Reflecting on 2011, I End This Year …

Nathan and Dylan with their cousin Lina

returning from spending Christmas with my family at my parents’ house.  Cool to see my brother, sister, bro-in-law, niece, cousins, uncles and aunts.  Was fun to catch up on so many things including our vacation in Aruba.

… remembering I laughed a lot … at odd times like there was this moment in the fully packed minivan that Susan and I had as we were crossing the Tappanzee Bridge with one kid sleeping, one kid crying, “Mama, home” and one kid watching Charlie Brown Christmas where we just looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders and laughed.

… missing so many people. From my former senior pastor Sam who was a great listener and friend to his wife and kids who were so wonderful to my family. We miss serving with them and being their neighbors.

We miss our friends – Yo, housing and taxes are cheaper up here, groceries too.  They need engineers, mechanics, financial planners, hairstylists, nutritionists, plumbers, teachers, computer nerds and whatever it is that Matt actually does.  Also, it’s warmer up here – just saying.

Farewell Party/Baby Shower - August 2011


at YSPalooza with new and veteran youth leaders like Debi

… missing the youth leaders. We got to share some great moments together in my living room, the Fireside Room, the van, and all the places we’d go.

Tim & Alyssa leading worship

… missing Tuesdays mornings with Eric and Ehren at the Ridge Diner and Wednesday mornings with Doc and Tim Nye. Wished we could have found a way to make it to the wedding of Dave and Jaclyn. I was Davey’s youth pastor for a few years and he ended up becoming one of my favorite worship leaders and my fourth favorite Levesque ;).  I look forward to seeing Tim hopefully this year. Hey I think I forgot a few pounds of Verona in Old Tappan, please bring them up for me ;)


… wondering if we would have made the move had it not been for friends like Jim Kuehlke and my in-laws. Among all the help we got from my family and our church family, my in-laws traveled up, helped us pack up NJ and helped us unpack in MA.

… never forgeting my U-Haul being broken down on the side of the road in CT and Jim saying, “At least it’s not raining” and the heavens opening up with rain, thunder and lightening. I remember saying, “At least it’s not raining with hundred dollar bills” but apparently God’s sense of irony doesn’t work that way.

… thinking that our youth group was such a big part of my life.  I will always miss and love you guys (well, maybe not all of you. “Kidding, kidding, take a joke, c’mon …” :)

Last youth group gathering for me at MEFC. (message was "The Night We Discussed Cambium")

Nassau'11 Mission Trip to the All Saints AIDS Camp





Senior Sneak '11 in Boston, one of the Top Ten classes that I got to pastor ;)

Just before a "God at the Pub" discussion night

… missing the Porterhouse.  This old Irish pub was where I had some of the best conversations with dear friends and absolute strangers.  So grateful they were open til 2am, this place really became part of my seminary experience.  Initially, the other late-night patrons thought it was odd that I showed up with a laptop, an NRSV Study Bible, and a bag of books but by the third year, they would welcome me as I walked in the door while the bartender started pouring me a Guinness.  This place watched me read Karl Barth, NT Wright and speed-read Herman Ridderbos (which still took a month). I also miss our “God at the Pub” discussion nights.  I’m looking all over Middlesex County for something close – so far no luck.


grateful for old friends in this new place. One of the crazier blessings of the year took place at the end of the winter as I shared with one of my closest friends that we were praying about moving on from our church in NJ. Bassim told me that his church, Grace Chapel was looking. I mentioned that I had heard but that a mega-church in “Red Sox Nation” was not an interest for me. Either his persuasion skills have significantly improved since we were 14 or the Lord was speaking through him (and probably a little both) but that was one of three life-altering conversations that got me here.  It was hard for me to imagine that we would be Trick or Treating in Billerica, Massachusetts.

… looking forward to serving alongside with my new church staff and the countless volunteers here.  The other two life-altering conversations were during the interview process with the pastor that I directly report to, Doug Whallon and my new senior pastor, Bryan Wilkerson.   Excited to be here.

So I end this year grateful for this new season of ministry here at Grace Chapel. We are hitting 2012 running and in the next few weeks I have a message at gc@nite (1/15 – working title, “You Give Exile a Good Name (insert Richie Sambora guitar riff here)”, participating in a couple Adult Discipleship classes, one on the Psalms and one on Don Miller’s A Million Miles in a Thousand Places, leading the monthly prayer night (in lectio divina) and a few other things that I’m excited about.

… flipping through iPhoto and realizing I got to see some people I truly admire within the same year (Alan Hirsch, Rob Bell, NT Wright)

Susan and I with Rob Bell at the "Love Wins" Book Launch in NYC

Alan Hirsch at The Well, Feasterville, PA (where Todd Hiestand pastors)











NT Wright in Boston talking about his new book Simply Jesus


…. proud of my two little boys.











.. with another kid – our first daughter!  

Janelle Catherine - 9.5.11

I know this sounds sappy but I truly end this year thankful to God for three incredible kids and a beautiful wife, Susan. It’s been a crazy year, glad we’re in this together honey. Excited about 2012!

Seeing U2 at Giants Stadium - July 20th

Christmas 2011








First Family Picture





Reflecting on the Fourth Week of Advent – The Peace Candle

On Sunday the 18th, we lit the fourth candle of the Advent Wreath – the Peace Candle.  I’ve been blogging through each week (I’ve included the links at the bottom).

We talk about peace quite a bit this time of year. Numerous Christmas wishes end with the desire for “peace on earth.” It’s not exactly the easiest thing to wrap a put under the tree and throughout the week I’ve been thinking about why peace is so elusive for us.

When we think of the idea of “peace”, we tend to think of words like tranquility, calm, contentment and serenity. All very good synonyms and all qualities that I could use more of but when I think of the peace of Christ, I think of something that I can’t really find in a yoga class or in a cup of green tea.
(Wouldn’t that be great if it could though? The United Nations could lower embargoes on all dictators and government officials who didn’t practice yoga and drink green tea. Hmm, if I work 10 more minutes on this, I may be awarded the second-easiest to achieve Nobel Peace Prize ever.)

I know I’m not drinking enough green tea and I know my yoga is not only inconsistent but quite ugly (insert mental picture of thirty something who is really good at imitating a geriatric gym class) but the peace of Christ is much deeper than arms treaties and personal tranquility.  As John Perkins says, “Peace is a world where nothing is broken and nothing is missing.”

Most of us consider ourselves to be peaceful in the non-violent sense but that is a very weak definition of peace (to not be at war with someone/something). The way we wage war in our social lives is not only by fighting but by breaking fellowship (Church, family, etc.). We break the peace every time we hurt, attack, ignore and abandon others.

Relational peace is more about being in harmony and in a connected goodness with someone. In the Christian tradition, “peace with God” is not about a clear conscience but about living in reconciliation and obedience with the God in the way of Jesus. And being at peace with ourselves is not about being content with our status of life and being (or conniving ourselves of being) “happy”, it’s much more about the identity we find in who we were created to be and what we are called to do. Peace is the result of a life of steadfast commitment to work things out, the result of letting God’s inner peace become God’s outer peace.

Biblical commentators have written extensively on what Jesus meant when he used the term “Shalom”. It generally meant the following: 1. Material prosperity 2. Moral goodness and integrity 3. Loving relationships with God, family, Israel, and all others.

A lot to be said there but I’d like to focus on the third point and point out that peace is rooted in love.  Living in peace with each other was more about holding and keeping a loving relationship with others and not just being content with not fighting. And being in peace with God is about living in the salvation that Jesus came into this world to give us all.

“Shalom I leave with you, my shalom I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).

Week 1 – The Hope Candle

Week 2 – The Grace Candle

Week 3 – The Joy Candle


The Condescending Angel’s Perspective – Blogging Through Our Sermon Series

Two Sundays ago, our senior pastor, Bryan Wilkerson gave his annual monologue. Each year, he gives this message completely in character from the vantage point of someone either in the Christmas story (like Zachariah) or in the 1st Century context (like Pontius Pilate). He writes it, memorizes it and delivers it. When I first heard of this annual “monologue”, I was a caught a little off-guard because from what I thought I knew of my new senior pastor, it seemed not him. I think those of of us raised in churches have seen these types of things go wrong so maybe you know what I mean. However everyone was really excited about it and kept asking, “He’s going to do give his monologue at the gc@nite service too, right?” I replied he indeed he was and found myself looking forward to this was well.

Well it didn’t certainly disappoint, in fact, it was incredible. Not just from a performance perspective but especially Bryan’s writing. This year Bryan became one of the angels in the heavenly host. It was a great character as he was able to avoid the cliche talk and be an angel that was in complete adoration of God but somewhat confused of His incredible love for mankind. The context was that this particular angel had returned to this world (he had visited the night that Jesus was born) and on this particular night, he was to appear to us, just this once, to tell us the back story from his vantage point.

The angel was sincere, he was condescending, kept referring to us “mortals”, reminded us of the order of creation humanity was beneath the angels, yet God’s redemption makes us heirs with his son Jesus, a concept that the angel could not fully fathom. You sensed the angel’s bewilderment and again, it was great message.

I think if we you were to take the time to listen to it, it would remind you of God’s great love for humanity from a heavenly, yet not divine perspective. It’s available here.

My Review of Why Men Hate Going to Church

Note: I have received this book from the Book Sneeze Blogger Program of Thomas Nelson Publishers. I am not paid for my reviews nor am I required to give a positive review (only an honest one).

David Murrow has released an updated version of his best-selling book, Why Men Hate Going to Church. Most of the content has been revised and he’s added content. In short, his point is that most churches offer a feminized version of Christianity, thereby alienating a significant population of the men.

From the Publisher:
“It’s Sunday morning. Where are all the men? Golfing? Playing softball? Watching the tube? Mowing the lawn? Sleeping? One place you won’t find them is in church. Less than 40 percent of adults in most churches are men, and 20 to 25 percent of married churchgoing women attend without their husbands. And why are the men who do go to church so bored? Why won’t they let God change their hearts?

David Murrow’s groundbreaking new book reveals why men are the world’s largest unreached people group. With eye-opening research and a persuasive grasp on the facts, Murrow explains the problem and offers hope and encouragement to women, pastors, and men. Why Men Hate Going to Church does not call men back to the church-it calls the church back to men.”

What I Liked:
Among the strengths of the book is how David sets up the more recent history of men in the American church.
Though I took the title to be hyperbolic, I wasn’t sure if the author could deliver on explaining why men hate going to church – Murrow has a good thesis and develops it well.
It’s been a while since I’ve read anything about men in the church that expressed sensitivity to how we/they felt. Murrow does a solid job with this because this is very autobiographical for him.
The stats – as usual, stats are helpful.

What I Wasn’t Crazy About:
The stats, as usual, the stats are not always helpful. ;) (You know stats can only tell part of the story.)
The Lamb of God Jesus versus the Lion Jesus was theologically “odd” to say it politely.
Though one of the strengths of the book is his thesis, I felt there was an over-simplification on some points of his argument.
The generalizations of why men don’t go to church imply that the men in the church are feminized. That simply is not true for a significant population of Christian men who are in the Church.
Really wasn’t sure of these suggestions of how to get men to like church. Some are just ideas for a better church in general, I’m not sure how some of these were gender-specific.

Who I Think It’s For:
This book is helpful to me in my current ministry as we are rethinking our approach to men’s ministry. It’s not a game plan though, I see it more as a conversation starter amongst the ministry staff. Understand that the book is not arguing for a men’s ministry approach but more about how the church could minister to men. (Which is more helpful for us since we are among those who are trying to reduce the number of “silos” we have).
Obviously, there is a wide audience for a book like this but I’d like to recommend this to church elders. I can see (and would recommend) an elder board reading this together and prayerfully seek and implement ministry ideas to serve the men in the congregation.

You can purchase it here.

Reflecting On Our Christmas Eve Services

We had a number of Christmas Eve services happening throughout our campuses this last weekend and I’ve been thinking about the message. It was entitled, “Unto You” and before it, there was a well-acted short drama piece of three characters who were shepherds. This is my first year here so I hope I can say this without sounding prideful, but because I am yet discovering the church too, I must say that these elements were so well done. There are numerous collaborative creative planning meetings that go into this and the intentionality of it really makes a difference.

Certainly this is not to imply anything negative of any other church I’ve observed but it’s been important to me on a couple of levels. One, I’ve never been on the inside of a church this large before and it’s been great for me to see how seriously such things are taken. It’s been my impression that some times, larger churches get by without much intentionality but rely on talent and spectacle.  It’s been [Read more…]

Santa Claus, Rudolph, The Virgin Birth, The Lies & “TMI’s” We Tell Our Children

Every time I see a picture like this of Jesus and Santa Claus together, I go out of my way to say “Season’s Greetings” to a fundamentalist.  I get asked quite frequently what we tell our children about Santa Claus. Our kids are a  bit young so we only give them the 101 – Santa lives at the North Pole, he’s got reindeer that pull his sleigh and he gives good boys Christmas gifts and takes “Blue Bear” and “Elmo” away from the naughty boys (each family has their own traditions you know).

Every so often, someone either politely implies (or states matter of factly) that we are lying to our children. Perhaps in some sense this is true but when we are talking about toddlers and pre-schoolers, their reality is a bit clouded so much of the scope of truth is often irrelevant for them. However, I did see Talladega Nights and I am committed to telling them before they become race car drivers praying to the Baby Jesus (fortunately, it will be easier because they’re not being raised in the South) ;)

Still, I find myself thinking about this. We “celebrate” pretty much everything in the Ghali house because generally, it’s fun. Halloween? Absolutely. I’ve said it numerous times – getting dressed up as your favorite superhero and getting free candy from your [Read more…]

Reflecting On What Ben Witherington Might Say to Lady Gaga – Part 2

To my new readers, thanks for taking the time to entertain some of these thoughts. To long-time readers, know I’m grateful for your continued clicks. My web-traffic has been increasing as of late so I’m trying to make some changes here.  Know that I am grateful for your time – hope some of these posts are helpful to you.

As some of you may know, I have an appreciation for theology and pop-culture, and I admittedly, I get a little nerdy when the two intersect (or when I make them intersect). This is the second post in this series based on a lecture on I attended of Ben Witherington at Gordon Conwell Seminary this past fall. As he lectured on the topic of “humanity being created in the image of God”, I thought of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”. [Read more…]

Reflecting on the Third Week of Advent – The Joy Candle

Last week, our church lit the third candle of our advent wreath, the “Joy Candle.” Part of my Advent has been to celebrate and reflect upon the meaning of that candle throughout the week and blogging about it.

As we lit the Joy Candle, I remembered thinking what a dumb idea this was. It’s easier to walk around with hope and grace, you can look and be miserable but hey, you’re hanging on to hope and grace. We tend to think that being joyful should have affect your countenance and add a bounce in your step and parade around like your Will Farrell in Elf.

Many years ago, I used to think that joy was about “God making you happy” and spreading the “cheer” all around. But as it turns out, I had joy all wrong. I no longer think of joy as walking around with a cheesy smile on my face but more of a condition of the heart.

I’ve learned that true joy exists independent of our circumstances. For example, there are lottery winners that do not have joy and amazingly enough, you can find joy in the hearts of mourners at a funeral. For my purposes, I define joy as “the believer’s confidence in God.” If faith is the idea of “believing without seeing”, than joy is the by-product. It seems true to say that great faith tends to allow for great joy.

To borrow from the often quoted, C.S. Lewis, “Joy is the business of heaven.” It’s a great line, it’s a great sound byte and I’ve always [Read more…]

Review of the Heart of the Story by Randy Frazee

I was asked to review this book by the publisher earlier in the fall but unfortunately between moving, a new baby, and the misplacement of numerous boxes, well, here I am. In any case, I am not required to give a positive review, only an honest one. And even though I’m considerably late in posting, I’m generally heartless about these things and I feel zero guilt so again, these words will be honest.

From the Publisher:
The Heart of the Story will help you see God’s Word in a new and inspiring light. In the Bible’s seemingly disconnected stories you’ll discover one grand, unfolding epic—God’s story from Genesis onward, and your own story contained within it. To understand the Bible, says author and pastor Randy Frazee, you need bifocal lenses, because two perspectives are involved. The Lower Story, our story, is actually many stories of men and women interacting with God in the daily course of life. The Upper Story is God’s story, the tale of his great, overarching purpose that fits all the individual stories together like panels in one unified mural. In 31 chapters, The Heart of the Story will open your eyes to God’s master-plan unfolding in the lives of the Bible’s characters—and in your own life. Discover the heart of God’s Upper Story, and the joy that comes as you align your story with God’s.”

Who I Think It’s For:
I really think it’s for long-time Christians who have been unclear how the narrative of the Bible works.
It’s also for those who may have never picked up the Bible before. Frazee does an excellent job of introducing the context of the story without watering it down.
[Read more…]

When You Pray For Tebow to Throw TD’s, The Terrorists … Err, The Demons Win

When You Pray For Tebow to Throw TD’s, The Terrorists … Err, The Demons Win

Dramatic title, I know. I’m hoping this post adds some perspective to my brothers and sisters in the Lord who may be at risk of over-dosing on Tebow.

A couple things to get clarify first. I am a football fan, I like Tim Tebow, I play fantasy sports. I’m not rooting for the demons. I even like prayer and place a high importance on it.

I do believe God cares about us .. more than we can imagine. I don’t believe God is too busy for any of our prayers. I do believe that we are to be careful and intentional for what we pray for.

But I think it’s ridiculous that we pray for the outcome of a game (or parking spaces or that we would get desired tickets to movies or sporting event or not get speeding tickets. Yes these are real examples). Concerning professional athletes, we should pray for the safety of the players, pray for the complexities of their lives, pray that they wouldn’t fall prey to the many things that entangle professional athletes but let’s not bother God for praying for TD’s and comeback wins.

[Read more…]