COVID Contemplations (March 24) – “Give Me That New-Tech Religion”

To be candid, we’ve seldom been on the forefront of technological innovation.  For there’s something about the church that seems to find its comfort zone more in the past than in the present sometimes.  More than half a millennium ago, for instance, the citizens of Paris were said to have loudly complained about a “new innovation” in Notre Dame that seemed out of place indeed, marring the cathedral’s native beauty and requiring far too much maintenance and labor to justify its installation.

It took a while for folks to thus accept the addition of the Grand Organ with its 8000 pipes and no doubt, some of the older folks probably complained about it initially as simply being “too loud” for worship.  What’s more, it’s said that during the French Revolution, the only reason that organ survived being vandalized and its pipes melted down to make bullets was because the organist played “La Marseillaise” repeatedly for the revolutionaries!

So likewise, when it has come to embracing the digital dimensions of life, many churches have kept right on insisting that the “old-time religion” is good enough for them.  Those with a Luddite liturgical life, however, have now figured out that God may have indeed provided more than one way for His people to gather.  For on-line streaming has now expanded to thousands of congregations with rather staggering results.  On Sunday, for instance, Harvest Fellowship in California had over 230,000 devices tuned in and Lakewood Church here in Houston is said to have drawn in more than four and a half million viewers.

And in terms of church meetings—a vital component of the faith since apparently the days of the apostles—Zoom, Facebook Live, You Tube and Go to Meeting technologies are now making a lot of folks rethink if getting together in person was ever actually needed in the first place! We even had confirmation class via Zoom here this week and you will be happy to know that the youth could be just as uninhibited online as they are in person!

All of which is simply a reminder that though the coronavirus may have caught most of us off guard, it came as no surprise to the Lord.  For even despite our reluctance to ever change, God made certain that His Word could go forth into this world and that “it will not return to (Him) empty.” (Isaiah 55.11)  In fact, before almost every church’s doors were shut, God was already building a technological ark when we didn’t even know it was going to rain.

Whatever comes in the days ahead, thus, we can have confidence that God will have His Church.  We just have to be ready to do it in a new way, just as John Wesley had to finally accept “to be more vile” and embrace field preaching in England in order to reach the masses.

For to put it as Kate Shellnut has so wryly observed, “when God closes a church door, He opens a browser window.” And of that we can be virtually certain.

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COVID Contemplations (March 23)- “Stop Fidgeting!”

It’s not quite a global epidemic, but it’s certainly an addiction for many.  For over-scheduling our lives begins at an early age indeed, from playdates to sports teams to extra-curricular programs to weekend social engagements.  And when we become adults, tethered by our phones and email to a demanding  24-hour a day society, it only gets worse. It’s so bad, in fact, that we’ve even invented toys now whose sole purpose is to fidget for us, and nonsensically enough we advertise them as “anti-anxiety” spinners.

All of which is why the current halt to most forms of social interaction came as a full stop indeed, almost like throwing a car into reverse while going 65 miles per hour.  Centuries ago, however, the psalmist told us to “Be still and know that I am God.”  (Psalm 46.10) And the Hebrew word in that verse comes from a root verb meaning among other things to “relax and sink down.”  In Judges 9.19, for instance, it refers to a day “drawing to a close.”  In Isaiah 5.27, we read of dry grass “collapsing” into a flame. And in Nehemiah 6.9, the same verb is used to speak of hands “getting too weak” for the work and dropping to our sides.

Or in other words, to be still is to “cease and desist” from whatever we’ve been hammering at, worrying about, or yes, fidgeting over, and instead simply to sink into a state of sweet surrender.  All so that we may remember just exactly who God is.  Eugene Peterson’s winsome paraphrase, The Message, renders this verse in fact by saying, “Step out of the traffic!  Take a long, loving look at me, your High God, above politics, above everything.”

And perhaps in this season of social distancing and self-quarantines, that might be a good idea for each of us as well.  For rather than lament the enforced slow-down in our lives, could it be that this season can become a gift from God to enable us to rediscover the One who really matters?  For when you throw away your appointment book, all of sudden you may just have more time for the Lord who made us and who from the moment of our birth has dearly wanted to be a part of our lives.

Take this time to renew your relationship with the Lord, thus.  For when we are ready–or forced–to stop fidgeting and be still, we may be amazed at what the days can bring.

 

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COVID Contemplations (March 20)- “Is There Any Word from the Lord?”

I suspect that the man in charge didn’t really know what to do.  For the nation was clearly in a crisis and the prospects for a quick resolution grew dimmer by the day.  And so, as the story is told in Jeremiah 37, the king sent for the prophet who was languishing in a prison cell to ask him in private a simple question: “Is there any word from the Lord?”

And it strikes me that a lot of folks today around the world struggling with the present pernicious pandemic may be wondering the same thing, that is, where is God in the midst of all of this, and what might He be saying to us?  Fortunately, however, the answer that God gives us to that inquiry is far more positive than the reply which Jeremiah gave long ago to Zedekiah.  For according to another man of God, Isaiah, this is what the LORD says: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name:  you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you, and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you; when you walk through the fire, you will not be burned.” (Isaiah 43.1-2)

As we find a new normal in each of our lives during the strange season ahead, I will thus be posting here each weekday what I hope will be a brief but positive word to remind us of both God’s promises and His providence.  For whatever the cacophony of dire warnings and fearful reports around us may be, in the end only One Voice really matters, as even Zedekiah finally figured out.

May we be listening for that Word indeed.

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Pastoring in Plague-Times

You might say that he showed up at just the wrong time. For it was just after coming back to his home town at the age of 31 to serve as an leader in his church– having been turned down for the job seven years earlier–that a devastating war broke out in the region, one that not only lasted for three decades but that claimed more than eight million casualties, or some 20% of the German population at the time.  Ostensibly it was a difference between Catholics and Protestants–still sorting out the after-effects of the Reformation– that set it off, but like so many other such conflicts, it soon morphed into something far greater with the religious differences of the dispute lost in the greater geopolitics of the time.

Still, the young pastor faithfully did his work the best he could, even while the armies of the great nations all around his province of Saxony ravaged the land, leaving farms and shops depleted and destroyed.  What’s more, the pastor found himself not only forced to deal with soldiers who were quartered in his house, quickly diminishing his own supplies, but with hordes of refugees who poured into his walled city for protection until Eilenburg–which Martin Luther had once called a “blessed lard pit”–too was overflowing with human needs.

And then it struck–a disaster so severe that even the invasion of the Swedes paled beside it.  For the combination of overcrowding, ruined crops, and a crippled infrastructure produced a famine so extreme that it is said that thirty or forty people fought in the streets to claim not toilet paper but a dead cat or crow.  And the plague that followed in 1637 quickly spread throughout the town, claiming more than eight thousand persons in a single year there.

To make matters worse, however, the church superintendent went away for a change of air and never came back.  And of the remaining five clergy in town, four quickly died from the plague, leaving only the young archdeacon to carry on.  He often read the funeral service to some 40 to 50 persons a day, in fact, and in all, he buried some 4,480 individuals that year, including his first wife.

Still, Martin Rinkart labored on with an almost inexplicable trust in God and a readiness to give thanks.  For even though worn out and prematurely aged by the time that a long looked-for peace ended the Thirty Years War in 1648 (some fourteen months before his own death), the poet turned preacher left behind an incredible testimony to that faith in a hymn we’ve far too often relegated only to the Thanksgiving season.  Written just as the plague began to hit his hometown, Nun Danket Alle Gott, became the theme of Martin Rinkart’s life, in fact.

Now thank we all our God, with hearts and hands and voices; who wondrous things hath done, in whom His world rejoices; who from our mother’s arms hath blessed us on our way, with countless gifts of love and still is ours today.

Then just in case it wasn’t plain, the second verse spelled it out further:

O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us; with ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us; and keep us in His grace and guide us when perplexed, and free us from all ills in this world and the next.

And in an age of anxiety fueled by yet another plague– this one a virus that is sweeping the globe– perhaps those words of Martin Rinkart are worth remembering today as well.  For like that young cleric, the task of the church is not to run away from those who are ill, but to minister to all whatever it may take.  To quote the former prime minister of England, Margaret Thatcher, this is indeed “no time to go wobbly.”

As all things do, the coronavirus too will eventually pass and the good news is that it is not going to take thirty years to do so.  In the meantime, may those of us in the church demonstrate not only the compassion of Martin Rinkart, but his courage as well. After all, how did that former cantor turned caregiver end his hymn?

“For thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.”

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Muddling Through to the Manger

 

Now just in case you’ve haven’t seen that movie lately on Netflex or Hulu, it’s a pretty simple plot, for it’s about a family from St. Louis which is about to move to New York City for the father’s job promotion.  But they’re leaving St. Louis just before the long-anticipated World’s Fair of 1904, and everybody is upset about it, especially the five-year old daughter of that family, Tootie.  (Not the same Tootie that was on The Facts of Life, by the waythat came about forty years later!)  And so to cheer her up, her big sister Esther played by Judy Garland sings her this song on Christmas Eve.

The original lyrics written by Hugh Martin were rejected as too depressing, however, for they went something like,  “Have yourself a merry little Christmas/it may be your last/next year we may all be living in the past/Have yourself a merry little Christmas/pop that champagne cork/Next year we may all be living in New York.”  And I suppose for a lot of folks that would be a kind of depressing notion.  So Martin changed the words about it being that’s family last Christmas before living in the past to “let your heart be light/next year all our troubles will be out of sight.”  Which was better, and certainly more realistic than the wildly optimistic modern assertion that the song now suggests–“from now on our troubles will be out of sight.”

But then there were other problems with the song, as well.  Because when Frank Sinatra sang it 13 years later, he complained to Hugh Martin that the name of his album was A Jolly Christmas, and so could Martin please jolly up the line that originally said “in a year we all will be together if the Fates allow, until then we’ll just have to muddle through somehow.”  Yeah, who wants to just muddle through Christmas– that doesn’t sound very merry at all!  So Martin changed it again so that Old Blue Eyes could sing instead “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.”

But, you see, sometimes the truth is that we do have to muddle through to the manger somehow, for the holidays can get pretty frenetic, can’t they?  So sometimes we simply need to put one foot in front of another one, do what needs to be done, deal with whatever comes up, and start over when we have to.  Someone has noted that this is part of the wisdom of twelve-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous– they don’t focus on lifetime solutions, they don’t promise that things will be great “from now on” forever and ever–no, they talk about daily victories–staying sober one day at a time.

Which is perhaps why when James Taylor–himself no stranger to difficult personal circumstances–put out his recording of the old holiday classic with the original “muddling” words that he wrote a note to the radio stations to accompany it which said, “It’s a sweet simple message–just get through the hard times and there will be better days ahead.”

And that’s the message of Christmas that this season points us towards.  For the truth is, none of us have perfect lives or perfect circumstances in our lives.  Some of us  struggle with the same kind of demons that James Taylor has–with depression and substance abuse.  And some are fighting disease either in their own bodies, or in those of people whom they love.  Others are worried about their finances, and boy does Christmas put a strain in that area for a lot of people.  (After all, why do you think they call it Black Friday?) And still others are just plain burned out because life has come at them hard and they’ve been just a little–or a lot–beaten down by it.

What Advent reminds us of, however, is that there is indeed something–indeed Someone–coming into this world that can change everything.  We just have to wait until that Someone gets here.  That’s why St. Paul writing to the church in Galatia told them that as children of this earth, we’ve all been enslaved to the basic principles of the world.  But when the “fullness of time had come, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship,” with all of the legal rights which that term implied in Roman culture.

Or to put it another way, until Christ, we were all just muddling through life, but now, there’s a new possibility for every one of us.  We just have to learn how to wait upon the Lord sometimes, for that is when we shall indeed renew our strength.

It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing from a Nazi prison camp, that once observed that “A prison cell, in which one waits, hopes– and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside— is not a bad picture of Advent.” And then he went on to say that “Not everyone can wait: neither the sated nor the satisfied nor those without respect can wait. The only ones who can wait are people who carry restlessness around with them.”

So until then when it comes to the tough parts of life we may indeed just have to muddle through somehow. But again, not as those who have no hope,  for you and I  know–just as Bonhoeffer likewise understood so long ago–that change is coming. And that’s what makes Advent so exciting, I think, for it is an annual reminder of the fact that when the world was at its very darkest, God sent His light into it.  Which means as well that we can trust God with whatever may come our way, even if it’s an unexpected change of our circumstances.

Indeed, that’s really what Hugh Martin wanted to say in his muddling little song about a merry little Christmas. For the original words which Martin penned never said anything about the Fates controlling the events of our lives, as though what happens to us depends upon some impersonal force that does not know us.  Rather, in the original version that was changed for the movie, Martin said, “Through the years we all will be together if the Lord allows.” And in 2001, at the age of 86, Hugh Martin finally got the chance to change those lyrics back, writing an entirely new version of his classic entitled, “Have Yourself a Blessed Little Christmas.”

In short, the door of freedom really is about to swing open from the outside. Blessed indeed are all those who are ready to be free.

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A Prayer for El Paso and Dayton

(Several have asked for a copy of the prayer I gave this morning at Christ Church following the tragic shootings on Saturday in El Paso and Dayton.  As I post it below I pray that all may find peace in these days as we walk through this seemingly endless valley of the shadow of death, waiting for the return of the One who can finally set it all right.)

“Dear God, once again we have seen the face of evil in the taking of so many innocent lives yesterday in El Paso and Dayton, and as people of faith, it seems to strike close to home indeed.  We confess that we do not understand the brokenness of this world, or the brokenness in the lives of others that allows them to channel such rage and hatred to people whom they do not even know.  Our hearts weigh heavy for the families of those whose lives were lost, and for those whose lives hang still in the balance as they are tended to by doctors and nurses so far away.

And so, as we have done far too often in recent times, we simply stop once more and we join in the ancient prayer of your people, Kyrie eleison, Christe eleisonLord, have mercy, Christ, have mercy.  Like a desperate father so long ago cried out to you, Jesus, saying “Lord, come down, my son is ill,” so we cry this morning, “Lord, come down, our world is ill, wracked with bloodshed and violence the live-long day.  We are sick, but You can make us well, if You but say, if You but say.”  For all this we ask on this day, praying that all will know even in the midst of great loss Your peace that truly can surpass all that we can understand and even all that we don’t, Amen.”

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A Lunar Lord’s Supper

I was only a teenager at the time, but growing up in Houston with a father in the news business, I felt a special connection to NASA from early on, even getting the chance to sit once or twice in the temporary broadcast booths that were constructed for the network anchors back when every launch was a media event.  And so, like millions around the world, I was totally transfixed on the black and white television images that miraculously came wafting into our living room on July 20, 1969, from more than a quarter million miles away.

What I didn’t know at the time, however, was what else happened on that Sunday five decades ago when Neil Armstrong became the first human being to ever walk on another world.  For even as he prepared for that historic “giant leap for mankind,” his companion, Buzz Aldrin, prepared for something else inside the Eagle, unpacking bread and wine from plastic containers and placing them on the abort guidance system computer.

Radioing back to earth, he invited everyone listening in “whoever and wherever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his or her own way.”  And then, switching his radio off, Aldrin read privately from the Gospel of John before pouring the wine into a chalice, where in the lessened gravity of the moon the wine “curled slowly and gracefully up the side of the cup,” and he followed that by taking communion.  In short, as Aldrin later wrote in a Guideposts magazine article, “the very first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the very first food eaten there, were the communion elements.”

My friend Charles Anderson, who has served as a Methodist pastor to many in the NASA community over the years, has eloquently put it this way:  “How both poignant and appropriate, that the greatest technological achievement in human history carried within it the sacramental reminder of the greatest act of salvific love in all history–namely, the redeeming grace of Jesus Christ that binds the past to the present, and the heavens to the earth. The greatest distance that humans have ever traveled from our celestial home was still within reach of the promise and presence of the living God.”  Or as Charles goes on to add, “we can never ever journey to a place so far where God is not.”

And fifty years later, we’ve still never been able to do so, even with a Saturn V rocket behind us. Maybe that’s why when Jesus gave us the sacrament, He told us to remember Him in this way whenever we can. And wherever too, we might add.

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