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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COVID Contemplations (May 11) – “Wild Blue Yonder”

Things are looking up.  Or at least I have been doing a lot of it over the past week.  For on Wednesday, we parked outside the mall to watch as the famed U.S. Navy Blue Angels did a flyover saluting health care workers in Houston.   Then on Sunday afternoon, thanks to a tip-off from a friend, we perched in another parking lot to get a view of some of the nearly 30 vintage aircraft from the Lone Star Flight Museum that soared through the skies to commemorate all those heroes who bravely sacrificed to end the Second World War seventy-five years ago.

You could hear the difference, of course.  For those historic planes, including B-25 bombers and P-51 Mustangs, thundered loudly overhead, and from below you could practically see their propellers wildly spinning.  On the other hand, the F/A-18s flown by the Blue Angels quickly roared through the blue skies, going so fast that the sound barely had time to reach where we stood below.

In either case, however, the flyovers had the same desired effect on all those who saw them:  awe and encouragement.  And maybe that’s why all throughout the Bible we are told to lift up our eyes and look to the heavens whenever we are confused or anxious.  For when we take our eyes off of the circumstances around us, we are reminded that there is a much wider world beyond whatever may be our immediate focus.

The psalmist put it this way, for instance, telling those pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem to lift up their eyes to the hills. (Psalm 121) But then he asks, “From where does my help come?”  For, you see, it was not the hills themselves, filled with statues of idols and pagan altars, but the Lord of the higher heavens who is our helper and keeper.

Likewise, Jesus Himself told His disciples in Luke 21 to watch for “the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory” one day.  Or as an old country-western hymn used to put it, “keep your eyes upon the eastern sky, lift up your head, redemption draweth nigh!”

That’s why cathedrals and places such as Christ Church were built with such high ceilings and lofty angles, with stained glass filtering the sun’s rays in all kinds of colors, in fact:  they were meant to draw our eyes upward.  For when we do just that, we may find that our spirits too have been lifted.

Keep looking up, friends. For you never know what you may find in the heavens.  You may even discover that not all angels are blue.

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COVID Contemplations (May 8) – “Zoom, Zoom!”

It all apparently started when Eric Yuan was a freshman studying applied math and computer science at one university in China and his girlfriend (now his wife) was at a college that was a ten-hour train ride away.  They tried long-distance dating, of course, but Eric dreamed instead of a handheld device that would enable two people to see and speak with each other from anywhere in the world.  The problem was that Eric knew that China was still at least ten years behind America in having the resources to develop such an idea.

So after hearing a speech by Bill Gates, Eric applied for a visa to travel to the United States.  American consular officials denied that visa eight times.  Until finally, at the age of 27, and speaking almost no English, Eric’s application was approved and he came to Silicon Valley in California to work for Webex, later a part of Cisco.  Cisco’s videoconferencing product was still not quite what he had envisioned, however, and so in 2011, he left that company, taking 40 engineers with him, to start his own.

Originally he called his enterprise Saasbee, which didn’t exactly bring the investors rolling in. He received so many rejections for funding, in fact, that he changed his screen saver to read “It Can’t Be Done” and then kept on working anyway. Until, after renaming his company Zoom, Eric was able to launch a beta version of his program in 2012 that could host 15 video participants, signing Stanford University as its first customer.  By the end of its first month, the number of users grew to 400,000 and by 2013, over one million.

Today, of course, the pandemic has made Zoom a regular feature of many people’s lives, with over 300 million daily participants, up from 10 million in December before the virus hit.  And that English-challenged immigrant from 22 years ago is now worth almost $7 billion.  But Eric still takes the time to answer complaints and concerns that folks may have with his product, working 18-hour days and writing the code himself if necessary to resolve whatever issue may arise.

All of which is a reminder that even as a world-stopping epidemic is believed to have come out of China five months ago, nine years earlier an inventor with a better idea to allow individuals, schools, and businesses to keep on communicating face-to-face did so as well.  And the brainchild of Eric Yuan, a believer in Christ, has been used not just to facilitate corporate communications but to bring healthcare to rural settings around the world, as well as education to students who couldn’t make it to school even if it was still meeting.

To be honest, I’m probably not alone in getting a little tired of all the Zoom meetings I now attend.  Until I remember anew, while conversing simultaneously with other church leaders from Africa to Russia to the Philippines, just what an incredible technological marvel that program is and see it as a provision of God that came to pass before we even knew we needed it.  For as Deuteronomy 31.8 reminds us, “The Lord is the one who goes ahead of you.”

I still miss the in-person contact with others, of course.  But Eric Yuan says they are working on developing a virtual hug that you can actually feel.  And given his motto for life, “Hard Work and Stay Humble,” I won’t be all that surprised if he pulls that off as well one day.

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COVID Contemplations (May 7) – “Pray Day! Pray Day!”

It was 97 years ago that the term first found its way into English. For when its engines failed while traveling between England and France, a Royal Airforce “flying boat” in 1923 frantically radioed out the call to operators on both sides of the channel using the French words for “help me,” “m’aidez.”  And in turn, English speaking radio operators heard it phonetically as simply “May Day.”

It didn’t take long, however, for the new phrase to spread, reaching as far away as Singapore in a matter of months.  For although the previous codeword, “S.O.S.,” with its pattern of dots and dashes (…—…) was simple to recognize and remember, to the listening ear “S” was too easy to mistake for “F” and planes needed something else.  “May Day” worked and accordingly, in 1927 the United States formally adopted the phrase as an official radiotelegraph distress signal.

In the current pandemic, however, we might well think of a similar phrase, particularly on this National Day of Prayer, first proclaimed by President Harry Truman in 1952.  For confronted with the uncertainty of a disease we cannot cure, we might suggest that this is indeed a “Pray Day.”

Some have said in recent months, of course, that “thoughts and prayers” are an inadequate way to respond when life goes wrong and innocents are hurt.  But in truth, people of faith have always turned to prayer when facing trials and uncertainty.  And even while we still cannot gather together in our sanctuary, we can yet meet at the foot of the cross to boldly approach the throne of grace.  For as this year’s proclamation reminds us, “no problem is too big for God to handle.”

Before the day is over, thus, take a moment to join in a prayer such as this one:

“O Lord, our God:  You are greater than any pandemic and no disease can separate us from You. For even when the darkness comes, Your light still shines…even when the shadows fall across our way, You still walk with us…and even when we don’t know what the future holds, we know that You hold the future.

So may all those who have been affected by this virus find their healing and strength in You.  May this, Your world, find its hope in You, our Creator.  And may each of us be Your agents this day to counter the cries of fear and proclaim instead the power of Your love, which casts out all fear.

Come, Lord, for we, Your children, need You.

Come into this world that all may know You are God.

Heal the hurt. Flatten the curve.  Turn the tide. Bring us together.

And grant us Your peace.

In the name of Christ we pray, Amen.”

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COVID Contemplations (May 6) – “Bubblin’ Over”

Technically it’s a retention pond, I know, the kind that developers are required to put in place to offset the loss of land that they use to build homes or hard surfaces on.  For without such mitigation efforts, stormwater has no place to run off.  And that, in turn, can cause erosion, transfer pollutants and chemicals into nearby water bodies, and most significantly, produce flooding, an ever- present possibility in an area that is known for having three five hundred-year floods in three years.

Beyond just their utilitarian value, however, those ponds are also beautifully landscaped (if plainly little) lakes which not only offer an aesthetic appeal but actually increase biodiversity and even provide habitats for all kinds of animals and organisms, including alligators.  What I discovered while we were walking early this morning, however, is that there’s an obvious difference in what those ponds look like when the aerator fountains are turned on and when they are not.

When running, for instance, the fountains in the middle produce actual waves in the water, shooting as high as forty feet with a flow rate of almost 100 gallons per minute.  But before the fountains turn on what you may see instead is simply a murky mess, looking for all the world like just a low spot in the land after a thunderstorm.

All of which is simply the difference between still water and what the Bible frequently refers to as “living water.”  For living water not only is flowing and moving, but it’s also the source of life.  Jeremiah describes God, for instance, as “the spring of living water” (Jeremiah 2.13 and 17.13) and Zechariah even prophesies that one day those waters will flow from the Temple in Jerusalem all the way to the Dead Sea, bringing new life to that lake which now has none.

Likewise, Jesus once told a Samaritan woman whom he encountered at Jacob’s Well in Sychar that He could give her “living water” and she would never thirst again. (John 4.10) Or in short, what makes water living is that it brings life to others.  And in a similar way we are called to be dispensers of that same wonderful drink to those all around us.  But to do so, we need not just a “spring” in our step but a willingness as well to let God’s love overflow through us to others.

If you’ve been stuck in nothing more than a puddle of late, perhaps it’s time thus to ask Jesus to bring His living water into your life too.  For as I once heard some sweet Jamaican children sing, “Jesus’ love is a bubblin’ over.”

May it bubble in your life and mine.

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COVID Contemplations (May 5) – “What Are We Celebrating Again?”

All in all, it’s pretty much a day like any other.  Indeed, it’s not even a federal holiday, so in most of the country places like banks and stores remain open, unless they are closed because of the pandemic.  But in the state where it occurred, folks still remember the battle—however brief it was– that took place some 158 years ago today.

Like much of what happens in the world, it initially at least had to do with money, beginning when the newly elected president of Mexico, facing national financial ruin, was forced to default on debt payments to foreign governments.  In response, three European powers sent their naval forces to demand repayment, with two of them, Britain and Spain, quickly able to negotiate and withdraw.

But France, looking for a new empire, decided to use the opportunity to try to seize power as well.  Sending a well-trained army of 6,000 troops that landed at Veracruz, the French forced the Mexican president to flee to a new headquarters in the north.

In turn, the Mexican leader rounded up all the help he could find, assembling a rather rag-tag and poorly equipped army only one-third the size of the invading force.  Fortunately, however—if you’ll forgive my native brag—they were led by a Texas-born general named Ignacio Zaragoza.

Incredibly enough, then, when the French arrived to attack the small town of Puebla de Los Angeles where the Mexicans were taking their stand, the battle lasted only from daybreak to early evening.  But when it was all over, almost 500 French soldiers had been lost compared to fewer than 100 Mexicans.

To be certain, the fight against the French in Mexico lasted five more years and most historians will tell you that the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, was not at all a major strategic win.  But Zaragoza’s success there was nonetheless the symbolic victory that bolstered Mexican resistance until the French were eventually driven out completely.  And often times, it’s the small battles in our lives that can do the same.

The questions we should ask therefore are simple:  will we allow our circumstances, whatever they may be, to overwhelm us?  Will we give in to the kind of pessimism that spreads like a pandemic if we don’t stop it?  And will we go on fighting when our cause is just, even if the odds are three to one against us?  After all, it was the trumpet section of the marching band that brought down the walls of Jericho, and a young shepherd boy who pulled off the most unlikely of all victories against a far larger warrior. It’s no wonder thus that Jesus said that we only need to have faith like a grain of mustard seed to move a mountain (Matthew 17.20).

Of course, Cinco de Mayo, or the fifth of May, has now become a cultural celebration of all things Mexican.  And ironically, it’s observed far more in the United States than in the country where the battle of that day actually took place. However you may celebrate it, though, perhaps today is a time to give thanks for the small triumphs in life as well as the huge ones, and for the grace of God which really can move the mountains in our lives.

Just in queso you’ve forgotten that.

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COVID Contemplations (May 4) – “Sampling Salvation”

I miss the free samples.  For as nice as it was to once again wander through the Costco warehouse a few days ago (at a special time, no less, set aside for those of us who are, like some of their cheddars, more mature in life), it just isn’t the same without also being able to migrate between those little tables in the aisles, grazing unashamedly on all kinds of things from chicken to chips, juices to junk food.

For in addition to being free, those sample stations offer the opportunity to try something that you might never on your own be tempted to actually buy.  What’s more, though you may feign a little interest in whatever it is you’re sampling, just to be polite—“what an interesting flavor combination; I’ve never had bacon and peanut butter before”— there’s not any real obligation to even like it.  And how often do you have that chance in life?

Doesn’t it seem, for instance, that far too frequently our interchanges with others are almost rote and pre-rehearsed, lacking in any real authenticity or honesty?  For indeed, long before the coronavirus pandemic arrived, most of us already knew how to politely “distance” ourselves from those around us with whom we might not agree in life.  But I wonder if in doing so we may have missed a good opportunity to make a witness for Christ to others.

Writing to one of his young friends in this regard, St. Paul encouraged Titus to show himself “in all respects to be a model of good works,” demonstrating both integrity and dignity in his teaching. (Titus 2.7) And the good apostle similarly admonished the Ephesians to become “imitators of God as beloved children,” walking in love as Christ loved us, “a fragrant offering” to God. (Ephesians 5.1-2).

As those who believe, thus, we’re called to offer enticing samples of what salvation actually looks like to those who may not yet know what God can do in their lives.  And that will play itself out in numerous ways—how we drive, how we deal with others, how we tip, how we pray, and even, the look on our faces when things may not go well for us.  For if we are crabby and not cheerful, selfish and not focused on others, with the countenance of a mule and not of the Master, our witness will not be a winsome one at all.

What’s more, as this odd moment in our shared lives has worn on, some of the social lubricants such as manners that keep folks from rubbing too harshly against one another have begun to dry out, with tempers starting to flare, abuse cases rising, and self-destructive habits increasing dramatically. Now then would seem to be the ideal time to so walk in love that others are drawn in by the sweet fragrance of faith, just lingering on us.

Or in other words, more grace is exactly what this weary world needs right now, and if we are not the ones to sample it to others, who will?

Did I mention, by the way, that it’s absolutely free?

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