Occasionally, I wrestle with a topic to write about in this weekly blog; this was one of those weeks. As a number of themes turned in my mind, I prayed that God would help me in my efforts to formulate a concise and meaningful reflection worthy of posting. Ironically, my attentions were drawn over and over again to prayer: as I discussed with other pastors a biography we read on J. Hudson Taylor, the conversation was about prayer; as I led the Lenten study on Matthew 26, the scriptures addressed prayer; when I put a 2006 Veggie Tales DVD into the player for the kids I watched as their moms attended the Women’s Bible Study, “Gideon: Tuba Warrior”, we unexpectedly watched a vignette about George Mueller (who was a champion of prayer).
Hudson Taylor was the founder of China Inland Mission, which brought the gospel to the Chinese, through ‘faith missions’ (the sending of missionaries with no promises of temporal support, but instead a reliance ‘through prayer to move [people] by God’), serving eastern Asia from 1854 – 1905. He utterly relied on prayer for his provision and direction throughout his life. As we discussed the life and faith of this great follower of Christ, a few of us were transparent enough to voice our regret that our prayer lives were, in comparison, woefully lacking in fervor and faithfulness. Hudson’s contemporary George Mueller built and directed numerous orphanages in Bristol, England while never making a single request for financial support; he remained debt-free as he relied solely on concerted prayer for God’s provision.
He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” Matthew 26:37-38
The above-mentioned verses report part of what took place in the garden of Gethsemane hours before Jesus was arrested. Jesus and his disciples had just concluded their commemoration of the Passover and had gone to this place just outside the city to pray. Unlike other times, when Jesus went to a solitary place, on this occasion he asks his three closest friends to stay and keep watch – to pray – with him. At the time of deepest sorrow, our Lord prayed with others. Our savior’s last act of human volition was to conduct a prayer meeting with his companions. I cannot help but ask myself if I would do the same thing.
It all makes me wonder: do we pray better when we pray together? Are we all a bit more like Moses than we care to admit, that we simply cannot keep our hands raised in prayer and intercession without the help of others (see Exodus 17:8-16)? Are we willing to learn from Jesus the lesson that we are better able to accomplish God’s will when we ‘keep watch’ together? I am not, in my own strength alone, able to pray as I should. Perhaps we could get together, say on a Wednesday night, and hold up one another in prayer.
More often than I care to admit or recognize, the disparate portions of scripture that read relating to different parts of my life that (whether it be through sermon preparation, prayer, or devotional readings) intersect to illuminate a truth that my thick skull would not have comprehended had it not been bombarded from diverse angles. This week, a verse from Proverbs (from a devotional), a verse from Psalms (through our church’s participation in “21 Days of Prayer”) and a verse from Acts (from last week’s sermon) have gotten me thinking. They all were used by the Holy Spirit to connect some dots, producing a picture of life that includes discernment, disappointment, and direction.
Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance…. Proverbs 1:5 (ESV)
I cry out to God Most High, to God who fulfills his purpose for me. Psalm 57:2 (ESV)
[Herod] had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. Acts 12:2 (NIV)
Initially, God directed me to the above passage in Proverbs and to a devotional where Tim Keller examined the difference between knowledge and discernment as they relate to the pursuit of wisdom. We must be ever increasing in our learning, gaining factual and practical knowledge from a variety of healthy sources. We must also seek understanding of this knowledge. We need to know what the truth is, as well as what the truth means in practice.
Next, God directed me to the passage in the Psalms, which states the truth that God fulfills His purposes for us. But what does that mean in practice? In context, David recited this plea as he was running for his life from Saul. It means that God uses all our experiences (times of joy and times of sorrow) as a means of fulfilling His purposes for us. Whether we comprehend God’s rationale for our situation, we must live with the understanding that He has a plan.
This leads to the final passage, which recorded the martyrdom of one the first disciples at the hands of Herod. Unlike His deliverance of Peter a few verses later, this passage appears to reflect that God did nothing to spare James’ life. That is what knowledge of the truth would tell me, anyways. But understanding of the passage tells me more: first, that Jesus secured James’ life after his physical death, delivering him from harm and granting him passage into His presence; and second, His purpose (whatever that may be) for James and the people James know was fulfilled.
Ultimately, the life of faith is found in the confluence of these verses (as well as thousands more). Whether it is budget meetings or bond hearings, weddings or funerals, winning the lottery or losing a job, God has a purpose for you. We can get a glimpse of this purpose through studying His word and seeking His guidance. But, whether we “get” what God is doing or not, we can trust that He will give us all we need to trust Him in the darker hours. We need only remember that God all things work together for good for those who are called according to His purpose. But that is a verse for another day.
Later today, my daughter will spend 18 hours travelling over 4,500 miles, flying from Boston to Thessaloniki in Greece. When she gets there, she will study abroad for her spring semester and be far from home for 3 months. It is, without a doubt, a wonderful opportunity for her. However, I am anxious about all the logistics that a trip of this nature requires: will she make her connecting flights, communicate with reputable locals to get to the college campus and be compatible with her roommate? I fear that my anxiety will not subside until the first week of April, when Rebekah returns to the sweet land of liberty. Until then, I will pray.
But what should I pray? That the airplanes remain in the sky between uneventful takeoffs and landings? That everyone in Europe is kind and caring? That she will enjoy 90 days of Aegean bliss, akin to the images of Grecian villages in “Mama Mia”? I have to admit that I would like to offer these prayers, except that they all seem so self-serving, as if I am saying that in this world where so many are in the midst of genuine suffering, I want God to place my little girl in a bubble of security. There must be more to prayer than simply supplying the sustainer of the heavenly spheres with my personal wish-list.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:6-7
As my daughter departs for her next adventure, I am choosing to take the Apostle Paul’s advice to the church in Philippi to heart. I am choosing, in this situation, to not be anxious as I present my requests to God. I will make these requests with all the gratitude I can muster, recognizing the enormity of my circumstance (able to offer prayers in the presence of our Great High Priest and offer petitions before the King of Kings). After I have emptied my heart of all the anxiety that it harbored, I will be blessed with the peace that replaces it. I may not understand God’s remedies to my requests, but I will remember that He loves my daughter even more than I do. And that will be more than enough.
As I pray for my daughter over the next three months, I recognize that my intercession will not change God’s will; it will, however, give voice to what I would like God’s will to be – protection and blessing for those I love. This will bring me to the threshold of faith (as the author of Hebrews says, that which gives us confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see) where I enter the place of God’s grace, trusting that He will always answer my prayers with what He knows is best, whether I comprehend its goodness or not.
So, please join me in prayer: continue to bring your heart’s cry before the throne of the Almighty and trust that He will perfectly answer your every request…and enjoy the peace that will keep watch over your heart and mind, whatever the resolution.
I have a simple question for all those reading this: when do we stop celebrating our “Season’s Greetings”? When the radio and television stations return to their regular programming? When the last Christmas cookies have been eaten? When the tree and decorations are taken down? When the final greeting card, initially misdirected by the Post Office, arrives? Until the next holiday is celebrated? Until the children return to school after their Winter Break? Once all the exterior lights have been boxed and stored away? I suppose we all must move on from all of those special gatherings with family and friends filled with all sorts of special traditions and resume the mundane schedule of everyday life, but when?
But what if I do not want to move on from Christmas? What if I still want to reflect on the gifts of advent – the hope, peace, joy and love that comes through the appearing of Christ? What if the remembrance of the 1st advent at Bethlehem, has whet my appetite for the 2nd advent when Christ shall descend from the clouds? While I can dispense with the carols and the cookies, I would like to retain the warmth of the manger, the worship of the shepherds, the hospitality of the city of David and the generosity of God, the Father.
When [the shepherds] had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child…. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. Luke 2:17-20
I want to be like those shepherds, so impacted by the facts and sensations of Christmas that they were undeniably transformed. Because of the advent, these blue-collar laborers went from sheep herders shaking in fear to pastors leading lost sheep to verdant fields. They went back to their ordinary schedules with an understanding of the extraordinary sights and sounds of the Savior born in a Bethlehem manger. They were changed by Christmas, as is evidenced by their propensity for giving glory and praise to God. They had no special carols or cards or casseroles – they had the Christ and He was sufficient to sustain them.
I will, in the days ahead, put everything that symbolizes Christmas into boxes or, in the case of our tree, onto the curb – all the external stimuli that reminds me of that blessed event two thousand years ago. But, like the shepherds, I will continue to carry inside me all the sounds, scents and sights that make Christmas special. My hope is that the inward prompts of these sensational sensations will stimulate my soul to maintain a spirit of glory and praise every day in every place as I interact with everyone. Instead of celebrating Christmas throughout the year, perhaps I can communicate the hope, peace, joy and love of Immanuel – God with us – for a while longer.
Lord, help me to remember that on every day that ends with ‘y’ that Christ came to inaugurate “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
One of my favorite parts of celebrating Christmas is watching the Christmas specials on TV with the family (and if we are unavailable for the network broadcasts, we have most, if not all, the best on DVD). I am sure everyone has a list of their preferences: “The Year Without a Santa Claus”, “Frosty the Snowman”, “Prep and Landing”, or “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer”. They are all wonderful in their own right, but my personal choice for the greatest Christmas special would be a tie between “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”. These marvelous stories, regularly broadcast since 1965 and 1966 respectively, hold a special place in my heart.
At first blush, these two stories have very little in common. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” tells the story of a boy seeking the real meaning of Christmas while preparing for a traditional Christmas pageant which emphasizes, in a pivotal scene, a reference to the biblical account of Jesus’ birth. “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” recounts the happenings of a fantastic location known as Whoville and the mean resident of Mount Crumpet who is seeking to rob the Whos of their Christmas joy. One has overtly Christian themes and the other has overly secular themes, seemingly the two opposites of the celebratory spectrum.
But these two masterpieces have more in common than you might think. Both the authors grew up in Lutheran homes. Both were based on works intended for children. Most significantly, both, at their cores, deal with the dangers of consumerism. “Charlie Brown”’s animated landscape is riddled with aluminum Christmas trees and its dialogue is filled with gift suggestions, leaving the protagonist with the zigzag shirt longing for more. “The Grinch”’s narrative couplets tell of jingtinglers and games like zoozittacarzay, and decry the noises of the season, all of which cause consternation within the titular green meanie. Both Charlie Brown and the Grinch want to stop the celebration of a consumption-centered Christmas.
Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. Luke 2:11 (NIV)
If you have not watched these specials at least once in the last 50 years, stop reading and watch them on Youtube© here and here. Both these Christmas specials come to the conclusion that the meaning and significance of Christmas is not the stuff under the tree, but the relationships we cherish while gathering around the tree. It is the relationships – for “Charlie Brown” it is Jesus and for “The Grinch” it is family – that makes Christmas matter. These relationships bring the school children around a tiny tree to sing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and bring the Whos around the spot where the village tree was placed to sing “Fah Who Foraze, Dah Who Doraze, Welcome, Christmas, Come This Way.”
My prayer this Christmas is that we can all come to the same realization that the Grinch reaches: that Christmas can come without ribbons, without tags, without packages, boxes or bags. My hope this Christmas is that when we reach our breaking point and cry out, as Charlie did, whether anyone knows what Christmas is all about, some kind soul reminds you about the marvelous events that took place just outside Bethlehem. It is not about presents…it is all about presence.
Driving in Boston can be an adventure: the streets are narrow, turn signals are for ‘the other car’ and the solid yellow lines are ignored. I am typically the driver on family trips to the grocery store or school, with my loving wife in the front passenger seat. As we navigate the roads around our residence, she gently reminds me on occasion of people and vehicles that are dangerously close to our car. “Watch out for that car pulling out of the driveway,” she implores. “Do you see that woman with the baby carriage?” she asks. “There’s a truck on your left,” she says.
What my wife is pointing out are my blind spots. When she says these things and asks these questions, I am quick to tell her that I am fine and that I see everything she mentions. I am confident that I know where my blind spots are and what is contained within them. As I write these words, I realize just how dumb they sound: am I really proposing that I can see and process the things that, by definition, I cannot see, the things to which I am blind? What makes them blind spots is the fact that they are not seen.
We all need an extra pair of eyes, someone watching our backs, if we hope to avoid disaster. We all need someone outside ourselves, someone with a slightly different perspective, who will tell us the hard facts that we are unable to recognize. We all need someone who will see the trouble before it strikes and warn us (or, at least, enable us to brace for impact). We need other people in our lives in order to avoid becoming a wreck: physically, emotionally, spiritually or relationally. “Watch out for increased sodium levels,” they will implore. “Do you see those red flags that your new companion is raising?” they will ask. “There’s a flaw in your logic,” they will say.
As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another. Proverbs 27:17 (NIV)
In order for iron to sharpen iron, in order for the hammer and anvil to shape the blade and in order for the file to hone the edge two things are needed: fire and friction. Solomon, in all his wisdom, understood that we need the same thing, especially in the blind spots. We need fire; the healthiest relationships include elements of passion and purification. We need friction; the healthiest relationships include the qualities of proximity and pressure. In order to make it from one point in life to another without damage, we need a friend who is close enough to care and strong enough to say what needs saying.
It is my firm belief that this type of friendship is a gift from God. He blesses us with people who will point out what is in our blind spots because they love us and want the best for us. It is in our best interest to foster those who will bring fire and friction into our life, so that we can avoid the flames. I thank God for my wife, my second set of eyes. I pray you have someone similar to her with whom you can ride along.
Being an introvert by nature, I tend to think out (in greater detail than may be healthy) scenarios that may of may not ever be founded in reality. After this week’s Sunday School lesson on James 2, I have been fixated on what I might do if a celebrity came to Calvary to worship. My mind conjured questions: What person of influence, wealth or status might grace us with their presence? How would they be greeted? What engagement might be biblically appropriate? I follow the rabbit-trails of thought that make me reason that a new member of a local sports franchise might come to Calvary; Patriots players are out (they play on Sundays), as are Red Sox players (playoffs and all), so I think about Gordon Hayward, the Celtic star who once said in an interview that “[going to church has] always been a staple; something I try to do.”
So, what would I do if Gordon Hayward came to church on Sunday? Would I do more than I would for a neighbor? Would I offer him a special seat? Would I ask him to offer a few words during the ‘announcements’ in the service of worship? Would I ask for a photo or an autograph? Would I post a quick update to social media, stating, ‘Guess who came to church this morning’? Would I ask for tickets to the next game, purely for ministry purposes? What would the Bible tell me is right and proper?
My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. James 2:1 (NIV)
The Scriptures tell us that we must not show favoritism, the practice of giving unfair preferential treatment to one person or group at the expense of another. We must not give something better to some at the expense of others. The words of James’ letter to the churches tells us that we give special attention to the rich by offering a good seat while demanding that the poor stand in a back corner. So, if Gordon Hayward comes to Calvary this Sunday, I will treat him like anyone else: I will shake his hand and ask what brought him to church; I will seek his prayer requests and opportunities for praise as I extend the opportunity to everyone in attendance; and I will share with him the good news of Jesus Christ.
Instead of favoritism, we ought to show favor, the practice of showing kindness beyond what is due or usual. We are expected to show favor to all those who come in the doors of the church. So that if a visitor, whether wealthy and powerful or weak and poor, joins in worship at Calvary I will treat them all with kindness – I will speak with dignity, offer inclusion, express equity and advance grace. If we offer preferential treatment to everyone, we are not showing favoritism but favor. On that day, we will give the best seat to anyone who opens the door – saint or sinner – with the hope that grace will abound.
Do me a favor: visit us some Sunday morning and we will show you favor in return.
As part of a discussion with my family over Sunday’s sermon, my eldest stated that he was humored by the possibility of God’s bestowal of the spiritual gift of provocation. His comment was based on the phrase “spur one another on” in Hebrews 10:24, a peculiar Greek word (παροξυσμός) which literally means “with a point”; the only other time the word is used in the New Testament (Acts 15:39) it is translated as “a sharp disagreement”. The writer of the book of Hebrews was inspired to tell the church to look for ways to sharply provoke our fellow believers.
The term ‘spur on’ is a wonderful word picture of this process of provocation. It conjures images of a race horse and jockey, working together as a team, to reach the optimal outcome. The jockey is kicking his mount in the hind quarters and the horse is increasing its efforts. At the end of the race, the horse, which endured the sting of provocation, is the champion and the jockey, the source of the provocation is the one who drapes the victor in flowers (quick question: horseracing’s Triple Crown was won this past June: what was the horse’s name? And who was his jockey? More of us can remember Justify, but few would come up with jockey Mike Smith). ‘Spurring on’ may not be pleasant for the horse in the moment, but the resulting rewards cannot be underestimated.
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds…. Hebrews 10:24
The writer of Hebrews tells us to consider (literally, to look upon) one another for the spurring on toward love and good deeds. The Holy Spirit inspired a first century author to urge the church to look for ways to provoke one another. This provocation, this calling forth with sharpness, propels the believer toward acts and attitudes that convey love and compassion. It appears that these virtues – love and compassion – are not always instinctual, logical or natural. We all have times when we revert to pettiness, anger and selfishness and need a good kick in the pants to motivate us to pursue the goal set before us.
So, perhaps there is a spiritual gift of provocation, a God-given ability to call one another forth with sharpness so that we all may glorify God to the fullest. Perhaps there is also a need among God’s people to accept that ‘spurring’ with grace and gratitude, knowing the intent of our ‘jockey’ is the attaining of our very best effort. No one wants to hear that they need to love the heartless or hurt for the homeless; most of us are comfortable loving who we love and helping who we help. Then we wrestle with the truth that God’s love and mercy is greater than our expressions of them, and that we need someone to remind us that we are able to do more than we think we are capable of doing.
So, appreciate those whom God uses to spur you on. Appreciate those whom God uses to agitate you to love deeper and provoke you to act kinder. Appreciate those with sharp words intended to soften your heart.
We had an interesting visitor to the church the other day: a location scout. It seems that there are plans for a major motion picture to film in Boston this fall and they were looking for a church to shoot a scene. The scout told me they were looking for a place to film a sparsely attended funeral and she came by to take a few pictures of our sanctuary. In the ten minutes that the location scout was taking her shots of the building, my thoughts went on a flight of fancy: what if our church was selected and we had Hollywood heavyweights filling our pews; what if our sanctuary made it into a movie; what if it were nominated for an Academy Award?
Whether or not we are chosen as a location for this movie, our church will not be captured on film. The truth is that the church is not the building. The building is a beautiful composition of plaster, wood, metal, asphalt and glass. The church, on the other hand, is an even more glorious composition of personalities, abilities, experiences and passions. The building is a specific place, but the church is a specific people. While the building, with its carpeting and lighting, might be viewed on the big screen, our church, with its emotions and affections, cannot be experienced as entertainment.
Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house. Colossians 4:15
The above-referenced passage reveals an important truth found in numerous other passages in Scripture: there is a distinction between the church and the place where it meets (in this case “in her house”). The early believers did not ‘go to church’ but went to a place to be with the church, to gather with sisters and brothers of faith to worship, to pray, to educate and to minister. Church is not where the Bible tells us to go or what the Bible tells us to do, but who the Bible tells us to be. The church is the family of God, the body and bride of Christ, and temple of the Holy Spirit. So, maybe our building will be in the movies, but the church is too great to be preserved on celluloid.
For most, this weekend represents the end of summer and the beginning of autumn, the time when schools and colleges resume their classes. It is also the time when churches resume their regular schedules and programs. It would be a great time to think about gathering with the church and share your gifts, strengths and passions in ways that foster growth and increase His kingdom. For most of us, that will mean going to a ‘house of worship’ – I dare not say going to ‘church’ – and getting together with the church – what the Greek calls ekklesia, “the ones called out”. Join others as we celebrate that we are more than a special place on the map; we are the one whom God has called out of the culture of this world and brought together as a family of faith.
That cannot be contained in any camera’s lens.
There is a place in my neighborhood that is a microcosm of my neighborhood. As the noontime hour approaches, you can see every demographic: there are police officers in uniform, fire fighters in Blue BFD T-shirts, DCR lifeguards from Malibu Beach, grandchildren dressed in Vineyard Vines pants (pegged at the ankle) visiting their grandparents, National Grid workers in safety vests, lawyers in business suits, moms with strollers, politicians and fast-food clerks. It is there where every ethnicity and lifestyle of Dorchester is represented, and men and women of every age are present. Where is this perfect melting pot that includes everyone, from Boston Brahmin to the denizen of the triple-deckers? As a pastor, I would like to say that I am talking about the church, but, alas, I am not. The place that I am talking about is the deli counter at Lamberts. At lunchtime, the line for sandwiches includes everyone that calls Dorchester home.
Ah, Lamberts, where you can get the finest sandwich eight bucks can buy. All you have to do is hand the meat slicer your choice of roll and a list (either verbally or in writing) of ingredients, and a few minutes later, you are handed a piece of heaven wrapped in butcher paper. But it is in that long line leading to the counter that you can brush shoulders with literally anyone and everyone. As I wait for my turn, I wonder if this is what heaven will be like, complete with the distinct sound of dropped ‘r’s and the obligatory ‘wicked’.
“Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” Colossians 3:11 (NIV)
The original design for what we call the local church, according to the apostle Paul, was that it included everyone. No one was to be excluded based on religious, cultural, national, economic or gender (cf. Gal. 3:28). In practice, the local gatherings of the family of God routinely miss the mark. Why can’t the people of God be like the line at Lamberts? Why isn’t the make-up of the ‘bride of Christ’ the same as those waiting for sandwiches? Why isn’t the church as diverse as those frequenting the local deli?
I suppose the answer to all these questions is simple: reputation. Lamberts has the long line for their offerings because they are known, largely through word of mouth, as a provider of excellent lunches for everyone. What is the reputation of the church? Justified or not, Dr. Martin Luther King was quoted as saying, “…it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” In the fifty-eight years since those words were uttered, the church has taken great strides, but there is more to be done so that the community surrounding our houses of worship verify that the local church has changed. I hope that one day soon the same crowd at Lamberts is present at Calvary. All we can do is spread the word, with genuine sincerity, that all are welcome to worship the Lord.