There is a word in Greek (thaumazō) that Luke used to describe what happened when human beings witnessed the power and glory of God. It is alternatingly translated as “to wonder, to be astonished, to be amazed, to marvel, and to be surprised”. It is the response of the people of Bethlehem after hearing the shepherds declare the birth of the Savior and the disciples after Jesus calmed the wind and the waves. It is how multiple people reacted to the miraculous acts of the Lord and how Peter felt when he saw the empty tomb. Throughout the Gospels, men and women come face-to-face with the words and works of God and are amazed.
This experience of occasional astonishment is, in my opinion, a stark contrast to those who attend our twenty first century worship services. When was the last time you wondered at the meaning of the words found in the Scriptures or were surprised by the works of the Holy Spirit in our midst? When was the last time God broke through the mundane and you marveled at the world around you? In our day and age, our impressions of life on earth is more like that of the author of Ecclesiastes: there is nothing new under the sun. Where has all the wonder gone?
I believe we get from life and from others what we expect from life and from others. Beyond “glass-half-full/glass-half-empty” biases, we see what we want to see. We are not surprised by God, either through His miraculous works or His marvelous words, because we do not think we will be. Babies are born and all but the immediate family shrugs. Healing comes to those who are sick and most of us yawn. Accidents are avoided by random delays and we are oblivious. Then we consider the biological functions necessary for sustaining life and the explosive power of the combustion engine, it is amazing that we “live and move and have our being”.
…and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. Luke 2:18
In fear and amazement they asked one another, “Who is this?” Luke 8:25b
…and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened. Luke 24:12b
Last weekend, with its reminders of the sacrificial death and glorious resurrection of Jesus, ought to pique our interest in the amazing. Easter is a lasting witness to the wonderful and marvelous works and words of God. It reminds us that while His claims may sound fantastic (i.e. based on fantasy), to our amazement they have all been proven true. This week, in communities of faith gathered in worship and in places of solitude intended for reflection, we allowed ourselves to be amazed, if only for a moment. I wonder what would happen if we allowed ourselves to look for the surprising every Sunday morning, or every morning for that matter.
I pray that this week you hear something amazing, see something wonderful and sense something marvelous. Let me know when you do.
In our church’s most recent newsletter (found at http://calvary-boston.org/newletter.pdf), I wrote about my reservations about public praise and my resolve to increase that praise in light of Jesus’s admonition on Palm Sunday. “If the people won’t cry out, the rocks will,” Jesus told the Pharisees. This rebuke of the religious elite has challenged me to praise God so that the Lord need not replace the praise that I ought to be offering with that of a stone. Part of Palm Sunday is celebrating the triumphal entry of the conquering king, knowing that He has conquered sin, death and the Devil.
But this is only part of the Palm Sunday narrative. The Gospel of Luke begins the day we know as Palm Sunday with a conversation between two unnamed disciples and Jesus. Jesus commands these two to enter into town and secure the services of a donkey. It was an important task, as it would fulfill a Scriptural prophecy about the Messiah. But it is just “transportation” ministry – two of the divine dozen, the chosen students of the Lord, being asked to call for an Uber® instead of doing something more important. Maybe they struggled with a temptation I occasionally face: thinking that they had been called to greater things than this.
“Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it.’” Luke 19:30-31 (NIV)
Imagine you were walking in the sandals of those two unnamed disciples as they witnessed the triumphal entry. Would you be tempted to say, “Hey, none of this would have been possible without me”? Would you want Jesus to acknowledge your contribution to the parade? Would you, at some later date, tell Matthew (your fellow disciple) to make sure he mentions your name when inspired to write about Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem? We can wonder how we might react to such a request from Jesus, but there is no question how these two unnamed disciples reacted – with humble obedience. They did what they were told without question or credit, pure and simple.
Knowing what transpired once Jesus mounted the donkey (the praise and adoration of the crowd), it makes me think that there is a link between obedience and worship. There must be something that connects our sacrifice and our singing. It seems that we cannot fully rejoice in the Lord until we have first committed our lives to the Lord. We praise Jesus – His power, His protection, His provision and His prodding – because we have seen Jesus. We have seen the evidences of His mighty acts and heard the expressions of His salvation. And having seen and heard what the Lord can do, we are willing to follow Him wherever He leads. Then, as we follow Him wherever He leads, we witness the praise and rejoicing He alone deserves.
It is good to know that all our efforts – our deeds and sacrifices – will produce, on earth and in heaven, glorious praise to our King. That is ultimately our greatest reward.
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.
As we have for the previous four awards seasons, my wife and I watched, in local theaters and in our living room, the nine movies nominated for the Academy Award’s Best Picture. This year we were enchanted by a western, a musical, a science fiction thriller, a play adaption, a war epic, a biographical film, a coming-of age story, a historical narrative and a tear jerker. Each film introduced us people facing challenges different (sometime much different) than our own. Each movie gave us something to talk about and wrestle with after we viewed it. And while the process of spending twenty or so hours watching movies may not appeal to everyone, it is a treat and a blessing to my wife and me.
Invariably, when the conversation turns to our project of seeing these Best Picture nominees, I am asked the question: what do you think will win? I have some trouble answering that, in part because artistic expression (and that is ultimately what all these movies are) is so subjective, and in part because every film (well, maybe with one exception) had elements of greatness. What do I think will win? The Academy will likely choose Lalaland. What do I think is overall the best picture for 2016, from among those nominated? This is a much more complicated question.
As I answer this question, I feel that I can eliminate half the nominees from my personal best: Arrival was good, especially in its character development and the deep conversation that followed was profound, but not great; Fences, with its exceptional acting performances, was too dialogue driven for my taste; Lalaland was artistically stunning but slow and lacked a plot for about a third of the film; and I found Moonlight, despite its important story, too confusing. I appreciate all these films and the questions they produced in me: what would life be like if we were not constricted by time? How do our dreams and failures shape our lives? Can love conquer all? Can we truly escape our environment?
The other five (Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High Water, Hidden Figures, Lion and Manchester-by-the-Sea) were better stories more beautifully told with exceptional acting. These five, at any given moment, fluctuate in my mind as best. They represent characters who are each faced with challenges (trying to save lives while others are taking them, fighting foreclosure, battling racial injustice, finding a way back home and overcoming an unfair and tragic past), overcoming them, to a greater or lesser degree. There are images and elements of each of these works of art that will remain with me for quite a while – moments of extreme pain and moments of overwhelming joy. At this moment, I offer my opinion and would recommend you seeing Hacksaw Ridge, my choice for Best Picture.
For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen. Romans 11:36
I do not say this simply because it is the most “faith-based” of the nominees, but because it is the most beautifully shot and compelling story captured on film. All these films, from my personal favorite to my personal worst, have elements which provoke my pastoral side. Each one is worth seeing so that their narratives, whether true or fictitious, can enable us to walk in the shoes of another for 140 minutes or can afford us the opportunity to experience life in a way that we would never experience on our own. We are surrounded by people broken by society and bruised by circumstance, and it is good to be reminded once in a while that we can overcome poverty, tragedy, rejection, oppression, prejudice and even the occasional success. In every story our lives tell, no matter our faith system or lack thereof, God has a marvelous way of breaking in and then shining through the cracks the world inflicts upon us. We all have a story to tell, one worthy of an Academy Award.
For reasons I do not quite understand (something about licensing and ownership), our local NBC affiliation is changing channels – from channel 7 to channel 10 – on January 1st. For a few weeks I will, by instinct, tune into the wrong station and then remember that things have changed. It is a reminder that things are constantly changing. Life is continually in a state of flux, shifting like waves in the ocean. I have seen this in my own circumstances in 2016: our oldest son graduating from college and moving back home, our daughter graduating from High School and attending college in Washington, DC, spending 3 weeks at home over the past four months, our whole family moving from one apartment to another.
Some changes are simple (like television stations or finding new locations for Christmas trees), while others are more challenging (dealing with new medication regimens and moving everything you own), but every change impacts life. Some changes we make are restorative (such as eating healthier or improving our sleeping patterns) and others are destructive (such as picking up bad habits or ending a relationship). As this year ends and another begins, many will be thinking about making changes, or resolutions, as a means of improving their everyday lives. Seek to make the changes that are restorative.
My concern for myself, as well as those I love and serve beside, are not the changes I initiate, but the changes that come through uninvited means. About a year ago, I made some resolutions, preferring to call them intentions, about trusting God more and praying more. I had no idea that 366 days later I’d be in a different home with slightly different decor or that I’d be dealing with hypertension for my remaining days on earth. I had little idea what it would feel like having a child living so far away or worrying about colonoscopies. My concern is that I have no idea what lies ahead in 2017.
Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. James 1:17 (NIV)
My hope, for the years that have passed and the year to come, is that God alone never changes. Everything good in my life (and yours) comes from the immutable Father in heaven. There is nothing that surprises or flusters the Lord of all creation. While my circumstances (as well as my weight, my address and my blood pressure) may change, the one who knows my needs and desires will never change. He will, as I follow Him and His word, continue to shower good and perfect gifts upon me, whether I understand them as gifts or not. My hope is in God, no matter how my life may change.
Allow me to wish you all a very happy new year. Whether you are a person who makes resolutions or not, I pray that all who are reading this will find the changes that the coming year brings redemptive and restorative. And I pray that the God who never changes will grant you every good and perfect gift He has purposed for your enjoyment.
Hope is a wonderful and mystical thing. It is wonderful in that it can uplift the soul during the most discouraging of times and it is mystical in that it has a spiritual meaning that is difficult to see or understand. Hope is what enables us to share stories of the past with the future generations and what allows us to anticipate the good while enduring darkened days. Hope tells us that one day all our tears will be dried and all our pains will be taken away, replaced by an overwhelming new reality where we are the victors. Hope reminds us that there is something within us that is preparing us for our day in the sun.
It had been generations since the people had experienced victory. All those who were witnesses to the prior celebration have long since passed and all that remains were their written accounts of those jubilant days. The oral tradition, told by fathers to their children (who told it to their children) recounted how long ago there was a leader who built a team who conquered the world. Young people hearing these tales shook their heads in disbelief while the ‘old-timers’ looked forward to that team’s return to the pinnacle. But years passed and the team never reached the level of success they once enjoyed. Over time all that was left was hope.
Others eventually heard and read of this band of ‘lovable losers’ and began to pray for the team’s success. They would gather with like-minded individuals at all times of the day and night, developing rituals and recounting the exploits of those who went before them. Even people from other cultures and belief -systems began to take notice of this hopeful group; some of them even changed allegiances and began following this team, hoping that they too would be able to one day see the triumphal return of their boys, and their leader. They were sure that one day – one great and glorious day – everyone on earth would witness what seemed impossible: the hope of a people fulfilled as their beloved team finally wins it all.
I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. Ephesians 1:18-19a (NIV)
Congratulations to the Chicago Cubs who, after 108 years of hoping, finally saw the fulfillment of their dream as they secured the World Series trophy early Thursday morning. They are champions of the world. But this post is not about the Cubs; it is about the church. The faithful people of God have been waiting, in hopeful anticipation, for nearly 2,000 years for their team (all believers in Christ as Lord and Savior) and their leader (Jesus) to return and claim the victory. Some wonder if that day will ever arrive or if the accounts from those who witnessed Jesus’ initial victory (through the cross) are true. Some question whether they are delusional in hoping for something that most days has little evidence of happening. Some wonder if there is any good in hoping.
If you’re questioning the value of hope, just look at the people surrounding Wrigley Field, ecstatic over a baseball game. Imagine the certain celebration that will take place when Christ returns to claim His victory. I hope I will still be alive!
Tomorrow morning at 9AM Jeanine and I will be dropping off at college our only daughter, Rebekah. At that time, she will begin orientation week at American University in Washington, DC (which is 447 miles from our new apartment in Dorchester). This is not the first time we’ve driven a child to college and waved as we drove away; we were in a similar situation four years as we hugged our son in front of a dorm at Gordon College (a mere 33 miles from our current apartment in Dorchester). I can say in my mind that this is the same thing, but my heart tells me that this is going to be different.
As Rebekah begins her collegiate career, I feel the need, as I did for her brother before her, to pass on a few words of wisdom from my own experiences:
- First, I would want to tell her to allow this experience to enhance her beautiful qualities instead of changing them. She will meet a variety of people from a variety of backgrounds whom she will want to emulate; I’d want her to know that she is able to resist that temptation and remain true to herself. I hope she makes friends with people from other cultures, countries and capabilities and she is better for these interactions while keeping within her what makes her unique;
- Next, I would want to tell her to focus on the important and not just the interesting. I’d want her to remember why she is where she is – to gain the skills and special training she needs to improve her chances at accomplishing her goals. I’d tell her that going to class and preparing for exams are essentials disciplines that will reap rich rewards. However, there are important things beyond the classroom as well: I’d want her to look for those lifelong friendships and life-shaping experiences that can be found in unexpected places;
- Then, I would remind her that God has directed her to our nation’s capital for a purpose. I would encourage her to take advantage to all that her campus and community allows. Go to the Smithsonian and absorb great art and artifacts, read the words inscribed on the monuments and memorials, and witness the pageantry of diplomatic motorcades and an inauguration; attend worship in some of the great churches in our nation, serve the needs of the poor and underprivileged, and take a skull along the Potomac.
“Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, ‘children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.’ Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life. And then I will be able to boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor in vain.” Philippians 2:14-16 (NIV)
Honey, I want you to shine so brightly that in the dark moments we can still see you 447 miles away. Your mother and I are so proud of you and all that you’ve become. We cannot wait to see the great things God will continue to do through you!
For all those leaving for college for the first time this week, and for their families who love them, I pray God’s richest blessing and watch care as you pursue your dreams.
For those wanting to read my thoughts four years ago, read https://calvaryboston.wordpress.com/2012/08/24/a-parents-hope-for-freshmen/
As I was going through a box that that had remained unpacked from a previous move in anticipation for our impending move, I came across a picture of me (and the other members of the Stoughton High School Show Choir) from 1981. After I posted the picture onto social media, many from the photo began commenting about how time had flied and how they remembered those days of singing and dancing long before “Glee” entered the cultural landscape. It was good to electronically ‘catch up’ with people I hadn’t seen in thirty-five years, making me think that I still had the agility and stamina to replicate some of the routines.
A long time has passed since the day that picture was taken – I’ve gone from fifteen to fifty years of age– and I know I cannot do now what we did then. All this illuminates the problem with time: it is constantly passing but we rarely sense its passing. If I am a typical person, there will come a day – Lord willing that I am blessed with a long enough life – that my working days will be over, my driving days will be over and the days of handling my own affairs will be over. Will I understand that I cannot do what I could do in the days of my youth?
The other day, I was shown the following passage of scripture describing a moment in King David’s life as his earthly days were drawing to an end.
Once again there was a battle between the Philistines and Israel. David went down with his men to fight against the Philistines, and he became exhausted. And Ishbi-Benob, one of the descendants of Rapha, whose bronze spearhead weighed three hundred shekels and who was armed with a new sword, said he would kill David. But Abishai son of Zeruiah came to David’s rescue; he struck the Philistine down and killed him. Then David’s men swore to him, saying, “Never again will you go out with us to battle, so that the lamp of Israel will not be extinguished.” 2 Samuel 21:15-17
When David was a boy, he faced a Philistine named Goliath who held a spear with a spearhead weighing 600 shekels (1 Samuel 17:7), and we all know how that ended. The above-referenced scripture takes place many years later, as David is approached by another giant Philistine, but this time with a spear half the weight of the one Goliath held. David thought he could relive his ‘glory days’ and begins to engage, but a warrior-brother steps in, fights for the king, and slays the enemy. Then David’s confidantes tell him, more or less, “You can’t do this anymore. You are too precious to us to allow us to risk your life.” At some point, we all need to put down our sling shots (and our dreams of recapturing our youth) and let someone else fight the giants.
We all need people around us who care enough to stop us from harming ourselves and others. I encourage those who are still young and strong to engage in the battle that rages, humbly taking the place of those who valiantly fought when they were young and strong. I encourage those who are being asked to sit the next one out to humbly appreciate that there are those around you that love you enough to protect you. At whatever station of life you may find yourself in, know that God has a perfect plan for every day of your life, whether you are singing and dancing or joyfully reminiscing about the ‘good old’ days. I believe that I still have some warrior days in the future, but I remain aware that at some point I’ll need to lay my weapons down…may I be blessed with wisdom when that day comes!
This week Jeanine and I have been looking at apartments. We need to move at the end of next month and we are trying to find a place where we can see ourselves and our children living for the next few years, God willing. It is a challenge – there are features in a dwelling that are necessities, features that are preferences and features that are luxuries – and these features interplay with cost and location. Do we live where we can comfortably afford the rent, even if it is in a less-than-desirable neighborhood? Do we really need a washer and dryer on property or a dishwasher in the kitchen (for those keeping score, one is a necessity and the other is a preference)? Can we survive without the luxury of a dining room so that we can enjoy the preference of four bedrooms? Where does keeping the younger kids in their present schools fall within our priorities?
Needless to say, these questions (and their gelatinous nature) and these decisions (not just on our part, but also on the part of the homeowners) are keeping my wife and me up at night with anxious thoughts. I’d like to say that I could be happy wherever we move, but I have a nagging feeling that I may not be happy just anywhere. I want to say that I am trusting in the Lord to guide our steps in the process, but I also feel that I am dragging my feet along the way. What can I do to lessen these feelings of dread and fear?
Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. 1 Peter 5:7
Honestly, I simply need to release it. These concerns and apprehensions that I am holding onto like a child’s security blanket I just need to hand over to God, knowing that He will address these concerns and implement His loving plan for my future. This, frankly, is difficult for me: I find it hard to ride in a car that I am not driving; how can I be expected to give up control of my whole life? And that is the reason I have had more than a few sleepless nights recently. I am greatly concerned and anxious about things that are truly beyond my control. The tension in my life is not about moving (or about the logistics of trucks and boxes and calendars) but about seeking to manage what I cannot manage.
It is somewhat like what my wife and youngest son did the other day – they tried to finish all the puzzles in his room before they were packed into boxes. Some of the puzzles were missing pieces (including some of the ‘crucial to solving’ edges) and try as they might, their task could not be completed. Did they worry, fret or frown because the job was left undone? Did the unfinished puzzle consume their thoughts? No – those puzzles were simply set aside, destined for the recycling bin, and they moved onto the next ones. I can only work with what I’ve got and trust that God will allow me the pieces of this puzzle called life when He knows I am ready to place them in.
We will likely be making some decisions this weekend. If you are a person who prays, please consider lifting my family (and our living situation) before the throne. And if you are like me, trying to ‘cast and claim His care’, let me know how I can pray for you. It’ll give me something different (and better) to focus on should I find myself still unable to sleep.
My, how time flies. It seems like just yesterday that I was posting on this page that we were taking our eldest to college. It is unfathomable to me that it has actually been nearly four years. Tomorrow, my wife and I will watch him walk across a stage to receive his bachelor’s degree from Gordon College. All the papers and tests, projects and presentations have been made; all the notes and classes have been taken. Jonathan is no longer a kid who has gone off to school. There is little doubt now – my son is now an adult.
I thought about writing an open letter to my son, telling him all the things that he still needs to know in order to be successful in the world of the working – there are no small jobs, just small people; those you crush on your way up the ladder to success will also be those unwilling to prevent you from falling back down; if you do your best every time, you will sleep better at night – but I realized that I do not have many pearls of wisdom to offer. As the diploma he’ll receive tomorrow signifies, the days of formal lessons are over and the days of application awaits.
Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it. Proverbs 22:6 (ESV)
My hope is that what he learned at the Kenny, the Murphy, Boston Latin School and Gordon – and especially what he learned at home – has been sufficient for him to know the importance of being a good and kind person and not simply successful. My hope is that it does not take him too long to understand that it is not the facts that he gained that provide education with its value; it is the ability to process those facts for the improvement of those around him that counts. He was a smart kid when he began school 17 years ago; I pray that he is a wise young man now.
I asked my wife the other day, “How old will Jonathan be in your mind when we watch him graduate?” For me, I have a feeling that the images will fluctuate. I will see that week-old NICU patient, the six-year old soccer dynamo, the 10-year old baseball player. It will be the kid I ate pancakes with after an emergency room visit, the boy his mother witnessed being struck by a car as he made his way to the school bus and the young man who drove off to camp for the summer. I will see all the birthday parties and Christmases, all the awards and arguments and all the frustrations and fun that has brought him to this point. I hope I can see it all.
Congratulations, Jonathan. I am so proud of you, son, for staying the course, even when the way was difficult and the days were filled with doubts. May the Lord bless your next adventure as wonderfully as He has your last.