There has been much said about ‘freedom’ of late. The CDC’s new recommendations regarding the wearing of face-covering, various states’ new re-opening dates, and personal conversations with friends and family have cumulatively raised questions in the minds of many about what an individual is ‘free’ to do. As we all reflect on how we, as a society, are to move forward in this ‘new normal, what is mandatory and required, and what is recommended and encouraged? What are the differences between these four terms?
As I have been contemplating these questions, I have also been ruminating on a few verses I read at a recent Bible study, where Peter writes:
Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. 1 Peter 2:16-17 (ESV)
Elsewhere in Scripture, Paul also writes:
For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. Galatians 5:13 (ESV)
The inspired Word of God is clear: we are expected to live as free people, using that freedom for good and not for evil. We are called to exercise our freedom in service of God and others, not in service of self and fleshly desires.
The call to freedom is broader than a decision about wearing a mask or, when medically advised, getting vaccinated; this call to freedom is about expressing love, honor, and respect to all those around us. Our God-given freedom is intended to serve others (with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control) and deny ourselves (curbing hatred, discord, jealousy, rage, selfishness, dissensions, factions, and envy). Our freedom is granted to us to promote unity and prevent division. As I often heard when I was a child, “The freedom to extend my right arm ends at the tip of your nose.”
It is not the letter of the law (what is ‘mandated’ versus what is ‘advised’) that is in question, but rather the spirit underlying these policies and procedures. While we may be free to act in innumerable ways, not every act of personal freedom is beneficial for our society. Our challenge is finding the right balance between what is good for me and what is good for us. While we can debate the limits of our freedoms, we can all agree that there is a need to limit them (eg, shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater). Let us have those conversations where we affirm and assess our freedoms.
At the same time, let us freely love one another: let us seek to understand the stances of one another without assuming motives, to inform others of our values while also hearing what is on the hearts of others, and to err on the side of grace and compassion. Let us praise God for His gift of our mutual freedom. As one of the many blessings of our God-given liberty, I rejoice in the freedom to show restraint.
Considering all we have been through over the last 12 months, I have come to the conclusion that New Year’s resolutions are, at best, aspirational or, at worst, futile. Perhaps you thought, on December 31, 2019, that this next year was the year you would get a gym membership and exercise more consistently but after 80 days all the fitness clubs closed, and you were left a little less resolute. Or perhaps you thought you would adjust that unhealthy lifestyle and [fill in the blank] less, only to discover that it was all you had to do during the quarantine. It is painfully apparent that there is no certainty to the future.
Yet, our human nature, or perhaps our spark of divinity imbued through the Imago Dei, longs for our improvement. Therefore, the Apostle Peter writes the following to the Church:
For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. 2 Peter 1:5-7
Whether we are in the midst of a pandemic or in the center of God’s will (N.B.: these two places are not mutually exclusive), there are areas of our lives where we could be doing better. Honestly, I have learned a great deal about myself in the months of quarantine, and I recognize that there are things I desire to improve. I suppose January 1st is just as good a day to begin as any other.
Above all else, I desire this year to increase my perseverance, which Merriam-Webster defines as, “continued effort to do or achieve something despite difficulties, failure, or opposition”. I long to be more patient, more forbearing, more tenacious. My trouble is that perseverance is not something that a gym or a grocery store can supply. Perseverance comes through faith in the promises and providence of God over the long haul. It means, for me, delighting in the delays as part of God’s design and rejoicing in the roadblocks as they work toward my refinement. For me, I will know that I am developing perseverance when I no longer experience opposition with annoyance but with amazement.
But that is my struggle. Your struggle is likely different. Why not make an effort this year to work on what is weighing you down? If you need accountability, I am available to provide an occasional prod. If you need prayer, feel free to reach out and we can bring these concerns to God together. If you need motivation for change, simply replay the past year in your mind and marvel at how much you have adapted, adjusted, and altered because of this disease; is not your health as important? You have shown yourself to be resilient. Let the changes you make this year be on your terms. Let me encourage you to read the Bible a bit more this year, attend worship a bit more this year, practice kindness a bit more this year, and marvel at God’s goodness a bit more this year. Clearly, COVID cannot constrict the construction of your Christ-like character; become what you believe you are this year.
Yesterday, our unexpected blessing, our bonus baby – a surprise to all but God – turned thirteen. My youngest, Joshua, following the faith of His savior, is now a man. If we were contemporaries of Jesus, yesterday would have been his Bar Mitzvah (bar [בר] is a Jewish-Aramaic word meaning ‘son’ and mitzvah [מצוה] is a Jewish word meaning ‘a commandment’). Joshua would have been seen not as a seventh-grader but as a “son of the commandment” – he would be responsible for keeping the Law of God. This leaves me, as his father, with a nagging question: have I done enough to prepare him for adulthood.
Thankfully, we do not live in a non-adolescent culture and Joshua will not be an adult for another 5 years (legally) or more (culturally). That said, I have been slowly realizing that how I see this boy – as my defenseless and impressionable baby and as my child in need of protection and correction – is not the way the world outside our front door sees this young man. While I would seek to isolate him from the culture of the age, the societal gates of social media have been, with the change of a date, opened to him with its beckoning siren song. In my head, I know that all these coming changes are natural and beneficial steps in his healthy maturity, but in my heart, I worry for he is still just a boy to me and his mother.
Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it. Proverbs 22:6
The above-quoted verse is typically mentioned when the topic of parenting comes around. It makes sense since the command of training is good advice for new moms and dads and the promise of faithfulness is comforting during those rebellious stages. As my boy enters manhood, I ask, as I said before, if I did a good enough job training him? Ironically, that might not be the right question for the term Solomon uses for ‘train’ is not translated as ‘train’ anywhere else in the Scriptures; it is translated as “dedicate’. The four other times the Hebrew Bible uses the term חנך, it is in reference to the temple. This admonition is not, as I see it, to prepare my child for the world and hope that I have done enough, but to proclaim my child to the world and trust that he will remember who he is, and whose he is.
Today, I am wrestling with letting go of the precious blessing of my baby boy. Today, you may be struggling with letting go of another blessing. Can God be trusted to keep His word and continue to provide for His people? My friend, the answer is yes. As my son Joshua’s name declares, the Lord is salvation (or deliverance or redemption). The Lord will carry all of us who trust His promises and bring us safely through to the other side.
Happy Birthday, Joshua. Enjoy the beginning stages of adulthood. Remember who you are.
Can you feel the change in the air and, more specifically, on the air? Yesterday may have been Thanksgiving, but today is the beginning of the Christmas season. Overnight we went from enjoying the autumnal comforts of pumpkin spices and falling leaves to enjoying the winter delights of peppermint swirls and drifting snow. Yesterday may have been spent watching competing teams play football, but tonight we will be watching competing networks broadcast ‘specials’ featuring Frosty and Burgermeister Meisterburger. This weekend we will witness Christmas lights begin to twinkle on our front lawns and Christmas trees being set in front windows. I hope not to alarm you, but Christmas Day is exactly four weeks away.
But this year is different, isn’t it? Because of the travel and gathering restrictions many of us face, there will be much smaller lines at the big box stores this “Black Friday” and much longer shipping times from the online retailers this month. There will also be fewer ‘cookie swaps’ and Christmas parties (although “Secret Santa” gifts may be as simple as visiting Amazon). That may allow us the serendipitous blessing of more time to spend with those closest to us and more opportunity to stream our season’s greetings than in Christmases past. We will have to be creative, but we can still make this the most wonderful time of the year.
Besides, sometimes the crowds around us keep us from appreciating the gift of Christmas before us. We, too, are sometimes distracted by all the hubbub of the holidays to see the truth as it approaches. We are sometimes the “Inn Crowd”, the huddle of humanity in the Bethlehem of our day, too busy or too burdened to recognize the gift of God about to be given. We are sometimes guilty of misguided priorities and pointing the Savior to the stall in the back. The “desire of every nation” has been delivered to our doorstep, and we are in danger of dismissing him due to the distractions of the day.
Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me. Revelation 3:20
But this year is different, isn’t it? The crowds have socially distanced and we have settled for a celebration in isolation. In the stillness of this strange and strained setting, can you hear the knock on the door of your heart? In spite of all the changes that COVID has brought (or maybe because of them), this year may be the perfect time to get out of the inn and away from all the revelry and travel back to the stable – to hear the shepherds and see the child, to marvel at his radiance and muse about the shepherds’ report. Do whatever you need to do to prepare yourself for the blessed arrival of God’s greatest gift: listen to a Christmas Carol playlist on Spotify, stream an Advent service on YouTube (might I suggest Calvary’s?), or watch “The Bishop’s Wife” on Amazon Prime. This Christmas may be the best chance our generation has to worship the newborn king together.
I pray that we all are enveloped by the enormous love we encounter at Christmas.
There is a ‘standing headline’ circulating through social and broadcast media: “Celebrating Thanksgiving to Be Quite Different This Year”. As a consequence of surging numbers of COVID-19 cases across the globe, authorities are recommending, at least in my area of the country, that our observances of Thanksgiving be limited to small – and preferably outdoor – gatherings, that our travel plans be curtailed or eliminated, and that our traditions take a hiatus. Under the circumstances, it seems to me that this is the most reasonable path to take, both for the sake of our loved ones and for the communities around us.
The requested modifications in celebrating this thoroughly North American holiday gives us an opportunity for beneficial correction. This year we will not have the chance to celebrate “Turkey Day” or “Friendsgiving” or “Football Day in America”. The Thanksgiving table may not, this year, look like the iconic Rockwell painting in its gastronomic bounty. The chairs may not, this time around, be filled with friends from work or church, or school recreating the warmth of community. The back yard or living room, this year, will not be shared by generations who enjoy tossing around the pigskin. This year we might only have the opportunity to give thanks – alone with the grantor of all good things or with those in our closest of circles.
Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song. Psalm 95:2
Earlier this month, for another purpose, I formulated my list of ‘thanks’. I have modified the entries slightly, hoping that my touchpoints might stimulate your thoughts toward thanks. Today, I am thankful for:
TIME – I give thanks to God for the gift of time. I would have never planned to spend so much time at home and share so many little moments with my family. I cannot fully express the gratitude I feel to God for the ability to unexpectedly be together for much of the last year.
HEALTH – I give thanks to God for the gift of health. I consider myself fortunate that I have the availability of protective equipment and world-class care. God has truly blessed me with the accessibility of masks and wipes, medications and medical professionals that enable me to resist much of the ailments that in other places or other times would have diminished my quality of life.
AMUSEMENT – I give thanks to God for the gift of laughter. As dire as things are, there is an abundance of resources ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous that make me laugh. I give thanks to God for giggling babies, on-line videos, satirical skits, and dog sweaters, along with another million amusing moments.
NETWORKS – I give thanks to God for the gift of connectedness. I have been awed by the creative ways God has inspired others to engage with the community around them – Zoom, Duo, Facetime, YouTube, balcony concerts, calls, letters – and I am grateful to God for enabling me to participate in things I thought would be impossible to attend last Thanksgiving.
KINDNESS – I give thanks to God for the gift of love for one another. Through signs, parades, and deliveries, we have cared for one another like no other time I can recollect. This reminds me of the grace of God each time I see these expressions. Thank you, Jesus.
SALVATION – I give thanks to God for the gift of forgiveness. Countless times over the past year, as I reflect on the above-stated gifts of God, I have messed up: failing to appreciate what I have, ignoring the opportunities granted me, selfishly pouting for the things I am denied, or blatantly disregarding the Lord’s will and word. I am so thankful to God that my sins are forgiven and that I am a new creation, saved by the free gift of His grace.
For what will you be thanks giving?
Let us all agree that we will get together a year from now for “Turkey Day” and “Friendsgiving” and “Football Day in America”. But this year, in light of all we have been through, and continue to go through, let us all give thanks.
It has happened again; God has allowed those around me to repeat a recurring theme through interactions I have had over the last 7 days. I heard it first during a denominational meeting when a speaker encouraged me to ‘shrink the win’. I heard it again while attending a virtual retreat as a facilitator asked me to reflect on ‘small places of growth’. I heard it for a third time when I had lunch with a few colleagues when one of the participants commented on ‘the small victory’. I heard it lastly at our prayer meeting when one of our intercessors reminded us of God’s ‘little blessings’. God has been orchestrating my engagement with others as a means to focus my attention off the major problems of life and onto the (many times) minor peeks of sunshine.
God has been asking me to adjust my perspective. In the days since the stay-at-home order was issued in the Commonwealth, much of the news and statistics about my region have been horrible. The pandemic has exposed us to a great deal of death, damage, and dysfunction within our communities. I in no way want to diminish the pain or loss that so many have suffered since March. But I also do not want to make the mistake of seeing the last 220 days as filled entirely with bad news. There is some light in the midst of this whelming darkness that is visible to those who are looking for it.
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.” Lamentations 3:22-24 (NIV84)
What are these glimmers of hope, these baby steps of growth, these small victories and little blessings about which God has been speaking to me? This seasons-long quarantine has afforded the globe to be home with just a little more than television and internet, and this, in turn, provided the disparities of life to be displayed. The world was watching, and many good people were pressed to action. Medical inequity was broadcast and many responded with donations of PPE and calls to address the needs of inadequate care in nursing homes and among the poor. Racial injustice was then captured on cellphones and many were outraged to the point of demonstration and a long-delayed dialogue about race began to rise. Economic hardship gripped many and so neighbors helped neighbors with what they could share.
Many of us have spent time with the people we love, learned new skills or enjoyed new hobbies. Many of us, because of the mild and dry weather, walked more and dined more on the sidewalks of our city squares. The church went out digitally to the world instead of asking the world to come out to church. We learned to adapt, to adjust and to practice mercy. We made signs to appreciate the sacrifices of those who risked and shared tears with who lost. We grew in compassion and care for one another. Small victories.
I am still praying that this pandemic is over soon, but until then, I am choosing to embrace the reality that there can be great warmth and light from a dumpster fire.
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!
This past Wednesday, my daughter, Rebekah, ‘went’ to her final college class; she walked up the stairs to her bedroom and opened her laptop. As she shared this milestone with the family after the class had concluded, I got a little misty-eyed. I thought about how hard she had worked over the past four years at American University, enabling her to graduate with honors in two weeks, only ‘virtually’ recognized. I thought about all the friends, colleagues and sorority sisters she had made in DC, unable to support one another in these concluding events. It breaks a father’s heart.
Then I thought about all the others – in Rebekah’s class, in other college classes, high school seniors, pre-school graduates. I thought about new mothers, who will not have those precious 3-month or 6-month professional portraits of their drooling, chubby-cheeked cherub. I thought about birthdays (first, fifteenth, sixteenth, twenty-first, fiftieth or eightieth) that will be celebrated in isolation. I thought about silver and gold wedding anniversaries that cannot be held at their favorite restaurants and the life-long dream trips to Europe that cannot be rescheduled. I thought about all that has been lost or taken away.
Then I thought about why. Graduations, proms, weddings, parties, classes, reunions and the like have all been cancelled – nay, postponed or moved to digital platforms – so that we can keep those around us as safe as we can. That being said, we all ought to take time to acknowledge those who are required to sacrifice their personal milestones. If you know someone who is celebrating something in seclusion or going without so that life may go on, reach out and offer your congratulations or your consolation. Call, text or write a note and tell them that you are grateful for the costs they have incurred.
It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: “And this, too, shall pass away.” How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! – how consoling in the depths of affliction! “And this, too, shall pass away.” – Abraham Lincoln, 1859
“And this, too, shall pass away.” Government officials and company advertisements keep reminding us that things will get back to normal. Inevitably, a vaccine will be created and we will all get together again. We will have socials and soirees at some point. Graduations, like my daughter’s, will be held; for her, it will hopefully be in December. First haircuts can wait, photos can still be taken, anniversaries for 25 and a half years of marriage could become the new trend and birthday parties can be rescheduled (can you imagine the new school year for second graders when every weekend will have a birthday party at SkyZone?) I cannot wait to have the social calendar filled again. In the moments between now and then, let us help one another through this season of joys and sorrows.
Recalling your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy. 2 Timothy 1:4
For the past month, as part of a reading group, I have been reading Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. It is a fabulously engrossing book that deals with the reality of life and death, the limits of the current medical system and the conversations that every person should have before it is too late. One of the lasting lessons I received from Dr. Gawande’s words is to recognize what is important; it has caused me to wrestle with the reality of my own demise and to value every moment of cogency that God enables me to enjoy.
As I reflect upon these truths this morning and as I prepare for Thanksgiving next week, I am finding myself thankful for the moments I share with my family (immediate and extended, formed by blood and by friendship). I am thankful for productivity (in my vocation and in my avocations). I am thankful for opportunity (and the availability of the best in medicine, academia and ministry no more than a subway ride away). I am thankful for the guidance of God since last Thanksgiving (among other things, in leading my family to a new residence and two of my boys to new schools). I am thankful for the blessings I enjoy every day.
There is one more thing for which I am thankful, something never touched upon in the remarkable tome penned by the good doctor. I am thankful for the Gospel. I am thankful for the witness verified truth of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection. I am thankful for the long-established and prophetic plan of God’s salvation through Christ. I am thankful for the availability of the forgiveness of sin and the redemption of the disobedient which reached a wretch like me. I am thankful that my life-steps were directed by the Almighty to hear the truth of the Lord and accept Him as my personal Savior. I am thankful for those who shared, and continue to share, this good news with those who are dangerously unaware of their eternal destiny. I am thankful that I will participate in blissful life after my physical death.
Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! 2 Corinthians 9:15
But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! Romans 5:15
Each and every one of us reading this post has something for which to give thanks (if nothing else, we all have access to the vast worldwide web). For what things, truths and people are you thankful this year? What moments have brought you delight since last you sat at bounty’s table? What gifts have been bestowed upon you that have filled you with gratitude? In whatever way you will celebrate our thoroughly North American observance of Thanksgiving, I hope you will spend some time reflecting upon and remembering all the blessings you have been given.
I wish you all the happiness of Thanksgiving!