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.
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.
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.
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.
Earlier this week I walked to City Hall and filled out my ballot for the upcoming election. I have always considered it a duty and a privilege to take part in the process which determines our representatives in government. Even in local elections where only incumbents are running, unopposed, I delight in flipping that lever (when I was younger) or filling in that circle (now that I am older), making sure that my voice and my choice is heard. I encourage each person reading this post, if you are registered to vote, to likewise engage in the process and cast your ballot for the candidates of your choosing.
Professionally, I am of the opinion that my position within the local church prevents me from divulging the candidates for whom I cast my vote. Personally, my preference is to remain neutral in politics, seeing the benefits of our multi-party form of democracy as it fosters a healthy exchange of ideas. In the days following this impending election, a winner will be declared in every contested race and our towns and cities, our states and commonwealths, and our country will move forward. Our choice, each day following the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, is whether we will move forward united or move forward divided.
I, as a pastor of a small church in Boston and as a follower of Christ, am concerned with the aftermath of whatever the Electoral College determines. It is for this reason that I offer the following observations for your reflection in the days to come.
I find it worth remembering that the course of history is long and the terms for our elected officers are short. As hard as it is to imagine today, 2020 will likely be simply a footnote in the annuls of time. How many of us could recall the details of the ‘Spanish Flu’ or the name of the President in 1918-1920 (prior to Googling it during the present pandemic)? Most of today’s headlines will be the source of tough trivia questions posed by our grandchildren. We, as human beings, are resilient, and we are capable of withstanding good and bad character, good and bad economies, and good and bad votes.
I also find it worth remembering that our hope is built, ultimately, upon God’s eternal nature (which we imperfectly reflect) not the political powers of the day (which imperfectly reflect us). A foundational truth that sustains me in these days of uncertainty is this:
So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Genesis 1:27
Before there were people groups, religions, classes or governments, there was a male and a female who were created in the image of God. Somehow, somewhere woven among our DNA is a spark of the divine, which produces, among other things, a knowledge of moral excellence and a hunger for genuine community. It is this mysterious impartation of the Almighty that gives me hope, despite the tensions and turmoil of this present hour.
Whether or not our votes are sufficient to carry our candidates to victory, let us commit ourselves to call upon history and the heavens to grant us hope.
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.
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.
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.
The other night, we had a drive-in experience in our backyard; a video screen, projector, a VCR and an extension cord enabled us to watch “Hercules”. All the equipment was readily available to us, but until the other night, we had not taken the time to put it together. This is just the latest thing we have done because we have the time to do it. We have also spent time playing board games (my personal favorite has been “Ticket to Ride”) and card games (including the ‘oldie-but-goodie’ “Pit”, which our children had never played). We have also spent time exploring the neighborhood by foot. This pandemic has given us the opportunity to do things that we never get around to doing.
There are other things that have remained undone. I still have boxes which are still unpacked or stored away from our move eleven months ago. I still have books sitting on a radiator that I am intending to read. I still have summer clothes in the basement that I have yet to put in my bureau. I have a craft beer maker that is unopened (granted, I would still have to buy some yeast, which I have also yet to do). Despite the fact that this pandemic has given me a great deal of time at home to do whatever strikes my fancy, there are still things I have never gotten around to doing.
Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. Psalm 90:12
I wonder how many times I said, prior to 2020, “I wish I had the time to __________.” I wonder how many times I said, prior to COVID-19, “I will get around to _________ some day.” Lord, teach me to number my days. Lord, instruct me to calculate all twenty-four hours. Lord, educate me on the usage of each cycle of 1,440 minutes. Assuming I take 6 hours to sleep and 2 hours to address hunger and hygiene, that gives me 16 hours each and every day for my vocations and avocations. What am I doing with that time? Am I utilizing this precious resource for mindful productivity and recreation or am I wasting it on mindless amusement and entertainment?
Today is day 143 of quarantine; we have been home for 3,432 hours. What have you been doing for the past 20 weeks? The Psalmist has convicted me to redeem the remaining days and hours of the quarantine, however long it lasts. I want to spend more time in constructing (building value into my life as well as the lives of others) and less in consuming (burning daylight in otherwise empty pursuits). I want to cherish the time I have with my children and my wife. I want to maximize this time of ‘voluntary seclusion’ so that, when I look back at this season of my life, I have no regrets. Lord, help me to capture a moment today where I see and share just one of your many blessings.
Lord, teach us to number our (quarantined) days.
It has been hot in Massachusetts for the last few weeks, with heat indices approaching 100° on many days. It has been so hot, in fact, that the new street in front of our home that I wrote about a few weeks ago has softened and now contains a good number of tire tracks. We are fortunate; we have a few window unit air conditioners that can take the sting out of the oppressive heat and humidity. But, under the shadow of COVID-19, there are a number of places we would have gone to beat the heat that are, this summer, unavailable.
In previous years we, as a family, might have gone to the local mall or the movie theater to escape the high temperatures and enjoy some climate-controlled coolness. Our summers past have included visits to museums and dips in public pools to find some relief. There is none of that this year. The cinemas remain unopened, the malls are too crowded, the museums are not welcoming the general public and the pools are, by and large, closed. Even the beaches, where it has also been unusually warm, are not completely safe as the sunbathers and swimmers contend with shark sightings and the lingering effects of this pandemic.
It is days like these that make a person ‘squirrelly’ – hot and bothered and itching to be somewhere else. I imagine that most of us have had more than a few days like that. What do we when we face times like that? Simmer and stew? Stomp and scream? Toss and turn at night and pace and pout during the day? It is not in our nature, I believe, to suffer in silence. We need someone to know, someone to care, someone to assure us that things will improve. Those are the days that I appreciate God’s gift of prayer, the blessing of conversation and intercession with the one who knows us best and cares for us most completely.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30 (NIV)
I don’t know about you, but the heat takes something out of me, and I am weary. With the news of the spread of COVID-19, I am burdened. I am grateful that Jesus offers to share His yoke with me (for those unfamiliar with the term, a yoke is a farming implement that harnesses two animals, presumably of similar strength, together). I am offered to share my load with God incarnate, who declares that my contribution to the work will be easy and light. When can we begin? It makes me feel like that three-year old at the grocery store in the race-car shopping cart, thinking that he is exerting all the effort to move the cart, but the reality is that his father is pushing from behind. Our Father in Heaven is pushing us along as well.
If you are weary and burdened, due to climate or contagion or some other catastrophe, come to him. He will give you rest.