Can You Still See?

It’s not entirely certain what happened that night in September long ago.  All we are sure of, in fact, is that the lawyer who had gone out to negotiate a prisoner exchange with the enemy found himself stranded on the ship where those prisoners were being held, some eight miles out in the harbor.

Just weeks before, the enemy had already burned the capitol and now the full might of their impressive naval fleet was trained upon a fort that guarded what was then the third largest city in the young country.  And so all that the thirty-five year-old lawyer could do was to simply watch from the deck of that enemy ship while his countrymen, imprisoned in a cargo hold below, anxiously awaited the outcome.

To be sure, the bombarding force had offered the inhabitants of that fort, many of them women and children, a way out of what seemed like inevitable defeat.  All they had to do to immediately stop the shelling was to lower the flag which flew over their encampment, all the more noticeable for the captain of that garrison had commissioned it to be made so large–30 by 42 feet, in fact– that the enemy “would have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance.”

It’s no wonder then that the prisoners down below kept yelling up at the man on the deck, “Tell us where the flag is.”  And indeed, as the night wore on, the enemy trained all of their firepower on that target hour after hour, discharging some 1500 to 1800 shells in all.  “It seemed,” according to that reluctant eyewitness, “as though mother earth had opened and was vomiting shot and shell in a sheet of fire and brimstone.”  Yet despite being directly hit several times, whenever the glare of the rockets illuminated the sky, what the lawyer saw was that the flag was still flying somehow.

And when the morning sun arose on September 14, 1814, as those on the ship looked through the haze, it was not the Union Jack of the British forces, but Mary Pickersgill’s oversized American emblem that was still fluttering on the flagpole of an undefeated Fort McHenry.  Admittedly, it was somewhat in shreds, and the flagpole itself leaned at an odd angle.  But all of that was because it was fixed in place by the bodies of patriots who knew what it meant for that flag to be on the ground, and had simply held it up by their hands until they died and someone else took their place.

It’s no surprise that the lawyer thus took the only paper he could find– the back of a letter that had been in his pocket– and began to scribble down his experience, finishing it when he was finally able to return to shore later that day.  And within a week, his stirring poem was published across the country and soon put to music.

Through the years, many have complained about it, of course, saying it is too militaristic to be a national anthem.  Likewise one New York newspaper long ago argued that the song had “words that nobody can remember to a tune that nobody can sing.”

What’s more, the irony of the inconsistencies in the life of that young lawyer– Francis Scott Key– have not been lost on others.  For Key had not only originally opposed the War of 1812 as a “lump of wickedness,” but more significantly, he was a slaveholder who only later through his faith came to understand the sheer villainy of that injustice.  In the current climate, it’s no surprise thus that his statue in San Francisco was among those that have been toppled in recent months.

But it’s the story of the flag itself that bears remembering.  For  even as the men below in the cargo hold prayed that night long ago, others in Ft. McHenry exemplified the ideal that it is better to die on your feet sometimes than to live on your knees.

And as another football season begins–when what happens on the sidelines as the National Anthem is played may be as controversial as any referee’s call during the game–as well as yet another remembrance of 9/11–perhaps that’s worth keeping in our hearts as well.

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Knowing J.I.

He was the epitome of a “gentleman and a scholar.”  For his first book, Fundamentalism and the Word of God, a rather brilliant defense of the historic Protestant position on the authority of scripture, made it plain that in his view the scriptures were not meant to provoke a debate but to provide ethical direction to our lives, regardless of any cultural winds which might be blowing otherwise.

It was Knowing God, however, that touched me at a far more personal level.  For the conviction behind his writing was that “ignorance of God lies at the root of much of the church’s weakness today.”  (And if that was true almost five decades, just imagine how much more it is so today.)

Likewise, he went straight to the point suggesting that if you really want to judge how deeply a person understands the Christian faith, look no further than to see just how much he or she makes of the idea of being God’s child and of having God as a Father.  For that is at the crux of enjoying a relational faith with God and not simply embracing a theological concept of Him.  And for J.I. Packer, it was clear that he was a man who knew God as Savior indeed.

To be certain, Packer could mix it up intellectually with the best of them.  He once characterized Bishop John A.T. Robinson’s rather well-known book Honest to God as “a plateful of mashed up Tillich fried in Bultmann and garnished with Bonhoeffer.” And when his Anglican Diocese authorized a decision that, in his judgment, betrayed “the church in its God-appointed role as the bastion and bulwark of divine truth,” he joined other clerics in walking out rather than let “experience judge the Bible,” resisting the notion that “the newer is the truer, only what is recent is decent, every shift of ground is a step forward.”

Still, it was not his scholarly acumen that impressed me the most when I first met him more than four decades ago.  For what struck me deeply about the rather distinguished visiting professor at my seminary in New England was his extravagant kindness and attentiveness to others, even lowly seminarians asking what were no doubt rather obtuse questions.  In the words of his longtime friend Timothy George, the Englishman’s smile was irrepressible, his laughter was contagious, and his love for all things human and humane was consistently on display.

The last time I was with him, in fact, at a small weekend retreat at Laity Lodge in the Texas hill country, the good professor extended that generosity of spirit not just to me, but to our daughter as well.  For though she had been slated to speak during the conference, her remarks were cut because of the verbosity of another’s presentation. Walking back to our rooms, Dr. Packer looked at Angie and asked her what she had planned to say anyway.  She gave him a brief synopsis of the comments she had prepared after which Packer, by then in his 80s, simply smiled and replied, “Well, that would have been a very good thing to have said indeed.”  And that affirmation was worth more than any other accolade she could ever have received.

James Innell Packer died on Friday at the age of 93, having faithfully followed the admonition of Jeremiah 6.16:  “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.”  For although he never shied away from fighting for that ancient Word, he once wrote that he would like to be remembered as one who simply “pointed to the pasturelands.”

And so he did, not just for millions, but for me as well.

 

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COVID Contemplations (May 29) – “Allergic to Hope”

The calendar will tell you that it’s not until June 20, while the temperature gauge will suggest it started weeks ago.  But for my money, summer officially begins today as area schools have now limped to the finish of the oddest academic year ever.  And there’s some comfort in knowing that, I think. For as tedious as these months of quarantine have been, there’s a new season ahead, which always means there’s a new hope as well.

I completely understand, of course, that we are in no way out of the woods when it comes to this pandemic, and that the coronavirus may even become a lasting part of our lives for many years ahead, at least until an effective vaccine and therapies have been perfected.  But as the world around us begins to re-awaken to summer once more, I can’t help but think that this change of seasons may be a particularly meaningful one.

Many churches and other houses of worship such as our own, for instance, are now making plans to re-open in June, albeit with a host of new procedures and policies.  Like an ancient Jewish miqvah, or ritual bath which worshipers entered before going to the Temple in Jerusalem, we’re installing some portable handwashing stations in our Gathering Hall, and the rest of our facilities have never been cleaner.  And we’re shortening the services a bit to limit some of the exposure for folks, along with rethinking how we do offerings, communion and music.  What’s more, we’re encouraging our members who may be more vulnerable to the virus to continue to worship with us at home via YouTube or our website.

But even with these modifications, just opening up the place once more is an encouraging sign that things may indeed be changing in both the culture and the church, if ever so slightly in the eyes of some. It’s a bit like what Albert Camus wrote toward the end of his novel The Plague when, against all expectations, signs begin to emerge of a slight abatement in the darkness.  The season was changing, in fact, but not everyone realized it.  And Camus explains it this way:

“Plague had imbued some of them with a skepticism so thorough that it was now a second nature; they had become allergic to hope in any form.  Thus even when the plague had run its course, they went on living by its standards.  They were, in short, behind the times.”

As we finish this strangest of all spring seasons, thus, we’re going to do our best to move into a summer that we hope can be filled with hope.  As a part of that, these daily blogs will end for a while, though I’ll still be checking in on a regular basis.  (If you want to know when a new piece is up, just subscribe at the bottom of the blog page and you’ll get an email each time.)  And while we will continue to respect the power of this pandemic, we’re simply not going to cower in fear of it or even hide in the shadows when we can do otherwise.

After all, it was God who not only “fixed all the boundaries of the earth” but who “made summer and winter.” (Psalm 74.17) Now that summer is here let’s not live behind the times.

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COVID Contemplations (May 28) – “When the Music Fades”

You could hear the pain in their question.  For after being defeated by an enemy that overwhelmed them, then forcibly relocated along a Mesopotamian Trail of Tears, the Jews who found themselves by the rivers of Babylon were in no mood to celebrate anything.  And so when their captors demanded that they sing something in their native tongue, their reply was understandable:

“How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?”  (Psalm 137.4)

Ironically enough, however, we find ourselves asking the opposite question as we look towards the resumption of in-person worship alongside of continuing our livestream in the coming weeks.  For though we may be “back home” in our sanctuary, if there is one thing that both health officials and musical experts agree upon it is that congregational singing is perhaps the most contagious activity that people in churches can do.

In the words of one German disease control official, in fact, “evidence shows that during singing the virus drops appear to fly particularly far.”  In addition, virologists believe that those singing themselves absorb many more particles because of breathing deeper into their diaphragms while belting out a tune.  Others disagree, of course.  For it is the nature of our times that everything— including science–is now partisan and our addiction to outrage touches all of our common conversations.  And so what’s a church like ours to do?

Well, in order to care for all, the answer is that we will refrain from refrains and sing only the rest notes for a season.  For as integral as singing is to the praise of God, it’s not the only way believers can express themselves or their love for the Lord.  Indeed, sometimes singing may even be an impediment to true faith.

Twenty years ago, for instance, an English pastor by the name of Mike Pilavachi began to realize that amidst all of the music and fervor which his growing church experienced each week there was something missing, a dynamic that the cutting-edge music seemed to actually mask:  authenticity in worship.  And so Pastor Pilavachi did something rather amazing:  he got rid of the sound system and the band for a season, which left his “worship leader” with nothing to do.

And, in turn, that musician, Matt Redman, began to ask a rather critical question, too:  “When you come through the doors on a Sunday, what are you bringing as your offering to God?”  He then put that pondering into the lyrics of a song which now has become familiar all across the world:

“When the music fades, all is stripped away, and I simply come, longing just to bring something that’s of worth that will bless Your heart.  I’ll bring you more than a song, for a song in itself is not what You have required.  You search much deeper within, through the way things appear, You’re looking into my heart.”

Then in the chorus of that song, to a consumer culture fixated on feeling good, Redman made his point:

“I’m coming back to the heart of worship and it’s all about You, it’s all about You, Jesus.  I’m sorry, Lord, for the thing I’ve made it when it’s all about You, it’s all about You, Jesus.”

Or to put it another way, what Redman wanted to know was simply, “Am I producing worship when I come to church, or consuming it?”  And the changes occasioned by the current coronavirus have perhaps given us the opportunity to ponder that same question for ourselves.

To be sure, we’ll still have music in our services when we return to the sanctuary in a few weeks.  But during this particular period, out of our concern to “watch over one another in love” (as John Wesley once expressed it), we will forego congregational singing at least as we’ve done it in the past for a while.

It won’t be forever.  But as we “simply come,” my prayer is that we’ll rediscover the heart of worship as well.  For whether we find ourselves by the Brazos, or by the rivers of Babylon or Great Britain, it really is all about Jesus.

 

 

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COVID Contemplations (May 27) – “Picking Up the Pace”

I suppose I could have yelled at him to watch where he was going, but it wouldn’t have helped.  For as it turns out, they can see but they can’t hear.  Similarly, expecting him to stand up for himself wouldn’t work either, for in addition to having no ears, they also have no backbone.

In truth, there is probably no one slower at going through life, thus, than a snail such as the one I almost stepped on yesterday.  For their average speed is only around 0.03 miles per hour and that’s with juicing the surface with a slime they secrete as they move along.  What’s more, it’s said that the lazier ones try to travel in the “slipstream” of other snails, moving along whatever slimy trails they left behind in order to save energy.

And in the view of some, I’m sure it seems like that’s what we’ve been doing as well in both the church and nation as we cautiously re-open all that’s been shut down by the pandemic. It might be encouraging to note, however, that a recent study discovered that snails were yet fast enough to explore the length of an average English garden in a single night.

In a similar way, whether fast or slow, we’ve been studying all of the options for how to return to something more normal in a way that respects everyone’s fears and faiths.  And we’ve been working to find that middle way that Methodists have been so famous for over the years.  For in the end, we’ve can’t really love God unless we love our neighbors, and we can’t adequately love them unless we love God first.

I’d like to go faster, of course, for I’ve really missed seeing all of your smiling (including a few sleeping) faces in worship.  But we’ll find our way together in the coming weeks, however short or long they last, and I can’t help but think we may also find a blessing along the way. After all, without all the pressures of a fast-paced society, snails can actually live in captivity up to 25 years!

It’s a bit like the story of a snail riding on the back of a turtle when the turtle crashed into another turtle at an intersection.  The snail was thrown off and when asked about the accident afterwards, he replied simply, “I don’t know– it all happened so fast.”

Here’s hoping the return to more normal times is just the same for us.

 

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COVID Contemplations (May 26) – “A Pew With a View, Please”

You might say that it was standing-room-only in those days.  For at least insofar as historians can tell, though believers could stand, kneel, or even lay prostrate on the floor during the first fourteen centuries of the church’s life, the one position they apparently could not adopt in worship was to sit down during the services, for there were no chairs or pews.

Indeed, in the words of Luke Harrington, “seating in churches didn’t really become a thing until parishioners got bored enough to wish they were sitting down,” that is, about the time when the focus of worship shifted from more participatory acts like confession, creeds, and communion to simply listening to long sermons, causing some to say, “Can we at least sit down for that?”

The placement of pews in churches also took on a rather commercial feel in their early years, as families often bought custom-built pews to help pay for the cathedrals. With their shoulder-height walls, doors, windows, curtains and sometimes even fireplaces, those early “skybox-seats” (a social distancing dream) were a sign of one’s status– real properties with a deed, in fact, that could be passed down from one generation to another.

Eventually, of course, such visible symbols of the inequities between rich and poor folks in church gave way to the idea of “free and open” benches, and there is still a stipulation in our own denomination’s governing Book of Discipline, in fact, that “pews in The United Methodist Church shall always be free” (Paragraph 2533.1), just in case some desperate pastor or finance committee is looking for a new source of income.

All of which makes the current conversations going on across congregations about how to re-open their sanctuaries for in-person worship at some point historically more interesting, I think.  For as entrenched as some folks are about sitting in the exact same place every Sunday, just imagine how difficult it would be if we had to worry about actual deeds and ownership and even giving refunds in closing every other pew for social distancing.

It all reminds me of what Jesus once said when he went to eat at the home of a prominent Pharisee one day.  Noticing how the guests tried to position themselves near the head of the table, the Master told his disciples that should they be invited to a wedding feast, for instance, they ought to take the lowest place to sit rather than jockey for the places of honor, “for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 14.11.)  A good case for sitting in the back rows, some might say.

Whenever churches are able to re-open thus, I hope that folks will be understanding about whatever kind of physical adjustments we are going to have to make to ensure we are indeed caring for those around us.  We all may need to be a bit like the fellow who was both his church’s organist and custodian, in fact:

It’s said he had to mind his pews and keys.

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COVID Contemplations (May 25) – “Methodist Musings on Memorial Day”

I have to confess that I really have no idea what to do today.  Because for the last 48 years or so, I’ve spent every Memorial Day dressed in church clothes sitting in a large sanctuary or auditorium somewhere for the Annual Conference session.

For those unfamiliar with Methodism, that’s our yearly meeting of pastors and lay delegates from a geographical area, in my case, the eastern third of Texas.  And our session has begun on Memorial Day weekend all these years for a simple reason:  Methodists are cheap.  We’ve taken the second of John Wesley’s admonitions about money—”earn all you can, save all you can, and give all you can”—to heart.  And since no one else has ever wanted to come to downtown Houston to celebrate a holiday weekend, the hotel rates are better.

It’s not to say that what we do at an annual conference is not important.  Forty-five years ago this week, for instance, I was first ordained as a deacon in The United Methodist Church and three years later on the same day I became an elder.  And along with all of the business matters and endless speeches I’ve sat through (think one unending church board meeting) there have been inspiring worship services and uplifting moments as well.

Mostly, however, conference is about renewing the ties that bind us as Methodists and even more particularly for some of us, as fellow pastors and preachers.  Since the days of John Wesley, in fact, every annual conference around the world has begun with the singing of one of his brother’s best hymns, written in 1749: “And are we yet alive, and see each other’s face, glory and thanks to Jesus give for His almighty grace.”

It’s a powerful moment for me personally.  For when I think of those largely unlettered circuit riders, many of whom died before the age of 35, I can’t help but glance around the room when we sing it to see the faces of those who have made it another twelve months, missing the faces of those who haven’t.  And I’ve recognized all too plainly the truth of Wesley’s third verse: “what troubles have we seen, what mighty conflicts past, fightings without and fears within, since we assembled last!”

There’s a special poignancy this year, thus, for those “fightings and fears” have certainly been manifest in the present pandemic which caused the postponement of our session for the first time in our history.  In the meantime, though, ministry goes on and I am reminded of another of Charles Wesley’s observations: “God buries His workmen but carries on His work.”

I’ll be remembering many of those workers in my prayers today, along with the relatives and friends I’ve known over the years who gave their lives up in the service of their nation.  For maybe in the end, Memorial Day has actually been a perfect time for we Methodists to meet after all.

I think I’ll grill some burgers out on the patio today too.  For isn’t that what regular people do on Memorial Day?

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COVID Contemplations (May 22) – “Forgetting to Grow Old”

They live in three different countries but they all seem to have one thing in common:  apparently, no one ever told them about retirement.  And so they’ve simply continued to serve others, irrespective of their age.

France’s oldest physician, for instance, Dr. Christian Chenay, is not only still conducting tele-medicine calls with patients, but he continues to make weekly trips to a retirement home.  His wife is terrified that he will bring the coronavirus home and “she is right,” he admits.  And at the age of 98, he admits that he probably should reduce his activity level for a lot of reasons.

But in thinking about those folks in the retirement home, says the good doctor, “I can’t just abandon them in the midst of an epidemic.  They wouldn’t be able to manage on their own.”  So Dr. Chenay goes anyway, though he will concede that he is moving more slowly than before.

Across the channel in England, Captain Tom Moore will be knighted by the queen for his fundraising efforts after being nominated by the prime minister for that honor.  Captain Tom originally set out to raise one thousand pounds for the National Health Service by walking 100 laps of the 82 foot loop in his garden before reaching his 100th birthday.

Like an English Energizer bunny, however, Captain Tom—promoted to colonel and soon to be Sir Thomas– just kept on going and to date, he has raised more than forty million dollars (or 32 million pounds) contributed by over a million and a half supporters.  He’s not only inspired the whole country, says the prime minister, but he’s provided “a beacon of light through the fog of the coronavirus.”

And in the United States, the country’s leading expert in biomedicine, Dr. Francis Collins, was surprised in the midst of all of his non-stop work on the pandemic to learn that he is this year’s recipient of the Templeton Prize, an annual award which totals $1.3 million.  The longest serving director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Collins is known not only for his groundbreaking research in genetics, but also for his intellectual arguments that reconcile God and science.

“I think of God as the greatest scientist,” he has said, noting that the “elegance and wisdom of God’s creation” is “truly exhilarating.”  When a scientist discovers something no human knew before, but God did, that is both “an occasion for scientific excitement and, for a believer, also an occasion for worship.”

Of course at the age of 70, Dr. Collins is still but a youngster compared to his colleagues overseas.  But he nonetheless has demonstrated that there is no age limit on serving God and serving others.  After all, Abraham was 75 before he even received his call from God and Moses was 80 before he set out on his work for the Lord. Caleb was 85 when he asked for the mountain, and the youngest of the twelve apostles of Jesus, John outlived them all.

Maybe that’s why the psalmist asked long ago that “even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, O God, till I declare your power to the next generation.” (Psalm 71.18) Later on the same book proclaims that “they will still bear fruit in old age; they will stay fresh and green.”  (Psalm 92.14)

And if you could ever get them to stop long enough to do so, I have a feeling that Dr. Chenay, Sir Thomas, and Dr. Collins, would probably all say “Amen.”

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COVID Contemplations (May 21) – “What Aretha Said”

I have to confess that I grumbled as we rumbled along behind him.  For as if the roads weren’t bad enough on the island—to say nothing of the crazy drivers sometimes barreling right towards you at dizzying speeds—when we got behind a large dump truck going up a steep hill it was difficult indeed to even stay in the right gear.  And then I saw the hand-painted sign on the back of that old truck that turned my impatience into praise.  For it said simply,

“GOD IS GOD.  RESPECT DUE.”

And when all is said and done, that’s a good reminder, whether on a mission trip or just on an outing to the grocery store.  For amidst all of the inconveniences of the present time, the truth is that whatever our circumstances, God hasn’t changed at all.  His nature, His character, and most of all, His amazing love for you and me is exactly the same.  And because it is, He is worthy of all the respect that we can give Him, no matter what else may be happening in our lives.

St. Paul put it this way long ago when he wrote to his friends in Philippi:

“I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.  I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”

And that secret is simply to remember that we’re not only not in charge, but we never were.  For there is only One who created the heavens and earth and to whom this earth still answers. What’s more, whether we know it or not, He is the same One to whom each of us must one day answer as well.

In the meantime, God deserves more than our half-hearted worship or passing praise:  He deserves our respect.  The dictionary, of course, defines that as a “feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements.”  But it was Aretha Franklin who said it half a century ago in a way that still resonates today.  Walk into any room, in fact, and sing “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” and I bet you that someone will respond with “Find out what it means to me!”

Perhaps as the virus wears on—and the summer heat comes on—we can lower the temperatures all around us, no matter where we may be rumbling along.  For when we remember just who God really is, I have a feeling we’ll find out as well to whom all of our respect–and love– is actually due.

 

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COVID Contemplations (May 20) – “MYOB”

We can see it at the very beginning of God’s Word when He made it clear to Cain that we have indeed been called to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.  Likewise, just before the back of the book, 1 John 3.17 rather pointedly asks that “if anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has not pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?”

But in between those passages, in Romans 14.4, St. Paul had a question of his own as well, namely, “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant?  To their own master, servants stand or fall.” And even Jesus told Peter when he asked about the future of another disciple, “What is that to you?” (John 11.22)

Or to put it another way, “Why don’t you mind your own business?”  And that would seem to be the operative word as our society, including our churches, begin to re-open in the coming weeks.  For the temptation to judge the actions—or inactions—of others, and even the intention of their hearts in some cases, will be an enormous one, I fear.

Some folks are more than ready, for instance, to press the play button and resume their lives.  For the enforced quarantine may have done a number not just on their nervous systems, but on their resources and retirement plans as well.  They may not have caught a Covid-19 fever but they’ve struggled mightily with cabin fever and some may have even seen their marriages or mental health begin to collapse under the strain.

Others, however, may have sound reasons to stay in and stay more cautious.  For even if an individual is not over seventy or with medical conditions that compromise their immunities, the truth is that there are all kinds of background stories that you and I know absolutely nothing about:  family histories, caregiver responsibilities, hidden health concerns, anxieties or deep-seated phobias… you name it, someone you know probably has it.

And as these two scenarios unfold and even collide in the days ahead, it will be up to all of us to follow the admonition of Jesus to “judge not that we be not judged” (Matthew 7.1) Some will wear masks around us, for instance, and others will not.  Without becoming a Face Covering Cop, simply move away from them if you’re not comfortable.  Some will seem stand-offish or overly cautious; remember there’s a history you haven’t heard and give them their space.  For as Rosaria Butterfield once suggested, “we never know the treacherous path that others take to arrive in the pew that we share Lord’s Day after Lord’s Day.”

What we do know, however, is that regardless of how others may act, in the end it’s not up to us to correct or admonish them, for they are not our servants at all.  Instead, they belong to the Lord who can do whatever He needs to with them.  So put on your patience, resist the urge to criticize, give others far more slack than you may think they deserve, and don’t even roll your eyes at them.  Don’t take names and don’t take offense.

God can handle each of us individually in the school of life.   And at least insofar as I know, He has not appointed any of us to serve as His hall or cafeteria monitors.

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