The other night, we had a drive-in experience in our backyard; a video screen, projector, a VCR and an extension cord enabled us to watch “Hercules”. All the equipment was readily available to us, but until the other night, we had not taken the time to put it together. This is just the latest thing we have done because we have the time to do it. We have also spent time playing board games (my personal favorite has been “Ticket to Ride”) and card games (including the ‘oldie-but-goodie’ “Pit”, which our children had never played). We have also spent time exploring the neighborhood by foot. This pandemic has given us the opportunity to do things that we never get around to doing.
There are other things that have remained undone. I still have boxes which are still unpacked or stored away from our move eleven months ago. I still have books sitting on a radiator that I am intending to read. I still have summer clothes in the basement that I have yet to put in my bureau. I have a craft beer maker that is unopened (granted, I would still have to buy some yeast, which I have also yet to do). Despite the fact that this pandemic has given me a great deal of time at home to do whatever strikes my fancy, there are still things I have never gotten around to doing.
Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. Psalm 90:12
I wonder how many times I said, prior to 2020, “I wish I had the time to __________.” I wonder how many times I said, prior to COVID-19, “I will get around to _________ some day.” Lord, teach me to number my days. Lord, instruct me to calculate all twenty-four hours. Lord, educate me on the usage of each cycle of 1,440 minutes. Assuming I take 6 hours to sleep and 2 hours to address hunger and hygiene, that gives me 16 hours each and every day for my vocations and avocations. What am I doing with that time? Am I utilizing this precious resource for mindful productivity and recreation or am I wasting it on mindless amusement and entertainment?
Today is day 143 of quarantine; we have been home for 3,432 hours. What have you been doing for the past 20 weeks? The Psalmist has convicted me to redeem the remaining days and hours of the quarantine, however long it lasts. I want to spend more time in constructing (building value into my life as well as the lives of others) and less in consuming (burning daylight in otherwise empty pursuits). I want to cherish the time I have with my children and my wife. I want to maximize this time of ‘voluntary seclusion’ so that, when I look back at this season of my life, I have no regrets. Lord, help me to capture a moment today where I see and share just one of your many blessings.
Lord, teach us to number our (quarantined) days.
It has been hot in Massachusetts for the last few weeks, with heat indices approaching 100° on many days. It has been so hot, in fact, that the new street in front of our home that I wrote about a few weeks ago has softened and now contains a good number of tire tracks. We are fortunate; we have a few window unit air conditioners that can take the sting out of the oppressive heat and humidity. But, under the shadow of COVID-19, there are a number of places we would have gone to beat the heat that are, this summer, unavailable.
In previous years we, as a family, might have gone to the local mall or the movie theater to escape the high temperatures and enjoy some climate-controlled coolness. Our summers past have included visits to museums and dips in public pools to find some relief. There is none of that this year. The cinemas remain unopened, the malls are too crowded, the museums are not welcoming the general public and the pools are, by and large, closed. Even the beaches, where it has also been unusually warm, are not completely safe as the sunbathers and swimmers contend with shark sightings and the lingering effects of this pandemic.
It is days like these that make a person ‘squirrelly’ – hot and bothered and itching to be somewhere else. I imagine that most of us have had more than a few days like that. What do we when we face times like that? Simmer and stew? Stomp and scream? Toss and turn at night and pace and pout during the day? It is not in our nature, I believe, to suffer in silence. We need someone to know, someone to care, someone to assure us that things will improve. Those are the days that I appreciate God’s gift of prayer, the blessing of conversation and intercession with the one who knows us best and cares for us most completely.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30 (NIV)
I don’t know about you, but the heat takes something out of me, and I am weary. With the news of the spread of COVID-19, I am burdened. I am grateful that Jesus offers to share His yoke with me (for those unfamiliar with the term, a yoke is a farming implement that harnesses two animals, presumably of similar strength, together). I am offered to share my load with God incarnate, who declares that my contribution to the work will be easy and light. When can we begin? It makes me feel like that three-year old at the grocery store in the race-car shopping cart, thinking that he is exerting all the effort to move the cart, but the reality is that his father is pushing from behind. Our Father in Heaven is pushing us along as well.
If you are weary and burdened, due to climate or contagion or some other catastrophe, come to him. He will give you rest.
I read a news story about a prominent web security specialist who had his laptop stolen from the back of his SUV while he was out to dinner (mind you, this act of thievery occurred ‘b.p.’ – before the pandemic). This expert in cyber safety was perplexed by the thief, wondering how how they knew that the electronics were there, under a blanket and behind tinted glass? The desk sergeant who took the incident report at the local police station stated what the victim had over looked, “Thieves are now using Bluetooth scanners on their phones; they can tell what is in the car before they break into it.” It turns out that your electronics are continually emitting signals that can be paired with other wireless devices, and those signals alert these would-be robbers to the presence of our laptops, tablets and phones.
Those who seek to separate us from our stuff and certainly cunning and crafty. If we are wise, we will be aware of their schemes and act in such a way to avoid their attacks. If we are smart, we will be vigilant in locking our doors and well-versed in the latest security practices. But that is still not enough; we need to fight complacency, that nagging temptation to let down our guard and assume that everything will be alright if we leave that back gate unlatched for one night (but that is the night that the skunk skulks in and strews trash all through the yard).
We all are prone to become complacent, whether it is ‘forgetting’ to wear a mask during this pandemic or ‘figuring’ that someone else will pick up your debris and dirty things. We all are susceptible to being blissfully unaware of some potential danger or defect that is present in our life. This is true in the physical world and true in the spiritual world. We are inclined to sleep-walk through some situations to the point where Satan gains a foothold in his attempts to destroy us. It is the concern that Peter addresses in the following verse:
Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. 1 Peter 5:8 (NIV)
The first step in overcoming the enemy is vigilance: we are called to be alert (to stay awake and aware) and sober-minded (to maintain clarity of thought and purpose). The second step is knowing the nature of the enemy: a thief will thieve, a predator will hunt its prey, and the enemy will spew enmity. Taken together, these words from Peter encourage us to be familiar with our surroundings and be clear about the dangers they contain. We are not commanded to cower in fear, assuming the worst, but to commit to face all that seeks to rob us of our joy, anticipating the best God has to offer. Every time we log onto the internet, we must be aware of the lion lurking. Every time we engage with the culture, we must maintain a clear mind so as not to miss what might be hiding in the shadows.
Be careful out there and be caring for one another. Friends don’t let friends be devoured by big cats.
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.
I am sure that you are aware that the 2nd Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence 244 years ago tomorrow. This rather short document, signed by 56 colonial delegates, is a masterful work of art. One particularly poetic sentence is as follows: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” If you ask me, this is what we celebrate with our flag waving, parades and pyrotechnics. Unfortunately, as we endure this pandemic, most (if not all) of the pageantry of our nation’s Independence Day will be cancelled, but there is still much in which we can rejoice.
These God-given rights of all people – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – have been ‘works in progress’ since they were first penned by Thomas Jefferson and then edited on the Congressional floor. While, in 1776, the term ‘all men’ meant ‘all white property-owning males of mature age and education’, we have worked hard in the intervening years to secure these rights to all the citizenry of the United States of America, irrespective of skin-color, financial means, gender, age or perceived intellect. The news of the day reminds us that we still have miles to go in our journey, but let us, this weekend, celebrate the ideals we collectively embrace and strive to realize.
Let us also ask ourselves, as individuals and as a society, what we can do to secure these rights of life (to conduct our affairs free from governmental interference), liberty (to enjoy a simple existence free from oppression and characterized by justice), and the pursuit of happiness (to have the opportunity to live a life that brings both contentment and pleasure) for all those who call this parcel of earth their home. Let us ask the question that caused a revolution in the first place: if anyone in the land of the free and the home of the brave is unjustly oppressed or silenced, are not we all? As we celebrate our nation’s Independence Day, let us also rejoice in our interdependence with one another.
“…your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Matthew 6:10 (NIV)
I am grateful that I was born in this country. I am thankful that I am an American. As I write this, I recognize my own privilege in these statements: as a white male of mature age and education, I have always experienced the American Dream in all its shining greatness. I also recognize that the experience of many of my neighbors and friends is not the same. That is why, as much as I celebrate this great day in American history, I anticipate a greater day in human history – the realization of the kingdom of God and the culmination of our citizenship in it. As I await Christ’s return, I will strive to do God’s will here in the great U.S. of A., advocating that all men people are (not ‘will be’) endowed by their Creator (God Himself) with certain unalienable (eternally irrevocable) rights (legal entitlements), including, but not limited to, life liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This ideal is surely worth celebrating until Christ calls us home.
Happy Independence Day!
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.
I read a story of some good news earlier this week. According to ABC News, it seems that over 10 years ago, Forrest Fenn, a wealthy and cryptic New Mexico art dealer, hid a treasure chest with gold and gems estimated to be worth millions of dollars somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. Well, it was reported that someone finally found the fortune after more than a decade of intense searching. The treasure hunt was not without danger and, in fact, over the years, authorities say five people have died trying to find the hidden riches. Fenn has confirmed that a man has discovered his hiding spot, but nothing more about the new millionaire has been discovered.
Imagine hearing that someone has hidden a vast fortune in a specific, yet equally vast, area. What would you do with that information? Would you proceed with life as usual? Would you satisfy your curiosity and spend your weekends and vacations solving clues and searching for gold? Would you quit your job and sell your house, devoting all your attentions to unearthing the bounty? Would you be willing to risk your life for the opportunity to secure your future? Would you dismiss the possibility as an elaborate hoax or a sensational publicity stunt? I, too, wonder what I would do had I known what had been hidden in the hills.
[Jesus said,] “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.” Matthew 13:44 (NIV)
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden….” This shortest parable of Jesus reminds us that the reign and rule of God Almighty is present in our everyday life, yet it is also hidden. However, evidences of God’s sovereign majesty are also discoverable. This is certainly good news for us today; this pandemic may obscure God’s sovereignty and ongoing racial tensions may camouflage God’s kingdom, but they cannot eliminate the presence of God which is all around us. It can be seen in the acts of compassion performed by essential workers every day. It can be heard in the voices of young people declaring justice for all. It can be felt in the pains of all those who sense that more needs to be done.
“When a man found it, he … sold all he had and bought that field.” This is a simple story which is easily applicable: you strike oil in a vacant lot; you do whatever it takes to buy that lot; you enjoy the riches that lie beneath. The Bible declares that glimpses of the kingdom of heaven are all around us. We are therefore obligated to unearth these glimpses wherever we discover them and, by extension, bless those around us with the goodness, greatness and glory of God’s reign. There is a treasure awaiting all those willing to work for it; the kingdom of heaven – the perfect plan and purposes of our Sovereign Lord – is available to all who seek it.
What will you do with this information?
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.
It began, for me, on a Sunday afternoon a number of weeks ago as we were dropping something off at the home of a church member – we saw a small painted rock, a bit of cheer during this challenging time, on the curbstone in front of their house. Since that time, I have been seeing painted rocks, many with inspirational slogans, all over the neighborhood as we walk. They have been placed on stoops and in side yards, gathered around trees and set upon fenceposts. I have no idea who put them there or when, but I do appreciate the lift they give my soul as I encounter them.
These are not the only rocks I walk by, mind you. My ambling has enabled me to observe cornerstones, surveyor’s marks, painted sea walls, an old milestone, gravestones and etched building facades, all sharing a story, a memory and a history. These stones, painted or chiseled, are permanent reminders of fleeting realities. They are prompts to remember our collective past. They represent to all those who travel by them that that building was once the Massachusetts Fields School or that this particular street was once the main route to Boston. They mark lives and industries, they represent hope and heartache, they tell stories.
Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer, saying, “Thus far the LORD has helped us.” 1 Samuel 7:12
As I see all these stones around me, I have been reminded of Samuel and his ‘Ebenezer’ (a Hebrew compound word which means, literally, ‘stone of remembrance’). Samuel did not want to forget God’s faithfulness, so he erected a rock in the middle of a clearing to remember the event. We could benefit from the same practice: we could experience so much joy if, as we moved about the trails of our lives we were given permanent prompts to remind us of God’s faithfulness throughout the trials of our lives.
I have been thinking about those stones as we navigate the current crisis. I have been thinking about the ‘things’ that have suddenly found their way onto all of our counters and tabletops and have taken up residence in all of our cars. I have begun to see the disposable face masks, the bottles of hand sanitizer and the drums of disinfecting wipes as ‘Ebenezers’ – no longer do they serve as a reminder of a deadly virus but also as a reminder of the Lord who has helped us thus far, of the God who is delivering us through these tough times.
Ebenezers are all around us, if we are careful enough to notice them. They are the permanent and unchanging objects, infused with meaningful memories, that surround us. They are painted rocks and markings on a door frame. They are hospital bracelets and broken wristwatches. They are considered junk by everyone but us; to us, they are the epitome of joy. They are the containers that hold the memories of God’s faithfulness and the tangible touchpoints reminding us that thus far the Lord has helped us. They are precious indeed.