Whoo-hoo-hoo, look who knows so much. It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive. – Miracle Max in The Princess Bride
This past Wednesday was both Valentine’s Day (a celebration of romantic love) and Ash Wednesday (an observance marked by sacrifice). The juxtaposition of these seemingly diverse concepts got me thinking about one of my favorite movies, The Princess Bride. This 1987 film directed by Rob Reiner has everything a romantic date might want: maidens and pirates, swordfights and acts of revenge, rivalries and true love. Without giving away all the plot points of this 30-year-old cinematic gem, I will say that, with great sacrifice, love conquers all. Love and sacrifice, the perfect combination for those celebrating the full range of experiences observed on February 14, 2018.
One of the pivotal scenes is quoted above: our hero is tortured to death and all hope is lost, unless Miracle Max, a village magician, can bring him back to life. Needless to say, it works and Wesley, the movie’s Prince Charming, is given new life. It works because the hero was only mostly dead, not completely dead; he was still slightly alive. Death and life, the same combination that forms the tension found in the New Testament Scriptures. Those who lose their lives will gain it and those who want to save their lives will lose it, or so the Good Book says.
For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin – because anyone who has died has been set free from sin. Romans 6:6-7
In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul tells believers that we have crucified – painfully killed – our old nature to do away with our bondage to sin. Unfortunately, many of us think that God is a bit like Miracle Max and that we can come to the God of creation in the state of “mostly dead” or “slightly alive” and think that we can be restored to wholeness. But that is simply not true. The prisoner with a life sentence does not receive a pardon because he is sick or because she is at death’s door. Our sin is not fully dealt with when we “mostly” remove it from our lives. We cannot fully enjoy our new life if we continue to hold onto a bit of our old one. Why would we want to try?
As we prepare for Easter with a season of sacrifice, allow me to remind all those who claim Christ as Lord to consider yourself dead to sin: have nothing to do with that old life, with its passions, powers and prizes. Consider yourself alive with new life in Him: embrace fully the pardon you have received, the gifts with which you have been graced and the peace you now enjoy. God is not Miracle Max; He is so much more, not only able to give us our lives back from the grave, but to transform us to be our greatest self.
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.
What do you hope your legacy will be? More specifically, how do you hope to be remembered five or ten years after your retirement, or what do you hope people will say about you five or ten years after your passing? On Wednesday, which also happened to be my birthday, I spent a few hours with a dozen or so pastors discussing a collection of essays about the connection between faith and biblical scholarship (compiled in a book titled I (Still) Believe) and these questions of legacy were part of our conversation.
The conversation made me think about an aspect of the scripture reading from Sunday that never made it into my sermon, the legacy (or non-legacy) of Joseph, the man not chosen. Joseph’s complete mark on history is found in the following single verse:
So they nominated two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. Acts 1:23
This is what we know about Joseph:
- He was called Barsabbas – meaning either literally ‘the son of Sabbas’ or figuratively ‘the child of rest or return (i.e. the Sabbath)’;
- He was known as ‘the Just’ – he had a character of righteousness;
- He was continually present with Jesus from the time of His baptism by John through His ascension – he spent more than three years following the Lord and hearing His teachings;
- He was passed over for the promotion to apostle when God chose Matthias instead.
That is Joseph Barsabbas’ legacy: a good man who was ever-present to witness the words and ways of Jesus and was called by God to a secondary role. The Bible is filled with “secondary characters” like Joseph Barsabbas: Mordecai, Esther’s cousin; Ehud, the left-handed judge who delivered Israel from the Moabites; and Onesiphorus, a care-taker of Paul’s. Few people in the Scriptures are remembered in history. Most of the names we read in the Old or New Testament are mentioned not for their legacy but for their lifestyle: to encourage our faithful obedience or to warn against our continued disobedience.
So, what do I hope my legacy will be? I hope that I will be remembered not for the history I make but for the footprints that I leave. I hope that I can leave big enough tracks in the muck of this earth that my children will remain on the course of faithfulness. I hope that the map that I have drawn over my career in pastoral ministry will assist those I leave behind to avoid the perilous cliffs of despair. I would be satisfied as a footnote, as a nameless face in a photograph, as a present-day Joseph Barsabbas; a good man who was there to witness all the wonders of Christ.
But ultimately, my legacy is largely inconsequential compared to the Lord’s. Jesus alone is the one who has changed history. World and military leaders fade from our memories, but the life of Christ alone remains. Whether we are the star in life’s motion picture or only performing a supporting role, we all are precious in God’ sight and useful in accomplishing His purposes, whether we are remembered or not.
The observance of New Year’s Day (I suppose like so many other observances) is both arbitrary and random. The fact that we record dates with January as the first month, instead of May or August, and December as the last is illogical. There is no magical or material difference between 11:59PM on New Year’s Eve and 12:00AM on New Year’s Day. Nothing truly changes when the ball drops in Times Square. As my children would say, celebrating the new year on January 1 is just a ‘social construct’, and the ‘new year’ is just a structure that shapes our culture and maintains a standard for our practices.
That being said, we do measure our days by the calendar. We do, collectively, think about the day when one year is ending and another year is beginning. We do make resolutions to think or eat or behave differently because the year is new. There will be year-end reviews, year-end memorials, year-end sales and year-end parties. I suppose that we do need to change the calendars at some time, so why not December 31st? It is a good practice to take stock of our lives at some point and say, “Out with the old, in with the new”; it is a good time to make resolutions.
On the subject of resolutions, these were the top 10 of 2017, according to Harper’s Bazaar:
- Diet, exercise and weight loss.
- Read more.
- Learn something new.
- Save money.
- Be nicer, kinder and more patient.
- Get a new job.
- Volunteer and donate more to charity.
- Drink less alcohol.
- Get more sleep and relax more.
- Make new friends and be a better friend.
I could certainly benefit from some, if not most, of these. I have scrutinized this list and begun to formulate a plan to live a healthier, fuller and richer life. I will, however, likely give up when my birthday comes around (which is in a little less than three weeks). This is all because New Year’s Day is not as magical or mystical as we think. What I need is January 2nd resolutions, January 3rd resolutions, and every day resolutions. I must maintain a discipline of thinking every day about living a healthier, fuller and richer life. I also need those around me to ask about my resolutions (or commitments to discipline) regularly throughout the year.
One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Romans 14:5
I am going to keep this list (excepting a few that are not pertinent to my lifestyle) near me for the next few months, as a reminder of how I want to improve my health and wellness. I am going to resolve, as a contract between myself and my creator, to cultivate the physical, mental, social and emotional blessings He’s given me. I am going to attempt to do this every day, not just on the special days that this type of talk is fashionable. And I will pray with you that you reach whatever goals you and God have set for your life as well. Happy New Year.
This Sunday afternoon, in celebration of my 20 years of service, Calvary Community Church will be putting on a luncheon in my honor. While I loathe being the center of attention, I am grateful for the gesture of love and appreciation. The irony of this event is that, while it recognizes that I have been pastoring the same church for two decades, I have not actually been pastoring in the same ministry for 20 years. In a post a few weeks ago, I wrote that most of the congregants have changed over my tenure. But that is not the only thing that has changed since 1997.
Our culture, and therefore our church’s ministry, has changed in the last few years. Some of these changes have been stylistic – from organ accompaniment to piano or from singing with hymnals in hand to projecting digital images of lyrics – but some of the changes have been profound:
- Our society was changed by terrorism (September 11, 2001) – our world, including our expressions of faith, changed when planes crashed into the World Trade Center Towers, the Pentagon and a field in rural Pennsylvania. Some were drawn to God, some were repelled. But ministry changed…we were no longer invincible, no longer safe, no longer favored. New questions were raised and doubts about God’s benevolence and power surfaced, leaving the church to offer hope to the newly hopeless.
- Our society redefined tolerance (November 18, 2003) – our moral landscape changed when the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts upheld a lower court’s ruling in the case of Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health, thereby legalizing the marriage of two consenting adults without regard to gender. The law of the land (ultimately upheld by the Supreme Court of the US) thus conflicted with the traditional interpretation of the Bible and local congregations were required to again consider questions thought inconceivable to prior generations.
- Our society was given untethered access to technology (June 29, 2007) – our understanding of media and knowledge changed when Apple released the IPhone, allowing anyone with the resources to afford the phone and the service plan access to the internet virtually anywhere. Seemingly overnight, we went from transferring information conversationally to transferring it electronically. We heightened our levels of awareness and distraction with our ability to record and transmit everything. We began engaging in social media and neglected social interaction. The church, whether it was ready or not, was required to engage with the digital world while maintaining its historically relational and textual characteristics.
- Our society embraced a new form of activism (September 17, 2011) – our involvement with the world around us changed when people gathered for Occupy Wall Street, ushering in a new style of activism that blended the orchestration of peaceful assembly with the spontaneity of a flash mob. Diverse groups of individuals were able to communicate their dissatisfaction with cultural oppression en masse, without designated leadership, and have their voices heard. This led to other groups (e.g. Black Lives Matter and Women’s March) raising awareness of the plight of the disadvantaged. The church, who has championed the cause of the downtrodden for centuries, is now beginning to embrace this social activism as young Christians lead the saints into a world where there is justice for all.
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Hebrews 13:8 (NIV)
In a few weeks, I am going to participate in a young man’s Ordination Council (a gathering of denominational leaders who interact with a candidate’s statement of theology, challenging the candidate to think deeply about their philosophy and content of ministry). I remember my Ordination Council in 1999. I was so young, so naïve, so sure of what I believed. Then, over the past two decades, the landscape shifted in profound ways. However, no matter how the culture may change, the Christ remains the same. The message has never wavered, whether it is recorded in ink or pixels. A culture worried with terrorism and wearied by intolerance has been washed in the Blood of Jesus. A culture steeped in technology and straining for justice has been saved from sin through the sacrifice. The church has changed over the past twenty years – as the adage goes, “You could not step twice into the same river” – but the Gospel remains the same. And so we shall continue to share the good news until all have heard it.
Twenty years ago today (September 1, 1997) I began serving as the pastor of Calvary Community Church in Dorchester. I have been thinking about this day, and this posting, for quite a while, wondering what I would say about my tenure as a minister of the gospel in the greatest community in the world. I thought about the numbers relating to ministry – attendance figures, baptisms and weddings I had performed, babies I had dedicated, or sermons I delivered – but, to be honest, these numbers would be unimpressive. I thought about sharing interesting anecdotes about the church, but I have already shared most of these stories with those reading this and my remaining stories would be uninteresting. In the end, all I have are the lessons I have learned over all these years.
First, I have learned to cherish the relationships that God has given me while I am blessed to have them. While the numbers of worshippers have not appreciably changed in the last two decades, the people have; in fact, I count three (and 8/9th) people that were present on my first Sunday still regularly attending worship. Some have gone on to glory, others have moved out of the area and others attend other churches. Yet, through all the transition, God has blessed us with visitors, musicians and co-laborers who have expanded our world, challenged our complacency and enhanced our worship. I praise God that so many have called Calvary home for a week, a season, a year or longer.
Then, I have learned to seize the opportunities that God has given me when I recognize them. While I have not been given a city-wide or national stage to proclaim the gospel, I have been blessed to share God’s love with our neighbors. Praying at a Flag Day program, talking in a front yard, serving water at the Dorchester Day Parade and welcoming the community for public events are just a few things that come to mind when I consider how God is working through our church. I praise God that we have impacted so many lives, inside and outside the walls of our building, in so many interesting ways.
Finally, I have learned to appreciate the faithfulness that God has lavished upon me all the time. While I have never, in my tenure at Calvary, enjoyed an abundance of resources, God has always given me and my family (immediate and church) what is sufficient for my needs. We’ve paid our bills (mostly on time), had the volunteers and musicians, maintained a residence and been cared for. God’s faithfulness is ever-present – in forgiving my sin and fixing my lapses in judgement, in bringing in saints every single Sunday, in always giving me a word to share. All that I have done is because God has enabled me. I praise God for all of it.
Praise the LORD, all you servants of the LORD who minister by night in the house of the LORD. Psalm 134:1 (NIV)
So much has changed over the last two decades, but then again, so much remains the same. God is still drawing wonderful people to our little church, still affording us opportunities for gracious interactions and still showering us with His great faithfulness. Until that changes, I will be here wondering how God will next work among us. I hope you will be here, too.
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)
As hard as it is for me to believe, I have been offering my ‘musings’ every week for over five years. I am certain that in that span of time my posts have repeatedly touched upon similar themes – the constancy of change, the ubiquity of hardship and the realities of domestic life. Hopefully, I have been faithful in my appreciation of God’s amazing grace throughout all the ups and downs of life and the ever-changing challenges and joys of ministry in ‘hub of the universe’. I would like to think, having chronicled my thoughts for all this time, that the process has enabled me to glorify the Lord.
However, as soon as I think that I have made some progress in my reliance upon the goodness of God, I have mornings like Wednesday. As I was walking up to the church in anticipation of a great day at vacation Bible school, I noticed a caravan of DPW trucks stationed across the street from the church’s driveway. It seems that the sidewalk needed to be replaced and that Wednesday, July 26, was the day that the work needed to begin. I believe that I may have mumbled something under my breath that questioned if the cosmic forces were conspiring against me.
But nothing catastrophic happened: the work crew did their exacting work, the cars all navigated the serpentine route down Ashmont Street, and all the children who were planning on attending VBS arrived and enjoyed the program. In fact, some great things occurred, despite my initial fears to the contrary: God blessed us with a dozen children and more than a dozen volunteers (including a few new faces); the weather was gloriously mild (enabling the kids to play in the back lot); and I was utterly fascinated by the choreography of the ten DPW workers, each with a unique set of tasks, as they replaced the sidewalk when they returned to finish the job on Thursday. I was assuming that my glass was half empty and, as usual, God gave me the whole cow.
Over and over again, God grants me grace despite my ‘doom and gloom’ prognostications. I worry that the trucks will impede my plans, but God has something better in mind. Over and over again, God sends showers of blessings when I expect damaging rains. I question my circumstances, but God has answers I could never imagine. When I think to myself that the sky is falling, my ‘Chicken Little’ mentality only serves to discourage me when God seeks to encourage my soul. I must choose to trust in the One who causes the sun to rise and set with the details of my day.
“But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” 1 Corinthians 15:57 (ESV)
I suppose that the busyness of our street the other morning (and all the other things in life that are not going as I would prefer) has reminded me that I need to set my focus on God’s promises and not my problems. As I have been hearing at VBS this week, above the din of activity across the street, God is mighty. How foolish of me to wonder if God could still accomplish His will when a couple of trucks are blocking the way (He CAN!).
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.
The other night, my wife and I watched “The Founder”, a biopic about Ray Kroc, the ‘founder’ of McDonald’s. As someone largely unfamiliar with the history of the ‘Golden Arches’, through the film I was introduced to culinary geniuses Maurice and Richard McDonald and the ‘speedee system’ they developed (the source of the great success the restaurants that bore their name enjoyed). They designed a kitchen and business model that provided good food with no plates, no carhops and (most importantly) no waiting – it was revolutionary. Kroc, who sold milkshake blenders at the time, made a sales call at the walk-up ‘diner’ and was immediately smitten.
The McDonald brothers had a great product and a great process, and they wanted to share them with people beyond those living in San Bernadino, California. That was where the genius of Ray Kroc came in, as a franchise specialist. In the span of six years, Kroc expertly established franchises in dozens of locations across America and grew tired of the need to gain the McDonald brothers’ approval for every franchise and any systemic changes. Kroc broke his contract with the brothers and forced them to consider the expense of a lawsuit. They eventually settled on a price ($1 million to each brother, after taxes) and Kroc moved on with everything – the product, the process and the name “MacDonald’s”. It is a cautionary tale of what can happen when a wolf gets into the henhouse.
You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. James 4:4
As I watched the movie, I thought of the connections that this account of the rise of McDonald’s had with the church (i.e. the people of God, not the buildings).
First, there is an emphasis on the part of the brothers to focus on what is important. Part of their success was offering what people wanted and eliminating everything that was not needed. Early in the film, Dick McDonald tells Ray Kroc that they offered all sorts of items on the menu and were struggling, causing them to reevaluate. They discovered that 87% of their sales were three items – burgers, fries and soft drinks. They decided that this (and milkshakes) was all that would be on the menu. As the church, we would do well to remember what we are here to offer – the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Then, there was an emphasis on the part of the brothers with putting people first. Much of the disagreements between the McDonalds and Kroc was the purpose of the restaurants – was it to be a commercial enterprise intent of making money or a service intent on enabling families a night out at a reasonable price? I think we all know how that turned out. The church is likewise tempted to choose prosperity over people.
Finally, there is an emphasis on the part of the brothers to refuse any form of compromise. Toward the end of their contractual relationship, Kroc wanted to save costs with a new product, powdered milkshakes that needed no refrigeration. The brothers refused the idea because milkshakes are made with, like, milk. Likewise, the church must steer clear of compromise if we seek to make a difference for Christ.
The church – the people of God co-laboring in Christ – has something wonderful to offer the world. Let us pray that no one robs us of our joy in serving Him.