As I have been spending much more time at home, isolated for the health and safety of those I love, I have had a great deal of time to think about the health crisis we are all enduring. I have come to see in a variety of ways that COVID-19 is a great equalizer. The virus does not discriminate, as it has infected celebrities, professional athletes, politicians and royalty (as well as ordinary individuals) across the globe. The WIFI networks that we are all using to communicate with the world has been equally spotty for those who are rich and those who are poor. Frustrations over ‘stay-at-home’ orders have overwhelmed the introvert and the extrovert alike. Our communal discouragement and feelings of inadequacy in home-schooling our children are universally sensed by democrats, independents and republicans. We are, literally, all in this together.
It would be a relatively simple exercise for me to draw parallels between this virus and the prevalence of sin, and I am sure that a quick google search would take you to thousands of thought pieces about their similarities. Certainly, we ought to take time to contemplate the universal reach of both and compare the consequential results of both. However, if you are like me, you’ve been bombarded with troubling news for weeks and would appreciate a break from the barrage of saddening statistics and prevention protocols. I want to take a few moments to share some encouraging thoughts instead.
One of the great equalizers I see in the pages of scripture is God’s gift of grace. Grace, as the Bible describes it, is the blessing of unmerited and unearned favor. It is the heavenly blessing of atonement and adoption that may be extended to all and experienced by all.
For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. Titus 2:11 (NIV)
Grace, the offering of a restorative relationship with the creator of the universe, does not discriminate, as it has reached celebrities, professional athletes, politicians and royalty (as well as ordinary individuals) across the globe. Grace, the joy of knowing that God has given us much more than we deserve, is known by both the rich and the poor. Grace, the kindness of forgiveness and forbearance by the one who knows us completely, is available to introverts and extroverts alike.
As I spend unplanned but precious time with those I love, I appreciate the grace that God has given me. I do not deserve, but am grateful for, the network of kind people that surrounds me (I have been befriended much more than I befriend), the relative health I enjoy (I am healthier than my life choices warrant), the absence of consequence attributed to wrong-doing (I am pardoned much more than I admit) and the serendipitous joys that cross my path (many of which I fail to recognize). My life is full of grace – undeserved, unearned, unexpected.
As we adjust to a present reality, let us, for the sake of those around us, remember grace: let us be open to experiencing that grace together and expressing that grace to one another. We are all in this together.
It is incredible what can change in a week. Grade schools were still in session, restaurants were open and traffic into the city was bogged down with its usual congestion. The developments and press conferences that we’ve watched daily have given new meaning to “cancel culture”. We are now required to understand new terms like social distancing, COVID-19 and pandemic. As we, together as a global community, deal with the ramifications of all these changes, join with me in praying for those most deeply impacted: those with fragile health, that the precautions we all take will protect those most in danger; those who own, manage and/or are employed by small businesses that cannot operate ‘from home’, that the economic realities of this crisis will not lead to financial ruin; students, school staffs, educators and administrators, that the ramifications of time away will be mitigated by online community and instruction.
I am aware that some are afraid – fearful of infection, fearful of loss, fearful in uncertainty. I share your fears. I am concerned that someone in my family will get sick. I am anxious for the church and her continuing ministry should we be unable to meet for a month or more. For me, this week has been like an unending snowstorm. When it snows in greater Boston during the weekend, my anxiety level increases as I contemplate cancellations and the results of not gathering. I somehow think that the faith of God in the congregation depends upon 70 minutes of impactful worship and if we cannot get together, all hell will break loose (literally and figuratively).
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Matthew 16:18 (ESV)
The snow will stop falling. The pandemic will end. The world will go back to normal. God will still reign.
So, I am choosing to count the blessings. Blessing 1: political divisions have given way to community interest; instead of dividing over red and blue policies, we are uniting in our shared concern for one another. Blessing 2: optional fellowship has given way to intentional connecting; instead of engaging with others on our terms, I am seeing more interactions motivated by love. Blessing 3: a new appreciation for our schools and day-care providers; the creativity of emergency on-line learning, the providing of lunches and instruction and the healthy interactions of adults with our children are amazing. Blessing 4: the advancements in technology; with live-streaming, video conferencing, on-line giving, telecommuting, e-commerce and news apps, most can stay connected even when we practice social distancing. Blessing 5: free time with family for reading, recreation and rest.
As we continue to weather this storm, I encourage you to come up with your own list of unforeseen blessings this crisis has given you. I also encourage you to be a blessing to those around you – bring toilet paper to an elderly neighbor, order take-out to support a struggling establishment or call an old friend.
God will prevail.
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After watching the local news recently, I have come to the conclusion that most of us are obsessed with safety. We are willing to do whatever is required to be safe from illness, as is evident by the shortages of bottled water and hand sanitizer at our nation’s ‘big box’ retailers to prevent the spread of COVID-19. We are willing to invest significant resources to be safe from crime, installing video doorbells and high-tech security systems to prevent break-ins. Our hearts break due to our insecurities arising from natural disasters, expecting that sirens and first responders ought to keep us from the harm of tornados or wildfire. We expect that we, and those we love, ought to be safe from the dangers of life.
Despite all our sacrifices at the altar of safety, we remain at risk. Emergency rooms across the country will still be filled today with those who suffered injury. Prisons throughout the world will be filled today with people unjustly convicted to serious crimes. Homeless shelters and food banks in urban areas will be filled by individuals and families who have been ravaged by systemic poverty. We will continue to face illness and injustice. We will be overshadowed by disaster and need. We will be plagued with injury and crime. No matter what we give – offering our power, our possessions and our priorities – safety is persistently fickle.
It is for many a troubling reality that God does not promise safety for those who follow Him. However, we can be comforted by the reality that He does promise us Himself.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. Isaiah 43:2 (NIV)
“I will be with you” – through the waters and through the flames. In the Bible, references to water typically represent chaos (e.g. the creation narrative) and references to fire typically represent judgement (e.g. the book of Revelation). We all know that life can be chaotic, messy and disruptive. When it is, and we feel unsafe, we can take comfort in the truth that God is with us. We also know that life is filled with the consequences of bad acts, committed by our own hands or by the hands of others. When it is, and we feel like the world is conspiring against us for our ruin, we can have peace in the truth that God is with us through it all.
We can choose to put our faith and trust in the thoughts and plans birthed by human ingenuity or put our faith and trust in the one who designed and created every human mind. We are wise when we take precautions, refusing to be consumed by the fears that come with uncertainty and insecurity. Whatever you face this week, you should know that God goes with you. This world is a scary place, but thankfully we are never alone.
When we were vacationing last week, we spent a few hours with our nephew and his family. As we were walking through their backyard, our niece-in-law was showing us her extensive garden. She showed us the lettuce and carrots, some of which had been eaten by rascally rabbits. Then, pointing to some large leaves (which we speculated might have been collard greens or kale), she said, “Those were supposed to be beets, but I think the seeds were mislabeled.” I admit that I do not have a green thumb, but I have grown a few vegetables over the years; what I know about seeds is simple – that many of them look similar and it is not until you see their growth that you know for sure what they will produce.
This reality has reminded me of two biblical truths, one positive and one negative. First, the ‘bad news’: Jesus taught his disciples that you don’t pick figs from thornbushes. Next, the ‘good news’: God’s good creation is designed in such a way that every plant produces fruit according to its kind.
By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Matthew 7:16-18 (NIV)
You don’t pick grapes from thornbushes. You don’t pick figs from thistles. You don’t plant carrots and get apples. Cucumber seeds produce cucumbers, even when they are labeled as tomato seeds. The biblical truth (and agricultural truth) is that you get what you planted, not what you thought you planted. This is, however, not all bad news. Some of us, those who were labeled as “stupid” or “damaged” or “worthless”, need to be reminded that our envelope doesn’t determine our end. We are what we are, not what others say we are.
Every plant produces fruit according to its kind. The rosebush produces roses. The pea plant produces peas. The grapevine produces grapes. You understand my point. Even though we might be mislabeled or missorted, we all are capable of producing, and only producing, fruit in accordance with our nature. When we are properly fed, watered and pruned, we are all beneficial. This is, unequivocally, good news: God has made you, just as you are, so that you will produce your own particular kind of fruit. You can do no other task.
Susan’s garden, and the scriptural musings that those plants by the back fence have piqued, have left me with a question: what were you born to do? Whatever the answer, regardless of the ways you’ve been labeled, cultivate your core and bear fruit accordingly. Allow yourself to be fed by God over time and develop deep roots. Creatively pursue the passions of your heart, knowing that the fruit of an apple tree, for example, could be a cider, a sauce or a pie. The world needs what only you can offer.
For the past month, as part of a reading group, I have been reading Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. It is a fabulously engrossing book that deals with the reality of life and death, the limits of the current medical system and the conversations that every person should have before it is too late. One of the lasting lessons I received from Dr. Gawande’s words is to recognize what is important; it has caused me to wrestle with the reality of my own demise and to value every moment of cogency that God enables me to enjoy.
As I reflect upon these truths this morning and as I prepare for Thanksgiving next week, I am finding myself thankful for the moments I share with my family (immediate and extended, formed by blood and by friendship). I am thankful for productivity (in my vocation and in my avocations). I am thankful for opportunity (and the availability of the best in medicine, academia and ministry no more than a subway ride away). I am thankful for the guidance of God since last Thanksgiving (among other things, in leading my family to a new residence and two of my boys to new schools). I am thankful for the blessings I enjoy every day.
There is one more thing for which I am thankful, something never touched upon in the remarkable tome penned by the good doctor. I am thankful for the Gospel. I am thankful for the witness verified truth of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection. I am thankful for the long-established and prophetic plan of God’s salvation through Christ. I am thankful for the availability of the forgiveness of sin and the redemption of the disobedient which reached a wretch like me. I am thankful that my life-steps were directed by the Almighty to hear the truth of the Lord and accept Him as my personal Savior. I am thankful for those who shared, and continue to share, this good news with those who are dangerously unaware of their eternal destiny. I am thankful that I will participate in blissful life after my physical death.
Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! 2 Corinthians 9:15
But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! Romans 5:15
Each and every one of us reading this post has something for which to give thanks (if nothing else, we all have access to the vast worldwide web). For what things, truths and people are you thankful this year? What moments have brought you delight since last you sat at bounty’s table? What gifts have been bestowed upon you that have filled you with gratitude? In whatever way you will celebrate our thoroughly North American observance of Thanksgiving, I hope you will spend some time reflecting upon and remembering all the blessings you have been given.
I wish you all the happiness of Thanksgiving!
Research has shown that practicing gratitude boosts the immune system, bolsters resilience to stress, lowers depression, increases feelings of energy, determination, and strength, and even helps you sleep better at night. In fact, few things have been more repeatedly and empirically tested than the connection between gratitude and overall happiness and well-being. Experts confirm, over and over again, that those who would consider themselves happy are those who also consider themselves grateful.
Even though there is a preponderance of evidence for the benefits of thankfulness, most people do not practice gratitude. In a survey done by Janice Kaplan for her book The Gratitude Diaries, she found that while “more than 90% of people think gratitude makes you happier and gives you a more fulfilled life … less than half regularly express gratitude.” When was the last time you said anything more than an obligatory “Thank You” to the waitstaff at a restaurant or a wave of appreciation for the kind soul who held the door open for you at the bank? Have you experienced the benefits of a lifestyle of gratitude?
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
The words of Paul tell us that those who have been transformed buy the good news of Christ will be singing to God with gratitude. This act of singing may be figurative, or it may be a first century way of saying what the researchers of today contend: gratitude brings a melody to mind. It is quite possible that Paul knew the same link between happiness and gratitude that Kaplan has now written about. It is likely that the God who created us, in all our complexity, inspired the Apostle to pen the connection between singing and gratitude woven into our DNA.
Perhaps you would accept a challenge, an experiment to test the veracity of modern sociology and ancient biblical interpretation: we could practice expressing our gratitude with the objective of placing a song on our lips. We could be thankful, to God to others, for the blessings they bring into our lives. We could show appreciation for the acts of service friends and strangers perform on our behalf. We could return kindness when we experience it. We could discover whether or not these disciplines of gratitude make us happier and allow us to feel greater contentment. We could be happier.
In this season of harvest, we have much to be thankful for: most of us have more than we need, whether it be as little as a bed instead of a dirt floor or as much as a home with as many bathrooms as inhabitants. God has orchestrated all the functions of nature to allow our bellies to be filled and our bodies to be useful. We, each and every one of us, have reason to express gratitude. It is a good time to give thanks unto the Lord.
If you listened to my message on Sunday, I mentioned in passing an ordeal I had been going through regarding a prescription refill. I had exhausted all my refills, so I called the health center to schedule a physical; I was informed that my PCP was no longer at that facility and I was reassigned; I was given the next available appointment – and a 7 week wait. At this point, I asked if I could get my prescriptions refilled and was given assurances they were in process. A few days later, as I ran out of one of my medications, I called the pharmacy, who was still waiting for authorization, so day after day I called and the health center marked my request as urgent. 10 days after I began the process, I determinedly walked over to the facility, talked to the receptionist, face-to-face, and she took my request to the back, returning after a while with the good news that my prescriptions were sent off to the pharmacy; a few hours later I finally received what I needed to maintain my health.
In hindsight, I have come to realize the importance of face-to-face interactions. I have come to understand the power of looking into another person’s eyes and voicing a genuine frustration. I have come to appreciate standing in front of another human being and receiving assurances that I have been heard and valued. After interacting with disembodied voices for more than a week with no progress, seeing another human being and being seen by another human being was what was necessary for my issues to be resolved. And now, because of technological conveniences, I fear that face-to-face interactions are few and far between.
I am concerned that we, as a society, are in danger of losing something important because we do not interact with one another in person. We can maintain contact with friends through social media. We can check in on family members with a text. We can experience spiritual growth through an app. We can shop for nearly all our essentials via the internet. We can receive instruction on nearly every topic by watching YouTube. In most areas of life (professional service calls are a singular exception), it is not required that we actually engage in human interactions…but it is desperately needed.
I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face. Peace to you. The friends here send their greetings. Greet the friends there by name. 3 John 14 (NIV)
Take it from one who has recently improved his physical health by meeting with someone face-to-face, your efforts in actual engagement will be rewarded. Take the risk and put the phone down. Sit a spell with a friend over a cup of tea or walk together along a river. Pop into a local hardware store and talk to the owner behind the counter about thermostats or trash cans. Attend a Bible study, even if it is filled with strangers. Talking to someone will benefit your relational health, learning with someone will enhance your intellectual health, worshipping with someone will develop your spiritual health. Let’s get together, face-to-face, for your sake and mine.
A few days after we moved to our new neighborhood a few weeks ago, we decided to be a bit adventurous and go out to a restaurant down the street from us. We chose to go to Yaowarat Road, an eatery named for a street in Bangkok’s Chinatown, which specializes in Thai/Chinese cuisine. When we first arrived and read the menu, I thought about going elsewhere, as there were few dishes I understood or thought we would enjoy. But we ordered what we comprehended (as well as some Pad Thai, which was not on the menu) and it was all delicious. It was a wonderful meal that I could have missed if I was unwilling to take a risk.
I was reminded about my supper at Yaowarat Road as I studied about a practice the Bible calls “the breaking of bread”. This phrase is complex: it is typically a reference to the ordinance of communion (referencing the Lord’s breaking the bread at the Passover table); it could, however, be referring to any meal shared by the people of God (as would be the case of Passover, which involves breaking bread, and the feeding of the five thousand, which also specifically states that the Lord broke the loaves). It is this more general meaning that I have been reflecting upon.
Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. Mark 6:41 (NIV)
One of the most unifying aspects of ministry is dining together, the time when the church comes together to break bread. A fascinating dynamic is at work when we share a meal, whether it be at a pot-luck or a restaurant. Our choices of cuisine say something about us: they show our preferences and our tolerances, they reveal our habits and our palates, and they demonstrate our knowledge and our experiences. When we share a meal with another, we display ourselves on that plate. Serving up jerk chicken tells us something. Ordering dessert tells us something else. Eating off another plate tells us yet something more.
Breaking bread also expresses our acceptance of one another. When we eat what another person has prepared or ordered, we are saying that your traditions and tastes matter. We might use more (or less) seasoning or another cut of meat or a different protein, if we were given the choice. But we allow another person to build the menu and we are given a glimpse of themselves. If we are lucky, we discover something delectable that we knew nothing about; if not, we might need an antacid for a day or two. Either way, our culinary knowledge and our fellowship is enlarged.
So, take a risk and break bread with someone – invite them to your home or your local diner and eat a meal with a fellow saint. If you are hesitant, I invite you to join me for dinner at the church this Wednesday night for one of my favorites. I hope you’ll have a heaping helping of hospitality.
Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it. Proverbs 22:6
Monday morning at 10AM, Jeanine and I will be dropping off at college our middle son, David. When we do, he will start his freshman year at Fitchburg State University. This will mark the third time we have dropped off our child at college (for those unfamiliar with our story, seven years ago we abandoned to the world of academia a defenseless boy at Gordon College and three years ago we deserted in our nation’s capital a wide-eyed girl at American University). For those wondering, repetition does not make the process of leaving a child to fend for himself any easier.
So, as David steps out of the shadows of our wings and begins to chart the course of his own flight, allow me to share a few words of wisdom for my own experiences:
- First, I would want to tell him to allow seize every opportunity to accentuate all that is good within him. I want David to use these next four years to discover and define his passions and pursue them. I’d want him to exhaust his electives with eclectic, not just easy, courses – art, drama, bocce, or women’s studies – with the intent on unearthing an unknown interest. I ask that he join a club or society outside his field of study. And, in the dining hall, I hope he expands his palate, eating more than just a backpack full of croutons.
- Next, I would want to tell him to remember why he is where he is. He is there to get an education. He is there to gain confidence in his independence. He is there to shine like the sun in a world of darkness. He is there to build life-long relationship with real people. I’d recommend to him to maintain the discipline of going to every class every time it meets, of working hard and then playing hard and of partnering with like-minded individuals to prod themselves onto good works. If his brother and sister are any indication of his future, he will return home a different, more assured, person; I’d want him to embrace that development.
- Then, I would remind him that an elephant is eaten one bite at a time. As he enters the dormitory on Monday, I am sure that there are fears and trepidations that will cloud his thinking, as well as the worry that this undertaking is too much to handle – and in the moment, it will be. But when he takes one step in the right direction, followed by another and another, before long progress will be seen. I would tell him to keep moving forward, even if it is baby steps.
As my child steps out of the car and into a world of curated independence, I’d want him to know that he is capable of more than he thinks possible and stronger than he thinks necessary.
For all those leaving for college for the first time this week, and for their families who love them, I pray God’s richest blessing and watch care be upon us as we all pursue our dreams.
For those wanting to read my thoughts seven years ago, read https://calvaryboston.wordpress.com/2012/08/24/a-parents-hope-for-freshmen/ and for my thoughts three years ago, read https://calvaryboston.wordpress.com/2016/08/19/for-freshmen/