). Updated hardware sometimes facilitates updated software, and some of my familiar programs appear different. This realization is good for me, though: some habits are unhealthy (perhaps even a cause of the BSOD) and others are time consuming. Maybe I am better off experiencing change.
I also realize that I am an undiagnosed digital hoarder. The office PC had more than 45,000 files stored on its hard drive, accumulated over the span of five years. Until I began having problems with the CPU, I had kept everything – every document, picture, PDF file, sound clip and program – on the hard drive. I ran no backups, downloaded virtually nothing to discs, deleted no software I hadn’t been using. I kept everything, even the icons for programs I hadn’t used in years. This realization is also good for me: my productivity and efficiency can improve if I clean up the computer occasionally. It would be better if I ran a backup, purged the unnecessary and saved on removable media important but not urgent data.
One more thing I realize is that deterioration and drive failures are a natural part of life. While I appreciate the power and capacity of this new computer, I am aware, as I step over the carcass of dated technology currently residing on my office floor, that this CPU, too, will pass. I will need a new computer, a new monitor and new software at some point in the future, either to improve or replace what I am blessed to use today. This realization is good for me to grasp as well: entropy, a gradual decline into disorder, is real and must be dealt with as we go about our lives. I am better off knowing that nothing on earth lasts forever.
By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” Genesis 3:19
I also realize that what is true for my electronic existence is also true for my physical existence. I am made for proficiency and efficiency, needing this reminder to cast off the clutter and prepare for change. One day this mortal frame will wear out; I can only hope that all I contain will be able to be accessed by those who come after me.
Over the past two weeks, I have travelled with my youngest son back in time courtesy of two historic dwellings. Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of serving as a chaperone for his third grade to the Pierce House, built in 1683 and located about four blocks from Joshua’s school. Then, last Monday, the family went to 83 Beals Street in Brookline, the “modest” home built in 1909 where the thirty-fifth president of the U.S. was born. Both these houses have been restored to reflect an earlier time period and give those who visit a unique glimpse of life for those living in the past.
The Pierce House was restored to reflect its namesake’s ownership, Colonel Samuel Pierce. Prior to the Revolutionary War, the Pierces farmed and worked a 20-acre plot of land and the house was furnished and fashioned to depict colonial life in New England. It gave my son and his classmates the opportunity to experience life from another person’s perspective. One activity the children played during the field trip was a trading game: each student was given a role in the community (wheelwright, farmer, shoemaker, etc.) and a shopping list, requiring them to interact with others to secure what they needed to survive. From this humble home, I hope my nine-year old gained an understanding of the value of community.
We visited the birthplace of John F. Kennedy on what would have been his one hundredth birthday. While the brochure describes the house as “modest”, it seemed opulent for the times (electricity, indoor plumbing and maids’ quarters). The home was restored to its appearances in 1920, according the “living cultural translator”, a maid-of-all-work named Marie. She told us about the modern convenience of the toaster and the Cupcakes she was working on to celebrate Jack’s third birthday. She seemed proud to work for such a prominent family and grateful for the opportunities her new life in her new country provided. From this well-appointed home, I hope my nine-year old gained an understanding of the value of hard work.
So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Ephesians 4:11-13
These two homes gave me pangs of melancholy. As I stood watching third-graders trading food and fabrics with their classmates, I longed for a time before supermarkets and department stores when we knew our neighbors and their importance to the community: everyone had something to offer and everyone helped everyone else. As I stood in a Brookline kitchen, I longed for a time before Apple© products and electronic apps when we sought to serve others and share our lives with more than a small circle of like-minded individuals. I long for a place where the values of the past are appreciated in the present.
This nostalgic sadness subsides as I think about the role of the church in our culture: it can be the place where we find real community and the place where we foster real opportunities to serve. Perhaps your longings for a better world, if you have them, can be satisfied at a house of worship near you.
The other day I picked up our youngest son, Joshua, from a library program where he had been building robots with Legos®. It was amazing to see what could be built with things my son had at his disposal. From those four basic components (the EV3 computer, sensors, motors and Lego® pieces), he was able to build useful and powerful machines. Legos® have come a long way from when I was a kid: then, we could build a “blocky” plane or a car (which we could imagine to be the real things), but now you can design and control an actual moving vehicle.
Watching Joshua ‘play’ with these toys made me think about the church, the local representation of the kingdom of God. I always pictured, as all my kids and I played with the little plastic bricks, that this is what the Bible must have been referring to when Peter wrote that we, the saints, were being built into a temple. We may not all look the same (we come in different colors, lengths, widths and thicknesses), but we all can be useful in the construction plan of God. To steal a sentiment from The Lego Movie: in the hands of the Master Builder, we all can be special.
As you come to him, the living Stone – rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him – you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 1 Peter 2:4-5
Then, as Joshua was explaining these new components, I thought deeper about the matter. The computer unit provides the direction to the structure, much like the Word of God provides direction for the church. The sensors and motors translate that information from the computer into kinetic energy, just as the Holy Spirit translates the written Word into the Living Word as we gather as the church. And then, as one diverse but cohesive whole, the unit moves and accomplishes the purpose of the designer, whether we are talking of a Lego® robot or a local congregation. This is all in accordance with the designer’s plan.
Regarding this metaphor of the church being like a structure built with an interlocking brick system, it also reflects the truth that function is not defined by form. Anyone who has ever ventured into the Lego® Store knows that there are boxes of these bricks that that can make a “Super Soarer” for $9.99 and the US Capitol Building for $99.99. Does brick count make the project better? Not necessarily. Whether it is Legos® or churches, the size of the building is not as important as the enjoyment of the ‘build’. If you need a pencil holder, having a replica of the Millennium Falcon will not satisfy your need. And if your family’s experience with Legos® is anything like mine, all the set pieces get mixed together pretty quickly, and that is really when the fun and creativity starts.
I’m so glad I’m a part of the multi-colored structure that God is designing with our church. We may not be very big, but we are beautiful. We may not have a large brick count, but we are being used to bring our creator glory. And like Legos®, we (as a church) began as an idea in Scandinavia.
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.
As we have for the previous four awards seasons, my wife and I watched, in local theaters and in our living room, the nine movies nominated for the Academy Award’s Best Picture. This year we were enchanted by a western, a musical, a science fiction thriller, a play adaption, a war epic, a biographical film, a coming-of age story, a historical narrative and a tear jerker. Each film introduced us people facing challenges different (sometime much different) than our own. Each movie gave us something to talk about and wrestle with after we viewed it. And while the process of spending twenty or so hours watching movies may not appeal to everyone, it is a treat and a blessing to my wife and me.
Invariably, when the conversation turns to our project of seeing these Best Picture nominees, I am asked the question: what do you think will win? I have some trouble answering that, in part because artistic expression (and that is ultimately what all these movies are) is so subjective, and in part because every film (well, maybe with one exception) had elements of greatness. What do I think will win? The Academy will likely choose Lalaland. What do I think is overall the best picture for 2016, from among those nominated? This is a much more complicated question.
As I answer this question, I feel that I can eliminate half the nominees from my personal best: Arrival was good, especially in its character development and the deep conversation that followed was profound, but not great; Fences, with its exceptional acting performances, was too dialogue driven for my taste; Lalaland was artistically stunning but slow and lacked a plot for about a third of the film; and I found Moonlight, despite its important story, too confusing. I appreciate all these films and the questions they produced in me: what would life be like if we were not constricted by time? How do our dreams and failures shape our lives? Can love conquer all? Can we truly escape our environment?
The other five (Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High Water, Hidden Figures, Lion and Manchester-by-the-Sea) were better stories more beautifully told with exceptional acting. These five, at any given moment, fluctuate in my mind as best. They represent characters who are each faced with challenges (trying to save lives while others are taking them, fighting foreclosure, battling racial injustice, finding a way back home and overcoming an unfair and tragic past), overcoming them, to a greater or lesser degree. There are images and elements of each of these works of art that will remain with me for quite a while – moments of extreme pain and moments of overwhelming joy. At this moment, I offer my opinion and would recommend you seeing Hacksaw Ridge, my choice for Best Picture.
For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen. Romans 11:36
I do not say this simply because it is the most “faith-based” of the nominees, but because it is the most beautifully shot and compelling story captured on film. All these films, from my personal favorite to my personal worst, have elements which provoke my pastoral side. Each one is worth seeing so that their narratives, whether true or fictitious, can enable us to walk in the shoes of another for 140 minutes or can afford us the opportunity to experience life in a way that we would never experience on our own. We are surrounded by people broken by society and bruised by circumstance, and it is good to be reminded once in a while that we can overcome poverty, tragedy, rejection, oppression, prejudice and even the occasional success. In every story our lives tell, no matter our faith system or lack thereof, God has a marvelous way of breaking in and then shining through the cracks the world inflicts upon us. We all have a story to tell, one worthy of an Academy Award.
On Tuesday morning, my wife and I watched as the Oscar© nominations were announced for the year’s best picture. As we have over the past four years, we are planning on seeing these nine films before the awards ceremony on February 26th. We are entering into this odyssey because we have found that there is a certain kind of magic that is experienced when a wonderful story is wonderfully told. Over the years, I’ve come to enjoy these tales, some based on real events and some based on pure fabrication, which transport the movie-goer to a different time or place to witness a life quite foreign to one’s own.
One such experience occurred when we watched Hidden Figures, which relates the story of three real women who worked for NASA in the early 1960s. These women, each in their own way, were brilliant, and each used their God-given gifts to be sure that the United States reached the moon before the Russians. John Glenn would never have survived his initial trip into space without the contributions of Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan or Mary Jackson. But each of these women, because they were ‘colored’, were refused access to occupational advancement, advanced education or common decency. Despite their exceptional abilities and passions, they were marginalized simply because of the color of their skin.
Perhaps it is because I was raised in the Northeast or because my earliest memories were from the early 1970s or because I am white, whatever the reason, the concept of separate bathrooms, entrances and water fountains integral to this film is completely foreign to me. It was saddening and eye-opening to be reminded again that an entire segment of our great society lived, and perhaps still lives, with blatant prejudice and disregard for universal humanity as a way of life. This reflection of our shared past serves as a stark contrast to the truth of God recorded in the Bible.
And they sang a new song, saying: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.” Revelation 5:9-10
The kingdom of God includes men and women from every culture, race and ethnicity. Our choice of words or our color of eyes have no bearing on our identity; we are all the same in all the ways that matter. We are all worthy of respect, entitled to opportunity and capable of all sorts of greatness. And because of the nature of God’s kingdom (and our desire to see His kingdom come) we ought to be the first to champion a person’s spirit over their skin color (or gender or possessions or education or health or status). We are all the same.
Going to the movies the other night reminded me that we, who have been purchased and ransomed by the blood of the lamb, are called to treat one another as fellow citizens of God’s kingdom. We ought to be the first to confront discrimination and advocate impartiality. We, as ambassadors of Christ, ought to be an encouragement to and an embracer of those around us. Then, we can all touch the heavens.