It is incredible what can change in a week. Grade schools were still in session, restaurants were open and traffic into the city was bogged down with its usual congestion. The developments and press conferences that we’ve watched daily have given new meaning to “cancel culture”. We are now required to understand new terms like social distancing, COVID-19 and pandemic. As we, together as a global community, deal with the ramifications of all these changes, join with me in praying for those most deeply impacted: those with fragile health, that the precautions we all take will protect those most in danger; those who own, manage and/or are employed by small businesses that cannot operate ‘from home’, that the economic realities of this crisis will not lead to financial ruin; students, school staffs, educators and administrators, that the ramifications of time away will be mitigated by online community and instruction.
I am aware that some are afraid – fearful of infection, fearful of loss, fearful in uncertainty. I share your fears. I am concerned that someone in my family will get sick. I am anxious for the church and her continuing ministry should we be unable to meet for a month or more. For me, this week has been like an unending snowstorm. When it snows in greater Boston during the weekend, my anxiety level increases as I contemplate cancellations and the results of not gathering. I somehow think that the faith of God in the congregation depends upon 70 minutes of impactful worship and if we cannot get together, all hell will break loose (literally and figuratively).
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Matthew 16:18 (ESV)
The snow will stop falling. The pandemic will end. The world will go back to normal. God will still reign.
So, I am choosing to count the blessings. Blessing 1: political divisions have given way to community interest; instead of dividing over red and blue policies, we are uniting in our shared concern for one another. Blessing 2: optional fellowship has given way to intentional connecting; instead of engaging with others on our terms, I am seeing more interactions motivated by love. Blessing 3: a new appreciation for our schools and day-care providers; the creativity of emergency on-line learning, the providing of lunches and instruction and the healthy interactions of adults with our children are amazing. Blessing 4: the advancements in technology; with live-streaming, video conferencing, on-line giving, telecommuting, e-commerce and news apps, most can stay connected even when we practice social distancing. Blessing 5: free time with family for reading, recreation and rest.
As we continue to weather this storm, I encourage you to come up with your own list of unforeseen blessings this crisis has given you. I also encourage you to be a blessing to those around you – bring toilet paper to an elderly neighbor, order take-out to support a struggling establishment or call an old friend.
God will prevail.
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As I was shoveling last week, I lost something amidst the snow for a moment. I was not immediately aware of what happened at that moment, but thankfully, I quickly recognized what was happened and was able to restore, mostly, what had been lost. The troubling fact about this encounter with nature was that it was not my keys or my phone that I lost; it was my character. Through an interaction with a cranky neighbor, my fleshly nature was revealed and my witness as a follower of Christ was trampled. In a moment, I went from being a light to the world to being dim-witted.
All I remember about the interaction is his question: “Would you like it if they threw snow onto your property? You think you’re entitled.” Aside from the fact that I have no property to speak of, he exposed my lapse of judgement. I was justifying myself with the thought that this other neighbor, whose space I was piling my shoveling onto, did not have a car. I was rationalizing my actions as a response to the fact that the street had yet to be plowed and my small increase in the drift would be addressed by the city’s plow. Still, my neighbor was right.
So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. Matthew 7:12
I was not treating my neighbor the way I would want to be treated. I was not reflecting the nature that the Spirit of God had given me when Christ saved my sorry state and transformed my selfish soul. Fortunately, in the midst of the interaction, I realized my error and removed my additions to the drift and, as an act of contrition, enlarged my neighbor’s walkway. It did not go unnoticed by my cranky neighbor; we swapped apologies (turns out he was unable to get an oil delivery and temporarily lost his heat) and I offered him a space-heater (which he appreciated but declined). He was gracious enough to repair my reputation, for which I praise God.
This whole episode has served as a reminder that a single moment of weakness can demolish a structure that took years to build. An angry word or a thoughtless action can compromise anyone’s integrity; our inner strength – our character – can be damaged and, if not addressed promptly, ultimately destroyed. We, who are commissioned by Christ to be His witnesses in the world, must routinely assess our actions and attitudes and perform the hard work of confession when our testimony is tarnished and about to be torn down.
As I stood outside the other night, in the snow, I thought about ‘doubling-down’: I thought about defending myself by deflecting my bad behavior with (justifiable) excuses for ignoring the “Golden Rule”. I would have felt better in the moment, but would have felt regret for a long time after. I thank God that He guides me, even when I stray, so that I can return to the path that leads me, and others, into His presence. And I thank God that I found that path the other night in the snow.
When you spend more than twelve hours on the road, driving from Maryland to Massachusetts, you have a great deal of time to think. Because of the weather conditions last Saturday, our 382 miles trip took much longer than I anticipated. It was a challenging and stressful drive over snowy and slushy highways. The satellite radio and the DVDs from Redbox© made the travelling a bit more bearable while I focused on the road ahead. Throughout the journey, my thoughts turned to lessons about life and living, some superficial and some profound.
The first lesson I learned was that I ought not trust forecasts. We live in a society saturated in information, including phone apps that will show you live weather radar and predictions for storm patterns. As we were anticipating our trip home from Jeanine’s brother’s funeral, I watched and listened to meteorologists in Baltimore (via television) and Boston (via phone app) predicting that the storm was expected to move beneath us and travel out to sea before blowing into Massachusetts via the Cape. New Jersey, Westchester County and Western Connecticut were supposed to be spared more than a dusting. No such luck was to fall upon us. The computers were wrong and the storm took a more western course, forcing us to face light but accumulating snow every minute of our trip. Experts are not always correct.
I also learned that there are times, rare but right, that staying with others while disregarding the letter of the law is the proper course of action. Most of the highways we traveled (The New Jersey Turnpike, Garden State Parkway and Interstates 87, 287, 84 and 90) were three lanes in either direction. In the worst of conditions, these throughways became two sets of ruts travelling along the divided white lines. At times there was a series of 15 or so cars, all moving at 45 mph, all illegally crossing over their lanes and maintaining the safety of the roads. Obedience to the law is not always best.
There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death. Proverbs 14:12
The biggest lesson I learned was that I could stand to be more humble. Early on in the process, I made the decision to return to work on Sunday. We made our plans based on my choice to be home Saturday night. Throughout our time away I saw weather reports and I remained resolute. I received texts from people in the church advising me to reconsider and I remained resolute. My wife wanted me to change our plans and I remained resolute. I unnecessarily risked everything to show that I was right, but I was wrong. I feel that needs to be stated again: I was wrong. I was proud. I have since apologized to my wife and children for my arrogance. I am not always right.
Thank God that we, despite my own foolishness, arrived safely at home. In hindsight, I should have listened to those around me, led by the Spirt, instead of listening only to myself. There was a way that appeared to me to be right, and it certainly could have led to disaster. I am fortunate that I had the opportunity to learn these lessons and not harmed by the consequences of my unwise haughtiness. Let’s hope that you and I can all learn from my stupidity.
Dear gentleman who drove behind me on Pope’s Hill Road on Monday morning,
Please stop beeping at the cars in front of you. Please stop expecting us to somehow move quicker; to drive over the vehicles and pedestrians so that those with bigger plans, such as yourself, can get wherever you are needed a few seconds sooner. Have a heart: there is still snow piled higher than most of the children who were trying to enter the elementary school on the left and there are still icy berms which were bottle-necking the entrance to the supermarket on the right. I beg you, in light of the historically snowfall we are all experiencing, lay off the horn.
I understand your impatience. Perhaps you needed to get to work or a doctor’s appointment and the combination of buses, SUVs and kids in the crosswalk which were causing your snail’s-pace progress was frustrating. I, too, was frustrated, trying to get my 7-year old son to school in such conditions, wondering if I would find a space in the snow clogged supermarket lot and praying that we’d safely cross the streets (knowing that patience is at a premium especially when there are harried drivers honking and hollering, “move it!”). Getting anywhere these days, especially at 8:15 in the morning, challenges a person’s civility. Even so, please stop using your horn as a means of relieving your aggression or aggravation.
Allow me the time also to apologize to you. At about the time of your 10th toot, or by conservative estimates 1 minute into our anonymous interaction, I made the concerted effort to lengthen our discomfort. I intentionally let every car go ahead of me that was waiting at the side street to enter traffic; I intentionally slowed and moved to the side to allow oncoming vehicles to safely navigate the narrow street; I intentionally stopped to allow the crossing guard to safely shuttle the children and parents back and forth in front of me. I am not proud of these behaviors and admit that they were childish but, in my defense, they added no time to your commute.
I hope you got to wherever you were in a hurry to go. I hope that you and your fellow commuters all arrived safe and sound to your destinations. I wish you no ill will. I only wish you did the same for those driving in front of you.
Finally, I want to thank you. As I mentioned, my 7-year old son was in the car with me. I was tempted, strongly, to give you a piece of my mind with great voice (or an unkind gesture involving my hand), but I refrained. Instead I chose to engage in a conversation with an impressionable mind about the virtues of patience and courtesy. If your rhythmic blares had not interrupted the everyday activity of driving my son to school, I might have missed that opportunity to instill in him the ways to act like a gentleman.
Stay safe. There are, as I am sure you are aware, impatient jerks everywhere.
A fellow traveler
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 1 Corinthians 13:4-5
As I sit to write this post, snow is yet again on my mind. It feels that I have shoveled some amount of snow every day for a month. I clear the sidewalks, walkways and driveways at the house and at the church every morning. The next morning, I wake to new-fallen snow and do the same thing: shovel. As I scoop and throw the winter’s precipitation, I contemplate why I am so fastidious about clearing the pathways. Part of my rationale is safety: I don’t want anyone to be unnecessarily hurt. Another answer is propriety: I don’t want the house or the church to incur a fine because the snow removal wasn’t done. But I think the biggest reason I shovel the snow is hope.
Strange as it sounds, my motivation for these sore muscles is hope; the hope of strength, the hope of help and the hope of spring. Shoveling affirms my hope that I am still able to accomplish what I could when I was younger, albeit slower and with more deliberation. Shoveling affirms my hope that others will assist me in the task at hand, be it a child, a neighbor or a congregant. Shoveling affirms my hope that warmer weather will arrive and every shovelful brings closer the change of seasons.
Sometimes, thankfully few times, ministry is like shoveling. It is, on occasion, like doing the same thing over and over again without any real progress. Each week a message is preached and the pathway is made clear only for the next Sunday to roll around and the pathway needs to be cleared again. A visit is made and obstacles are removed, only to reappear with the next storm of life. There is comfort, for me anyway, that the hope in shoveling and the hope in ministry have striking similarities.
Ministry also has the hope of strength, the hope of help and the hope of spring. Philippians 4:13 states: “I can do all this through him who gives me strength”; ministry reminds me that God will enable me to accomplish what he desires. Ecclesiastes 4:12 states: “Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves [and] a cord of three strands is not quickly broken”; ministry reminds me that God will provide that assistance to those who may be overwhelmed alone. Revelation 21:4 states: “‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes [and] there will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away”; ministry reminds me that a day is coming when the toils and troubles of today will no longer exist.
Allow me to take this break from shoveling to share with you my hope. It is not pointless or fruitless. It is not unnecessary or unnoticed. Everything that is done to glorify God and further His gospel is important and is worth repeating until the day of His appearing. But until then, keep making the way clear.
For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all 2 Corinthians 4:17 (NIV)
Forgive me, but I have got snow on my mind. My three youngest children were home from school for three days and I have spent a majority of the week either watching the snow fall or shoveling it off the walkways and cars. Our neighborhood was picturesque under a mammoth blanket of white. Snow storms come with the territory and are part of the charm of living in New England. It is a given in this area that a few days a year everything stops as winter weather wallops us with a foot or more of the white stuff. This week just happened to be one of those times. For me, snow is a beautiful nuisance.
It is interesting, though, that something so small and seemingly insignificant – a crystallized water molecule – could become dangerous and destructive when it comes with many others of its kind. A few flakes in the air or underfoot are no problem, but a billion flakes in the same place can drift and topple trees or demolish vehicles. It would be foolish to ignore the blizzard warnings and the weather forecasts because a snow flake is innocuous; if enough surround you, the conditions could be deadly.
“Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Mark 14:38 (NIV)
In a way, the things that tempt us are like spiritual snowflakes. We all live in an area of the world where we are confronted with temptation, a testing of our character to evaluate our moral strength. Sometimes we are tempted to do something we know to be wrong and other times we are tempted to not do something we know to be right. Sometimes we are in a climate where there is a flurry of temptations, one or two flakes floating in the air that we can easily brush off and avoid. Other times we are in a climate conducive for a full blown storm and preparations need to be made.
There’s a joke that says you can tell if the owner of a car grew up in the North: no matter where they presently live, they still have an ice scraper under the seat and a snow shovel in the truck. Preparation is the key to surviving a winter storm – salt for the sidewalks and a stock of bread and milk from the store. There is also a need to be prepared for the blizzard of the temptations that beset even the best of us. There is a need for shelter from the storm in order to escape the accumulating troubles. There’s a need for supplies (necessary tools and sustenance) that must be acquired before the danger arrives. There is a need for strength to avoid destruction and to address the ‘clean-up’. God’s word and God’s Spirit are the provisions needed to endure a spiritual storm.
The worst thing that can happen is to be caught in a storm unaware of its arrival. As I get ready for the next bout of bad weather, I am reminded that little things (like temptations) can bring ruin if they are underestimated or overwhelming. I pray that we are all ready for the storms.
Did you hear the news? On Sunday morning the groundhog saw his shadow and prognosticated another 6 weeks of winter weather. It seems that the forces of nature ‘got the memo’ as, on Wednesday, they dumped nearly a feet of snow upon our neighborhood. At this point, we in the Boston area have been battered with snow, sleet and bitter cold for the better part of two months and all we have to look forward to is another month and a half of the same. I admit that I am ready for balmy breezes and eighty degree days. However, there are a few things God can impress upon us as the snow and the temperatures continue to fall.
We can rejoice in the power of small things. There is nothing intimidating about a water droplet. However, if you subject that droplet to sub-freezing temperatures and group it together with about a billion other minute droplets, you make a snow drift. This insignificant speck of moisture, when gathered together with other insignificant specks of moisture, can stop traffic, cancel school and collapse roofs. Proverbs 30:24 says, “Four things on earth are small, yet they are extremely wise….” It would be a mistake to assume weakness or frailty based upon size. Winter weather reminds us of this, whether we are thinking of precipitation, people or programs. Size is not the sole indicator of significance.
We can rejoice in the value of stillness. When my plans cannot be realized, I tend to get irritated. Winter weather grants me the awareness that my schedule is not ultimately under my control. On days like this past Wednesday, when school is cancelled and streets are not yet plowed, things suddenly go quiet. There are no cars on the road or people milling about in my community – and we are drawn to watching the snow accumulate just outside the window. There is a beautiful and serene stillness that God allows us to enjoy. It is a stillness that I would miss if all things went according to my plans. Proverbs 16:9 says, “In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps.”
We can rejoice in the realities of dormancy and new life. As I look out the window I can see the blanket of white that covers every unpaved surface. What I cannot see is the deep soil beneath the permafrost; nor can I see the seeds and roots that are waiting for their proper season to burst forth with flowering vitality. And, while I cannot see these things, they are there, and they will bear fruit when the time is right. And what is true about all nature is true about us. Psalm 3:5 says, “I lie down and sleep; I wake again, because the LORD sustains me.”
I still don’t like winter weather. But I do appreciate the cold and snow. It teaches me a number of things that I wouldn’t choose to learn and slows me down just enough to remind me that God is still in charge. Now, if He would just bring spring a bit sooner, I wouldn’t object.