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.
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.
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.
During the past few months as we have been at home together, my family has been watching more syndicated game shows than usual. Many of these shows (e.g. “25 Words or Less”, “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy”) grant to the non-winners what is commonly referred to as a ‘consolation prize’, a parting gift given with the intention of lessening the blow of losing the game. These gifts might be as small as a gift certificate to Lobster Gram® or as substantial as a few thousand dollars. After thirty minutes of hard work, it is good to know that no one walks away empty handed.
“Consolation” is an interesting word to me. It is derived from a Latin prefix and root combination which originally meant ‘to soothe with” (the prefix ‘con’ and the root ‘solari’, from which we get the English word solace). In our cultural context, consolation is the comfort we receive by others after a loss or disappointment. When we offer consolation, we are giving someone else – either with words or actions – something like a balm or a salve in order to lessen the sting of loss. Consolation, in my mind, is somewhat akin to applying aloe vera to a bad sunburn.
During this pandemic, I have received consolation from an unlikely source: the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah is called “The Weeping Prophet” by biblical scholars due to all the difficulties he encounters while serving God. For the past two months, we have been discussing this book of the Bible during our on-line study and we have read about Jeremiah being mocked, beaten, dropped into a muddy well to die, imprisoned and impugned. Most of the book recounts hardship after hardship for our messenger of God. However, during this litany of crushing disappointments, there is a section (chapters 31-33) that commentators call “The Book of Consolation”.
“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah.” Jeremiah 31:31 (NIV)
Because of their disobedience and disregard for God, the people of Jerusalem were about to be displaced by the Babylonians. Because of their sin, they were going to suffer. But this suffering would only be for a season (albeit an extremely long season of seventy years). The coming generations would be restored and renewed. God promised through His word. The people would return to Jerusalem and God’s blessings would be reinstated. “The days are coming….”
We, too, can be consoled and soothed with the reality that “the days are coming” when God will make all things right. The good news for us is that the new covenant has already been made, through the blood of God the Son, so that all who call upon Him in faith shall be saved. The good news for us is that God has begun the process of restoration by allowing us the opportunity to be in good relationship with Him, through Christ, and that He who has begun this good work will be faithful to complete it. May we all find consolation in that, even though we may be also enduring disappointment and loss.
It has taken me 20 weeks of this pandemic, or perhaps 23 years of pastoral ministry, or maybe even 54 years of existence, to conclude that I do not handle disruption well. I can become internally agitated when a reasonable request is made while I am preparing for Sunday’s service at my dining room table. Prior to COVID-19, my soul may have become disturbed within me when I heard news of a weekend snowstorm. As long as I can remember, I have had incidences of the hairs on my neck bristling when my plans were disrupted by the delays of those I dearly love. It might be a problem.
Even those with a cursory understanding of the plot line of the Bible would know that God is frequently found disrupting the lives of people and nations for His purposes. Moses was living large and enjoying life what God appeared to him and told him it was time to move. Abraham was enjoying the fruits of long-delayed parenthood when God announced that it was time for a mountain-climbing trip with Isaac that would result in only one of them returning home. Esther, David, Peter, Paul, and Timothy all were faced with disruptions. We rarely know why, but God finds disruption necessary.
If you are like me, you have a choice: see disruptions as an attack against your ideal timetable or see disruptions as an avenue for God’s adjustments. Is it possible that the Master of the Universe may have other plans and priorities for your productive hours? Is it possible that the Lord Almighty may be reminding us that snowflakes, germs, and spotty Wi-Fi are not an enemy to our efficiency? Is it possible that these disruptions are, in fact, the crucial appointments amid our chaotic days? What if you and I were to see disruptions as blessings instead of blights?
There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death. Proverbs 14:12 & Proverbs 16:25 (ESV)
Solomon, in his words of wisdom, was compelled by the Holy Spirit to state the exact words twice. This double dose of truth disturbs me. I would like to think that my way (disruption-free hours of uninterrupted productivity and purpose) is right, but it is not; it is destructive. It is destructive for at least two reasons: first, I am denying the truth that I savor disruption, if it is a distraction of my own choosing (scrolling through Facebook is healthy but that request to help bring in the groceries is a step too far); second, I am often so engrossed in what I want to be doing that I mostly unaware of what God might be wanting me to do. I am going my ‘right way’ and lying to and limiting myself in the process.
The biblical model for so many whose stories are contained in its pages is to embrace the disruptions, without grumbling, as guidance from God. Through hurricanes, He will give us rest. Through traffic jams, He will teach us patience. Through a loud neighbor just beyond the windowpane, He will drive us to compassion. Then, perhaps, we will learn that disruptions are God’s way of directing us toward greater things.
May these words be just the disruption you needed today.
Allow me to state, up front, that I cannot understand, as a middle-aged white man, the frustrations and fears which are associated with being a person of color in America. I cannot honestly declare that I know what it feels like to be stopped by the police based primarily, if not solely, upon the color of my skin. I have no frame of reference where I am able to equate walking in my community with the possibility of being attacked. While I cannot express empathy (where we would share in a mutual emotion) with those mourning and protesting across the country, I can and do express sympathy (where we come alongside one another as we share our unique experiences).
What I can do, as a minister of the gospel and pastor of a city-cited church, is listen to the voices of the oppressed and marginalized. I can also share relevant and revelatory biblical truth. To do that, I would like to share something that someone smarter than me has said:
The Scripture is what tells us that the idolization of the flesh is sin (Gal. 5:16-24), that hatred of those made in the image of God is sin (1 Jn. 3:11-15), that mistreating people with the justice system is sin (Prov. 17:15; 23:10), that ignoring the cries of those being mistreated is sin (Deut. 23:14-15; Jas. 5:4). And the Scripture tells us that that sin, without repentance, brings the judgment of God (Rom. 6:23). That is true not only for those who personally rebel against God’s holiness and justice but also those who “give approval to those who practice them” (Rom. 1:32). That is a dreadful reality, to which those of us in Christ are called to serve as ambassadors pleading, as though Christ were pleading through us, “be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20). – Russell Moore
Each and every human being is made in the image of God. Each and every human being is fearfully and wonderfully made by the Almighty. Each and every human being is God’s handiwork and created in Christ Jesus to do good work. While holding tight to these truths, we also hold onto the biblical mandate to care for and champion the cause of those whose voices have been silenced: in the time of Christ and the apostles, the voiceless were the widows and orphans, the sick and unclean, the Samaritans and the Gentiles; in our day, they are people of color, as well as the homeless, the hungry and the trafficked.
To follow Christ means to follow Christ. Jesus was a member of the favored demographic, albeit from a back-water region of the nation, who confronted injustice and spoke for the down-trodden. He had his own challenges (he had no place to lay his head and was harassed by the authorities) but remained diligent in making sure that the issues and concerns of the dismissed were addressed. We are to follow Him along that same path. We must stand in opposition to injustice, hear the cries of those who have been silenced and labor to ensure that the dividing wall of hostility, which Christ destroyed, remains dismantled.
May the needed changes come through the people of God.
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.