Earlier this week, my home was uncharacteristically quiet. The only sounds I heard were the soft taps of my laptop keystrokes and the rustling of Legos® as my son was building a masterpiece in another room. This unexpected hush was because we woke that morning without power. At first, I was concerned: My daughter requires electricity and internet to teach remotely and my son requires the same to be taught remotely. Eventually, we soon came up with a game plan – Rebekah would have to go to our oldest son’s house to teach and Joshua would have to attend classes via cell service on his phone. It was not perfect, but it worked for a while (cell service diminished as the neighborhood taxed the system and phone batteries do not last forever). Thankfully, by 8:30 the next morning, we had power in the house.
We all face inconveniences in life, whether it be a power failure or a road closure or a toilet paper shortage; and we all are forced to react to these (petty) annoyances in one way or another. One reaction is aggravation, where we focus on what we do not have and fume over the lost resource (whether it be time, opportunity, or possessions). The other reaction is acceptance, where we inventory what we still have and implement positive changes (with our time, opportunity, and possessions). As pastor and missionary William L. Watkinson wrote more than 100 years ago, “Yet is it far better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”
Am I the only one, though, that feels like I am living in the center of a Yankee Candle store? I seem to be lighting an unprecedented number of candles this year. I have lit a candle for the pandemic, and another for the racial divisions, and another for the presidential election, and another for remote learning, and another for state college tuition costs, and another for the West Coast wildfires. There is darkness everywhere I look these days and I fear that there are not enough scented votives to disperse it.
“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:14-16
We, as a global community, need people to shine the light. We are in desperate need of someone to illuminate the terrain to guide our steps and guard our shins, to bring heat to the wounds we have inflicted on ourselves and others to provide purification and cauterization, and to offer hope in places of despair by declaring that the dreadful unknown can be defeated. We who know Christ as Lord and Savior have, in abundant supply, the radiant and radiating truth of forgiveness and restoration, and it is more than sufficient for us to share. In the places that are overwhelmed and powerless, perhaps your candle will make a difference.
I remember thinking, after the power had come back on and the technology was again available, “Lord, give me another minute to appreciate the quiet before the din of darkness creeps back in.”
As we all endure a seemly endless barrage of bad news, including hurricanes in the south, wildfires in the west, racial unrest throughout the country and a pandemic across the globe, some may be wondering where God might be found in all of this. It may be tempting to think that the creator and designer of all we know and sense is somehow detached or disinterested in the travails besetting the inhabitants of our little planet. It might be rationalized that God has bigger things to address than the challenges we are currently being forced to endure. In the fog of uncertainty, it is only natural to wonder why God seems still and silent.
It is the same feeling that the first followers of Jesus experienced and are recorded in Mark 4:35-41. After engaging with a crowd of people earlier in the day, as evening approached Jesus felt it was time for him and the twelve to cross the Sea of Galilee. While they were sailing a furious squall develops and nearly swamps the boat. Can you imagine being one of a dozen people in a fishing boat, at night, in the middle of a lake, at the height of a high-wind thunderstorm? What would you shout to God, who is peacefully sleeping (and apparently oblivious) through this life-threatening ordeal?
‘Teacher, is it no concern to you that we are perishing?’ Mark 4:38
I have to wonder how many times, in the crucible of distress, I have thought the same thing. It is a natural human reaction to the difficulties of life. Is it, though, a reasoned reaction for a person of faith to express?
The disciple of Jesus refers to Jesus as ‘teacher’, which is an accurate title for him. But, I wonder, what meaning or relationship the term ‘teacher’ conveys. It is natural to see Jesus as a guide, an instructor, or as a trainer. Certainly, the scriptures give ample examples of the teachings Jesus conveyed, including the lessons taught just prior to their departure on this sea cruise. But the primary role of Jesus was not teacher, for he essentially restated the doctrines and commands of the Old Testament, albeit with uncommon authority and unexpected application. Jesus’ primary role was to show humanity the love of the Father though the giving of his life as a ransom for many. If we are unable to see our relationship with Jesus as anything more than instructional, we will be blinded to his divine salvation.
The disciple of Jesus then asks him if our destruction is of any concern to him. If we are expecting our relationship with Christ to be essentially functional – telling us what we need to know and how we are to act – then it will come as no surprise that we question his unwillingness to offer support when our lives are not working as we think they ought. However, as any parent knows, apparent inaction is not a lack of concern but an opportunity for maturity. Is it no concern to you that your baby keeps falling over as it learns to walk? Is it no concern to you that your child may make bad choices as they go out with their friends? Jesus’ response to the men in the boat with him is telling – ‘Have you still no faith?’ Our life is a concern to Jesus, as is our growth.
Besides, that boat was never going to sink. Jesus made his dwelling on earth so that he would save his people from their sins. Dying in a boating accident was not part of the irrevocable plan of God. Despite the howl of the winds or the height of the waves, the lives of the boaters were never truly in jeopardy. We would be wise to remember the promises of God as we respond to the pains of the world. Those who know Jesus as the beloved Messiah can rest in the promise relayed by someone who happened to be in the boat that night, for Peter wrote, ‘The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.’ (2 Peter 3:9 NIV)
As I endure this season of suffering, I pray my response will be, ‘Lord, thank you for the opportunity to grow and fulfill your purposes for me.’
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 is amazing how fast time flies! This weekend, for half of my children, will mark the end of Summer and school vacation. My daughter will begin her new school year (teaching remotely 443 miles from her 5th grade students) on Monday and my middle son will move into his on-campus apartment for the Fall semester on Wednesday. Our youngest son has been blessed with an academic reprieve, for his remote learning classes will not resume for another three weeks.
In many ways it seems like forever since David came home – theoretically for his freshman year’s Spring break – on March 5th, since 6th grade classes moved on-line for Joshua beginning March 16th, and since Rebekah’s truncated senior year of college and student teaching moved to remote and she drove home from Washington on March 17th. As an added blessing, throughout the Spring and Summer we have also seen our oldest son an average of twice a week. I cannot imagine another season of life when we will have this much shared time together. But now, the times, they are a-changing. The passage from August to September, for me this year, will be bitter-sweet.
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: […] a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance…. Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4 (NIV)
As I contemplate the change of season – meteorological and metaphorical – it causes me to pause and posit what the coming days may bring. What will be the activity of this new time and season: weeping, laughing, mourning, dancing? Are the days to be filled with disaster or delight, or some combination of both? My guess: as it has been over the first 240 days of 2020, it will be for its remaining 126. There have been and there will be those whose days, like mine, are filled with more laughter than tears and there are those whose days are filled with just the opposite.
Each of us have differing experiences and unique contexts in which we navigate the challenges and charms this life has to offer. Because of this reality, we must allow empathy, the ability to feel for another without feeling as another, to be our guide when interacting with one another. We all have grieved a loss (of life, of livelihood or of liberty) at some point this year and we all have needed compassion. We all have enjoyed a blessing (through nature, through new life, or through neighbors) during this pandemic and we all have appreciated companionship. Each of us will also continue to shed tears of sorrow and tears of joy in September and beyond, and we all must allow others the space to express themselves, unrestrained, before us.
The coming days, for me, will be tough as we transition from life fully together toward life beginning to move us apart. The coming days, for you, are likely to be different emotionally. I am glad we have each other as we rejoice together and as we grieve together. There is a time for everything, just like the weather in New England. If you are unhappy with what is occurring around you, just wait a minute with a friend.
I have become a ‘fair weather fan’ when it comes to my beloved Red Sox. I can simply no longer watch their games. They are currently sitting in last place in the American League, due in no small part to the facts that they have no pitching, they are struggling to hit the ball and they lead the league in errors. But it is not their record that is making this season unbearable; it is their apparent lack of heart on the part of the players. I can only assume this malaise is evident due to the pandemic protocols – no fans in the stands, no player on-field interactions, and social distancing in the dugout – that has robbed “America’s Pastime”, at least in Boston, of its magic.
There is something special about social interaction that cannot be captured on a Zoom call or over the phone. As much as I hate to admit it, we require human contact in order to thrive. I wonder if things would be different were the veterans on the Red Sox allowed to embrace the younger players to encourage them, especially as things are going from bad to worse. On a larger scale, are we, as a culture and as a planet, suffering to a greater degree because we cannot, literally and figuratively, shoulder one another’s load? Do we, as a people, really need a hug?
Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing. 1 Thessalonians 5:11 (NIV)
This, unfortunately, is a lost season for the Red Sox. However, it need not be the same for us. I am confident that we are able to reclaim much of what has been taken by this virus and its consequences. My suggestion for reclamation is that we rediscover the power of prayer. What has prayer got to do with being physically present with one another? I am glad you asked.
First, the language of prayer conveys physical presence. When we pray, we are lifting one another toward God. Offering up biblical prayers, like the Lord’s Prayer, evoke a real bonding of hearts and minds with one another and with God. We are together when we pray.
Second, the discipline of prayer develops intimacy. We listen more and share more when we intercede for one another. We are willing to expose our hopes and our hurts more freely in the context of prayer. We are tender when we pray.
Third, the practice of prayer offers avenues of reconnection. When I pray for you, I become invested in the ‘rest of the story’ and become eager to see how things turn out. When I pray, I am more likely to follow through and resume the conversation. We are touching base when we pray.
Finally, the reality of prayer draws us away from the problems and draws us toward the provider. Prayer enables us, together, to recognize that we haven’t got the answers to some of the toughest questions, and to recognize that we all, irrespective of demographics, needs God’s intervention. We are trusting when we pray.
While we cannot embrace one another just yet, we can engage in prayer with and for one another. That is no small thing.
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.
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.