When Jesus saw the Temple courts cluttered with people who were set up to make a profit off of the piety of the worshipers by selling them sacrificial animals and changing their currency at a profit, he was filled with indignation and made a whip and drove them out, tossing their tables about and making a mess of things. This past week a quote from NYC pastor Tim Keller made the rounds on social media where he put this event in context. “The only person who has the right to rearrange the furniture in the home is the owner.”
It got me thinking about the impulse to rearrange the furniture. When I was first married and Christine and I started a home together I was surprised at how frequently she wanted to rearrange things and how strongly she felt about it. I confess I was resistant more often than not. It was tiresome to me. I had to move the furniture and then stand about while she considered the new arrangement from every angle and then I had to pretend a cheerfulness I didn’t feel when I was finally instructed to put things back the way they had been.
But I’ve matured. I can see now how stimulating a new arrangement can be and how big a difference even a modest improvement can make.
I say all of this for two reasons.
First, when we move into our new location there will be a lot of this sort of thing. Not having used this building before there will be an initial set up, then there will be all of the sort of changes that get made as we figure stuff out, then, finally, there will be the sort of changes we make out of domestic exuberance. And I’m here for it, for all of it.
Secondly, all this about the importance of rearranging the furniture is no less true when we are speaking metaphorically about the church. For a long time now, for instance, we have been encouraged to think that all churches were either inwardly focused or outwardly focused and that the key to being a healthy, growing church was to make sure that you were outwardly focused. And that seemed to bear out for a season; there appeared to be evidence for the proposition. But what if we could add a third category? What if a church could be inclusively inward, and what would that look like? And, along those lines, what if we rearranged the house of God so that, as with a proper home, the focal point was not a platform but the hearth? What if, instead of inviting people to a presentation, we invited them to a warm fire on a cold day?
This is one of the things about making our move to the building in Pittsford that gets me excited. I see God at work in these things, compelling us to reconsider our assumptions about what church should be and what it should look like. And it’s kind of him to do for us with architecture what he did for others on another occasion with a whip.
Earlier this week, Lucy and I went on a hike. We did a section of the Long Trail taking us to the summit of Bromley Mountain. It was a lovely day and there were no bugs and I was in high spirits but early in the hike I slipped on a wet rock in such a way that I really hurt the heel of one foot. It hurt badly enough that I thought about abandoning the hike and returning to the car. Lucy, who is an awfully good girl, would have been disappointed, but she would have been supportive. Still, I decided to soldier on.
But each step was painful. And at one point, as we were balancing across some planks keeping us above deep, muddy places, I realized that I had a choice. i could either be painfully on a plank or cheerfully on a hike. The hard part was that, because of the nature of the path, I had to keep my eyes on the ground the whole way, which made it hard to keep my mind on the summit.
But I resolved to keep my mind on the summit and the summit ahead of me had an effect on the trail beneath me. The prospect of a grand arrival rendered all the slippery rocks and gnarled roots and narrow spaces into a ribbon of adventure threading its way through a lovely forest.
I'm glad I kept hiking.
And, of course, the preacher is making a point. You might feel like you and your church are on a plank in the wilderness with an aching heel, but I am eager to lead you on a hike and to have you join me at the summit. In his second letter to the church at Corinth, Paul writes, "Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal."
We are making good use of the Marble Museum and the internet and we are doing really good work at the Pittsford Food Shelf. The board is being wise and strategic about finding our path forward. And the mission of making more and better disciples for Jesus advances. And we are not the turning back type.
Does Vermont need Furnace Brook Wesleyan Church? Does this progressive and breathtakingly beautiful place with a high standard of living need a community of believers belonging to an ancient faith with out of step values?
It's a good question and the answer depends on who you ask.
Some of our neighbors would say that the answer is a flat "no." No, Vermont does not need Furnace Brook Wesleyan Church. We're doing quite well on our own, thank you.
Other neighbors, people who are attached to a certain version of Vermont, would say that yes, Vermont needs churches the same way it needs covered bridges and fall foliage.
Some others, people who appreciate the benevolence and soul care that churches like ours provide, would say that Vermont might not need Furnace Brook Wesleyan, but that it could use us, so long as we stick to stuff like taking on the food shelf.
But the important question to ask is not whether or not Vermont thinks it needs Furnace Brook Wesleyan, but whether or not God believes that Vermont needs us. And the answer to that question is resounding and was provided by the Apostle Paul long before the first maple creemee was ever dispensed into a cone.
In his letter to the Church at Philippi, Paul writes in chapter 2, verses 14-16, "Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life. And then I will be able to boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor in vain."
The very existence of a faithful church serves to glorify God and to provide the community within which it is located an alternative to itself and a way marker. We are the blazes on the trailhead that leads to heaven. Salt and light.
But we can hardly blame our neighbors for taking lightly a church that its own members demonstrate little commitment to.
If we really believe that we are the shining stars offering our neighbors the "word of life," our commitment to each other and to the mission should be marked by cheerful devotion. But I'm afraid that what the world often sees is carelessness and half-hearted effort.
We're all still feeling the effects of the pandemic and all of us have experienced that in different ways. I myself am tired and am still licking my wounds.
But now is the time for actively loving the other people in my church and working with them to accomplish the mission of making more and better disciples for Jesus. Are you with me?
It wasn’t always this way, but we are at a point in history when, for most of us, it is easier to know of someone at a distance than it is to know the people who are close to us.
Two hundred years ago you could barely avoid knowing your neighbors, like it or not, and being known by them, while almost everyone outside your immediate vicinity was virtually unknown to you and unknowable.
One of JD Walt’s recent devotionals at Seedbed made me think about this when he pointed out how strangely and deliberately opposed Jesus was to his own fame.
So here’s the question I’ve been asking myself: would I rather be well known or known well?
Truthfully? If I’m going by the indications of my life it looks like I’d rather be well known. I do things to try to expand my “platform” on the one hand, while doing little more than dipping my toes in the shallow end of those pools of relationship where I might be diving.
In 1 Corinthians 13:12, Paul says “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror: then we will see face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, even as I am fully known."
And I want that. I want to see face to face and know fully and be fully known. But I’m also terrified at the prospect. I don’t feel I’m ready for it. I’d like to make some changes before I’m thrust into that place of intimate and mutual knowledge. I’d like to approach God with the benefit of filters.
But God is not interested in some instagram version of me.
So these are some things I’m coming to terms with:
Fame is toxic for those who don’t achieve it and it is toxic for those who do.
It is a dangerous thing to want to be well known.
For one thing, it is an objective with moving goalposts. Make it your goal to get a thousand followers and you will arrive at that lofty peak of notoriety and survey the landscape and see that there are summits above your own on which other people are standing. And as you look at them, your standard of “well-known” will shift so that you will now feel more obscure than you did when you started.
For another thing, aspiring to fame will make you feel disconnected from who you really are. You will present yourself in ways calculated to make you more appealing than authentic.
Being well known is unsatisfying.
Our souls desire the intimacy of being comprehensively known, even though we run from that intimacy. We are conflicted and acting at cross-purposes with ourselves.
It is telling and significant that the euphemistic language employed by the King James Version of the Bible to talk about sexual behavior is that of “knowledge.” “And Adam knew Eve his wife and she conceived.”
It seems quaint, right? But it also helps us understand how intimate it is to be known in either sense of the word, and how you could want to be known and also be afraid of it at the same time.
Being well known is a very poor substitute for the intimate pleasure of being known well.
Churches that can help people to be known well will have an advantage in the days to come.
If people end up recoiling from the expectations of social media notoriety and go looking for safe personal intimacy, we would hope that they would go to church to find it.
But too often churches are run as though the church itself is primarily useful and effective to the extent that it is a good platform for a good pastor. Think about the biggest churches you know and ask yourself if you know more about that church or that church’s pastor. You might not know anything about that church at all beyond its name and who its pastor is.
And many of these pastors do use the platform to very good effect, preaching sermons and writing books and developing leaders with a positive impact far beyond the boundaries of their “parish.”
But for enduring Gospel effect, it is better to have a church that makes lots of people known well than a church that makes a few people well known.
Discipleship and small groups
So if you are ready to shift your emphasis from being well known to being known well, where do you start? By engaging in discipleship and small groups. By offering to lead someone or to be led by someone along the "way everlasting." By asking your pastor for help in connecting with people other than your pastor. By doing life with other believers with the goal of complete authenticity in a context of safety and love.
A natural pearl occurs when a piece of grit works its way into an oyster, after which the oyster, to defend itself from the irritant, secretes layer upon layer of coating fluid on the piece of grit until a pearl is formed.
Christmas, as a global celebration, is a lot like that pearl. Layers and layers of the shiny and smooth have been built up to protect the world from the irritant at its heart. Twinkling lights, cheerful colors, elves, ugly sweaters, bows, gifts, tinsel, snow, Bing Crosby, reindeer, candy canes, silver bells - the world's oyster has been adding layers to this pearl for about 2000 years now. And it's as lovely as you would expect a pearl to be.
And Christians who object to all of this stuff can have a point and miss the point at the same time.
Yes, the world finds the incarnation to be an unbearable irritant and protects itself from the grit of Jesus' birth by layers of shiny pearl. But it does not, in doing so, defeat the grit. The grit is not neutralized but enshrined. Every pearl is a temple devoted to the power of a particle. And if the pearl appears to succeed in obscuring the grit, it also succeeds in keeping it securely right at the heart of things.
And what is the grit that is intractably at the heart of Christmas?
Jesus was born as an act of war. His incarnation was a dramatic escalation in the heavenly fight for our redemption and he was born, unequivocally, that he might die. His birth itself was violent in the way that all births are; it featured blood and raised voices. And, though it was a crudely ineffective gesture, Herod's slaughter of the Innocents is very much a part of the nativity.
In both relative and historic terms, Jesus was born into an underprivileged household. The account of the nativity highlights the lack; lack of housing, lack of furniture, lack of resources, lack of privilege. Time and sentimental depiction would render that poverty less offensive, but think about it very hard and you will see it for grit. Jesus' parents had to worry about things like food and clothing. And their example prevents us from using our own bank accounts as a reason for why we can not be obedient to God until our circumstances improve.
The manner of the incarnation is a rebuke to the elite, to the connected and entitled. Jesus' parents were pedigreed, but they were powerless. The birth did not happen in Rome at the height of its power, nor Imperial London or cosmopolitan New York. Jerusalem, it turns out, was a fine place for Jesus to die, but for his birth a backwater village was called for. And the only elites who play any part in the nativity are wise men who show up so late that they have nothing to contribute to the event but worship, gifts, and the threat of a danger that came from their penchant for palaces.
This is the gritty thing at the heart of Christmas that will always be the biggest source of painful irritation to the world. Jesus birth was not a divine excursion, or the heavenly equivalent of a semester abroad. Jesus left the courts of heaven and endured nine months of gestation, an ignominious birth in squalor, the peril of adolescence without modern medicine, and all the worst this world has to offer so that he could, as an adult, die for the sins of those who killed him. And it wasn't because of sin in the abstract that he came, but for sins as specific as the straw on which he lay in the manger. It was for my particular sins and your particular sins. And what amount of built up pearl could ever make pleasant as irritating a piece of grit as that?
No, this grit at the heart of Christmas is made beautiful by the pearl built up around it, but no amount of pearl could ever make it safe.
And so I'm happy to wish you a merry Christmas, a Christmas with all the lustrous pearl the season has to offer. But I'd also wish you an irritating Christmas, one where the grit at that heart of the season makes its way into your own heart.
Back in 2004 the band Modest Mouse released the album “Good News for People Who Like Bad News.” I’ve thought about that title more than once this year. The year 2020 has been full of good news for people who like bad news, hasn’t it?
And not only is it easy to focus on the negative stuff; it’s necessary to acknowledge it all. That’s an important part of the grieving process.
But there is good news and cause for optimism, too. If you’ve felt unsure about Furnace Brook Wesleyan Church and had concerns about how it will come out of this, I’d like to give you five reasons for optimism.
We are making more and better disciples for Jesus. Our efforts have not been put on hold and they are bearing fruit. People are getting discipled and are meeting in small groups in person and online. We baptized 8 people earlier this summer! Our live streamed services have expanded the scope of our ministry; on youtube, facebook, and PEGTV each week many people are edified by our worship and teaching who never joined us in a building. Our mission is how we decide to do what we do, and it’s also how we measure how well we’re doing it. So take heart.
The leadership of Furnace Brook (Pastor Tate and the Board) have made difficult decisions in a timely fashion. They have looked at the budget with clear eyes and have taken necessary steps to reduce overhead and to put us in a sound financial position to bless others and to go into the future with confidence and margin.
Our church has elasticity in our spiritual DNA. We have demonstrated again and again that we are willing to be flexible in our pursuit of God’s will. And this leaves us uniquely suited to not only survive but flourish in the upheaval of this season. God is doing a new thing and our church is not so brittle and backward facing that we will foolishly resist him. And God rewards supple wineskins with new wine.
We all miss our building, and no one more so than the pastor. But the Board of Furnace Brook is wisely committed to the process. We are earnestly investigating all sorts of possibilities, but we also have the patience needed to make sure that we get this right. We are determined to end up with a situation that is forward looking and that takes into consideration the ministry requirements of this new season that we are in. That’s huge. The place where we arrive will be so good and so right as to redeem the journey by which we came to it.
Prayer and Revival
We are committed to prayer and to revival, and this is no small thing. This isn’t the spiritual stuff you say to check off the spiritual box. Please consider signing up to join us on September 25 for “A Night with New Room.” You can participate from home or join us in one of the locations we hope to set up for the purpose. And from now to then, would you consider taking the Psalm 85:6 challenge to join us in concerted prayer? And let me tell you something personal about my own prayer: I have been praying really hard for the last several months and God has consistently responded to my prayer by giving me a sense of peace and a conviction about the good things to come, even if he has been vague on the details.
So be encouraged. The things in our favor greatly outweigh the challenges we are facing and God is with us.
We all hate those seasons in our lives or areas of our lives where the tires just spin and there doesn’t seem to be anything that we have control over or any meaningful way to accomplish our purposes. Perhaps there is a broken relationship where you’ve done everything that you can do from your end. Or perhaps you’ve filled out all the job applications there are to fill. Or you can’t leave until your quarantine is up. And, yes, we hate these times and places in our lives, at least in part because we’ve been taught to reckon our value by the things we do. If I am in a position where I can’t do anything I feel “worthless,” which is a remarkable thing to think of a person who was redeemed with the “precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.”But “there’s always something you could do” someone will object. Maybe there is always something you could do, but it’s wrong to say so, even if it’s true. When I am stuck, when, for better or worse, I’ve done all that I can do, scripture tells me to be still and know that He is God. The alternative in such a situation is to be active and prove that I am not.
But not just as a matter of spiritual effort. Don’t pray in such a way that you are “doing” prayer, being incapable of doing anything else. Pray as an expression of lament. Pray because your situation stinks and God loves you. Pray to take God into your confidence. And, though your prayer doesn’t “accomplish” anything it will have the effect of reminding you that there is a God and that the success of your brief participation in the eternity of which he is Lord has less to do with your activity than you might think.
Don’t make a virtue of your impatience. If you have done all that you can do and God has told you to wait, then wait without embarrassment. Do the hard work of rejecting your insecurities about waiting. No one is “merely” waiting who, in waiting, is doing that exact thing that God has commanded him to do.
Rest is a good use of those situations where you are denied the pleasure of having meaningful work to do. Rest is an investment in future activity, true. But it’s valuable in and of itself, apart from any indirect contribution to my productivity. Your rest is valuable for the simple reason that you are. God gives rest to his beloved ones.
In the Parable of the Ten Virgins, Jesus tells us about ten brides who go out to meet the bridegroom who ends up being a long time in coming. There’s nothing for them to do but wait and sleep as they do. At midnight the cry rings out. He has come and it’s time for them to join him, but five of them neglected to prepare for the wait or its conclusion and they have no oil for their lamps and are left stranded in the dark.
There’ve been times when I thought, for instance, that my problem was that I was excluded from the conversation and there was nothing to do about it. And then, when I was suddenly invited to participate in the conversation, I found that I had nothing helpful to say.
Maybe the worst thing about those times and places where I am incapable of making good things happen, is that I am still very capable of preventing good things from happening. And I usually do that by closing off avenues of assistance, downplaying my need and denying my helplessness when concerned people offer their assistance. Of course you’d rather be the one coming to someone else’s rescue than being the chump in need of rescue. But a cheerful acceptance of your dependence on God and the people he uses is, itself, an act of worship.
As a church, we are doing our best to be smart, timely, and flexible about responding to our changing circumstances. And it's important to us that you know what's going on. Read below for Furnace Brook's latest news and updates.
1. We will be changing locations.
Ever since our initial three year lease ran out we have been trying to make a more permanent arrangement for our church. It has felt as though all of our efforts to get a long term lease or a purchase agreement for our current location or for another property have been thwarted and that's been very frustrating. Leasing month to month has made us feel insecure; but now it looks providential. The lease we have been paying is much higher than we can afford to pay for a building we can't meet in or than what we would expect to pay on the other end of this crisis. And we are not locked into it. So we will be moved out of our current location at 67 Gecha Lane by April 30th.
What this means:
During their time in the wilderness the Israelites experienced calamities and plagues, suffered violence and want. And yet, every indication is that the number of Israelites who came across the Jordan was actually greater than the number of Israelites who had come through the Red Sea!
Let that be true of us! We can do the work of growing in our faith now. We can offer the Word of life to our friends and neighbors now, inviting them on the journey with us. And when we meet again, as we certainly will, there will be people meeting in person with us for the first time who had been meeting with us virtually for some time, who came to faith through the nimble, adaptable, unflappable, mission-over-comfort ministry of our church for the glory of God! We can't wait for that day.
From time to time we like to share with you some resources and things to enrich your life and faith walk. Some of it is stuff that you will have no use for, and some of it is stuff that could change your life. And some of it will prompt you to share stuff with us: please do! We would love your suggestions and feedback.
I had only had the three children in my care for a short time when I brought them to the Department of Children and Families office in the Asa Bloomer building in Rutland to meet their mother who was, understandably, anxious to see and touch her children again. We went into the office waiting room and waited until a concerned social worker could meet us to escort us to a room further inside the offices where we sat and waited.
The children looked around speculatively, trying to decide which of the tattered toys they’d like to fight over first. The rooms reflect the fact that DCF cares. Efforts have been made to furnish them with a wide range of safe toys and furniture conducive to family interaction. They have been painted in cheerful and pleasant colors.
No family ends up in that room without there having been considerable heartache and grief to bring them there. The time spent in that room will be the high point or the low point of someone’s week; and sometimes both at once. And if families are important so are the spaces where “family” is permitted to happen.
DCF Work Project
We want to honor the work that DCF is doing and the families for whom they are doing it by making sure that these emotionally significant places fully reflect the way we all feel about what happens in them. Our Office of the Department for Children and Families in Rutland County has given us the opportunity to renovate and refurnish their two visitation rooms, the places where children in custody can have supervised interactions with their families. We are going to replace old, tired toys and furniture and redecorate the rooms so that they will be positive places where fractured families can maintain connection with dignity. And we need your help. Find out more here.
The other thing we've been given an opportunity to help with is the "store" that DCF maintains with clothing, toiletries, and other items that would be helpful to families with children in custody as well as foster families and all those in need. DCF is in need of help with sorting and stocking items and would be grateful for assistance with staffing the room.
When their mother came in I felt a lot of feels. I ached for her and for the children. I felt insecure. I felt hopeful. And I felt more than a little out of place. But I can only imagine what she and the kids felt in that moment. Since then, I’ve logged hours in those two rooms and others like them, and I know that there will always be a need for rooms like this until Jesus comes back.
But, speaking of Jesus coming back, do you know what he’s doing in preparation for his return? He is preparing a place for me in heaven. He is getting rooms ready for when a family fractured by sin can be reunited with the Father in heaven. If that’s how Jesus is spending this time, it feels really appropriate for us to spend that time in much the same manner: getting rooms ready so that fractured families can be together in a gracious and well appointed place.
If you are interested in joining us in this effort (or in helping us to staff and stock DCF’s “store”) please follow this link to the page on our website where you will find more information and a chance to sign up.
By Joel Tom Tate
Furnace Brook Wesleyan Church Blog