It has happened again; God has allowed those around me to repeat a recurring theme through interactions I have had over the last 7 days. I heard it first during a denominational meeting when a speaker encouraged me to ‘shrink the win’. I heard it again while attending a virtual retreat as a facilitator asked me to reflect on ‘small places of growth’. I heard it for a third time when I had lunch with a few colleagues when one of the participants commented on ‘the small victory’. I heard it lastly at our prayer meeting when one of our intercessors reminded us of God’s ‘little blessings’. God has been orchestrating my engagement with others as a means to focus my attention off the major problems of life and onto the (many times) minor peeks of sunshine.
God has been asking me to adjust my perspective. In the days since the stay-at-home order was issued in the Commonwealth, much of the news and statistics about my region have been horrible. The pandemic has exposed us to a great deal of death, damage, and dysfunction within our communities. I in no way want to diminish the pain or loss that so many have suffered since March. But I also do not want to make the mistake of seeing the last 220 days as filled entirely with bad news. There is some light in the midst of this whelming darkness that is visible to those who are looking for it.
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.” Lamentations 3:22-24 (NIV84)
What are these glimmers of hope, these baby steps of growth, these small victories and little blessings about which God has been speaking to me? This seasons-long quarantine has afforded the globe to be home with just a little more than television and internet, and this, in turn, provided the disparities of life to be displayed. The world was watching, and many good people were pressed to action. Medical inequity was broadcast and many responded with donations of PPE and calls to address the needs of inadequate care in nursing homes and among the poor. Racial injustice was then captured on cellphones and many were outraged to the point of demonstration and a long-delayed dialogue about race began to rise. Economic hardship gripped many and so neighbors helped neighbors with what they could share.
Many of us have spent time with the people we love, learned new skills or enjoyed new hobbies. Many of us, because of the mild and dry weather, walked more and dined more on the sidewalks of our city squares. The church went out digitally to the world instead of asking the world to come out to church. We learned to adapt, to adjust and to practice mercy. We made signs to appreciate the sacrifices of those who risked and shared tears with who lost. We grew in compassion and care for one another. Small victories.
I am still praying that this pandemic is over soon, but until then, I am choosing to embrace the reality that there can be great warmth and light from a dumpster fire.
During the quarantine, I have been watching a number of cooking shows, bingeing on programs like “Crazy Delicious” and “The Great British Baking Show” (both streaming on Netflix); but my latest obsession is “Selena + Chef” on HBO Max. As the title suggests, each episode features Selena Gomez (the 20-something pop music artist) welcoming a different world-renowned chef (such as Ludo Lefebvre or Nancy Silverton) into her kitchen (via digital stream) to teach her to cook. The show is a delightful balance of amusement and instruction. Much of the comic relief comes from Selena’s inability to work her stove and oven – it takes her a few episodes for her to fully utilize the convection feature – or manage exotic ingredients, particularly a whole fish. The instruction, however, is truly captivating.
As I watched these professional chefs, I was impressed by their apparent effortlessness in teaching their craft. There are few measuring cups on the experts’ side of the screen, as they combine ingredients by sight and feel. They were so familiar with culinary science that they were able to move into the arena of artful improvisation, experimenting with the novice cook when things went awry (which they routinely did). These chefs are masters of what Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, calls “The 10,000 Hours Rule”, the ‘magic number’ needed to become an expert in any given field. These chefs have spent so much time in perfecting the disciplines of gastronomic science that now they are able to experience the freedom to create something unique and tutor an amateur toward something delicious.
Moving from science to art, from cookbooks to creativity, is a joy to behold. When it comes to food, nutritious does not always mean delicious and edible does not always equate to indelible. In the kitchen, we can comprehend that we ought to include elements of creaminess and crunchiness; we can agree that flavor comes from a satisfying blend of sweet, salty and sour. In saying all this, I return to a childhood memory, an episode of “Mork and Mindy” which taught on white lies which had these concluding lines of dialogue: “Who could believe it was the first one you’ve ever cooked? I’ve never seen anybody do that with figs before. The secret must be in the cheese.” It takes a scientist/artist to know what works, what does not, and what would be wonderous.
Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers. 1 Timothy 4:16 (NIV84)
As I think about “Selena + Chef” and one’s culinary pursuits, I think also about the local church and one’s spiritual pursuits. I wonder how many of us are willing to commit to “The 10,000 Hours Rule” regarding our expertise in the things of God in order that we might move beyond the rigors of scientific instruction and engage in the realm of artistic expression. How I long, personally, to experience the freedom found in knowing the Lord deeply and to enjoy the full flavors of life in Christ.
In the early morning hours of last Friday, the news broke that the President of the United States was diagnosed with COVID-19. After a whirlwind of breaking news reports, later that afternoon the Commander-in-Chief was flown to the hospital for treatment. Many people from all across the political spectrum expressed concern, most offering the cultural trope of “thoughts and prayers” for a speedy recovery. But, I wonder, what do we mean when we use the phrase “thoughts and prayers”? About what are we thinking and for what are we praying?
In a days after the diagnosis, I heard from more than a few people (in conversation and through social media) that we, as Christians, are commanded in Scripture to pray for those in authority over us (and it is true, for 1 Timothy 2:1-2 does say that). But what does the Bible teach through this command? Frankly, if we read these verses closely, we find that this directive to pray for kings and earthly powers is a specific example of a more general principle found in the very same scriptural reference: that petitions, prayers, intercession, and thanksgiving be made for all people. Indeed, we are to pray for our governmental leaders just as we pray for anyone and everyone else. Even more than that, Jesus, in Mark 5:44, teaches us to pray for those who persecute us. We are expected to be people who pray for the needs of people, all people, irrespective of their reputation.
And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. James 5:15 (ESV)
How, then, are we commanded to pray for one another? Thankfully, the Word of God is not silent about this subject.
- James 5:16 encourages us to pray for each other so that we may be healed. It is wholly appropriate to seek the Lord’s blessing so that people recover from illness. We can rely upon and request for others God’s mercy, His divine nature which reduces or removes the just consequences of our existence in this fallen world.
- James 1:5 states that, when we are in the grips of a trial, we can ask God for wisdom to grow through the process and challenge. In connection with this, Colossians 1:9 directs us to pray for God to fill us with the knowledge of His will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives. We, too, can pray that these experiences of illness (physical, moral or financial) will all teach us the lessons of growth we need to learn in order to avoid the same trial in the future.
- 2 Thessalonians 1:11 teaches us to pray for each other that God may make us worthy of His calling. Further, Matthew 26:41 tells us to pray for one another so that we will not fall into temptation. We lift one another up so that we can remain faithful in the midst of any gathering darkness.
- Finally, Ephesians 6:20 instructs us to pray that we may declare the good news of Christ fearlessly. In the good times and in the bad times there are those around us that need to know that God cares and comforts, and despite our infirmities God can give us opportunities to offer hope.
God willing, these are the types of things I hope we are expressing when we offer our “thoughts and prayers”; Lord, help us not to voice an expectation of prosperity or success, but the blessings of mercy and guidance as we face affliction. So, I ask you to pray for our President, and to pray for all those you know, that God will be merciful to the downcast and that He will guide us to eschew the reckless behaviors that lead to the difficulties we face. May we all learn from one another as we pray with and for one another.
Earlier this week, my home was uncharacteristically quiet. The only sounds I heard were the soft taps of my laptop keystrokes and the rustling of Legos® as my son was building a masterpiece in another room. This unexpected hush was because we woke that morning without power. At first, I was concerned: My daughter requires electricity and internet to teach remotely and my son requires the same to be taught remotely. Eventually, we soon came up with a game plan – Rebekah would have to go to our oldest son’s house to teach and Joshua would have to attend classes via cell service on his phone. It was not perfect, but it worked for a while (cell service diminished as the neighborhood taxed the system and phone batteries do not last forever). Thankfully, by 8:30 the next morning, we had power in the house.
We all face inconveniences in life, whether it be a power failure or a road closure or a toilet paper shortage; and we all are forced to react to these (petty) annoyances in one way or another. One reaction is aggravation, where we focus on what we do not have and fume over the lost resource (whether it be time, opportunity, or possessions). The other reaction is acceptance, where we inventory what we still have and implement positive changes (with our time, opportunity, and possessions). As pastor and missionary William L. Watkinson wrote more than 100 years ago, “Yet is it far better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”
Am I the only one, though, that feels like I am living in the center of a Yankee Candle store? I seem to be lighting an unprecedented number of candles this year. I have lit a candle for the pandemic, and another for the racial divisions, and another for the presidential election, and another for remote learning, and another for state college tuition costs, and another for the West Coast wildfires. There is darkness everywhere I look these days and I fear that there are not enough scented votives to disperse it.
“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:14-16
We, as a global community, need people to shine the light. We are in desperate need of someone to illuminate the terrain to guide our steps and guard our shins, to bring heat to the wounds we have inflicted on ourselves and others to provide purification and cauterization, and to offer hope in places of despair by declaring that the dreadful unknown can be defeated. We who know Christ as Lord and Savior have, in abundant supply, the radiant and radiating truth of forgiveness and restoration, and it is more than sufficient for us to share. In the places that are overwhelmed and powerless, perhaps your candle will make a difference.
I remember thinking, after the power had come back on and the technology was again available, “Lord, give me another minute to appreciate the quiet before the din of darkness creeps back in.”
On Wednesday, I received a welcome piece of mail: the latest issue of GAMES: World of Puzzles magazine. I have been a fan of the periodical since I first came across it in High School (it was on the desk of my church’s youth director) and now a subscription to it has become a perennial birthday gift from my mother. Nine times a year I receive a treasure trove of crossword puzzles, word searches, logic challenges, trivia quizzes and a variety of other games. My personal favorites in the magazine are the cryptic crosswords, puzzles, admittedly an acquired taste, which combine clever wordplay with interlinking answers.
I find these pencil-and-paper puzzles relaxing and refreshing. There is something therapeutic in the fact that there is always an answer to the crossword puzzle and, given sufficient time and creative expression, the grid will eventually be completed. There is something comforting in the fact that everything is present in a word search and given enough time and attention to detail, every item can be crossed off the list. Thanks to the magazine’s editors and game designers, black lines and letters on publisher’s grade newsprint – ordinary items of no importance alone – are expertly put together to build up my vocabulary, stretch my imagination and sharpen my mental processing skills.
Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. Colossians 3:16 (NIV)
Perhaps we could look at the Bible in a similar way. There is nothing special about the paper or the characters; the Bible, essentially, is words on a page. But, like a crossword puzzle, these words are interlocked, intentionally intersecting with other words to create a cohesive whole. Like a crossword grid, it is complete only when the all the answers are integrated together. As we read the Bible, perhaps we could think about how the portion we are working on fits among the entries around it while we come to an understanding of what we do not know and solve the conundrum by building on what we do know. That is part of the author’s skill.
Perhaps we could look at the Bible like a word search as well. We could begin with the premise that everything we are looking for will be found and, given enough time, we can cross every item off our list. Further, as a person who has done a number of word searches in my day, I will share a secret: most of the time we will find what we are looking for on the spots occupied by nothing else. When it comes to the Bible, all that we need can be found, but it may be found in the places we rarely look. That is part of the designer’s genius.
As I read the Bible, I look for the intersections formed by what I know and what I am learning (like a crossword puzzle). As I study Scripture, I look for the things that I am told are there, though hidden in unlikely places and unusual ways (like a word search). Through it all, I am increasing my vocabulary and involving by creativity, trusting that there is a way that all these disparate bits of information form a cohesive and consistent whole. Like my magazine, life can be cryptic and puzzling, but thank God that all the answers are available somewhere in the book.
As we all endure a seemly endless barrage of bad news, including hurricanes in the south, wildfires in the west, racial unrest throughout the country and a pandemic across the globe, some may be wondering where God might be found in all of this. It may be tempting to think that the creator and designer of all we know and sense is somehow detached or disinterested in the travails besetting the inhabitants of our little planet. It might be rationalized that God has bigger things to address than the challenges we are currently being forced to endure. In the fog of uncertainty, it is only natural to wonder why God seems still and silent.
It is the same feeling that the first followers of Jesus experienced and are recorded in Mark 4:35-41. After engaging with a crowd of people earlier in the day, as evening approached Jesus felt it was time for him and the twelve to cross the Sea of Galilee. While they were sailing a furious squall develops and nearly swamps the boat. Can you imagine being one of a dozen people in a fishing boat, at night, in the middle of a lake, at the height of a high-wind thunderstorm? What would you shout to God, who is peacefully sleeping (and apparently oblivious) through this life-threatening ordeal?
‘Teacher, is it no concern to you that we are perishing?’ Mark 4:38
I have to wonder how many times, in the crucible of distress, I have thought the same thing. It is a natural human reaction to the difficulties of life. Is it, though, a reasoned reaction for a person of faith to express?
The disciple of Jesus refers to Jesus as ‘teacher’, which is an accurate title for him. But, I wonder, what meaning or relationship the term ‘teacher’ conveys. It is natural to see Jesus as a guide, an instructor, or as a trainer. Certainly, the scriptures give ample examples of the teachings Jesus conveyed, including the lessons taught just prior to their departure on this sea cruise. But the primary role of Jesus was not teacher, for he essentially restated the doctrines and commands of the Old Testament, albeit with uncommon authority and unexpected application. Jesus’ primary role was to show humanity the love of the Father though the giving of his life as a ransom for many. If we are unable to see our relationship with Jesus as anything more than instructional, we will be blinded to his divine salvation.
The disciple of Jesus then asks him if our destruction is of any concern to him. If we are expecting our relationship with Christ to be essentially functional – telling us what we need to know and how we are to act – then it will come as no surprise that we question his unwillingness to offer support when our lives are not working as we think they ought. However, as any parent knows, apparent inaction is not a lack of concern but an opportunity for maturity. Is it no concern to you that your baby keeps falling over as it learns to walk? Is it no concern to you that your child may make bad choices as they go out with their friends? Jesus’ response to the men in the boat with him is telling – ‘Have you still no faith?’ Our life is a concern to Jesus, as is our growth.
Besides, that boat was never going to sink. Jesus made his dwelling on earth so that he would save his people from their sins. Dying in a boating accident was not part of the irrevocable plan of God. Despite the howl of the winds or the height of the waves, the lives of the boaters were never truly in jeopardy. We would be wise to remember the promises of God as we respond to the pains of the world. Those who know Jesus as the beloved Messiah can rest in the promise relayed by someone who happened to be in the boat that night, for Peter wrote, ‘The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.’ (2 Peter 3:9 NIV)
As I endure this season of suffering, I pray my response will be, ‘Lord, thank you for the opportunity to grow and fulfill your purposes for me.’
My family watches a more-than-average amount of television, and we all have our favorite shows. There is one program that we tend to watch together that elicits a great deal of conversation – “What Would You Do?”. For the uninitiated, “What Would You Do?” is a hidden camera show, produced by ABC news, where unsuspecting people are recorded as they witness a wide variety of moral and cultural dilemmas, eventually to be interviewed about their reactions by the program’s host, John Quiñones. One segment might involve a bystander’s reaction to an apparently inebriated bar patron heading for their car, while another might touch on issues of a restaurant diner’s immigration status, always leaving the viewer with the question, “What Would You Do?”
As we watch the show, and in the discussions afterward, we all give our opinions about what the proper reaction should be, thinking that, if we were there, we would be one of the good folks that would talk with John Q following the scenario. We would never be the ones who tolerate discrimination or ignore outright need. We all conclude, by the end of each episode, that we would love to be on the broadcast. We are looking forward to the day when we are visiting a diner in New Jersey, overhearing a conversation about the travesty of women’s professional sports, only to hear the voice of John Quiñones behind us, saying, “Excuse me, folks, those people are actors….”
It leaves me with a question: would we be better people if we thought our actions and reactions were being watched by others? On “What Would You Do?”, they always have people who intervene, who care enough to confront the bigotry or bad behavior demonstrated by the show’s actors. They typically also have people, often whose identities have been digitally obscured, who do nothing or, worse than inaction, are advocates for what most consider to be wrong. Watching those strong and sensitive strangers defend the defenseless or notice the needy encourages me to do the same, whether anyone is watching or not.
Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. 1 Peter 2:12 (ESV)
If you have read this blog before, you might be expecting me to remind you that God sees what you do (which is true), but that is not my takeaway today. Peter reminds us that those around us see what we are doing, and that every scenario depicted on “What Would You Do?” or played out in real life is an opportunity to reflect the goodness and glory of God. When we, as followers of Christ, do the right thing – support the figurative and literal widows and orphans, care for the physically and spiritually sick, show compassion for those imprisoned by the system or by the self – we tell all those around us that God loves, and by extension we love, the broken and bruised. Whether it is broadcast on national television or not, we are always right to address wrong.
I would still like to one day be on the show. Until then, I will imagine that there are hidden cameras when I overhear absurdity or observe abject poverty. What would you do?
During the past few months as we have been at home together, my family has been watching more syndicated game shows than usual. Many of these shows (e.g. “25 Words or Less”, “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy”) grant to the non-winners what is commonly referred to as a ‘consolation prize’, a parting gift given with the intention of lessening the blow of losing the game. These gifts might be as small as a gift certificate to Lobster Gram® or as substantial as a few thousand dollars. After thirty minutes of hard work, it is good to know that no one walks away empty handed.
“Consolation” is an interesting word to me. It is derived from a Latin prefix and root combination which originally meant ‘to soothe with” (the prefix ‘con’ and the root ‘solari’, from which we get the English word solace). In our cultural context, consolation is the comfort we receive by others after a loss or disappointment. When we offer consolation, we are giving someone else – either with words or actions – something like a balm or a salve in order to lessen the sting of loss. Consolation, in my mind, is somewhat akin to applying aloe vera to a bad sunburn.
During this pandemic, I have received consolation from an unlikely source: the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah is called “The Weeping Prophet” by biblical scholars due to all the difficulties he encounters while serving God. For the past two months, we have been discussing this book of the Bible during our on-line study and we have read about Jeremiah being mocked, beaten, dropped into a muddy well to die, imprisoned and impugned. Most of the book recounts hardship after hardship for our messenger of God. However, during this litany of crushing disappointments, there is a section (chapters 31-33) that commentators call “The Book of Consolation”.
“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah.” Jeremiah 31:31 (NIV)
Because of their disobedience and disregard for God, the people of Jerusalem were about to be displaced by the Babylonians. Because of their sin, they were going to suffer. But this suffering would only be for a season (albeit an extremely long season of seventy years). The coming generations would be restored and renewed. God promised through His word. The people would return to Jerusalem and God’s blessings would be reinstated. “The days are coming….”
We, too, can be consoled and soothed with the reality that “the days are coming” when God will make all things right. The good news for us is that the new covenant has already been made, through the blood of God the Son, so that all who call upon Him in faith shall be saved. The good news for us is that God has begun the process of restoration by allowing us the opportunity to be in good relationship with Him, through Christ, and that He who has begun this good work will be faithful to complete it. May we all find consolation in that, even though we may be also enduring disappointment and loss.
It is amazing how fast time flies! This weekend, for half of my children, will mark the end of Summer and school vacation. My daughter will begin her new school year (teaching remotely 443 miles from her 5th grade students) on Monday and my middle son will move into his on-campus apartment for the Fall semester on Wednesday. Our youngest son has been blessed with an academic reprieve, for his remote learning classes will not resume for another three weeks.
In many ways it seems like forever since David came home – theoretically for his freshman year’s Spring break – on March 5th, since 6th grade classes moved on-line for Joshua beginning March 16th, and since Rebekah’s truncated senior year of college and student teaching moved to remote and she drove home from Washington on March 17th. As an added blessing, throughout the Spring and Summer we have also seen our oldest son an average of twice a week. I cannot imagine another season of life when we will have this much shared time together. But now, the times, they are a-changing. The passage from August to September, for me this year, will be bitter-sweet.
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: […] a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance…. Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4 (NIV)
As I contemplate the change of season – meteorological and metaphorical – it causes me to pause and posit what the coming days may bring. What will be the activity of this new time and season: weeping, laughing, mourning, dancing? Are the days to be filled with disaster or delight, or some combination of both? My guess: as it has been over the first 240 days of 2020, it will be for its remaining 126. There have been and there will be those whose days, like mine, are filled with more laughter than tears and there are those whose days are filled with just the opposite.
Each of us have differing experiences and unique contexts in which we navigate the challenges and charms this life has to offer. Because of this reality, we must allow empathy, the ability to feel for another without feeling as another, to be our guide when interacting with one another. We all have grieved a loss (of life, of livelihood or of liberty) at some point this year and we all have needed compassion. We all have enjoyed a blessing (through nature, through new life, or through neighbors) during this pandemic and we all have appreciated companionship. Each of us will also continue to shed tears of sorrow and tears of joy in September and beyond, and we all must allow others the space to express themselves, unrestrained, before us.
The coming days, for me, will be tough as we transition from life fully together toward life beginning to move us apart. The coming days, for you, are likely to be different emotionally. I am glad we have each other as we rejoice together and as we grieve together. There is a time for everything, just like the weather in New England. If you are unhappy with what is occurring around you, just wait a minute with a friend.
I have become a ‘fair weather fan’ when it comes to my beloved Red Sox. I can simply no longer watch their games. They are currently sitting in last place in the American League, due in no small part to the facts that they have no pitching, they are struggling to hit the ball and they lead the league in errors. But it is not their record that is making this season unbearable; it is their apparent lack of heart on the part of the players. I can only assume this malaise is evident due to the pandemic protocols – no fans in the stands, no player on-field interactions, and social distancing in the dugout – that has robbed “America’s Pastime”, at least in Boston, of its magic.
There is something special about social interaction that cannot be captured on a Zoom call or over the phone. As much as I hate to admit it, we require human contact in order to thrive. I wonder if things would be different were the veterans on the Red Sox allowed to embrace the younger players to encourage them, especially as things are going from bad to worse. On a larger scale, are we, as a culture and as a planet, suffering to a greater degree because we cannot, literally and figuratively, shoulder one another’s load? Do we, as a people, really need a hug?
Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing. 1 Thessalonians 5:11 (NIV)
This, unfortunately, is a lost season for the Red Sox. However, it need not be the same for us. I am confident that we are able to reclaim much of what has been taken by this virus and its consequences. My suggestion for reclamation is that we rediscover the power of prayer. What has prayer got to do with being physically present with one another? I am glad you asked.
First, the language of prayer conveys physical presence. When we pray, we are lifting one another toward God. Offering up biblical prayers, like the Lord’s Prayer, evoke a real bonding of hearts and minds with one another and with God. We are together when we pray.
Second, the discipline of prayer develops intimacy. We listen more and share more when we intercede for one another. We are willing to expose our hopes and our hurts more freely in the context of prayer. We are tender when we pray.
Third, the practice of prayer offers avenues of reconnection. When I pray for you, I become invested in the ‘rest of the story’ and become eager to see how things turn out. When I pray, I am more likely to follow through and resume the conversation. We are touching base when we pray.
Finally, the reality of prayer draws us away from the problems and draws us toward the provider. Prayer enables us, together, to recognize that we haven’t got the answers to some of the toughest questions, and to recognize that we all, irrespective of demographics, needs God’s intervention. We are trusting when we pray.
While we cannot embrace one another just yet, we can engage in prayer with and for one another. That is no small thing.