Christmas Secret

Fall is always spectacular in New England. But now the leaves have turned brown and have fallen to the ground. And we brace ourselves, knowing what comes next. The winter will descend upon us. However, the bright spot of winter is the coming of Advent when we wait expectantly for the celebration of the birth of the Christ Child.

In our own family we are expecting the arrival of two new grandchildren. We anticipate their coming in the spring. I try to imagine their tiny faces and the joy my children will have when they hold those precious gifts in their arms. And I wonder if Mary felt the same as she awaited the coming of her holy child. I ponder that she had no help at Jesus’ birth. The scriptures don’t tell us whether or not another woman was there that Holy Night. Surely Joseph knew little about childbirth. Perhaps he sought help from the innkeeper or a local midwife. My grandchildren will be born in modern hospitals with the best possible medical care. No smelly barns or straw filled mangers to welcome them.

The story of Jesus’ birth is a strange one indeed. Joseph was there and did know how to offer love and support to Mary. After all, he was in on one the greatest secrets ever known. He knew well his roll in the miracle of Jesus’ birth.

Others were in on that first secret, too. Remember the shepherds on the hillside outside Bethlehem. The secret was given to them, not whispered, but in loud songs of praise by a large heavenly host of angels. The Wise Men in a far off land were in on the secret, too. It was given to them in prophecies, charts, and observation of the stars. Strange that a secret could be spelled out in the heavens. Of course, everyone knows the secret now. God has become man and dwelt among us. It is both our joy and our responsibility to share this marvelous secret with everyone we know!

According to the gospel of Luke, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people, to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, Christ the Lord!” It’s not a secret any more.

Happy Thanks-giving

Sometimes it is right to question how it’s possible to give thanks in a shaky world. Many of us feel that our world is indeed shaky today. All sorts of events are picking at the sense of “normalcy” that we long for in our hearts. Natural disasters wiping out entire communities, leaders without moral groundings tearing apart our common humanity, and deranged killers erasing innocent life all make it hard to feel thankful. Yet I am thankful. Deeply thankful. May I tell you why?

All around me, even in the midst of the chaos, are signs of the unmerited goodness of God. Unmerited goodness. Grace. Our faithful God is a goodness giving God. The beat of my heart is a gift. The breath I just took, and each of the next breaths I will take. All unmerited. All given to me by a gracious God. Food and friendship, family and health, laughter and contentment, memories and aspirations, all are signs of God’s unmerited goodness.

Even when one of these blessings comes to an end, God’s grace remains. God’s faithfulness never ceases. His most incredible gift, unmerited goodness far surpassing anything or anyone else we know, is found in one place only.  God so loved me (and you, too!) that he gave us his Son Jesus. In Jesus Christ there is a quality of life that rises far above everything. In Christ we experience goodness that cannot even be contained in the years we have on earth. In Christ there is unmerited goodness that is played out across all the ages of eternity.

The day of Thanksgiving itself provides a day on the calendar where we are reminded that everything we have comes from God’s unmerited goodness. As a Christian, a follower of Jesus, we are to live our whole lives responding and marveling at God’s grace. For that, I am truly thankful. May you have a happy and spiritually rich Thanksgiving this year.

The Reformation

It happened over a period of years, but the day it caught people’s attention, the day it went viral in the social media of the times and began a landslide of change in how people thought, lived and believed happened exactly 500 years ago this week.

The Reformation was sparked by a young German monk who didn’t even have Twitter or Facebook, but posted a note calling out corruption in the church and government on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. The Reformation (and unfortunately, the corruption) is still going on today. I invite you to join me in a new Christian Reformation as together we discover what it takes to follow Jesus Christ in the 21st century.

Martin Luther asked the church to give up certain practices and traditions that had become corrupt and managed to become barriers to God. It was hard to face the need to clean house then, and it is hard for us now. We all have ways of doing church that we cling to and love, and sometimes giving up our bad practices can be worse than pulling teeth.

We live in a world filled with multiplied choices, possibilities and temptations. That’s why we need to keep our eyes on what is central, what is vital, what is the heart of our faith. That’s why we need to be firmly anchored in Jesus.

A large portion of the church in the United States has failed to remain centered in Christ and as a result has become stagnant, or so removed from Christian teachings it resembles either a political convention or the booster rally for a high school football team. As a result even the very memory of Christian faith is disappearing in our younger generations.

Think about some of the things religion says is important. It says the more money you give to the church the richer you will become. It says you need to be a fundamentalist — or a liberal — to really get Jesus right, and to know how to live and what to believe. Much of religion today tells us that true Christians always vote Republican. Or is it Democrat?

The funny thing is, I can’t remember how Jesus voted, or even what he said about the “hot button” items we make into main issues today. I do remember he said: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Then he said:  “Love your neighbor as yourself.” And he spent his life showing us what that looked like.

Love God. Love neighbor. That’s the foundation a new reformation can be built upon, a reformation bringing the good news of Jesus Christ into our broken, divided, lost world. Salvation is not going to come from our politics. It’s not found in the the false hopes of those who preach a corrupted and modified gospel. A new Christian Reformation takes real faith, it takes commitment, it takes Jesus in our lives. And you know, that’s just where he wants to be!

Giving Thanks

It is Halloween as I write this column.  I have a love/hate relationship with Halloween. I have always enjoyed my children and grandchildren as they have worked diligently to creature elaborate costumes.  With my own children, I remember that my small son always wanted to be a fireman, and one of my daughters saying, “Why would anyone want to have a scary costume when they could be a princess!”  This year my grandchildren are superheroes and astronauts.  The thing I don’t like about Halloween are the scary costumes complete with lots of blood and gore.  I don’t like the focus on death and evil.  Some of the houses in our neighborhood have gone to the extreme to create gruesome settings.  I’ll be glad when these are taken down.

But tomorrow is a special day, too.  It is All Saints day.  It is a time to remember the saints of God – those who have gone before us and those who still walk among us.  We remember those who have brought us up in the faith.  I think of Pastor Jon’s grandmother who died when he was five but insisted that he learned the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm before she died.  She was passing her faith on to him.  What a precious gift far above any money or possessions that she might have given him.

We also remember others in our lives who have guided us along in our faith journey, Sunday School teachers, youth leaders, and Christian friends. They have stood by us and prayed for us.  They have walked with us and shared our burdens.  Some have believed for us when we did not have faith enough to believe for ourselves.  It is these saints we remember with joy and thanksgiving.  We give thanks for those who continue to walk among us and for those who have gone on before us.

As we give thanks for the saints in our lives, may we think about how God might use us to bless the lives and faith journeys of others.  May we provide love and care for those whom God loves and who are our brothers and sisters.

The whole month of November is a time of year when we focus on our blessings and give thanks. Several communities in Massachusetts lost power in the storm we had over the weekend. Relatives scrambled to find someone with refrigerator and freezer space to rescue their food.  How blessed we are to have food in abundance.  Our missionary friends in Africa have told us how the people there hustle day to day to have food for that one day.  I once asked what happens when they are sick and aren’t able to work on any given day.  She said quite simply that they just don’t eat that day.  Surely they understand better than we do the part of the Lord’s Prayer that says, “Give us this day our daily bread.”

So whether we are giving thanks for spiritual food or physical food, we acknowledge the source of both and give praises to our generous and loving God.

Pipe Organ Recital

FREE PIPE ORGAN RECITAL 

Sunday, October 22, 2017

3 pm

Samuel Nelson, organist

Selections from:

Bach, Boellmann, Brunner, Dupre, Fox, Messiaen, and Widor

Sam Nelson was born in Lynn, Massachusetts and held his first organist position at the age of 12. He earned a Bachelor of Music degree in Organ Performance from Gordon College in 2011 under the tutelage of Dr. Roy Brunner and Mr. Douglas Marshall. In 2012 he won second prize at the Albert Schweitzer Organ Festival. Sam was the organist at Washington Street Baptist Church in Lynn for 11 years and is currently the Music Director at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Lynnfield. In addition to his work in Lynnfield, Sam is also a regular substitute at Park Street Church, Boston. Currently, Sam is pursuing a Master of Music degree in Organ Performance at Boston University, studying organ with Peter Sykes.

When he isn’t playing organ, Sam has served as Tour Manager and Organ Technician for Cameron Carpenter and the International Touring Organ, and also plays keyboards for a local wedding band, Somerset.

Everyone is invited to come! Bring your friends!

Why Do Bad Hurricanes Happen to Good People

Rabbi Harold Kushner’s classic book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, looks at the age old problem of evil. Let me borrow his title, and make it contemporary by bringing Hurricane Harvey into the mix. “Why DO bad hurricanes happen to good people?”

We all have times of questioning, complaining, doubting. Sometimes we bottle these feelings up, especially when it comes to matters of faith. We don’t want to look like we’re not trusting God.

Yet if we are ever to grow in our faith, we need to stretch, we need to push, we need to wrestle with the hard parts of life and faith. And evil is definitely hard.

With Charlottesville uncovering havoc in our society and in our souls, with the chaos in Washington threatening our whole world, and with Hurricane Harvey drenching and destroying Texas, the biggest questions loom in our minds. Where is God in all the mess around us?

Why do bad things happen? Why do they happen to me?

Folks have a million “why” questions. They always have. The Bible is full of these inquires. The book of Psalms is loaded with “whys?” Job asks why he is clobbered with all kinds of suffering. Even Jesus asks if it’s necessary to drink the cup he faces. Maybe the stories in the Bible show us that God is big enough to listen to our questions…and to handle our gripes and complaints. God is not going to zap us for getting honest with him.

I could give you a detailed personal testimony of all the times I have asked God “why.” Facing the problem of evil is one of the things that drove me away from Christian faith for a time in my life. I still ask God about it, but now I ask from within the framework of faith. So do I have a good answer for why bad hurricanes hit good people? My honest answer? No, I don’t understand why bad things happen in the world. But I will know someday.

Theologians and other smart people have developed good responses to the problem of evil, but all their responses have been incomplete. The most common explanation is “free will.” Basically that says when God created us, he created us as real, living, thinking and feeling human beings. He didn’t make us robots.  God wants us to love him not because he programmed it into us,  but because we choose to love him. We have free will, and can say “yes” to God, or we can reject him and say “no.”

We can use our free will to do great, creative, kind and loving things, but we can also use it to do bad things, like hurting, hating and destroying others. The white supremacy fever infecting our nation is a vivd reminder of this. The same hand that draws a cross can also twist it into a swastika.

Free will is not a complete response to why bad stuff happens. There are evils beyond those we humans cause. Natural disasters. Disease. Death. The Bible teaches that we live in a beautiful world that has had its pristine beauty broken by sin. God originally created a Garden. When evil came to Eden everything changed. All that was positive developed a negative side.

That’s why Christians come to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. He is the center of life changing redemption. He is the hope of the world. Christ is also the one who has the answers to life. He is the answer to evil. His death on the cross defeated it. His resurrection confirmed his victory over it.

I firmly believe that one day Christ will come and bring the kingdom of God to completion, revealed in all it’s glory. All questions will disappear. And the possibility exists that even before that great day, I will see him as I transition from here to heaven, and everything will be made clear. No longer will I question why bad hurricanes wipe away homes and lives, for I will be in the presence of the One who calmed the waves by saying, “Peace. Be still.”

Welcome

You — YES, YOU — are welcome at First Baptist Arlington!

We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, gay, filthy rich, dirt poor, yo no habla Ingles. We extend a special welcome to those who are crying newborns, skinny as a rail or could afford to lose a few pounds.

We welcome you if you can sing like Adele or Beyonce, or if you are like Pastor Jon who can’t carry a note in a bucket. You’re welcome here if you’re “just browsing,” just woke up or just got out of jail. We don’t care if you’re more Catholic than the Pope, or haven’t been in church since little Joey’s Baptism.

We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but not grown up yet, and to teenagers who are growing up too fast. We welcome soccer moms, NASCAR dads, starving artists, tree-huggers, latte-sippers, vegetarians, junk-food eaters. We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted. We welcome you if you’re having problems or you’re down in the dumps or if you don’t like “organized religion” — we’ve been there too.

If you blew all your offering money at the dog track, you’re welcome here. We offer a special welcome to those who think the earth is flat, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell, or come because grandma is in town and wanted to go to church.

We welcome those who are inked, pierced or both. We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down your throat as a kid or got lost in traffic and wound up here by mistake. We welcome tourists, seekers and doubters … and we especially welcome you!

Somewhere in my journey I found this welcome message, have adapted it from time to time, and have always liked it. I believe it truly represents the attitude of First Baptist Arlington, and for that I give thanks to God. Come check us out as together we learn to follow Jesus. And just it case you didn’t get it you are really welcome here!

Tree

Spring is a beautiful time in New England. Right now we have rhododendrons climbing up the corner of our house. There are also irises just coming into bloom. Add to that the hibiscus my husband bought me and two gorgeous lupine plants that I received for Motherʼs Day, and I could go on and on. I love the flowers and plants as they show off the colors our God painted them.

One of the favorite things that I have always loved about our yard was a beautiful Japanese Maple tree. It had suffered over the last couple of years with Gypsy Moths and drought conditions. And this year and last it did not leaf out. We had the tree company do deep root fertilization twice and held our breaths, but the bark began to peel off and we knew it was gone. So yesterday we had it taken down. And as beautiful as the other plants are, the tree will be missed. I remember my grandchildren climbing in it and swinging from itʼs branches. I remember its vivid red leaves and its beautiful snow covered branches. I asked myself if itʼs okay to grieve over losing a tree. Somehow I think it is. At least the loss is real to me.

I think about losses in the church. Much more significant than a tree. I think of David Gray often. I miss his presence as he often visited with us in the office. I miss having him in Bible Study. He had much to add, filling us in on historical background. I miss Shirley Donaldson with her kind, sweet spirit and perpetually positive outlook. I miss Dottie Burke whose Memorial Service was last Saturday, and her enjoyment of her friends at church. Additionally, people join us in worship and then move away. We get to know and love them, and then they are gone. We miss them.

I think this just points out the importance of each member of the body of Christ. No one is insignificant. We are all joined together as the church of Jesus Christ. And not just the people who are living now. We join with others who have proclaimed the name of Jesus through the ages. May we continue to serve him as long as we can. Then we must trust the job to those who will come after us, the ones we are teaching now. For as CS Lewis said in Screwtape Letters, we are a part of the church of Jesus Christ marching through the ages.

Joiners

We like to join things. We join garden clubs and health clubs and the PTA and the AARP.  Americans are joiners. But we don’t join churches like people used to in the good old days.

Used to be everyone went to church. Now it’s different. We have become secularized. Or maybe a little bit lazy.

But those who really love Jesus are joining and supporting churches today. They are bucking the trend because they want to do God’s will.

Christians know their commitment is crucial to Christ’s work. They know their gifts are needed for the kingdom. They know that they are important to the Lord, and they are excited to use their gifts and talents for him.

Real Christians are ready to risk themselves in church relationships. They are willing to love other people in real and practical ways. They know it’s risky, because loving people invites hurt and disappointment. The only way to keep from getting hurt is not to love. But to stop loving is to stop living and growing. So being a disciple means making a commitment to others.

Followers of Christ join churches because they know their pocket book and billfold need to be committed to him. And they know the church needs their support. There’s no other organization on earth that has a more important mission and a worst way of financing it than the church.

And then real believers join a church because they know they need help in living Christianly. They know fellow members will help them and hold them accountable in living for Christ. And when this doesn’t happen, it probably means the whole church needs help in living Christianly. God is up to the task, if we are!

Finally Christians join a church just because it’s the right thing to do.

And what about you? What are you waiting for?