All my life I have been encouraged to be a good boy (or a good man). Growing up, I must have heard the command to “be good” a thousand times, whether it was just before visiting a friend’s house or the local library. After I was particularly incorrigible as a child, I was warned that I might be dropped off at the “bad boy store” by my frustrated mother – in hindsight, I recognize the absurdity of the reality of this establishment, but at the time the notion that I could be chattel for this nefarious business worked well in keeping me on the straight and narrow. However, I was not always a good boy.
As I grew up into manhood, I have tried to be a good man. I think I have succeeded, to a greater of lesser degree. However, “the bad man store” may have a new item for sale. In my defense, the event I am about to describe occurred during the Patriots game on Sunday. As I was watching the game (the outcome of which at the time was still in question), trouble came to our house. As she was making sure our youngest was ready for bed, my wife hit her head – hard – on the upper bunk of the boys’ bed. While there was no blood, there was a bump. It least that is what I was told. I had little compassion and provided no care. I was not a good husband or a good father. I was wrong, and I sincerely apologize to my wife for my lapse in judgement. I am not always a good man.
When I became a follower of Christ, I tried to be a good Christian. I have a long list of good and godly behaviors – with appropriate measures of church attendance, charitable giving and acts of service – but I am not a good Christian. I am in danger of being shipped off to the “bad Christian store” because my practice of the faith is incomplete, my priority of Christ’s lordship is inconsistent and my passion for the gospel is anemic. I continue to sin. I continue to fail. I do not pray as much as I should nor share my faith as frequently as I should. I am not always a good Christian.
But who can discern their own errors? Forgive my hidden faults. Psalm 19:12
My problem is that I am lulled into believing that I am (overall) good. I compare myself to others and I see myself as measuring up pretty well against the competition. But, as the Psalm above states, I am unable to rightly evaluate my own goodness. I need forgiveness for the things I cannot see in myself. I need the truth of God to be my standard and not my own heightened sense of self. In comparison to the standards of the Scriptures (which are beneficial for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness), I am, by nature, a bad boy, a bad man and a bad Christian.
But that is not how God sees me: because I have trusted Jesus as Lord and Savior, I have been justified (declared not guilty by God through His acceptance of Christ’s sacrificial satisfaction of God’s wrath) and sanctified (anointed, appointed and equipped to accomplish His will). I am seen by God as good, and that motivates me to demonstrate this divinely imbued goodness. It also motivates me to remember that this goodness is not from me, but from the one who redeemed me so that I might do some good. I thank God that He enables me to be a good person, a sinner saved by His grace.
For those of you discouraged by a 4:32PM Sunset in Boston on Sunday, you will be glad to know that an 11-member panel, created by the Massachusetts Legislature last year, spent months examining the pros and cons of effectively establishing daylight saving time year-round and eliminating the practice of setting clocks forward and back twice every year. Their decision: move the Commonwealth into the Atlantic Time Zone (aligning ourselves with the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island) if all the Northeast region (including New York) agrees to change their time zone with us.
This strikes me as nothing more than a hollow victory. The commission’s trouble with “going it alone” is that transportation, broadcasting schedules and sporting events could all be adversely affected. I, for one, could get used to The Tonight Show at 12:35AM, football at 2PM and early flights from Logan at 7 in the morning. It would be a challenge calibrating ourselves with the rest of the country, but I would be willing to try. But, because it is nearly impossible to buck the cultural norms, we in the Northeast will not experience a sunset after 5PM until February 4th; the groundhog may see the sun before I will during my drive home from work.
And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. 2 Timothy 2:24
Speaking of cultural norms, we were discussing the above referenced verse of scripture and my wife remarked at how difficult it is to keep the little details of this passage. If you think changing your Time Zone is counter-cultural, try not quarreling or being kind to everyone or releasing resentment.
- Anyone familiar with social media knows that quarreling (or fighting) is our national pastime: there are posts (and then comments about those posts) that are divisive and combative, attacking the “opposition” both personally and indiscriminately. A follower of Christ ought not engage in these senseless squabbles.
- If you are a driver, you know that kindness is in short supply. I realize that someone allowing me to turn into traffic is unrealistic, but I do wonder if honking the horn as the light turns green or passing on the right (through unoccupied parking spaces) on a single lane street or ignoring the ‘right lane must turn’ sign and weaving to the left at dangerous speeds are necessary. A few verses after the above passage, Paul tells Timothy that he should be gentle with those who oppose his teaching; a follower of Christ should be restrained in exercising whatever power that follower has.
- Life, no matter how it is lived, will contain times of deep disappointment. All but one team finishes the season without a title. Every person will find oneself in one sort of line or another, and whatever line you find yourself in, the other one is moving faster…and has fewer bitter and angry people occupying it. A follower of Christ should release resentment as soon as it is sensed.
God has called us to – and equipped us for – better than our culture prescribes. No matter what time we find ourselves in, we are called to be counter-cultural: peaceable, kind and hopeful. I suspect those godly attributes will be highly regarded during the long nights ahead.
The Red Sox are rebuilding, again. On Monday, they exited the playoffs with a season-ending loss at the hands of the Houston Astros. On Wednesday, the organization and the field manager parted ways, effectively ushering the hometown team into a season of transition and change. Rumors have already begun about trades and free-agent signings; only time will tell who will stay, who will go and who will join the team. Despite their recent successes (winning the American League East Division title for the last two seasons and winning the World Series five seasons ago), the team’s inability to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs was unacceptable. The front office personnel at Fenway Park has decided that the answer to “what have you done for me lately?” is “not enough”.
I am thankful the God does not have the same business plan as the Red Sox. I am grateful that a few seasons with less-than-optimal results (despite a modicum of success) does not disqualify me from being part of His team. I rejoice that when my production or power has waned, He will not replace me with someone who could do better. As opposed to a sport where, in 2017, a batter is nearly as likely to strike out (21.6% of all plate appearances) as get a hit (22.8% of all plate appearances), it is remarkable that the Lord allows us to miss the mark so frequently without relegating us to the bench.
…as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. Psalm 103:12
While most of us have never played baseball professionally, we all have our list of failures. We all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God. We all have stepped out of bounds and trespassed against one another. We all have made mistakes, lapses in judgement, erred and fouled up. We all have reasons why our dismissal would be warranted. We all have places in our track record where our disappointments greatly outnumber our successes. What does God offer us when we are in the midst of these less-than memorable moments? He offers us yet another chance to get it right.
The struggles of life and the challenges of baseball are surprisingly similar. I have never faced a 100mph fastball, but I imagine that making contact with the curveballs of life is equally difficult (considering how often I have swung and missed them). I have struck out relationally, flied out morally, grounded out conversationally, and fouled out professionally. I have never stood in front of the Green Monster at Fenway, but I have misplayed routine interactions and lost my focus while fielding temptations. Through it all, God has encouraged and corrected me, discipled and guided me, so that I would do better the next time.
The results of following the Red Sox and following Christ could not be more different. As a lifelong Red Sox fan, I am used to saying, “wait until next year” – when (hopefully) the big bat arrives, when the ace pitcher performs and when they win the pennant. As a Christian, I am used to saying, “forgive me” (as I strike out, underperform and fail) – which results in (certainly) His restoration of my soul and refreshment of my spirit. I will take God’s comfort over a hometown championship any day.
Yesterday was quite a day of sports in our neck of the woods – the Boston Red Sox, the New England Patriots and the Boston Bruins were all in action. It is a wonder to see all these professional athletes utilizing their talents, gifts and natural abilities. What we do not witness while watching these games is all the time spent of training: hours in the batting cages and fielding ground balls, innumerable sessions of weight-training and blocking drills or countless mornings of ice time practicing their slapshots. We celebrate the excellence of the players on the field or rink, knowing that those who are playing have worked harder than we can imagine in order to get to where they are.
The same is true for musicians, writers, plumbers, surgeons, sales representatives and every other vocation (and avocation, as well). Our effectiveness in any endeavor is dependent upon our efforts in honing the requisite skills for the task. It is not enough to have a gift – whether you are a piano prodigy or a math whiz – if you never put in the hours practicing your craft. That is why the Apostle Paul writes the following words to his protégé Timothy:
For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. 2 Timothy 1:6
Sometimes we are tempted to think that the spiritual gifts that God bestows upon us are effectively different than all the other gifts He gives us, but according to Paul, that is just not true. We need to fan into flame any and every gift we’ve been given by God.
That phrase – ‘fan into flame’ – is a hapax legomenon (it only appears once in all of scripture) and therefore is really difficult to contextualize. It is a single Greek verb formed by the combination of the roots forms of again, living and fire. It means to make a fire live again, to be rekindled or a flame to be revived. It is not the process of starting the fire, but maintaining it. When my family goes camping, it is my job (as the dad) to start the fire and I involve the kids in the process of keeping it going. When it comes to spiritual gifts, God’s job is to start the fire. Our job is to do what we can to keep it robust – adding more wood to the fire, blowing on the embers, making sure it is not quenched by rain.
Whatever gift, talent or natural ability you have been blessed with, let Paul’s words encourage you to fan that fire into flame. Work at your craft so that your passions never simply smolder. Commit to practice what you are already good at so that there is more sizzle than smoke. Do not neglect the spiritual gifts you have been given; practice them. Whether it is preaching or prophecy, helping or hospitality, leadership or giving, or any of the other gifts mentioned in Romans 12:6-8, 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, 28 or Ephesians 4:11, do whatever is necessary to rekindle and revive the fire that God started within your soul. Maintain whatever God has begun in you.
Members of my family recently had occasion to fly ‘home’. Whenever anyone travels the friendly skies, others will invariably ask, “Was it a good flight?” What we are typically wondering is if it was bumpy or smooth – was there the dreaded turbulence. Patrick Smith is a commercial airline pilot, contends that the number one producer of flight anxiety in his passengers is that pesky turbulence. We who have never attended flight school, assume the plane’s ability to remain aloft is at risk. But in an article he wrote for Business Insider, Smith argues that from the perspective of the pilot, turbulence is often a mere blip:
For all intents and purposes, a plane cannot be flipped upside-down, thrown into a tailspin, or otherwise flung from the sky by even the mightiest gust or air pocket. Conditions might be annoying and uncomfortable, but the plane is not going to crash. Turbulence is an aggravating nuisance for everybody, including the crew, but it’s also, for lack of a better term, normal. From a pilot’s perspective, it is ordinarily seen as a convenience issue, not a safety issue. When a flight changes altitude in search of smoother conditions, this is by and large in the interest of comfort. The pilots aren’t worried about the wings falling off; they’re trying to keep their customers relaxed and everybody’s coffee where it belongs…. In the worst of it, you probably imagine the pilots in a sweaty lather: the captain barking orders, hands tight on the wheel as the ship lists from one side to another. Nothing could be further from the truth.
That pretty much sums up the way life is: a great majority of us are cowering in our seats, concerned about things that will never happen, while the few who know the truth carry out their duties, unaffected by the reality of their circumstance. We fret over our kids climbing trees and our lug nuts coming loose. We worry over lightning strikes and dog bites. We lose sleep over the national debt and the Red Sox prospects in the playoffs. Instead, we would rest easier if we trusted those who have the expertise to handle these matters to handle these matters. We would be less anxious if we let the pilot fly the plane.
My heart is not proud, LORD, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. Psalm 131:1
My problem, and the problem of my fellow inhabitants on earth, irrespective of demography, is that we concern ourselves with matters ‘above our pay grade’. Beyond the troubles of turbulence during our flights (or elsewhere), we regularly engage in forming opinions on matters about which we have little or no knowledge, the things that only God can fathom. Imagine the peace we would gain when we do not concern ourselves with great matters of God – the lengths of grace, the depth of mercy, the fullness of compassion, the vastness of forgiveness – and simply trust the one who is an expert in these things too wonderful for us.
As we travel, we will be required to endure bumps and tossing caused by the winds we encounter. At those very moments, we need to trust the One who directs our path, the Lord Almighty.
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.