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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COVID Contemplations (May 19) – “Fairmeadow News”

It’s better than the BBC.  For if you’re interested in a first-hand report as to what is happening these days in the United Kingdom, and more specifically, on Fairmeadows Way in the Midlands, the news from our five-year old granddaughter Talitha can’t be beat.

Assisted by her older brother Jed, and her younger sister, Madi, Tali has taken to composing an almost daily report, dictating it to her mom who in turn is churning it out on an old fashioned typewriter.  And among the hard-hitting reports last week was an entry labeling Corona Virus as a “Fun Stopper” for kids and another article asking if masks are on the way to England.  After all, the story explains, “in Texas and other states in America, masks are now the new normal.”  (The reader was informed that if so, “the Harvey family has plans to make their own animal face masks.”)

The missive also includes a Gardening Report, commenting that “after a surprise late spring frost, gardeners are busy planting new seeds and checking on old ones” but that “lots of sprouts are coming up” all the same.  There’s a Weather Report too, letting readers know, for example, that “today was partly sunny but it was perfect weather for a family bike ride.”

Most significantly, the latest issue has a headline reading “Church Is Closed…and Open,” explaining that the church building remains closed again this weekend (and will be through the summer in England, at least according to the Prime Minister) but “the church is still alive in the people.”

And at the risk of pointing out the wonder of genetics, I couldn’t have said it better.  For as we stumble forward midway in yet another month of the global pandemic, the church around the world remains alive indeed “in the people.”  In the numerous ways in which congregations like our own have continued to reach out to those in need, and even in the dedication which so many have shown in logging onto livestreams, we’ve demonstrated beyond debate that you can close our doors but you can’t close our hearts.

We’re working, of course, on a re-entry plan and hope to be able to have those who are comfortable doing so return to live worship in our super-sanitized sanctuary in June, even while we keep the livestream lively for our saints who may be more vulnerable to catching the coronavirus from others.  And when we resume live worship there will be a different feel to it as we’ll adapt it to the public health guidelines intended to keep everyone healthy.

But in the meantime, I’m happy to share in Tali’s assessment that the church is still alive in the deepest understanding of what being the “gathered people” (even if still a little separated) is all about.  In fact, it appears that lots of sprouts are coming up when it comes to faith as well.  For as Psalm 8 reminds us, even out of the mouths of children, God has ordained His strength.

I’ll let you know if there’s any more breaking news from across the pond.  But in the meantime,  just in case you were wondering, it was “mostly sunny” last week with a high of twelve degrees Celsius… whatever that means.

Fair Meadow News

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COVID Contemplations (May 18) – “The Quarantine Fifteen”

He wasn’t exactly a small bundle of joy.  For after a fairly short labor for his mother, Nelson entered this world last week at the whopping birth weight of 326 pounds.  And you have to respect any twenty-nine-year-old mother that can do that, even if she is an elephant named Shanti in the Houston Zoo.

It was still a little scary, to be sure, for almost immediately after his birth, Nelson had to undergo emergency surgery by the excellent veterinarians at the zoo to repair a torn vessel.  And just in case he needed a transfusion, the rest of the elephant team simultaneously began collecting whole blood from others in the herd, a task that required not just skill and training but a whole lot of hutzpah as well, I suspect.

Fortunately, in the end, the surgery was successful, and Nelson and his mom Shanti were reunited.  Before the day ended, in fact, the “little” tyke was up and walking on his own. (It helps to have four legs when you start out.) But the dedicated zoo team is still watching closely just to make sure in their words that the bonding goes well and—get this—that Nelson “hits his weight goals.”

And for many folks who have been trying their best to avoid that “Quarantine Fifteen” weight gain during this period of staying in that has to sound a little funny.  For when you start out at 326 pounds—a bit more, by the way, than the two to three hundred pounds that most baby elephants weigh when they are born — just exactly what additional weight goal do you really need to shoot for?

To be certain, adult elephants can weigh anywhere from five thousand to fourteen thousand pounds, so Nelson actually has a long “weigh” to go.  Not so much for you and me, however.  For as these weird weeks wear on it’s demonstrably clear that increasing our exercise and outdoor time is one of the best responses we might make to this strange spring.  Indeed, if our bodies really are “the temple of the Lord,” a favorite metaphor that St. Paul uses with both the Corinthians and the Ephesians, we can probably all use this time to spruce up the place a little.

Hitting our “weight goals” may take us thus in the opposite direction of Baby Nelson, though for some folks staying healthy has always been a lifetime goal.  But at least for me, well, let’s just say I’m hoping to follow the motto of John the Baptist when it came to Jesus, namely, “He must increase, and I must decrease!” (John 3.30)

Photo from Houston Zoo

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COVID Contemplations (May 15) – “Take a Bough”

It’s a little like that old familiar nursery rhyme.  For whether or not the idea was indeed based upon the practice of some Native Americans to suspend their birch-bark cradles in trees, or it was instead a reference to the “tree top” or crow’s nest on British navy ships, it eventually found its way into Mother Goose’s Melody published in London in 1765.

And, based upon personal observation, I can confirm that “when the wind blows” the bough (cradle or not) will indeed break sometimes.  Or at least that’s what happened to the large hackberry or celtis tree in our front yard.  For following some brisk winds, one of its branches snapped this week, bringing a good part of its “deciduousness” down to the lawn.

To be sure, it’s perhaps not all that surprising for the tree is, after all, a part of the hemp or cannabaceae family which we might expect to be rather “laid back.”  And admittedly, that tree has needed trimming for a good while.  But I kept putting it off simply to avoid the cost and the hassle.  In the end, though, the truth is that we can either trim the excesses of our lives or wait until someone else trims them for us, whether we’re ready for it or not.

Just before describing the messianic shoot of Jesse that was to come, in fact, the prophet Isaiah rather starkly suggested that God will “top off the boughs with great power,” felling the lofty trees and bringing low the tall ones (Isaiah 10.33.)  And eight centuries later, St. Paul told the Romans that some of branches of God’s family tree were broken off not just to allow Gentiles like us to be grafted in, but because of their own unbelief. (Romans 11.17-24).

Most of all, smack dab in the middle of His final sermon to the disciples, Jesus proclaimed that our heavenly Father “cuts off every branch that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit He prunes so that it will be even more fruitful” (John 15.2). And just as a healthy hackberry is supposed to produce fruit (berries which the birds love, by the way), so too are you and I.

Perhaps this unplanned season we are in thus is a time of pruning, designed to cut away dead or overgrown branches to encourage the growth of better ones.  For people don’t simply wander into holiness nor does it happen on its own.  But times like these may give us the chance to trust God and intentionally try to become more like Christ, even if it does feel a little like we’re being chopped up!

Next time we get a good wind blowing, thus, take a look at both your trees and your life.  And if there’s something that’s needs pruning or even cutting out, take the steps to do so now rather than put it off any longer.

Don’t say Mother Goose didn’t warn you.

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COVID Contemplations (May 14) – “Healing Houston”

It started with the soldiers at Camp Logan, an army training base then on the far western edge of Houston now known as Memorial Park.  For with thousands of young men confined in a relatively small area, the virus quickly spread across the camp with some 3,091 cases in just two months, even as it was beginning to claim as many as 100 million lives worldwide.

And for one physician, Oscar Norsworthy, it was all simply overwhelming.  For the small private hospital near downtown that he had founded ten years earlier had only thirty beds.  When the Spanish Flu struck the city in 1918, patients subsequently doubled up not only in those beds, but in makeshift spaces in the hallway and even on the roof.  It was not surprising then that after the crisis began to abate, completely worn out and spent, Dr. Norsworthy decided it was time to leave Houston and go pursue additional training in the therapeutic effects of a newly discovered element, radium.

The good doctor, however, first had to find a buyer for his hospital, someone he could trust to maintain the high ethical standards he had lived by.  And the obvious candidate was to turn to people of his own faith, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.  In the last month of 1919, thus, Oscar Norsworthy and his wife made a generous offer indeed to local Methodists.  Though his property, building, and medical equipment were valued at $87,000, in fact, he sold it to the church for only $35,000 on the condition that they expand the hospital with a new building to be ready for the next great pandemic.

The initial members of the board for the hospital read like a Houston Who’s Who, including Walter Fondren (a founder of Humble Oil, now Exxon Mobil), James A. Elkins (a leading attorney with his partner William Vinson), Jim West (a rancher and oilman), and Jesse Jones (newspaper publisher, banker, and a later U.S. cabinet member), among the list.  But the support for the hospital came as well from Methodists of far more modest means all across East Texas.

Today, of course, Houston Methodist Hospital is a leading voice in offering incredible medical care to patients, with eight area hospitals now in the system welcoming more than 115,000 patients from around the world each year.  There are almost seven thousand physicians on staff, with over $141 million in annual research expenditures and more than 1.3 million patient encounters.

Significantly enough, however, nursed in a pandemic more than a century ago, it has stepped up to continue to serve the present age in this new time of global outbreak, as well.  For in the end, the calling to heal the sick remains part and parcel of who we are as followers of the Great Physician.

God still “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds,” as Psalm 147 reminds us.  And as a lifelong Methodist, I’m grateful indeed  for all that has come out of Oscar Norsworthy’s efforts so long ago.

He really did create a hospital with a soul.

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COVID Contemplations (May 13) – “Dealing With Delays”

It happened a lifetime ago, back when an Iron Curtain still divided Europe and those in the eastern part of that continent faced numerous restrictions when it came to practicing their faith.  For it was in that context that I found myself in a train station one day waiting to meet a man I didn’t know in a place I had never been.

Only at the appointed time, he never came.  And an hour later he still wasn’t there. So as I nervously waited, sitting on the floor and trying my best to blend in with others, I pulled out my Bible and turned back to where I had been reading the day before, Hebrews 9.

And then, with one eye on the Bible and the other on my watch, the words of Hebrews 10.36 practically jumped off the page:

“You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what He has promised.  For in just a little while, he who is coming will come and will not delay.”

Saying a quick prayer, thus, I closed the Bible and stood up, only to bump into a man who turned out to be the one I was supposed to meet there.  And as we walked out of that station together, I couldn’t help but be amazed at how sometimes the scriptures not only speak, but they do so rather specifically.

Oh, I know all about not taking verses out of context and how the particular reference in that passage speaks to the return of Christ one day.  But that afternoon in a vast train station in a strange and even scary city where I knew no one, God used them nonetheless to talk to my heart and remind me that no matter how or when the events of our lives may play out, God is yet in control of them.

After ten weeks of shutdown, I’m beginning to feel a bit like I’m back in that train station waiting for the unknown. For just like many others, I suspect, I’m done with the virus and want to get back to normal.  But until that moment comes, it seems my task is to persevere in doing the will of God—to love and care for others and to do no harm because of my own impatience.  Or, in short, to willingly wait and trust that an end to this season really is ahead for “He who is coming will come and will not delay.”

So make it so, Lord, make it so.

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COVID Contemplations (May 12) – “Following the Leader”

Walking with our grandkids along a local trail  on Saturday I saw it:  an inspiring quotation on a granite marker from Ralph Waldo Emerson, the 19th century American essayist and naturalist, which read simply:

“Do not follow where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

The only problem is that Emerson never actually penned those words.  Nor were the words said by Robert Frost (who also gets the credit sometimes), though Frost did talk about that “road less traveled,” another quote that used to show up in graduation speeches this time of year back when we still had such ceremonies.

Instead, it appears to be a variation of the opening line of a poem written in 1903 by Muriel Strode whom you have probably never heard of, though some called her the “female Walt Whitman” of her time, a backhanded compliment to be sure.  Emerson didn’t falsely get credit for the phrase, in fact, until the 1990s, long after both he and Muriel had died.

Still, Muriel’s words are worth considering.  For these days would indeed seem to be a bit trail-blazing for all of us.  And as we inch our way forward to new patterns of social interaction, there truly are a lot of open-ended questions to answer:

Will people ever shake hands again?

When can we responsibly re-open the church to meet both the safety and spiritual needs of folks?

What metrics should we watch, and which measures should we take, as we make this decision? 

And most of all, will we ever be able to have donuts and coffee in church again?

Going where there is no path is harder than one might think, it seems.  But the good news is that we never actually have to go alone.  For long ago, Jesus told one of His disciples who was similarly in a time of great confusion, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” and so He is.

It all reminds me a little of being in the backcountry of Kenya many years ago with a pastor who was taking us to see a particular church.  As we literally “bushwhacked” our way through the jungle in his small car, I couldn’t help but notice that there didn’t seem to be a road we were following at all.  And when I asked him where we were on the map, he simply smiled and said, “Here, brother, I am the map.

The way ahead may be similarly unmarked for all of us.  But how good it is to be reminded that the One who is driving actually knows the way.   For even with uncertain days ahead, one thing is clear:  Jesus has already gone before us, and He’s left a trail for us to follow as well.

No matter who actually said it first.

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