Category Archives: Church

Double Nickel

Thirty years ago, when I was working as a teller for a local bank, we were asked to promote a new product to the customers that came to our windows: The Club 55.  If memory serves, this was a fee-free account to our ‘senior’ patrons (those over 55 years of age).   At the time, I thought that an account like this made sense; the bank was doing the right thing in offering those frail retirees financial benefits appropriate for their advanced ages.  Now, having turned 55 this past Sunday, I take offense at the uninformed attitude borne by my 25-year-old self. 

While I would not consider myself young any longer, I also would not consider myself old; my guess is that I currently find myself in the category of comfortably middle-aged – the reality is that there are a few generations before me and a few generations behind me.  This contemplation of generations has caused me to give pause: what have I carried from those who have gone before me and what am I leaving for those who come after me?  What have I gained from engaging with my mother-in-law (in her 90s, a member of the builder generation) or my parents (in their 80s, members of the boomer generation)?  What am I handing to my children (in their teens and 20s, representing the millennial and Z generations)?

Tell it to your children, and let your children tell it to their children, and their children to the next generation.  Joel 1:3 (NIV84)

And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others.  2 Timothy 2:2 (NIV84)

These two passages form a framework for our intergenerational conversations.  In Joel, the word of God commands the prophet to share with those coming behind him to share the devastation which disobedience delivers while holding out the hope of God’s restoration.  In 2 Timothy, Paul is encouraging his young protégé to equip the next generation of leaders with the whole counsel of Scripture that he had heard from those more mature than himself.  No matter what age we are, we are expected to be a pipeline of the unvarnished truth, from one generation to another, and not a pool of stagnant and situational knowledge. 

As I stand today, in a stage of life that is not fully growing and not fully grown, I am reminded that we learn through experiences shared – knowing the consequences of the sins in our past so that we need not repeat them and knowing the blessings of the faithfulness in our past so that we can emulate them.  As I get older, I want to share my story and hear your story, the story of rebellion and restoration, the story of hurt and healing.  I want to listen to the wisdom of the older generations and relate that wisdom to the younger generation. 

Standing here, in the center of middle-age, is a blessed place to be – old enough to know better and young enough to learn.  Whatever our age, we all have something to share with one another and learn from one another.  What can I learn from you?

Why Can’t We Be Friends?

I am a big fan of social media.  It has helped me reconnect with school-age friends and former youth-group members.  It has allowed the church to live-stream the worship services for ten months.  It has given me pause to reflect on issues that I tend not to think about and wrestle with perspectives that are not my own.  It has blessed me, and also troubled me at times, with pictures and opinions and video clips and other resources I would never have heard or seen otherwise.  It has been a crucial source of connection during this current crisis.

I will admit that sometimes the sheer volume of divisive rhetoric and destructive personal attacks are overwhelming.  I will admit that there are times that I have considered ‘unfriending” or “unfollowing” certain individuals, but I have always reconsidered, knowing that there is something to be gained – for me personal development or my personal rebuke – from everyone’s story.  I, therefore, continue to engage with others over social media who hold a wide variety of experiences and worldviews.  Some interactions that we have are opportunities to incorporate a bit of wisdom or knowledge into our lives and some interactions are opportunities to eliminate a bit of vitriol from our hearts. 

There is one exception to my “unfriending” or “unfollowing” ban, sort of: I am choosing to “unfriend” and “unfollow” my own sinful nature.  What I mean by this is that I accept that my sinful nature exists and that my sinful nature can draw me to places that I might enjoy, but I am choosing to no longer tolerate its destructive influence.  I have determined that my sinful nature, with its hatred of all things godly and its ‘have-now-pay-later’ practices, is “dead to me”.

Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires.   Galatians 5:24

I am no longer a friend of my sinful nature.  I am choosing to no longer follow it.  I realize that this decision to sever the ties with this companion does not mean that the calls and invitations will cease; it means I will not respond.  It does not mean that others will no longer regale me with tales of the times they have spent with their sinful nature; it means I will not exercise my curiosity for their exploits.  It does not mean that I will not do destructive, hurtful, or damaging things in the days ahead; it means that I am seeking to develop the healthier relationship I have formed with a new friend, the spiritual nature.  I trust that the truth of scripture, that the passions and desires of my old companions will, over time, diminish and die off.

If you have come to the conclusion, as I have, that you need to “cancel” your own sinful nature, please let me know.  If you severed those ties years ago and have tips for others on how to move forward in righteousness, leave me a comment.  Perhaps we could even interact over social media; we could all use more friends like you. 

In the News

The events of Wednesday in Washington, DC were deeply disturbing.  As the joint session of Congress fulfilled its constitutional duty to certify the vote of the electoral college, the Capitol was breached by rioters (a term which I use definitively: “a group of people who meet in a public place and behave in a noisy, violent, and uncontrolled way, often as a protest.”)  The lawful machinations of the federal government were halted by the acts of a disgruntled few.  What are we to think of these developments?  What are we to say to our children?  What do these distressing behaviors indicate about our overall societal condition?

The words that I preached upon last Sunday came back to me as I watched the special reports:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  Luke 4:18-19

As Jesus began his earthly ministry in the countryside synagogues of Galilee, he started by drawing the attention of those who gathered toward the words of the prophet Isaiah, declaring that, under the Spirit’s influence, he had been commissioned to share the good news with the oppressed, as well as several other dismissed and discounted groups.  This term, oppressed, is used only once in the original languages of the Bible, and, as a perfect passive participle, truly means “the ones who have been broken or shattered.” 

The good news of Jesus Christ, the historical ‘evangel’, is that the day of the Lord has come which will bring about the restoration of the broken.  The sad news of our present-day, displayed earlier this week, is that many are seeking wholeness and repair through human might or mental gymnastics.  The startling reality is that we all are, to some degree, broken people: sin has caused its damage, fracturing relationships and corrupting worldviews; society has wrought havoc, deepening divisions and disenfranchising the marginalized; selfish ambition has severed many conduits for compassion and care.  Therefore, we all, in our brokenness, need someone to share the ‘evangel’, the good news of the Lord’s favor through Jesus, in ways that we can understand.

Join me in grieving the human condition that motivates a vocal and violent minority to take the measures that were broadcast earlier this week.  Join me in grieving the despairing brokenness that leads some to seek personal restoration through raucous and reckless behavior.  Join me in praying that those who know the truth would proclaim the truth to those desperate to hear it.

Your plight – your poverty, pain, and penitence – is not imperceptible to the one who is in power.  The one who governs all of creation cares about your brokenness and has brought you a cure.  The salve for your shattered self is the Son of God, who came to announce God’s grace for the captive, the blind, and the oppressed.  Jesus came to make you whole again.

As I think of the broken glass that fell upon the floor of the House chamber, I assume it will be replaced.  That is what we do; we replace what has been broken and make it all better.  That is not what God does.  God repairs the shattered panes that litter our lives.  He reassembles every piece, perfectly fitting each shard and sliver together until we are whole.  That is good news indeed for all those who are watching the daily news with dread.

We Win…We Have Reached 21

Considering all we have been through over the last 12 months, I have come to the conclusion that New Year’s resolutions are, at best, aspirational or, at worst, futile.  Perhaps you thought, on December 31, 2019, that this next year was the year you would get a gym membership and exercise more consistently but after 80 days all the fitness clubs closed, and you were left a little less resolute.  Or perhaps you thought you would adjust that unhealthy lifestyle and [fill in the blank] less, only to discover that it was all you had to do during the quarantine.  It is painfully apparent that there is no certainty to the future.

Yet, our human nature, or perhaps our spark of divinity imbued through the Imago Dei, longs for our improvement.  Therefore, the Apostle Peter writes the following to the Church:

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love.  2 Peter 1:5-7

Whether we are in the midst of a pandemic or in the center of God’s will (N.B.: these two places are not mutually exclusive), there are areas of our lives where we could be doing better.  Honestly, I have learned a great deal about myself in the months of quarantine, and I recognize that there are things I desire to improve.  I suppose January 1st is just as good a day to begin as any other.   

Above all else, I desire this year to increase my perseverance, which Merriam-Webster defines as, “continued effort to do or achieve something despite difficulties, failure, or opposition”.  I long to be more patient, more forbearing, more tenacious.  My trouble is that perseverance is not something that a gym or a grocery store can supply.  Perseverance comes through faith in the promises and providence of God over the long haul.  It means, for me, delighting in the delays as part of God’s design and rejoicing in the roadblocks as they work toward my refinement.  For me, I will know that I am developing perseverance when I no longer experience opposition with annoyance but with amazement. 

But that is my struggle.  Your struggle is likely different.  Why not make an effort this year to work on what is weighing you down?   If you need accountability, I am available to provide an occasional prod.  If you need prayer, feel free to reach out and we can bring these concerns to God together.  If you need motivation for change, simply replay the past year in your mind and marvel at how much you have adapted, adjusted, and altered because of this disease; is not your health as important?  You have shown yourself to be resilient.  Let the changes you make this year be on your terms. Let me encourage you to read the Bible a bit more this year, attend worship a bit more this year, practice kindness a bit more this year, and marvel at God’s goodness a bit more this year.  Clearly, COVID cannot constrict the construction of your Christ-like character; become what you believe you are this year.

I’ll Be Home…

 

I adapted the words of Clement Moore about eighteen years ago as part of our Christmas Eve service.  There is such great hope in the Christmas narrative – God piercing the darkness, the Highest appearing to the lowly, ‘kings’ and shepherds praising the savior’s birth.  This year has been extremely challenging for most of us and my thoughts and prayers continue to be with all those who will be spending Christmas separated from loved ones.  May the reality of Christ’s birth fill you with unspeakable delight.

‘Twas the night of our Christ’s birth and throughout the hill
Not a sheep was there grazing, the lambs were all still.
The rams and ewes were resting now through with their play
Their shearing and roaming were done for the day.

Equipped with my staff, at my feet lay a rod,
And watching the flock I took a seat on the sod.
When all of a sudden there was no trace of the night,
I was brought to my feet by an incredible light.

When what, in the brilliance of God, should appear?
But one of His angels with a voice, loud and clear.
“Fear not,” were the words this messenger said –
But I knew at that moment I was filled with such dread.

The herald continued, “I bring good news
That will be for all people, both Gentiles and Jews.
“For today he is born. In David’s own town
A Savior, the Christ, the Lord may be found.

“As a sign unto you,” the angel then said,
“He lies in a manger where hay makes his bed.”
Then suddenly there were with this angel a horde
An army from heaven all praising the Lord.

The air was now filled with the song of His birth.
“Glory to God and peace on the earth”
When done with their worship they drew up in the sky.
In a flash, they departed, in the blink of an eye.

The shepherds then pondered “What should we do?
Let’s travel to town to see if it’s true.”
So, taking our flock we went on our way
In search of a child asleep on the hay.

In the city, we found near an inn overcrowded
The child of promise which the angels had shouted.
We shepherds then shared with the young and the old
All of the wonder we’d seen and been told.

We left there proclaiming, as we walked out of sight,
“Happy Christmas to all because the Christ came tonight”.

The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.  Luke 2:20

Arrived

Each year at Christmastime, I lead the church in the observance of Advent.  The term ‘Advent’ was adopted from Latin adventus which means ‘coming or arrival’ and it refers to the season of anticipation before the arrival of Christ, which, for our church, takes place the four Sundays before Christmas.   Through our observance of Advent, we are, as a community of faith, encouraged to demonstrate and appreciate the characteristics of Christian expectancy – hope, peace, joy, and love.  It is for this reason that we have been lighting candles and offering prayers since the last Sunday of November and will continue to do so through this weekend.

This year especially, I have been thinking about Advent and contemplating the arrival of what has been promised from a particularly secular perspective: I have been thinking about Advent every time I track a package.   Because of the pandemic, most of my Christmas shopping has been on-line and, because of this, I am regularly checking my Amazon app and entering tracking numbers on the websites of UPS, USPS, and FedEx.  Some days I am filled with elation as I see the progress of my purchases and other days I am filled with exasperation as I consider contacting customer service.

Many times, I am not in the most healthy of places.  As trucks go up and down the street, I watch from the window (like a kid with a quarter waiting for the Ice Cream Man), wondering if they will stop and, if they do, will they have something for me.  As the weeks turn into days before Christmas, I find that I am worrying more and more about the 3 Ds – delay, damage, or delivery to the wrong address.  I have become so preoccupied with my expectations that I risk missing out on the blessings of what is to come. 

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.  And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  Isaiah 9:6 (NIV84)

This is why I need Advent.  The words of Isaiah quoted above were written more than six centuries before the birth of Jesus.  Imagine the tracking information on Isaiah’s laptop: “Expected delivery – March 7, 2638, before 9 PM”.  The trouble with me is that I want things done on my time schedule; the gift of Advent is that it reminds us that all things are done on God’s perfect time schedule.  Jesus arrived just when He was expected.  Jesus will return just when He is expected. For that reason, we can have hope, peace, joy, and love today.

I will continue to check on the progress of my packages, confident that they will arrive when the time is right for them to arrive.  I have hope that they will be before Christmas, but even if they are late, as I reckon time, they will still get here.  I have peace in knowing that they are on their way or will be soon.  I have joy in the anticipation, which may or may not be resolved on December 25.  I have love in my heart for those receiving these packages and those carrying them to their eventual destination.

May God bless you in this season of arrival.

O Tannenbaum

I am writing this post while sitting next to our Christmas tree.  Typically, our tree is our final act of decorating – when the kids were younger, we did not want little hands tearing off ornaments; now that the kids are older, we did not want to visit the tree lot until everyone was home – but COVID has changed all that with tree shortages and on-line classes.  Will the tree dry out and drop its needles as it occupies the Living Room for more than three weeks?  It is likely, but for now, I will enjoy its familiar fragrance and its meaningful memories.

As I look at the tree, my eyes first focus on the ornaments.  A few of them are pieces of foam or felt fashioned by tiny fingers, taking me back to a time when my children were a bit smaller and their wonder of Christmas was a bit larger.  Most of them are commercially produced, whether they are a reflection of a “1st Christmas” (my grown or growing children all wanting their own to be placed highest and centermost) or a reminder of the year we purchased them.  There is an ornament from Jeanine’s college days and there will be an ornament, I am sure, from this season of life.  Each one serves as a mnemonic device of our time together.

Behind the ornaments are the lights, red and yellow and green and blue twinkles that are just bright enough to illuminate their immediate surroundings.  Alone, these bulbs are insignificant, but putting 500 or so together casts enough light to give the room a certain glow.  Unlike the ornaments, the beauty and significance of the lights are not in their individual meaning but in their collective impact: at night, just as we are retiring to bed, Jeanine and I sit by the tree, with only its light filling the room, and remark at ‘how lovely are your branches’.  It serves as a mnemonic device of our beauty together.

Finally, there is gold garland that, literally and figuratively, ties all the aspects of the tree together.  Wrapped around this fragile, living (and dying) evergreen is a cord of shimmering splendor.  It makes this ordinary plant something special.  I do not typically think about the garland, which I usually regard as a finishing afterthought to my tree decorating, but today I am in a mood to recognize its significance.  I consider the garland a glimpse of Christ within the Christmas tree – a touch of royalty surrounding the rustic.   This cord envelopes the earthly with the eternal and the ordinary with the extravagant.  It serves as a mnemonic device of Jesus, fully human and fully divine.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.  We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.  John 1:14

I appreciate the tree beside me because it reminds me of God’s blessings, God’s community, and God’s presence.  Whether real or artificial – or not even a tree – I pray that there is something near you, as well, that jogs your memory of the goodness of God this Christmas.

Changing Seasons

Can you feel the change in the air and, more specifically, on the air?  Yesterday may have been Thanksgiving, but today is the beginning of the Christmas season.  Overnight we went from enjoying the autumnal comforts of pumpkin spices and falling leaves to enjoying the winter delights of peppermint swirls and drifting snow.  Yesterday may have been spent watching competing teams play football, but tonight we will be watching competing networks broadcast ‘specials’ featuring Frosty and Burgermeister Meisterburger.  This weekend we will witness Christmas lights begin to twinkle on our front lawns and Christmas trees being set in front windows.  I hope not to alarm you, but Christmas Day is exactly four weeks away.

But this year is different, isn’t it?  Because of the travel and gathering restrictions many of us face, there will be much smaller lines at the big box stores this “Black Friday” and much longer shipping times from the online retailers this month.  There will also be fewer ‘cookie swaps’ and Christmas parties (although “Secret Santa” gifts may be as simple as visiting Amazon).  That may allow us the serendipitous blessing of more time to spend with those closest to us and more opportunity to stream our season’s greetings than in Christmases past.  We will have to be creative, but we can still make this the most wonderful time of the year.

Besides, sometimes the crowds around us keep us from appreciating the gift of Christmas before us.  We, too, are sometimes distracted by all the hubbub of the holidays to see the truth as it approaches.  We are sometimes the “Inn Crowd”, the huddle of humanity in the Bethlehem of our day, too busy or too burdened to recognize the gift of God about to be given.  We are sometimes guilty of misguided priorities and pointing the Savior to the stall in the back.  The “desire of every nation” has been delivered to our doorstep, and we are in danger of dismissing him due to the distractions of the day. 

Here I am!  I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.  Revelation 3:20

But this year is different, isn’t it?  The crowds have socially distanced and we have settled for a celebration in isolation.  In the stillness of this strange and strained setting, can you hear the knock on the door of your heart?  In spite of all the changes that COVID has brought (or maybe because of them), this year may be the perfect time to get out of the inn and away from all the revelry and travel back to the stable – to hear the shepherds and see the child, to marvel at his radiance and muse about the shepherds’ report.  Do whatever you need to do to prepare yourself for the blessed arrival of God’s greatest gift: listen to a Christmas Carol playlist on Spotify, stream an Advent service on YouTube (might I suggest Calvary’s?), or watch “The Bishop’s Wife” on Amazon Prime.  This Christmas may be the best chance our generation has to worship the newborn king together.

I pray that we all are enveloped by the enormous love we encounter at Christmas.

Still Giving Thanks

There is a ‘standing headline’ circulating through social and broadcast media: “Celebrating Thanksgiving to Be Quite Different This Year”.  As a consequence of surging numbers of COVID-19 cases across the globe, authorities are recommending, at least in my area of the country, that our observances of Thanksgiving be limited to small – and preferably outdoor – gatherings, that our travel plans be curtailed or eliminated, and that our traditions take a hiatus.  Under the circumstances, it seems to me that this is the most reasonable path to take, both for the sake of our loved ones and for the communities around us.

The requested modifications in celebrating this thoroughly North American holiday gives us an opportunity for beneficial correction.  This year we will not have the chance to celebrate “Turkey Day” or “Friendsgiving” or “Football Day in America”.  The Thanksgiving table may not, this year, look like the iconic Rockwell painting in its gastronomic bounty.  The chairs may not, this time around, be filled with friends from work or church, or school recreating the warmth of community.  The back yard or living room, this year, will not be shared by generations who enjoy tossing around the pigskin.  This year we might only have the opportunity to give thanks – alone with the grantor of all good things or with those in our closest of circles.

Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song.   Psalm 95:2

Earlier this month, for another purpose, I formulated my list of ‘thanks’.  I have modified the entries slightly, hoping that my touchpoints might stimulate your thoughts toward thanks.  Today, I am thankful for:

TIME – I give thanks to God for the gift of time.  I would have never planned to spend so much time at home and share so many little moments with my family.  I cannot fully express the gratitude I feel to God for the ability to unexpectedly be together for much of the last year.  

HEALTH – I give thanks to God for the gift of health.  I consider myself fortunate that I have the availability of protective equipment and world-class care.  God has truly blessed me with the accessibility of masks and wipes, medications and medical professionals that enable me to resist much of the ailments that in other places or other times would have diminished my quality of life.

AMUSEMENT – I give thanks to God for the gift of laughter.  As dire as things are, there is an abundance of resources ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous that make me laugh.  I give thanks to God for giggling babies, on-line videos, satirical skits, and dog sweaters, along with another million amusing moments.

NETWORKS – I give thanks to God for the gift of connectedness.  I have been awed by the creative ways God has inspired others to engage with the community around them – Zoom, Duo, Facetime, YouTube, balcony concerts, calls, letters – and I am grateful to God for enabling me to participate in things I thought would be impossible to attend last Thanksgiving.

KINDNESS – I give thanks to God for the gift of love for one another.  Through signs, parades, and deliveries, we have cared for one another like no other time I can recollect.  This reminds me of the grace of God each time I see these expressions.  Thank you, Jesus.

SALVATION – I give thanks to God for the gift of forgiveness.  Countless times over the past year, as I reflect on the above-stated gifts of God, I have messed up: failing to appreciate what I have, ignoring the opportunities granted me, selfishly pouting for the things I am denied, or blatantly disregarding the Lord’s will and word.  I am so thankful to God that my sins are forgiven and that I am a new creation, saved by the free gift of His grace.

For what will you be thanks giving?

Let us all agree that we will get together a year from now for “Turkey Day” and “Friendsgiving” and “Football Day in America”.   But this year, in light of all we have been through, and continue to go through, let us all give thanks.

Alex, What Is Grief?

I did not know him at all.  I had never met him in person.  And yet, I was deeply saddened by the passing of Alex Trebek on Sunday.  Like so many, I had invited Mr. Trebek into my home nightly to entertain and educate me through his engaging banter as the host of “Jeopardy” (which is, in my opinion, the very best gameshow ever created).  I had regularly appreciated the humor and the heart of a man I had known little about, and I am now mourning his death as if a dear friend had departed.

I have been asking myself since I heard the news if it is appropriate to be so deeply sorrowful at the loss of a stranger.  I suppose, with hindsight, that I have attended a few funerals for elderly family members that I knew only in stories.  I can also remember times that neighbors that I barely knew by sight have died and I have expressed remorse.  It is further true that I am given daily updates of the numbers affected by COVID-19 – which reported that 464 people also died last Sunday due to the virus – and I am grieved, even though I did not know anyone represented by this statistic.

It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart. Ecclesiastes 7:2

It is wholly appropriate to grieve the death of those who we know only in passing.  In fact, it is wholly appropriate, and indeed beneficial, to grieve the death of those who have passed regularly.  It is good to be reminded that life is short and remember that loss is real.  It is healthy to consider, on a consistent basis, that we are mortal and thus are sorrowful with those in the grips of despair.  There is benefit in acknowledging, as seen through the tributes that various networks broadcast for Alex Trebek, that the imposition of death and the confrontation of our own demise can lead to others seeking treatment.

It is when we are confronted with death, the final enemy of each human life, that we accept that we cannot escape the inevitable, and, in those moments, we turn back to our creator for comfort and cure.  Death is indeed an immovable object; however, Christ is indeed an unstoppable force.

His death and resurrection afford all those who trust in Him unto salvation, by faith through grace, a victory over death; it affords us a conquering of the ultimate foe.  Still, despite this gift of God in Jesus, the truth remains that many refuse to accept the reality of our own mortality.  Perhaps, then, it is part of God’s mercy to confront our blindness with the passing of celebrity strangers.  

My thoughts and prayers go out to the Trebek family and to all those who have suffered a loss in recent days.  May the reality of Christ – and His resurrection – bring comfort and peace to all those who are saddened today.