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.
Twenty years ago today (September 1, 1997) I began serving as the pastor of Calvary Community Church in Dorchester. I have been thinking about this day, and this posting, for quite a while, wondering what I would say about my tenure as a minister of the gospel in the greatest community in the world. I thought about the numbers relating to ministry – attendance figures, baptisms and weddings I had performed, babies I had dedicated, or sermons I delivered – but, to be honest, these numbers would be unimpressive. I thought about sharing interesting anecdotes about the church, but I have already shared most of these stories with those reading this and my remaining stories would be uninteresting. In the end, all I have are the lessons I have learned over all these years.
First, I have learned to cherish the relationships that God has given me while I am blessed to have them. While the numbers of worshippers have not appreciably changed in the last two decades, the people have; in fact, I count three (and 8/9th) people that were present on my first Sunday still regularly attending worship. Some have gone on to glory, others have moved out of the area and others attend other churches. Yet, through all the transition, God has blessed us with visitors, musicians and co-laborers who have expanded our world, challenged our complacency and enhanced our worship. I praise God that so many have called Calvary home for a week, a season, a year or longer.
Then, I have learned to seize the opportunities that God has given me when I recognize them. While I have not been given a city-wide or national stage to proclaim the gospel, I have been blessed to share God’s love with our neighbors. Praying at a Flag Day program, talking in a front yard, serving water at the Dorchester Day Parade and welcoming the community for public events are just a few things that come to mind when I consider how God is working through our church. I praise God that we have impacted so many lives, inside and outside the walls of our building, in so many interesting ways.
Finally, I have learned to appreciate the faithfulness that God has lavished upon me all the time. While I have never, in my tenure at Calvary, enjoyed an abundance of resources, God has always given me and my family (immediate and church) what is sufficient for my needs. We’ve paid our bills (mostly on time), had the volunteers and musicians, maintained a residence and been cared for. God’s faithfulness is ever-present – in forgiving my sin and fixing my lapses in judgement, in bringing in saints every single Sunday, in always giving me a word to share. All that I have done is because God has enabled me. I praise God for all of it.
Praise the LORD, all you servants of the LORD who minister by night in the house of the LORD. Psalm 134:1 (NIV)
So much has changed over the last two decades, but then again, so much remains the same. God is still drawing wonderful people to our little church, still affording us opportunities for gracious interactions and still showering us with His great faithfulness. Until that changes, I will be here wondering how God will next work among us. I hope you will be here, too.
“[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.
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.
As I was standing out in the schoolyard, waiting for Joshua’s dismissal, I was thinking about all the umbrellas. Did I mention it was raining? Our relationship with umbrellas is a complex one. We don’t think about our umbrella until we need it; we’d never search for one on a sunny day. They break in the wind and rain, but we don’t replace them, regretting that decision the moment a bit of inclement weather arrives. We stick them in closets or in trunks, along with the winter boots and ice scrapers, and then are unable to get our hands on them when we need them.
Some people like little, compact umbrellas that can fit in a purse or briefcase, just big enough to protect our heads from the drops (but insufficient to keep our shoes and shoulders dry). Some people prefer the big, golf-sized umbrellas that you can use as a walking stick, sufficient to protect you and a few companions from whatever may fall from the sky. As I waited in the schoolyard, every variety of umbrella converged: black umbrellas for the business types, rainbow-striped ones for the free spirited, pink parasols for the princesses and clear plastic domes for the utilitarian folks among us.
There were also people with no umbrella – these are the people I was wondering about. Did they not possess an umbrella? Did they own one at one time but lost or misplaced it? Did they have one at home, but figured that their hood or their hat or that overhang would keep them sufficiently dry? Did they have a bad experience with an umbrella in the past, perhaps a terrible wind or bout of hail, and swore to never trust an umbrella again? Did they think that the weather was something they could handle and that a little bit of water never hurt anyone?
I was also wondering if people think of God in the same ways we think of umbrellas. Are they thinking that God is good when we need Him, but unnecessary on bright and sunny days? Do they keep God in the closet and then forget about Him? Have they had a bad experience and blamed God for their discomfort? Is God little more than a fashion accessory? Well, God is not merely a cosmic or spiritual umbrella, useful only in protecting us from what may fall from the skies.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. Isaiah 43:2
God cannot be relegated to the closet until we feel He could be useful; He is continually making His presence known. God does not come in a myriad of sizes and colors; He is more than we can imagine and greater than we think. God does not simply keep us dry when we find ourselves in the throes of an April shower; He can enable us to pass through floodwaters and flames. If you want to be equipped to face the challenges of life, be sure you have an umbrella in your trunk, but make sure God is by your side.
Today is Good Friday, the day in which the Church remembers and reflects upon the death of Jesus. Each year, I focus on one of the gospels as they relate the events of Palm Sunday through Easter. This year I have been reading through Luke’s account of the Lord’s final days and am struck by what the good doctor states is Jesus’ final utterance (and arguably His “famous last words”): “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” In saying this, He is quoting from Psalm 31:5 and restating the assurances that David made of God about a thousand years before the cross.
From the context of Psalm 31:5, I do not believe this is a simple statement of resignation, as if Jesus is saying, “I give up”. Rather, it is a statement of confidence in the Father. Psalm 31 tells us that David saw his strength as coming from the knowledge that God is his refuge, deliverance, rescue, rock and redemption. It is in light of all this that David places all that he was, every aspect of himself beyond his physical existence, in the hands of God. Similarly, this is the same confidence that Jesus expresses from the cross.
This phrase is akin to the words that Jesus spoke in the garden a few hours earlier, “… not My will, but Yours be done.” It conveys the confidence that Jesus had in knowing that the plans of God and the guiding hand of God can be trusted. As the agony of the cross began to overwhelm the limits of His human body, Jesus doesn’t give up, but rather gives over control of His existence to the only one who can perfectly accomplish God’s will, the Father himself. And He is faithful, releasing Jesus from His mortal coil and redeeming us, lost sinners, from the power of death and sin.
Into your hands I commit my spirit; deliver me, LORD, my faithful God. Psalm 31:5
Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last. Luke 23:46
I pray that I’d have the confidence that David expressed or that Jesus exhibited. Sadly, I often see the opposite dynamic at work: when the going gets tough, I want to take matters into my own hands. Instead of committing my spirit into God’s hands, I futilely attempt to handle my trials and troubles myself. Instead of acting like David (who just prior to committing his spirit to God asks Him to “keep me free from the trap that is set for me”), I am more likely to stumble into danger by relying on my own sense of direction. How much pain could be avoided if I committed my spirit to His hands.
It is hard to see the empty tomb when we are enduring what, for us, seems to be the cross. It is at those times that we need to trust the hand of God, which comforted the Lord, rolled away the stone and raised the Savior. It is also the hand that can comfort, strengthen and save us.
I am praying that you have a blessed Good Friday and a Happy Easter.
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.
My mother-in-law, who turned ninety on the 28th of last month, had a fall at her home which resulted in her breaking six ribs. She is currently being cared for at a wonderful hospital in Boston, but addressing her pain, which is substantial, has proven difficult. If you were to visit her those first few days, you would hear her literally crying out to God in a loud voice; however, by all appearances, God did not reply. The extreme discomfort of those broken ribs (which cannot be immobilized) remained and the extreme fervency of her prayers (which could not be suppressed) remained unanswered.
My mother-in-law’s condition makes me think about all those who are crying out for relief – relief from the grief or anger of loss, relief from the pain or anguish of trauma and relief from the worries and doubts of the unknown – but relief does not seem to arrive. Is God silent when we seem to need to hear from Him the most? Is God distant when we have the greatest hunger for His presence? Is God uncaring when we long for the comfort that can only come from Him? By faith, I contend just the opposite.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. 2 Corinthians 1:3-4
Let me be the first to admit that I would appreciate my mother-in-law’s relief from her pain. Let me also admit that I tend to be blinded by the blessings of God when burdens are right before me. The loudest murmurs I hear are those of distress, but also present are the beeps of monitors, the hums of IV pumps and the voices of caring health professionals. My mind plays out a number of other sounds as well: the ringing of an unanswered phone which triggered concern in a daughter’s heart, the sirens of an ambulance that brought needed assistance to a woman in need and a lecture in a medical/nursing school that equipped the doctors and nurses at the hospital to provide expert care. These, too, are answers to prayer.
God is not silent, or distant or uncaring. He is speaking in our circumstances, even in the pains that are not fully relieved (which might be teaching us what we ought to avoid). He is close to us as we undergo the troubling conditions relating to our shared human nature. He cares for us, so much so that He endured every indignity that comes with life on earth and conquered everything that causes permanent damage – sin, death and damnation. While I would like the symptoms of this fallen existence to fade into solely painful memories, I accept that God usually comforts us in less obvious ways.
The good news is that Jeanine’s mother is slowly improving and pain killers are alleviating some of her discomfort. I pray that God, in time, alleviates the remaining difficulties. It is unfortunate that it takes pain to cause most of us to cry out to God. It is truly fortunate that He hears and cares, even if we cannot sense it.