Category Archives: Uncategorized

Gratitude – unseating cynicism

Earlier this year as I read A Praying Life, I was struck by the insightful treatment of cynicism, which the author argues is the “spirit of our age.”

Cynicism stands alongside a defeated weariness, involves a deadening of the spirit, the scar tissue of frustration, the expectation of disappointment, a certain disdain which sees the supposed dark side of everything, and a constraint by fear, so that the active goodness of God is questioned and increasingly doubted.

One of the “antidotes” for Cynicism that Paul Miller, the author, prescribes is the cultivation of gratitude.  Rather than doubting God’s presence and active concern for me, gratitude helps me to see my complete dependance on God.  I see that every good thing I enjoy comes from my heavenly father who does not change (James 1).  So, I include below is a short account from the pilgrim’s arrival to the new world.

I am struck by the realism and the hope held together in this piece.  As you read, will you cultivate a heart that sees God’s goodness then and now?

Here beginneth the chronicle of those memorable circumstances of the year 1620, as recorded by Nathaniel Morton, keeper of the records of Plymouth Colony, based on the account of William Bradford, sometime governor thereof:

So they left that goodly and pleasant city of Leyden, which had been their resting-place for above eleven years, but they knew that they were pilgrims and strangers here below, and looked not much on these things, but lifted up their eyes to Heaven, their dearest country, where God hath prepared for them a city (Heb. XI, 16), and therein quieted their spirits.

When they came to Delfs-Haven they found the ship and all things ready, and such of their friends as could not come with them followed after them, and sundry came from Amsterdam to see them shipt, and to take their leaves of them. One night was spent with little sleep with the most, but with friendly entertainment and Christian discourse, and other real expressions of true Christian love.

The next day they went on board, and their friends with them, where truly doleful was the sight of that sad and mournful parting, to hear what sighs and sobs and prayers did sound amongst them; what tears did gush from every eye, and pithy speeches pierced each other’s heart, that sundry of the Dutch strangers that stood on the Key as spectators could not refrain from tears. But the tide (which stays for no man) calling them away, that were thus loath to depart, their Reverend Pastor, falling down on his knees, and they all with him, with watery cheeks commended them with the most fervent prayers unto the Lord and His blessing; and then with mutual embraces and many tears they took their leaves one of another, which proved to be the last leave to many of them.

Being now passed the vast ocean, and a sea of troubles before them in expectations, they had now no friends to welcome them, no inns to entertain or refresh them, no houses, or much less towns, to repair unto to seek for succour; and for the season it was winter, and they that know the winters of the country know them to be sharp and violent, subject to cruel and fierce storms, dangerous to travel to known places, much more to search unknown coasts.

Besides, what could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wilde beasts and wilde men? and what multitudes of them there were, they then knew not: for which way soever they turned their eyes (save upward to Heaven) they could have but little solace or content in respect of any outward object; for summer being ended, all things stand in appearance with a weatherbeaten face, and the whole country, full of woods and thickets, represented a wild and savage hew.

If they looked behind them, there was a mighty ocean which they had passed, and was now as a main bar or gulph to separate them from all the civil parts of the world.

This is available various places online and the Wall Street Journal reprints it annually at Thanksgiving.

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The ministry of presence – privilege

Last week I started writing about the most basic ministry of a Christian, which happens simply by being present.  Wherever you go, whatever time of day or night it is, the king and savior Jesus Christ is with you by the power of the Holy Spirit.  So ministry does not happen in a designated spot (whether a church building or food pantry) or a special time (Sunday morning, Wednesday night, or on certain Christian days), rather it is all of life.  As I’ve continued to think about the ministry of presence I see what a privilege it is to simply live as a Christian wherever I go and “exude Christ-likeness,” as one man puts it.  Three categories come to mind as I think about the privilege of the ministry of presence: the privilege of being ambassadors, the privilege of loving what I do, and the privilege of suffering.

All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.  Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2Co 5:18-20 ESV)

1.  An ambassador represents her nation’s interests while on the soil of another.  She must know both the ways of her own country and be conversant with the country to whom she is sent.  In the above passage the apostle Paul describes himself, along with the other Christians among whom he serves, “as ambassadors for Christ.”   The Christian is among those who are distant from God living as an agent of reconciliation.  Simply by being reconciled to God every Christian first displays this incredible reality (v. 17 being a “new creation in Christ”).  Furthermore, the Christian actively represents God who wants people to be reconciled to him imploring people to become right with God.  You are not a bystander, a cog in a machine, or someone waiting in line, but an ambassador, everywhere you go.  Yes, there is a responsibility tied to this role, but first and foremost it is a position of privilege.  Wherever your day takes you, there you are representing the reconciling God.

Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.  1 Thessalonians 2:8

2. As our Jesus lives in us by the Holy Spirt and we express his love for others we will find our own hearts warmed with affection and commitment towards those he has called us to serve.  We do not function only in an official capacity as ambassadors, but more often as friends, as those who deeply love, the ones we are called to minister to.  As we are with people we see them through God’s eyes, have God’s heart for them, and then find increasing joy in the role God has given.  This makes me think of someone who loves his job, and despite the difficulties that crop up day by day, is truly grateful for what he does with his life.  If our primary ministry is presence and this presence is one that depends in love it is an incredible privilege to live as a Christian.  While we may not feel the affection or the emotion moment by moment it is so good to be able to step back and say overall, “I love what I do.”

The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs– heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.  For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. Rom 8:16-18

3.  What did Jesus’ presence in our life cost him?  Everything.  If we, in some small way emulate his ministry of presence among sinners it will hurt.  It will hurt because we love people and it will hurt because people will mistreat us as they mistreated Jesus.  The Christian faith though, says that it is a privilege to suffer for Christ.  It is necessary to suffer with him and when we do so we realize how small those sufferings are in comparison to the greatness of our redemption.  When you love people, their pain becomes yours and you understand more deeply what God has done for you.  When you love people and they do not love you back, you understand more deeply what God has done for you.  A life that deliberately seeks to exemplify God’s presence in a world tainted by sin, will be a life of suffering, but this does not exclude it being a life of privilege.


A persistent darkness

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About twice a month a guy from our church coordinates Thinking on Tapwhere we’ll meet at a pub and discuss issues of spirituality, philosophy, and culture.  Sometimes it doesn’t work too well, depending on the noise level but overall it’s been good.  

Following the death of Robin Williams we are planning to discuss depression and suicide – a cheery topic, I know.  I thought I’d pass along some of my broader reflections on mental illness.  

First, whenever you talk about such charged topics, there almost always need to be qualifiers, if not in content, then in tone.  What I mean is that both of these issues are complex such that there are few questions which we can answer with a simple yes or no.  Even when we can simply answer “yes”, as in “Is suicide wrong?” that “yes” must be informed with a tone of compassion, grief, and longing for righteousness.  If someone is a Christian can  she  expect to be rescued from their depression because of her faith?  “No.”  Along with this caveat is that I write as a minister – not a psychologist or some other “mental health professional” (which I think is a somewhat dubious title anyway).  

Second, the Christian faith has important contributions to understanding and dealing with mental illness.  The Christian believes that the human person is a body and soul joined together and this gives a foundation for the category of mental illness.  If there is only a body, and if all that we are is physical entities then mental illness is simply a sub-category of physical illness.  Every problem then is physical and requires a physical solution.  The Christian faith pushes against this one sided perspective on the human being stating that there is a soul, that there is a real interior life that distinct from the body, though the two are connected.  Read below how the soul interprets and recasts the experience of the body:

He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes; my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, “My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the LORD.” Remember my affliction and my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall!  My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down within me.  But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. Lamentations 3:16-25

The “soul” is not merely a metaphor for emotions but speaks in some manner to our sense of self and personhood in that is more than our physical bodies and actually makes sense of bodily experience.  If the soul (or mind) as something distinct from the body, disappears so does much of our understanding and treatment of mental illness.  Imagine wanting to talk to a friend because you are sad and the friend simply replies that sadness is just a reflection of a physical malady and he is highly skeptical that talking will address it.   

The Christian faith also helps avoid some of the extremes that come up when discussing mental health.  There is the tendency to see people through the lens of victimization or responsibility with theories of therapy reflecting this basic assumption.  The bible says that each of us lives as both the victim and as a responsible party.  In this section from 1 Peter 1 the former ignorance (responsibility) and victimization (empty way of life handed down) are both addressed:

As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance.  But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do… For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors,

I remember a section from a book Wounded Heart (a powerful treatment of sexual abuse written from a Christian perspective) in which the author states that the most important aspect of his work with victims is their response to the abuse.  This may sound cold or simplistic (I can assure you that the book is anything but a cold or simplistic treatment of this subject) but in fact it is actually freeing.  There is no way to go back and undo having been a victim. So if we are forever controlled by the pain we experience and can do nothing about the response this is a terrible bondage.  If on the other hand we dismiss the violence and wrong in this world we are complicit in the evil.  The Christian perspective in which each person is both a victim and responsible gives appropriate weight to the wrong we experience, the danger of perpetuating such evil, and the possibility of change.  

 

Photo Credit: Sigfrid Lundberg via Compfight cc

 

If the Pictures Were Different & Acts 6

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We don’t have access to regular TV (i.e. no cable and no reception) so my news comes through the phone or computer.  As I’ve looked around a little and tried to confirm my perceptions I think that I’m right in my observation that the majority of those protesting in Ferguson, MO are black.  Again, this could be a media bias in regards to who gets photographed or misperception on my part but I don’t think it is.  
  Last week I preached from Acts 6 where tensions between Jewish Christians from different linguistic and ethnic background are resolved as those with power identify with and lift up the marginalized.  In this large meeting where the full number of the Christians are brought together those with a Hebraic background take two significant actions as they relate to the weaker and overlooked Christians with Hellenistic backgrounds.  First, they say that your problem is our problem.  The widows of Hellenistic descent are being overlooked and it is not merely dismissed as a Hellenistic problem.  Second, those of Hebraic background vote along with those of Hellenistic background for Hellenistic leaders who can address the problem.   

These two actions have been on my mind as I think about the unrest in Ferguson.  First, where are all the white people?  Specifically, where are white Christians?  Is the death of Michael Brown primarily a “black problem?”  Even if we assume that the police officer was acting in self-defense, the loss of this young man and the deep pain to which it is tied is not simply a problem affecting the black community.  In Acts 6 when the Christians from one ethnic background see the unmet needs of fellow believers across ethnic and linguistic lines they see it as their responsibility.  Even more, if Jesus overlooked our troubles.  If he did not come with his power to lift up those weighed down by sin and to stand alongside those on the path to hell, where would I be?  
It is easy to write, but if I were living in St. Louis now (versus seven years ago), would I go and protest?  What would motivate me?  What would keep me back?  Is it murkier when you are closer to the situation?  As I try to extrapolate and put it in the context of Worcester, I think of the primarily African American church which is allowing us to hold worship services on Sunday afternoons in their church building.  Would I encourage my congregation to come and demonstrate, to march if something similar happened in Worcester?  I think so – peaceably of course.  In good conscience I could not stand by.  

I wonder what sort of difference it would make if the crowds protesting reflected the city’s demographics as a whole, or if even one third were caucasian?  Would there be a different response from the largely white Ferguson police force, a different response from local politicians, or a different portrayal of America in international media?  It is one thing to feel powerless, the victim of injustice, and it is even worse if you feel that you are alone.  In a NY Times article a recent Pew Survey said that “80% of blacks thought the case raised ‘important issues about race that need to be discussed,’ while only 37% of whites thought it did.”  This incredible difference of perception is staggering.  As Christians we must care about this gap.  

What then of the second action of Acts 6 in which the marginalized are empowered and lifted up by those with power?  I’m still thinking on this one.  

Photo Credit: Aaron Landry via Compfight cc


Lightening the load from the years and the tears (from last week)

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The packed van with cargo overflowing the roof resonates with my memories of the weeks I spent in Uganda and points to the burdens we carry, some of which belong to us and some to others.

 When I saw the headlines that described looting and rioting in St. Louis I was surprised and deeply concerned after having lived four years in that city, developing a great love for the people and place.  As I read about the tragic circumstances from which the violence arose it made more sense.  I think about the times when I am deeply hurt and it ties into something that has happened before.  The pain and anger are compounded as the wound is opened again and the scar tissue is torn.  There is the urge to simply let it loose.  I remember a metal trash can I had as a teenager and the times when deep in anger, I would just kick it again, and again, and again.   This is not good, but it makes sense.  

As I’ve been preparing to preach on Acts 6 this Sunday, I continue to think on the events in Ferguson, the suburb of St. Louis where the shooting of Michael Brown and subsequent rioting occurred.   In Acts 6 the Christian community is growing in number and long standing tensions between Hellenistic and Hebraic Jews emerge.  These two groups were partially separated by language and ethnicity but primarily by culture with a tendency for the Hebraic Jews (those steeped in Judaic culture) to look down on those more shaped by Greek (Hellenistic) culture.  In these times there is a daily distribution of food to widows, in this emerging Christian community.  Women in that day spent their lives associated either with the household or their father or husband, and without such connection were particularly vulnerable both economically and socially.  As the Christian community grows the widows from a Hellenistic background are being overlooked in the distribution and it seems, in the text of Acts 6, that this is a function of numerical growth outpacing administrative capacity.  However, with the historic tensions between these two communities it is easy to see how the Hellenists  would have been deeply hurt:
  This is a daily distribution so when someone is overlooked, I would assume that there is little or no food that day.  If there are other avenues of receiving help these will be stretched thin over time.  This issue of distribution is incredibly significant on a practical level.  Even more though it takes on greater significance due to the history of grievance.  Old wounds are opened as the appearance of preferential treatment on the one hand and discrimination on the other lead to questions.  The apostles overseeing this, do they lack of the integrity?  Can this community oriented around Jesus the Messiah become something more than the fractured Judaism we have known?  
  The solution to this complex issue involving practical care and generations of hurt astounds me.  I don’t have the space to go through it all, but here are some of the features…
-A lack of defense or attack:  The apostles neither defend themselves and the existing problems with their administration of the daily distribution nor critique the Hellenistic Jews for their grumbling against the apostolic  leadership.
-Everyone is involved:  This is not figured out behind closed doors or swept under the rug.   Both the Hellenistic and Hebraic Jews are at the meeting where this is sorted out and both have a say in the solution.  
-Addressing both issues: Not only is a better system of administration put into place but all of those appointed to these roles of leadership are Hellenistic Jews.  Those who have been on the outside are given positions of authority and oversight of the resources necessary to care for their widows.  By virtue of this decision the integrity of the apostles is vindicated, years of hurt are beginning to be redressed, and a new group of leaders are welcomed into the church, two of which will play pivotal roles in the following chapters of Acts.  
There is much here from which we can learn.  The church is clearly meant to be a place where the burdens we carry through both the years and generations are addressed and lightened.  I don’t know what this means for those who mourn and call for justice in Ferguson, MO but I know that the church is present and at work.  Once congregation I am familiar with, New City Fellowship, began over 20 years ago in the north of St. Louis to honor God and demonstrate the power of the gospel through racial reconciliation and care for the poor.  

 

“In the first year of its existence New City began modest home repairs for widows  in the Hamilton Heights area, an after school tutoring program for children, a cleaning company to employ single mothers wanting to end welfare dependency, and a Saturday recreation program for children.”  
History of  New City Fellowship

 New City Fellowship is committed to being a church where all the nations God has placed within the St. Louis community are welcomed to experience the reconciling love of God in Jesus Christ
…through a restored relationship with God and with one another across all racial, social and economic divisions
…through redeemed multi-cultural worship where the delight of God in us and our delight in Him is experienced
…through Christian community relationships where fellowship, love, increased knowledge of God and a commitment to take care of all basic human need is practiced
…and, through an equipping of the people of God that mobilizes each member to be a part of extending God’s justice and mercy to the nations and proclaims the unsearchable love of God in Christ Jesus to St. Louis and throughout the world.   New City Mission Statement

 

 

It is our hope, as a new church beginning in Worcester that many experience the grace of God as we form a community where the hurts of the years and wrongs of this day are addressed and where we work to become good neighbors to the city, extending the love of Jesus through our words and deeds.   

Photo Credit: Focx Photography via Compfight cc


Adding

Market share, brand loyalty, followers, subscribers – there is the constant push for more and more and more and more. It seems that everyone wants you (sort of). In our work of beginning a new church in Worcester I think a lot about growth and the tensions of the right ends, healthy means, and appropriate expectations.
The Right Ends Early in the 1950’s there were outbreaks of polio which affected ~80,000 children.  Life long disability, paralysis and death were potential consequences. There was an incredible push to develop a vaccine and when it was found safe there was the first instance of mass inoculations. On the opposite end of the spectrum I think of a celebrity trying to expand their following on twitter or some other form of social media. When speaking of adding people to the church people’s response will depend on whether they think of the Christian faith as similar to the polio vaccine or the celebrity gaining a following or the company looking for more consumers. As a minister, and even as a participant in a church there can be all sorts of mixed motives for adding people but the solution is not to give up on growth. I think of the Peter’s words to Jesus, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” We need to search our hearts and ask God for truer motivations that reflect his love for a world that is sick within.

Healthy Means: Do I believe in conversion to the Christian faith?  Do I believe in the complete change of a persons’s life originating from faith in Jesus Christ?  There is ample evidence of it happening , Jesus says it is a reality – necessary for knowing God, and it happened to me.  It is easy for churches to shuffle around people from one congregation to another, thinking this is growth.  While this is an inevitable part of “adding” people, it is important to ask what, if any, percentage comes from real conversion.  If five years down the road God has used us to begin a church in Worcester but there is little growth by conversion, what have we done?  Have we truly added?  If it is merely followers of a celebrity, consumers of a product, or membership in an institution the question of true addition (conversion) doesn’t matter.  However, if adding to the church is like the vaccine we can strive for nothing less than the conversion of many.  What are the best means to pursue this addition?  We’re thinking.  Each of us has a network of relationships and we must each pray for God to work within these and seek to share the gospel.  On the other hand we need an avenue for a regular ministry where we can begin with people knowing we are Christians and having the message of Jesus up front.  In all this we know that new life only comes from God but that he uses people.  So we are praying and thinking.

Expectations If there really is a God who is full of love and power and actually works in this world, our expectations should be high  On the other hand, God does not seem to do things the way we would expect (Jesus dying on a cross for example) and plainly says that many will reject Christ.  What are my expectations for “adding people?”  In the book of Acts we see the refrain…

And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. – chapter 4 And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women – ch. 5 And a great many people were added to the Lord. -ch. 11 and more

At different times and places the rate at which God adds people to his church varies.  This seems to be a reflection of both his plans and the faithfulness of his people.  But what expectations should we have?  Are there specific goals or numbers for which we strive?  I heard a helpful distinction between goals and desires in church planting.  Goals are things we can accomplish whereas desires are things only God can do.  So I think our goal could be sharing the gospel with a certain amount of people or having ongoing evangelistic activities whereas our desire would be to see are certain number or percentage of people converted within a specific time frame.  What is my desire then?  Is it two people a year?  Ten?  How about 8% of attendees and with an annual increase of .5%?  Again, I think of the polio vaccine and the needs of the city of Worcester and know that my desires need to grow.  While there is an immediate, desperate need, I also know that important things take time.  What does it mean to set my expectations towards a longer horizon looking for growth today but especially over 10-20 years?


A new home

This is the living room looking into the dining room.  We love the open layout and neat features.  It will be awesome for having people over and is a great fit for our family.  About a month ago I wrote about our hopes and prayers for strategic housing.  This apartment fits in so many ways.

Some of the things we’re thinking about right now are….

Enjoyment:  Having something nice does not necessarily mean you’ll enjoy it.  We want to appreciate the good things God has given and are trying to do so in the moment – not just putting it off till we fully unpacked or have things just right.

Help:  Without the church (our Christian friends in different places) there is no way we could have made it.  Help with child care, loading the truck, unloading the truck, unpacking, and assembling furniture have made an incredible difference.  When you add it up in the course of three days over fifteen people contributed over fifty hours of labor.  It is awesome to be a recipient of this much love and support.  We’re trying to remember that it comes from and points back to God.

Impermanence:  Moving into an apartment, we know that this is only ours for a time.  While every home has its wonderful aspects they each have their shortfalls (torn screens, a sagging bathroom ceiling, closets that smell funny).  I think of Hebrews 11 where it says,

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.

The difficulties of moving and the imperfections of every home remind us that God promises an eternal home, ceaseless rest which will not be marred by defects or the prospect of leaving.  I also think of the impermanence of our current state as we unpack boxes and wonder why we saved certain things.  As time passes and the emotional connection to an item or its perceived necessity diminishes, we get rid of it.  How much of what we pack up today will we throw away tomorrow?


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