Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. James 4:14
Let me start by stating that everyone in our family is happy and healthy. That being said, I am writing this post after a member of my family spent a night in the emergency room and a day in the hospital. Let me repeat: everyone is perfectly fine and nothing has changed, except for one thing – my perspective. No one begins their day planning to endure a car accident (not what happened) or a falling anvil (also not what happened) or a series of chest pains (well, there it is). But this post is not about electrocardiograms or blood enzyme tests; this post is about me and my futile desire to preserve this mortal frame.
All this has got me thinking. Make no mistake, I would be grateful to enter The Guinness Book of World Records by replacing Jeanne Louise Calment and becoming the longest living human (she died at 122). I would like to see my children’s weddings and my grandchildren’s graduations. I would like to see the Grand Canyon and the mighty redwoods. My brain repeats the same refrain: “I still have time.” But if this week is any indication of the realities of earthly existence, I cannot put off until tomorrow what I can do today since tomorrow is not guaranteed.
I am now left reflecting on how I spend my life (or waste it). I work on my ‘day off’ and allow my vacation days to remain unspent. I watch TV when I could have conversations. When I do have conversations, my words are a lot like the last ten minutes of the late-night news (weather and sports). I spend more time pursuing recreation and not enough time pursuing relationships. I am stingy with my words of encouragement, my offerings of forgiveness and my displays of affection. And now I worry that what I am saving for tomorrow I will not get a chance to spend.
“I will deal with that later.” I will call later.” “I will see you later.” “I will take a break later.” Later. What is it about that word and the power it contains? We all can agree that putting off making a payment or scheduling an appointment does not magically make the discomfort go away. We all suffer regret for forgetting to make that call or neglecting to put down that project. Even when spoken with the best of intentions, in many cases ‘later’ means ‘never’.
After the ‘health scare’ earlier this week, I am grateful for the gift of a few more tomorrows. Yet, there is a nagging truth resonating deep within me that the gift of tomorrow is not guaranteed and that all we have is today. This means that a must not delay the decisions or withhold the hugs that are meant for today. I appreciate the reminder that there are some things that cannot wait until tomorrow, for that may never come.
For those of you living in Boston, today you will experience the earliest sunset of the year (4:11:38pm). This is both good news and bad news, since the length of your daylight will continue to decrease until December 20. Astronomically, we could say that these are dark days: for the next month, we will experience nearly 15 hours of ‘night’. Metaphorically, we can also say that these are dark days: everyday, through every media source, we witness incidences marked by a lack of direction, a lack of warmth or a lack of morality.
The Bible has much to say about darkness. It was the penultimate plague that was inflicted upon Egypt (Exodus 10:21). It is the dwelling place of God, as witnessed by Moses on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 20:11), by Solomon in the temple (1 Kings 8:12) and through the psalmist (Psalm 97:2). It was what overshadowed the cross of Christ for three hours during His crucifixion. It is the place of chaos (Genesis 1:2), temptation (Ephesians 5:11), ignorance (Matthew 6:23) and death (Job 10:21). It is the place of sinful desires (John 3:19) and the place without light (Acts 2:20) – lifeless, cold and confusing.
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. Isaiah 9:2
It seems that every day another man in authority is accused of harassment or abuse. It seems that every week there is another account of mass violence. The fact is that every moment is filled with an immoral act (a lie, a theft, an assault or an infidelity) somewhere in the world. There is no shortage of crimes suitable for the local and national news outlets, and those reported on at 6 and 11 are just the tip of the iceberg of what Robert Burns wrote as “man’s inhumanity to man”. We are people walking in darkness, shivering and stumbling in sin.
But in that darkness a light has dawned. This is not the flicker of a candle or a 100-watt lightbulb; it is more than the flashlight on your smartphone or a lighthouse on the coast. It is a great light, like the sun; it is the light of the world, which the Gospel of John tells us is the light of life. This light is Jesus, who has entered the darkness and overcome it. He is the source of life, purpose and power. He has destroyed the secrecy of temptation, the strangeness of confusion and the sting of death. Because of Christmas, the light has overwhelmed the darkness.
I hope that you delight in all the lights of Christmas – those on the trees, in candleholders, woven into sweaters, at church, on lawns and in the sky – and rejoice that the light of the world, the great light, has come into our world and has illumined our darkness. Perhaps this truth will enable us all to focus on the joy of this light and, perhaps, seek the goodwill of all those who walk with us during these dark days.
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.
My heart remains heavy as I process the events of Sunday morning in Sutherland Springs, TX. According to numerous news sources, a man parked his truck at a gas station, walked across the street with a number of weapons and then opened fire on those around and within the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs as they gathered for the 11AM worship service. Twenty-six men, women and children were killed and more than 20 others were injured, leading to the pastor’s wife, Sherri Pomeroy, saying, “Most of our church family is gone….” The only word I am left with is this: tragic.
In the aftermath of this ever-increasingly common tragedy, numerous ‘shapers of culture’ (celebrities, politicians and media consultants) have said many things about many topics, and I am not sufficiently knowledgeable about the details of this event nor of its legal implications to offer my commentary. What I do know is this: there is no place on earth where we will be perfectly safe. We deceive ourselves if we think that churches or schools or country music concerts make those therein impervious to danger and risk. We are being unrealistic if we imagine that locks and detectors keep us far from harm.
(Jesus asked,) “Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” Luke 13:4-5
The bad news is this – bad things happen every day. Disease of the body and disease of the spirit is present in every place humanity dwells. There are earthquakes and hurricanes that devastate vast areas. There are wildfires and droughts that destroy lives and livelihoods. There are acts of violence that damage souls and bring death to innocents. There is little we can do about these things and nothing will prevent them from happening should they seek our demise. The bad news is that we cannot prevent what is evil from being evil. The bad news is that we are not safe.
However, there is good news. While we cannot prevent bad things from occurring, we can prepare for them, so that death by whatever circumstance cannot rob us of our relationships and our life. We have nothing to fear since we can claim the promise Jesus has made to all those who trust in Him
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” John 11:25-26
While it is true that life on earth is not safe, it also true that the God who loves us has provided us with blessings that can never be taken away. There are blessings beyond this physical realm – redemption, restoration, reunion and resurrection – that no act of violence or “act of God” that can rescind.
I hope and pray that the odds fall in your favor, that life-taking evil does not visit your camp. I also hope and pray that should your last day on earth occur much earlier than you planned, you will have prepared for this eventuality and placed your full faith in the One who provides life after death.
Image by DAVID J. PHILLIP / AP
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.
Yesterday was the first day of 11th grade for my son, David, and the first day of 4th grade for my son, Joshua. Speaking for parents everywhere, the first day of school is absolutely wonderful. The children were dressed in new clothes and their backpacks were filled with new school supplies. Everyone sensed the excitement due to the possibilities of a new year with new teachers. Social media will inevitably be filled with photos of our bright-eyed scholars ready for the commencement of new classes. And, while the young ones are at school, precious hours of peace and quiet returned to homes everywhere.
I have memories (through a thick fog of time) surrounding a number of “first day”s of school: buying Garanimals at Bradlees, writing my name in my new Trapper Keeper, wondering if any of my friends were going to be in my class, trepidation over the navigation of hallways and locker combinations, walking down Park Street (first to the Clapp School and then to the E. A. Jones School). I remember nearly all of my teachers’ names. I can still see the hallway and stairway where one of my first grade classmates (who will remain nameless) had a meltdown of epic proportions due to what we now call separation anxiety. First days of school leave an indelible mark.
These memories, however, are fading as I get older. School days are no longer part of our adult lives. We do not buy new clothes for ourselves at Labor Day sales and we detest the incredibly long lines at Staples. Many of us have not been in a classroom setting (outside of parent-teacher conferences) in decades and assume a mindset that education is only for the young. According to Pew Research, 27% of adults did not read a single book last year. The world around is constantly changing, but, sadly, some of us see no need to hone our intellectual resources.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Acts 2:42
One of the counter-cultural practices of the Christian church is a devotion to life-long learning. This weekend, communities of faith all over the region will be holding, in one form or another, a “Rally Day” to resume Christian Education classes. Through Sunday School classes, Bible studies and C. E. discussions people of all ages will devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching. People of diverse backgrounds will gather in church basements and conference rooms and read the Scriptures together. Women and men of all ages will share experiences and insights, equipping one another to face the challenges of life.
At Calvary, Sunday will be the first day of school. While we will not expect you to have sharpened #2 pencils or matching shirts and khakis, we do encourage you to devote yourselves to learning more about the Lord. Whether it be in Dorchester or wherever Christ has called you, I hope you will get together with constructively curious people this weekend and equip yourselves with the Sword of the Spirit, readying one another for whatever the world may bring.
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.
I heard the following quote from a podcast earlier this week:
“If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” – G.K. Chesterton
Upon hearing it, I did a quick Google© search to check its veracity. It is, in fact, genuine. Chesterton (a writer, poet and lay theologian from England) did write these words at the end of the fourteenth chapter of his 1910 book What’s Wrong with the World. The context for the quote was the education of children and the point of his comments were to do what is necessary, even if it is done poorly.
Our society, at first blush, seems to contradict Chesterton’s words by telling us that if it is worth doing, it is worthy doing well. Chesterton’s point, and my reasoning for quoting him, does not disagree with this prevailing wisdom. When we endeavor to accomplish a task – in the home, in the workplace or in the church – we ought to do our best. We must not enter into the essential activities of life half-heartedly. That being said, we rarely are able to accomplish our best, whether it be due to an inaccessibility of resources, an insufficiency of energy or a lack of passion.
When our best work and our real work are incongruent, we tend to get discouraged, and when we get discouraged, we quit. We flip the above-stated cultural mandate on its head and think to ourselves, “if I cannot do this well, I should not do it at all.” That is where Chesterton comes in, reminding us that it is perfectly acceptable to do something, even if it is done badly. We are always to do things to the best of our abilities, understanding that there are days when our best is bad. On those days, instead of giving up the fight, we can resolve to do better the next time.
My life is full of moments when I am doing what is worth doing, but doing it badly. There are times when I am hungry and I diet badly. There are times when I am angry and communicate badly. There are times when I am lonely and manage my time badly. There are times when I am tired and pray with the family badly. There are times when I preach badly, teach badly, father badly, husband badly, perform sonly duties badly and witness badly. But I do not quit, and instead commit to doing better the next time.
But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 2 Corinthians 4:7
As Paul reminded the early church in Corinth, we are simple, easily broken, earthen vessels. Anything we do, any excellence we accomplish, any power we display is not from us; it is from God. We cannot (and are not expected to) do everything well every time. We will, occasionally, do things badly. But we will do them because they are worth doing. I pray we all will always be doing good, even when we can only do it badly.
Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Galatians 6:9 (NIV)
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.