[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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
Today, according to the church calendar, is Good Friday. For the last 22 years, my family has had a rather busy schedule on this particular day: attend the service of remembrance at 2PM, shop at Kohl’s for our Easter outfits at 4, shop at BJ’s for the remaining items needed for the Easter Breakfast at 5:30, go out for dinner at 7 (typically at a steakhouse, as they are less crowded due to the Roman Catholic dietary restrictions observed by many in our community). However, none of these activities will be carried out this year: the service will be on-line, the stores are closed, the breakfast has been cancelled and the restaurants are take-out only. Nope, this Good Friday will be an ordinary, somewhat somber, day.
I suppose this is as it should be. After all, there is a term in the original Greek for the day that Jesus was crucified: “Friday” (I am being facetious, but you get the point – it was not called “Good Friday”). The day of Jesus’ trial before Pilate, his parade throughout the city and his death on the cross was an ordinary day. If it were not Jesus being crucified, the date would have passed unnoticed. It would have been just a macabre spectacle ‘enjoyed’ by the festive throng that was overcrowding Jerusalem. But this day was, and is, different. It was, and is, the day that the powers of this present age lost their grip on us.
The purpose of the governing authorities for all that occurred on “Good Friday” was to take any amount of human dignity away from the condemned. They were humiliated by being stripped of both their clothing and their identity. They were mocked and insulted in their sub-human state. They were painfully executed and robbed of existence. They were erased. Jesus, like the others, were supposed to be victims of one of our greatest fears: he would not only be gone but he would be forgotten.
But Jesus would not be robbed of his humanity. On that Friday afternoon just outside the city gates, he became for us the prototypical human being as he suffered and died for the sin of all of us. It is ironic that Pilate, at the start of this terrible episode in history, shouted, “Behold the man!” Through his death, Jesus conquered the sin that pervades, the world that perverts and the grave that perplexes.
As we endure this pandemic, as we shutter at the statistics and sympathize with the grieving, let us be reminded that death has no hold on those who trust in him.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. Psalm 23:4 (ESV)
Today, as we travel through this valley, dark and deadly, we can take solace in the fact that God’s power and control will protect and comfort us. His rod (which strikes against that which seeks to destroy us) and his staff (which pulls us back from our own dangerous acts) are a comfort as we venture through the shadows. Take heart, for the joyous light of Easter is just beyond the rise.
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As I have been spending much more time at home, isolated for the health and safety of those I love, I have had a great deal of time to think about the health crisis we are all enduring. I have come to see in a variety of ways that COVID-19 is a great equalizer. The virus does not discriminate, as it has infected celebrities, professional athletes, politicians and royalty (as well as ordinary individuals) across the globe. The WIFI networks that we are all using to communicate with the world has been equally spotty for those who are rich and those who are poor. Frustrations over ‘stay-at-home’ orders have overwhelmed the introvert and the extrovert alike. Our communal discouragement and feelings of inadequacy in home-schooling our children are universally sensed by democrats, independents and republicans. We are, literally, all in this together.
It would be a relatively simple exercise for me to draw parallels between this virus and the prevalence of sin, and I am sure that a quick google search would take you to thousands of thought pieces about their similarities. Certainly, we ought to take time to contemplate the universal reach of both and compare the consequential results of both. However, if you are like me, you’ve been bombarded with troubling news for weeks and would appreciate a break from the barrage of saddening statistics and prevention protocols. I want to take a few moments to share some encouraging thoughts instead.
One of the great equalizers I see in the pages of scripture is God’s gift of grace. Grace, as the Bible describes it, is the blessing of unmerited and unearned favor. It is the heavenly blessing of atonement and adoption that may be extended to all and experienced by all.
For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. Titus 2:11 (NIV)
Grace, the offering of a restorative relationship with the creator of the universe, does not discriminate, as it has reached celebrities, professional athletes, politicians and royalty (as well as ordinary individuals) across the globe. Grace, the joy of knowing that God has given us much more than we deserve, is known by both the rich and the poor. Grace, the kindness of forgiveness and forbearance by the one who knows us completely, is available to introverts and extroverts alike.
As I spend unplanned but precious time with those I love, I appreciate the grace that God has given me. I do not deserve, but am grateful for, the network of kind people that surrounds me (I have been befriended much more than I befriend), the relative health I enjoy (I am healthier than my life choices warrant), the absence of consequence attributed to wrong-doing (I am pardoned much more than I admit) and the serendipitous joys that cross my path (many of which I fail to recognize). My life is full of grace – undeserved, unearned, unexpected.
As we adjust to a present reality, let us, for the sake of those around us, remember grace: let us be open to experiencing that grace together and expressing that grace to one another. We are all in this together.