“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.
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.
For many, the Christmas season means spending a great deal of time traveling: a dozen trips in the car battling the traffic to the mall, the annual airline flight to visit the grandparents, or the 10-hour bus ride home from college. Time on the road or waiting in a terminal is synonymous with celebrating Christmas. It makes sense, since travelling has always been a part of Jesus’ birth. I am thinking about a young couple named Mary and Joseph, who were required to travel roughly ninety miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. To put it in perspective, it would be like walking from Dorchester to Hartford.
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. Luke 2:1-3
Sometimes, we might think that the demands upon us to travel are beyond our control and we chafe at the expectation. That may have been how Mary and Joseph felt. Caesar Augustus thought he had a good idea in counting everyone in his realm and raise taxes to increase his kingdom. Because he was the dictator of the entire Rome world, he could do anything he wanted. So they went, on foot, despite the fact that Mary was ‘heavy laden with child’. God had a plan for them, and God often has a plan for us.
Sometimes, we might think that the destination of our travel plans are outside our comfort zone. That could have been how Joseph and Mary felt as they awkwardly advanced toward Bethlehem together. It was an uncomfortable situation: they were pledged to be married but had yet to have the ceremony when it was obvious that they were expecting. Mary was in an uncomfortable condition: can you imagine walking 15 miles a day for 6 days while 9 months pregnant? God was guiding their every step, and God is also guiding ours.
God may be leading us to places out of our control and beyond our comfort because there are people in those places that need the hope, the joy and the love that appeared in its fulness for the first time in Bethlehem. There are people in parking lots and registers who need a smile and a warm greeting. There are people frustrated by missed connections or missing luggage that could benefit from an act of kindness and a candy cane. The roads and airways are filled with inconsiderate and self-centered travelers; perhaps God could use you to offer those around you common courtesy and Christmas cheer.
Wherever God has you travelling this month, whether it be across the room, across the street or across the country, know that God has a purpose in your journey – to bring forth a witness to God’s grace, mercy and love to those who may not experience it otherwise. We could choose to follow Mary and Joseph’s example and remain faithful to God wherever He may lead us. We could choose to share the delight of knowing the light that shines in the darkness, the hope of nations, the King of Kings and the prince of peace.
May we go wherever we go with gladness and may the gifts arrive unbroken.
Members of my family recently had occasion to fly ‘home’. Whenever anyone travels the friendly skies, others will invariably ask, “Was it a good flight?” What we are typically wondering is if it was bumpy or smooth – was there the dreaded turbulence. Patrick Smith is a commercial airline pilot, contends that the number one producer of flight anxiety in his passengers is that pesky turbulence. We who have never attended flight school, assume the plane’s ability to remain aloft is at risk. But in an article he wrote for Business Insider, Smith argues that from the perspective of the pilot, turbulence is often a mere blip:
For all intents and purposes, a plane cannot be flipped upside-down, thrown into a tailspin, or otherwise flung from the sky by even the mightiest gust or air pocket. Conditions might be annoying and uncomfortable, but the plane is not going to crash. Turbulence is an aggravating nuisance for everybody, including the crew, but it’s also, for lack of a better term, normal. From a pilot’s perspective, it is ordinarily seen as a convenience issue, not a safety issue. When a flight changes altitude in search of smoother conditions, this is by and large in the interest of comfort. The pilots aren’t worried about the wings falling off; they’re trying to keep their customers relaxed and everybody’s coffee where it belongs…. In the worst of it, you probably imagine the pilots in a sweaty lather: the captain barking orders, hands tight on the wheel as the ship lists from one side to another. Nothing could be further from the truth.
That pretty much sums up the way life is: a great majority of us are cowering in our seats, concerned about things that will never happen, while the few who know the truth carry out their duties, unaffected by the reality of their circumstance. We fret over our kids climbing trees and our lug nuts coming loose. We worry over lightning strikes and dog bites. We lose sleep over the national debt and the Red Sox prospects in the playoffs. Instead, we would rest easier if we trusted those who have the expertise to handle these matters to handle these matters. We would be less anxious if we let the pilot fly the plane.
My heart is not proud, LORD, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. Psalm 131:1
My problem, and the problem of my fellow inhabitants on earth, irrespective of demography, is that we concern ourselves with matters ‘above our pay grade’. Beyond the troubles of turbulence during our flights (or elsewhere), we regularly engage in forming opinions on matters about which we have little or no knowledge, the things that only God can fathom. Imagine the peace we would gain when we do not concern ourselves with great matters of God – the lengths of grace, the depth of mercy, the fullness of compassion, the vastness of forgiveness – and simply trust the one who is an expert in these things too wonderful for us.
As we travel, we will be required to endure bumps and tossing caused by the winds we encounter. At those very moments, we need to trust the One who directs our path, the Lord Almighty.
A number of years ago I gave a small group of men who attended Calvary a book as a gift. We were about to study its themes and thought it would be a nice thing to hand out this inexpensive resource. One of the men, who will remain nameless, asked me as I gave him one, “How much do I owe you?” I simply said that he owed nothing, that it was a gift. “I can’t accept that; I can buy my own,” was his reply. Later on, I found out that he had, in fact, ordered his own copy of the book and paid for it himself.
It was a small thing, but the ramifications of that interaction have remained with me. As we enter into another gift-giving season, I am thinking about the difference between a gift and an acquisition. We, as human beings, acquire things from many sources – some things are inherited, some are purchased, some are salvaged and some are made. A few things we acquire are given as gifts, an extension of someone else’s kindness toward us. Most acquisitions are practical, secured in one fashion or another based upon necessity. Gifts are relational, received unsolicited based upon generosity.
“And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” 2 Corinthians 9:14-15
As we approach Christmas, we have a choice: Do we accept God’s gift of grace, best demonstrated through Jesus, as an unsolicited expression the Creator’s kindness or do we attempt to acquire this immeasurable resource by any other avenue? Are we willing to receive a gift (an outpouring of the relationship God desires to cultivate with us) or not? Are we able to see that the incarnation of Christ at Christmas is an indescribable gift?
The New Testament records a number of gifts that have been given by God, including the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38), the gift of life (1 Peter 3:7) and a myriad of spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 14:1). It seems foolish to me to reject the offer that the Almighty has made or, looking at the Savior resting in the manger, ask of God, “How much do I owe you?” The wise among us know that there is no such thing as compensation for a gift, for it is an expression of unmerited favor restoring a relationship we cannot repair with our own power or at any price.
Imagine that there is a present, simply wrapped, beneath your tree with an announcement accompanying its arrival stating that the gift is for you. Don’t say that you cannot accept it because you have nothing to give in return. Don’t say that you will pay for it and in so doing reject the gift. Don’t say you don’t deserve it because a gift, by its very nature, is undeserved. Accept the gift of Christ – and with Him the forgiveness of sin, eternal life, spiritual guidance and the hopeful peace of reunion with the Father. Who wants a gift they could buy for themselves, anyway?
The world is full of paradoxes – propositions that contain contradictory elements but prove to be true. There is Galileo’s paradox: though most numbers are not squares, there are no more numbers than squares; the Archer’s paradox: an archer must, in order to hit his target, not aim directly at it, but slightly to the side; and the paradox of Hedonism: when one pursues happiness itself, one is miserable, but when one pursues something else, one achieves happiness. In the second chapter of Paul’s first letter to Timothy there is another paradox, which I will call the exclusive inclusivity paradox.
“… [God] wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people.” 1 Timothy 2:4-6a
The truth of the gospel is, if nothing else, perfectly inclusive. God wants all people to be saved. God wants all people to come to a knowledge of the truth. God’s desire is that every person – irrespective of gender, class, ethnicity or age – would know Him. God’s wish is the every person in all creation over all time would have intimate understanding of His grace, mercy, forgiveness, and love. The truth of the gospel is available to all.
The truth of the gospel is also, if nothing else, perfectly exclusive. There is only one God and one mediator between God and mankind. When it comes to the gospel , there are no choices but one: believe in the God of the Bible and the sacrificial death of Jesus as a ransom for sin…or do not. There are not many pathways to paradise, but one (the road to Calvary). There is no diversity of positive alternatives in one’s eternal future, but one true God (whose wrath against sin is mediated solely through Christ).
This is the paradox of the gospel: that God desires that everyone know Him and that the truth that He wants everyone to know about Him is extremely specific. The good news is that God wants everyone to be saved; the challenge to mankind is that salvation comes only through Him. Some of us like exclusivity: memberships in an elite club, offers that only we can accept, relationships with that one significant other. Some of us gravitate toward inclusivity: neighborhood block parties, open houses and free samples. The wonderful thing about the gospel -driven church is the exclusive inclusivity of the truth she espouses.
There is room for us all before the cross of Christ. The longing of God is that all people trust Jesus as their Lord and Savior. The longing of God is that we all know that there is only one name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved (Acts 4:22). If you know the exclusive inclusivity of the gospel, share it with those who have yet to hear the truth of God. If you do not know the exclusive inclusivity of the gospel, consider accepting these words and going to church this weekend.
The one true God longs for all people to know Him.