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.
There is a church down the street with the following on its lawn sign: “GODISNOWHERE”. The point of the sign is to reveal a person’s perspective – does the reader see “God is nowhere” or “God is now here”? Clever. But the sign also serves as a prime example for the value of space. There is meaning in strings of letters and there is meaning in the breaks: legend and leg end (one involves a great feat and other is great feet), justice and just ice (ask for each at the donut shop and you will get two very different things), menswear and men swear (it may refer to a blue shirt or a blue streak) or conspiracy and cons piracy (descriptions of a nefarious plot and the actions of a thieving ship of prisoners). Space contributes to meaning.
Pauses are impactful. Watch any competition television show and you will experience the power of the pause: Ryan Seacrest stating on American Idol that “the winner…will be revealed when we come back” or Tom Bergeron on Dancing with the Stars looking into the camera and saying “the couple leaving tonight’s competition…(a camera pans over the contestants for 30 seconds)…[insert names here]”. We all can recall an occasion when we included a pregnant pause – for effect, in remorse, to increase suspense – to take a breath to add weight to what needed to be said. Space contributes to importance.
Unfortunately, most of us rush our words and our conversations suffer. We abhor silence. We seek to remedy the awkward pause with something, anything to fill the void. We have lost our appreciation for space, for pause, for silence. We have stopped taking the time to listen. We have ceased the practice of seeking God’s help in appropriating just the right phrase. We have replaced relational interactions with information transfers, expressing less of our feelings and more of the facts. We tweet and text, ignoring punctuation and eliminating the full stop from the period or the subtle shift from the comma. Space contributes to emotion.
May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer. Psalm 19:14
The root word for the Old Testament practice of meditation relates to the biological function of digestion. We have a similar English word: rumination. We ‘chew on’ ideas, we ‘digest’ materials. In a real sense we break down the thoughts, sights and sounds of life into their basic nutritional components and absorb them, using them for our benefit and the benefit of others. We would be better communicators if we allowed time for the inner processes to come to a completion before we uttered some of the empty outward expressions our conversations contain.
Allow yourself the space to build meaning, emphasize importance and express emotion. Perhaps we can, in our own way, incorporate the wisdom of C.S. Lewis, who said,
“A pipe gives a wise man time to think and a fool something to stick in his mouth.”
We all can benefit from a little time to think and then utter just the right expression.
I had been getting error messages from my computer at work for some time. I was able to work around them and do my job without much inconvenience…until Tuesday. That is when I got the BSOD (the blue screen of death), which stated, “Your PC ran into a problem that it couldn’t handle, and now it needs to restart”. This computer issue was now a serious inconvenience and an exasperating consumer of my time. Fortunately, I was able to restart the computer (after a number of failed attempts), back up the files and reload a new CPU. The church office is now back up and running.
The process of replacing the computer has enabled me to take stock of a few things.
First, I realize that I am a creature of habit. I like things the way I like things. The keyboard upon which I now type feels different (softer?) than my old one. Some of the desktop icons I am used to seeing are now missing (but at this point in time I have no idea what they were or what they did, but more on that later). Updated hardware sometimes facilitates updated software, and some of my familiar programs appear different. This realization is good for me, though: some habits are unhealthy (perhaps even a cause of the BSOD) and others are time consuming. Maybe I am better off experiencing change.
I also realize that I am an undiagnosed digital hoarder. The office PC had more than 45,000 files stored on its hard drive, accumulated over the span of five years. Until I began having problems with the CPU, I had kept everything – every document, picture, PDF file, sound clip and program – on the hard drive. I ran no backups, downloaded virtually nothing to discs, deleted no software I hadn’t been using. I kept everything, even the icons for programs I hadn’t used in years. This realization is also good for me: my productivity and efficiency can improve if I clean up the computer occasionally. It would be better if I ran a backup, purged the unnecessary and saved on removable media important but not urgent data.
One more thing I realize is that deterioration and drive failures are a natural part of life. While I appreciate the power and capacity of this new computer, I am aware, as I step over the carcass of dated technology currently residing on my office floor, that this CPU, too, will pass. I will need a new computer, a new monitor and new software at some point in the future, either to improve or replace what I am blessed to use today. This realization is good for me to grasp as well: entropy, a gradual decline into disorder, is real and must be dealt with as we go about our lives. I am better off knowing that nothing on earth lasts forever.
By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” Genesis 3:19
I also realize that what is true for my electronic existence is also true for my physical existence. I am made for proficiency and efficiency, needing this reminder to cast off the clutter and prepare for change. One day this mortal frame will wear out; I can only hope that all I contain will be able to be accessed by those who come after me.
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.