Every Wednesday night we, as a church gather for prayer. I have gotten into the habit of beginning our time of intercession with the recitation of a psalm, and each week I select the Psalm corresponding with that particular day of the year. In the case of last Wednesday, as it was the 190th day of the year, we read the 190th Psalm (for those aware of biblical content, yes, there are only 150 psalms; we actually read Psalm 40 for the second time). In the middle of that scriptural song are the following statements:
I do not hide your righteousness in my heart; I speak of your faithfulness and your saving help. I do not conceal your love and your faithfulness from the great assembly. Psalm 40:10 (NIV)
Before I comment on the truths of these words, let me tell you a little about my time of quarantine. In the span of the last 117 days, my household has celebrated a graduation, a birthday, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. In that time numerous packages have entered the home stealthily so as not to be detected by the person of honor. They were literally and figuratively under wraps and covered. This clandestine maneuvering was without malice and was momentary; we wanted these presents to be a surprise. Eventually, the appropriate time arrived and the gifts of love were discovered, displayed and delighted in.
I wonder, as I read again the words of the Psalmist, if I am as forthcoming with the gifts God has given me. When I receive his righteousness – being treated rightly, justly and fairly – do I declare to all who can hear me how good God is? Do I, when someone remarks that they esteem my new appearance or appliance, give all the credit to the sensibilities of the gift giver, God Almighty? Or do I refrain from expressing His affections for me, whether due to misplaced pride or fear of offense? Do I cover up what God is doing in my life? Am I guilty of the sin that the Psalmist is so sensitive to stem?
I am well aware that the last four months have been hard on all of us, perhaps the hardest season many of us have been forced to bear. But I am also aware that God has been God in the midst of this pandemic, providing us with enough and protecting us from the rough. It is our privilege to share this reality with those around us. It is as simple as saying, “I could not have made it without Jesus”, or “Thank God for His many blessings.” It is important that our hearts be full of the knowledge that God is good all the time, and it is equally as important that this truth pour forth from us and not be bottled up deep within our core.
Do not cover up or conceal what the Lord is doing in your midst; perhaps what God is doing in your life is something that someone near you needs you to speak into their life. Be well and tell others that God is good.
As I write this post a team of workers with heavy machinery is replacing the sidewalks, curb stones and street in front of our house. I am captivated by all the activity that is taking place: I am awestruck by the precision of the excavator operator, as he removes dirt and debris around valve covers and drains with no apparent effort; I am fascinated my those responsible for the placement of the heavy stones, leveling and tapping them expertly in a row; I have become mesmerized by the activity just outside our front windows as each person performs their role as if engaged in a synchronized dance. While I do not appreciate the noise beginning at 7 every morning, I am thankful for the object lesson their labors have given me.
When we moved into our current residence 10 months ago, the water main had just been replaced. Shortly after our arrival, the gas lines that run through the neighborhood were also replaced, leaving our street a mess of potholes and uneven patches. The road surface would fill with puddles after a rainstorm and the sidewalks in spots were dangerously uneven. This week, all that is beginning to change, as people who know what to do and have the time to do it well are restoring what has been damaged. Assuming all the work is completed, our street will remain pristine for the next five years.
It all reminds me of what can happen when everyone does their part to build up what has been ravaged by time or trauma. Whether it is public works or personal health, we all have a role in edification – the building up of one another – through acts of service, through words of affirmation and/or through time together. There is no meaningless effort nor unnecessary task. The business of building requires designers and architects, as well as vehicle operators and day laborers. The business of edification likewise requires thinkers and planners, as will as skilled workers and heavy lifters.
From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. Ephesians 4:16 (NIV)
The apostle Paul, in his letter to the church in Ephesus, describes the local church as a body. This body grows when every part does its unique work. In Paul’s analogy, the people of God are strengthened, in community, when the ‘hands’ do what the ‘hands’ can do (and only what the ‘hands’ can do), as well as every other part – eyes, ears, kidneys, and the rest – does what they are designed to do. This imagery, for me, has two important ramifications: first, that each of us are essential for our effectiveness and health; and second, that we are effective and healthy when we only do what we are here to do.
Together, proximately or virtually, we will grow and build our body in love as each of us do what God uniquely enables us to do. I have an asphalt, concrete and granite reminder of this reality just outside my door.
[Jesus said,] “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” Matthew 25:35–36 (NIV)
I have been thinking about this passage for the past few weeks. Specifically, I have been ruminating about the Lord’s self-description as a stranger. What did Jesus mean that he was a stranger? Isn’t he better characterized as a friend or a sibling? Isn’t he immanently known by those who follow him? How could we possibly engage in a relationship with the Living God and not recognize him as a stranger?
According to Walter Brueggemann, strangers are “people without a place.” Strangers are those who enter into a community devoid of basic support structures – they are separated from familial, vocational, financial, religious and political networks. This, I believe, is the underlying truth of Jesus’ self-expression: part of the human condition is enduring times of placelessness and part of the life of the church is inviting the placeless in.
My musings about the stranger began about a month ago, when my daughter travelled to Washington D.C. to pack up her college apartment. About 70 miles from anyone she knew and more than 100 miles from her destination, she experienced car troubles and found herself broken down on the side of a rural road. She was placeless – alone and separated from everyone and everything she knew. Thankfully, she had AAA and a cousin to rescue her, but she still was stranded for more than an hour. She was placeless, a stranger. And God is good: the hours she spent in Mullica Hill, NJ were warm and sunny and throughout the ordeal a number of women from the community inquired about her well-being.
My musings continued over the next few weeks as our city and our nation witnessed demonstrations against, among many issues, what I would call ‘systemic strangering’: the pervasive displacement of our black and brown siblings through the misuse and abuse of authority. Because many had nowhere to go to alleviate their suffering and address their basic needs, they assembled en masse across this nation to shed light on their exclusion. But God is good: conversations of engagement and songs of lament are now taking place among His people.
My musings also encompass our current pandemic. As disease and death unite the world in our common crisis, we are sorrowful that there is nowhere we can go and no one to turn to find complete relief. We are all placeless together. Even in this, God is good: in the midst of our strangerness, we find collective common ground in our community walks and our mutual disappointment with those still refusing to consider the needs of the vulnerable, the real strangers in our midst.
Do you have room in your heart, or in your schedule, to invite in the stranger? Do you recognize the divine gift we have to offer, a place of belonging (figuratively in the present and literally before long) to those who have nothing to offer but themselves? When you do, you are welcoming in the Lord.
 Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation and Obedience (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991) 294.
We, as a family, had a busy weekend.
Despite the fact that we were still under a ‘stay-at-home’ advisory, we were blessed on Saturday to attend the college graduation my daughter, Rebekah. We listened to a powerful commencement address by noted scholar and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. (live from his home in Cambridge, MA) and witnessed the conferral of degrees by American University President Sylvia Burwell. We even saw our daughter’s name printed on the screen as her school and degree program was listed. After the digital festivities, we enjoyed cake and dinner as a family. While it was much less than we all dreamed, it was wonderful in its own right.
Sunday was Mother’s Day and we celebrated the mother of 19 Vassall Street, Jeanine, with our family’s tradition of feasting on Chinese food (although this year it had to be take-out). This was followed by phone calls to the grandmothers, Carolyn and Pauline (both being hundreds of miles away), and then we concluded the day playing some family games (namely, Clue and Jackbox). It was a blessing having all six of us together for both these special occasions.
Before I go on, know that I want life to return to some semblance of normal as soon as possible. That said, I am going to look back at these days (at some point in the distant future) and miss some of the repercussions of sequestered living. I am going to miss the sheer amount of time I am engaging with those I love: I am seeing my children and wife more and making more calls than usual. I am going to miss the collective compassion of the community: we are supporting charities and offering kindnesses to a greater degree than any other time I can remember. I am going to miss the ingenuity of so many in celebrating life: the creativity exhibited through the ideas, activities and resources that are being initiated (drive-by birthday parades, apartment complex concerts, miniature golf courses in hallways and back yards, proms / graduations / weddings / recitals held together at home) is staggering.
And as for you, brothers and sisters, never tire of doing what is good. 2 Thessalonians 3:13 (NIV)
Can we agree today, before we move on from this horrible season of death and disease, that we will continue to do what is good. Will we agree that we will still check on the vulnerable among us when we no longer need to? Will we agree to prioritize time with loved ones once we can devote our attentions to professional sports or work obligations? Will we agree that we will remain creative and unique in our expressions of joy even after we can once again host a party at “Chuck E. Cheese”? Will we agree that walking and hand-washing is beneficial in every season, not just now?
I am sure I will once again cringe at the suggestion of ‘F.G.N. (Family Game Night)’, a particular delight of my youngest child; but for now, I hope they regularly occur forever. While we await the world to get back to its regular cycles, let us also remember the good of these days and commit to continuing these blessings when might be tempted to do otherwise.
Let me start off by saying that I hate to wait. I know that waiting – for the train or for the kids or for doctor – is a part of life, but that does not mean I have to like it. Despite my personal preference, I am required, as are we all, to patiently endure a prolonged season of waiting for ‘life-as-normal’ to resume; eventually academia, commerce, recreation and church will return. Until then, we wait. As I write this post, it is Wednesday, May 6th, and it has been fifty days since the governor of Massachusetts implemented the ‘stay-at-home’ advisory, although it seems to me much longer.
God created a world with waiting woven into its fabric. God, it seems, designed us to wait. Creation includes the sabbath, a day set apart every week to refrain from our work. God led His people through the wilderness but delayed their entrance into the promised land for 40 years. God structured the agricultural schedule of the early Israelites with a 50-day waiting period between the gathering of the first fruits and the reaping of the harvest. God had Jesus and His earthly parents wait in Egypt for three years before the family could safely return to their hometown. God develops His gift of patience in us when we wait by Jesus’ tomb at Easter, when we wait in the upper room at Pentecost, and when we wait for His promised return on that great and glorious day.
“From the day after the Sabbath, the day you brought the sheaf of the wave offering, count off seven full weeks. Count off fifty days up to the day after the seventh Sabbath, and then present an offering of new grain to the LORD.” Leviticus 23:15-16 (NIV)
As I think about what I know about myself and my disdain for patiently abiding, as well as the celebration of Mother’s Day this weekend, I realize how good and godly the moms in our lives must be. I deeply appreciate the contributions of the moms in my life. Honestly, I couldn’t do it. From the first moments of our existence, the waiting began: the two hundred and eighty days of our gestation, the hours waiting at the OB/GYN office, staying up in anticipation of the late night feedings, watching for the firsts (first smiles, first words, first steps). As our children grow, the waiting doesn’t abate, as moms of adults remain vigilant as they await word of their children’s arrival at home or their departure from vacation.
I am so grateful for the women who have waited for me and have made my seasons of waiting a bit more bearable. I appreciate that I am still able to see and speak with my mom and my mother-in-law, even though it must be through cell phones this year, and I pray for God’s hand of comfort for those who no longer have this ability. I pray also for all the mothers I know, especially the new moms and those with children still at home – those providing guidance, recreation, education, nutrition, lasting good memories and stability in this time of such uncertainty. Happy Mother’s Day to all of you.
And as we wait for that time of blessed reunion, either in this realm or the next, I hope we can take some time this weekend to thank God for our moms.
This past Wednesday, my daughter, Rebekah, ‘went’ to her final college class; she walked up the stairs to her bedroom and opened her laptop. As she shared this milestone with the family after the class had concluded, I got a little misty-eyed. I thought about how hard she had worked over the past four years at American University, enabling her to graduate with honors in two weeks, only ‘virtually’ recognized. I thought about all the friends, colleagues and sorority sisters she had made in DC, unable to support one another in these concluding events. It breaks a father’s heart.
Then I thought about all the others – in Rebekah’s class, in other college classes, high school seniors, pre-school graduates. I thought about new mothers, who will not have those precious 3-month or 6-month professional portraits of their drooling, chubby-cheeked cherub. I thought about birthdays (first, fifteenth, sixteenth, twenty-first, fiftieth or eightieth) that will be celebrated in isolation. I thought about silver and gold wedding anniversaries that cannot be held at their favorite restaurants and the life-long dream trips to Europe that cannot be rescheduled. I thought about all that has been lost or taken away.
Then I thought about why. Graduations, proms, weddings, parties, classes, reunions and the like have all been cancelled – nay, postponed or moved to digital platforms – so that we can keep those around us as safe as we can. That being said, we all ought to take time to acknowledge those who are required to sacrifice their personal milestones. If you know someone who is celebrating something in seclusion or going without so that life may go on, reach out and offer your congratulations or your consolation. Call, text or write a note and tell them that you are grateful for the costs they have incurred.
It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: “And this, too, shall pass away.” How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! – how consoling in the depths of affliction! “And this, too, shall pass away.” – Abraham Lincoln, 1859
“And this, too, shall pass away.” Government officials and company advertisements keep reminding us that things will get back to normal. Inevitably, a vaccine will be created and we will all get together again. We will have socials and soirees at some point. Graduations, like my daughter’s, will be held; for her, it will hopefully be in December. First haircuts can wait, photos can still be taken, anniversaries for 25 and a half years of marriage could become the new trend and birthday parties can be rescheduled (can you imagine the new school year for second graders when every weekend will have a birthday party at SkyZone?) I cannot wait to have the social calendar filled again. In the moments between now and then, let us help one another through this season of joys and sorrows.
Recalling your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy. 2 Timothy 1:4
“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” These words, first spoken by John Heywood in 1546 and considered the oldest idiom in the English language, may not be true; they do, however express my reality. Nothing I have gleaned from my seminary education or my more than twenty years of pastoral experience has prepared me for ministry during a pandemic. I am finding that I have been forced to ‘master’ a number of new skills and, in the process, I am also finding that I am quickly reaching my mental capacity for new processes and programs. It turns out that I might be an old dog and, while I can learn new tricks, that I might be having trouble performing.
This old dog/new trick paradox rubs raw against my desire to “give of my best to the master.” God deserves our very best, so I want our Sunday morning livestream (which until 4 weeks ago I had no frame of reference for achieving) to go out flawlessly. I want the YouTube videos (again, no frame of reference) to look professional. I want my Zoom meetings (I had no idea what zoom was a month ago) to feel like face-to-face meetings. None of it, honestly, is great: some of what we are producing is passable, at best, and some of it is not.
Maybe you are feeling the same way I am feeling. Maybe you are sensing that you are not doing anything well. Maybe there is someone reading this that is thinking that changing from PJs into sweats was your only accomplishment today (let me be the first to say, “GOOD FOR YOU!”). Allow me to offer you a word of encouragement: you are doing a great job at holding it all together during this time of unprecedented confusion.
But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” James 4:6 (ESV)
Perhaps, in part, this is happening (in my life) so that I can learn humility. Shocking as it might sound, I am not great at everything. I am learning through this pandemic that ‘okay’ is okay. I am reminding myself the same thing I wrote about in August 2017, “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly (G.K. Chesterton).” If there is one thing I have learned from the last month, it is that good news can be captured and shared via video clips of subpar quality. Those who are recording recovering patients leaving hospitals or grateful citizens banging pots out their windows to appreciate healthcare heroes could not care less about the pixelization or poor sound quality of their contribution toward our collective goodwill.
Give yourself a break. Give those around you a break. Practice humility. Accept limitations. Delight in sufficiency. Celebrate little victories. Immerse yourself in good news. Release the frustrations associated with perfection and embrace the joy attributable to the ordinary. Do your best and attempt the rest. Enjoy the grace of God that He gives to the humble. Keep on doing what you are able to do until we can do it altogether all together.
Today, according to the church calendar, is Good Friday. For the last 22 years, my family has had a rather busy schedule on this particular day: attend the service of remembrance at 2PM, shop at Kohl’s for our Easter outfits at 4, shop at BJ’s for the remaining items needed for the Easter Breakfast at 5:30, go out for dinner at 7 (typically at a steakhouse, as they are less crowded due to the Roman Catholic dietary restrictions observed by many in our community). However, none of these activities will be carried out this year: the service will be on-line, the stores are closed, the breakfast has been cancelled and the restaurants are take-out only. Nope, this Good Friday will be an ordinary, somewhat somber, day.
I suppose this is as it should be. After all, there is a term in the original Greek for the day that Jesus was crucified: “Friday” (I am being facetious, but you get the point – it was not called “Good Friday”). The day of Jesus’ trial before Pilate, his parade throughout the city and his death on the cross was an ordinary day. If it were not Jesus being crucified, the date would have passed unnoticed. It would have been just a macabre spectacle ‘enjoyed’ by the festive throng that was overcrowding Jerusalem. But this day was, and is, different. It was, and is, the day that the powers of this present age lost their grip on us.
The purpose of the governing authorities for all that occurred on “Good Friday” was to take any amount of human dignity away from the condemned. They were humiliated by being stripped of both their clothing and their identity. They were mocked and insulted in their sub-human state. They were painfully executed and robbed of existence. They were erased. Jesus, like the others, were supposed to be victims of one of our greatest fears: he would not only be gone but he would be forgotten.
But Jesus would not be robbed of his humanity. On that Friday afternoon just outside the city gates, he became for us the prototypical human being as he suffered and died for the sin of all of us. It is ironic that Pilate, at the start of this terrible episode in history, shouted, “Behold the man!” Through his death, Jesus conquered the sin that pervades, the world that perverts and the grave that perplexes.
As we endure this pandemic, as we shutter at the statistics and sympathize with the grieving, let us be reminded that death has no hold on those who trust in him.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. Psalm 23:4 (ESV)
Today, as we travel through this valley, dark and deadly, we can take solace in the fact that God’s power and control will protect and comfort us. His rod (which strikes against that which seeks to destroy us) and his staff (which pulls us back from our own dangerous acts) are a comfort as we venture through the shadows. Take heart, for the joyous light of Easter is just beyond the rise.
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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.