COVID Contemplations (May 1) – “One Foot At a Time, Sweet Jesus”

I have to admit that I was little anxious about April, though it had nothing to do with the coronavirus or the curious conditions under which we’ve all been living lately.  Rather, my watch, which doubles as a sometimes rather unreasonable personal trainer, told me at the beginning of the month that my challenge was to walk 210.8 miles, or seven miles a day.  And that seemed to go beyond being a smart watch to being a smart-alecky one.

Still, I dutifully started the month and managed to maintain the pace, even getting ahead by three or four miles on the running total.  And in turn, I actually ended up meeting the goal a day early somehow, despite the faulty calculation on the program that kept trying to divide the month of April into 31 days.

What I have figured out, however, reinforced by the past 21 months or 654 days of walking, is that you have to approach it simply one step—or perhaps I should say, one plodding step—at a time.  Left.  Now Right. Now Left Again. Now Right Again. Or in short, it’s not just “One Day at a Time, Sweet Jesus,” it’s more accurately, “one foot at a time.” Which would seem to be an apt piece of advice as well for how to get through a pandemic period, and beyond that, how to navigate the Christian life as a whole.

Think of it like that manna in the wilderness if you will.  For as the Hebrews who had come out of Egypt wandered somewhere in the Sinai, Exodus 16.4 records that God said to Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you,” though it turned out to be “thin flakes like frost on the ground”(verse 14) and not exactly an artisan loaf.  It probably got pretty old pretty fast.  But they had to admit that it kept them alive.

The catch was, however, that the manna wouldn’t keep overnight without spoiling, and so those Israelites were dependent upon God every morning for their “daily bread.”  And that seems to be the general rhythm God built into this world.  For if we can learn how to take life one day at a time, enjoying God’s mercies which are “new every morning,” we can slowly but surely whittle away at what may seem like looming goals and impossible tasks indeed.

Today begins another month in this pandemic and though we seem to be moving away from the worst perhaps, we’re still a rather long distance from anything that looks like normal, or at least what normal was just four months ago.  But today is also the day that the Lord has made, and so I am choosing to be glad in it.

To be sure, I suspect that my watch is not going to go easy on me when I get up the courage to see what the “May Challenge” is.  But whatever it tells me, I’ll give it a shot.

Just as long as I can go one foot at a time.

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COVID Contemplations (April 30) – “I’ve Got My Eyes on You”

We could easily have understood if he had panicked a bit at his circumstances.  For by the time that word reached him in Jerusalem, the invaders had already come across the Dead Sea and arrived at the oasis of En Gedi, only 25 miles or so southwest of the city.  What’s more, it was not just one army coming against him, but three.

Each of them had their reasons, of course.  The Moabites were tired of paying an annual tribute of sheep and wool to Israel, and the Ammonites had been restless ever since David’s general had conquered them.  We know very little about the third member of that Transjordan Coalition, the “Meunites,” but they lived somewhere along a mountain range near Edom.  More to the point, however, is that when assembled together, those three enemies of Israel possessed an overwhelming superiority in forces indeed.

So according to 2 Chronicles 20, Jehosophat, the king of Judah, facing a life-threatening crisis and confronted with a decided numerical disadvantage, had nowhere else to look except to God.  And so his prayer was a simple one, expressed in verse 12 of that chapter:  “For we have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us.  We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.”

And as Louie Giglio has thoughtfully observed in a recent article in Christianity Today, “every leader around the globe is in a similar predicament…faced with the three-pronged advance of a global health pandemic, a world economy that’s come to a screeching halt, and the personal crisis of anxiety and fear.”

It might be pretty easy for us to panic a bit too, thus.  For especially when the way forward is not obvious to us, the default response for many is to go a little negative or pessimistic.  But look instead at how Jehosophat responded to his circumstances.  According to verse 20, as Giglio points out, the good king did three things, in fact, that made a difference:  He set out in faith, He stood up in boldness, and he spoke out a word of encouragement:  “Have faith in the LORD your God and you will be upheld.”

What happened next no one can really explain. For as soon as the Israelites began to sing God’s praises, the invading armies–perhaps given a vision of God’s unseen heavenly forces– became so confused and terrified that they actually attacked each other, and Judah never had to fight at all.  It took them three days just to pick up the spoils, in fact, and when they got back to Jerusalem it was clear indeed that the battle had been the Lord’s.

And as we cautiously move forward into still uncertain days, waging our own battles against disease and discouragement, it is the same for us as well.  For when you don’t know what to do, it’s never a bad strategy at all to simply put your eyes on God…and keep them there.

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COVID Contemplations (April 29) – “Behind the Mask”

I saw it recently on my favorite Christian satire website, The Babylon Bee, and it made me laugh.  For the headline said simply:  “Mysterious Masked Man Fights Off Masked Men to Save Masked Man.”  The “fake news” story then went on to report that “an unknown masked man was attacked by a group of masked men, but he was saved when a mysterious masked man fought off the attackers,” leading a masked bystander to ask the obvious question, of course:  “Who was that masked man?”

And as we’ve now been encouraged to wear masks in public at all times, I suspect that as the days unfold, some of us may be asking that same question, as well.  For notwithstanding the fashion accessories now beginning to “bling up” some home-made masks, when people’s faces are covered it can be hard indeed to know just exactly who someone is.

Though hiding behind a mask may make good sense in a pandemic, however—or if you happen to be, say, Darth Vader– it’s no way to live as a person of integrity whose behavior and even facial expressions should reflect the presence of God in our lives.  For as 2 Timothy 2.15 reminds us, those who follow Jesus are intended to be workers who have “no need to be ashamed.”

To be sure, masks can help us hide our true thoughts and feelings and even offer an illusion perhaps of anonymity.  Likewise, masks are usually easy to don, though they are often far more difficult to take off.  But the truth is that we can’t enjoy healthy relationships unless we show others who we actually are.  Instead, as Eugene Peterson paraphrased 2 Corinthians 4.2, “we refuse to wear masks and play games… Rather, we keep everything we do and say out in the open, the whole truth on display, so that those who want to can see and judge for themselves in the presence of God.”

Or in other words, even if we wear a facial covering for health reasons, we’re still called to live the same way behind our masks as without them, being honest and open with all whom we encounter.  For when it comes to making a witness for Christ, to say nothing of entering into a genuine relationship with someone, as C.S. Lewis once asked the question, “How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”

And just in case you were wondering… having been made in His image, I’m pretty certain God has seen exactly who we are and what we look like.  And incredibly enough, He loves us completely anyway.

 

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COVID Contemplations (April 28) – “The Barrel”

It haunted me for decades.  For even years after leaving home to strike out on my own, I knew that it was still there just waiting for me to deal with one day.  The last time I had looked in it I was almost overwhelmed, in fact.  Three feet high and almost two feet wide, it weighed approximately 520 pounds, including 110 pounds just for the wooden staves and metal bands that bravely held it all together.

Inside, it was crammed to the breaking point with all of my dad’s old stuff… books, Navy items from World War II, clothing, letters and notes, pictures of people I did not know, checkbook registers and calendars, souvenirs from all around, or in short, the precious memories of a lifetime.

All of which promised to make it a daunting emotional and physical task indeed when after Dad’s death and Mom’s move to a retirement community, it came time to sell the house in which they had lived for almost fifty years and to empty out all of its contents, including that barrel in the closet in the garage.

What a surprise thus when I finally mustered up the nerve to deal with it, pried open the lid and discovered that it was completely empty.  For sometime before he died, my dad apparently tackled that task himself, disposing of everything in it as he wished.  Which meant that quite literally for years I had worried about something which was never going to be a real problem at all.

I wonder, however, how many of us do that in other areas of life.  For it’s easy indeed to fixate on a future that will never actually come to pass.  Maybe that’s why Jesus once told us “not to worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself” (Matthew 6.34).  He even pointed to the birds and observed that in spite of not storing away things in barns (or barrels) our heavenly Father still takes care of them.  And just in case we didn’t get the idea, he posed a question of faith to all those who were listening to Him that day: “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”

It’s no doubt important to be prudent in times like these, taking whatever precautions seem appropriate in a season of sickness and separation.  But taking care ought never to be confused with indulging in catastrophic predictions of what might be, but probably never will.  For sometimes when you finally confront the barrel in your life, you find out it’s been empty all along.

And if you listen closely, you may even hear a faint voice from somewhere beyond saying, “I told you I had this.”

 

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COVID Contemplations (April 27) – “Ted and Us”

I’m beginning to feel a little like Ted.  Not Cruz mind you, or even Nugent, but like a young reporter who was thrust into an assignment he hadn’t planned on when a national crisis erupted four decades ago.  For the capture of 52 Americans by Iran in November of 1979 (long before 24 hour cable news) stunned the nation and left it anxious to hear its resolution.

And so began what was first called “The Iran Crisis:  America Held Hostage” which started with a late-night countdown airing after the evening news of how many days the crisis had gone on (“Day 15”… “Day 50”… “Day 150”…etc.)  And when Ted Koppel became its face, the show soon found a new name as well, Nightline.  What no one expected, however, was just how long the crisis or the program would actually last.  For the Americans in Iran were held hostage for 444 days, leaving Ted to come up with something new to say every night, whether there was any real news to report or not.

Even after the hostages returned, however, Ted Koppel went on to host the program for another twenty-five years.  And a few weeks ago, on the fortieth anniversary of Nightline, in fact, Koppel, now 80 years old, made a guest appearance to discuss how he and his wife had been coping with the coronavirus pandemic, particularly in the light of her chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

So why am I telling you all of this?  It’s simply to remind us that sometimes the events of our lives outlast our expectations of them.  For living in an instant society, we’ve come to demand quick resolutions of whatever problems we may have.  But as I mentioned in my sermon on Sunday, “God doesn’t settle all of His accounts in October.”  Rather, He moves according to His own timeline but always in a way that He knows is best for us. For even though the virus was not sent by the Lord, what do those familiar old words of Romans 8.28 remind us?  “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.”

And so, here we are and it looks like we’ve still got a way to go until some semblance of the familiar returns to all of our lives.  Though I hadn’t really planned on doing it quite this long, thus, I’ll keep on writing if you want to keep on reading.  Keep praying, as well.  And washing your hands.  And following the guidelines, even if you do feel a little like a hostage yourself.  And together, we’ll make another week… and then see. 

After all, if Ted could do it.. to say nothing of those 52 American hostages and their families, along with countless others whose lives have been upended by war, conflict, famine, and other disasters over the years… why can’t we?

 

 

 

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COVID Contemplations (April 24) – “How Much Longer?”

(Today’s guest writer is Dr. John A. (Jack) Beck, our favorite Bible geographer and professor/guide for our Israel trips.  An adjunct faculty member of Jerusalem University College, Jack lives with his wife Marmy in Wisconsin.  You can find out more about Jack, including his many publications, on his website, johnabeckauthor.com.)

“How much longer!? How much longer before things get back to normal? I awakened with that question drumming on the door of a new day. I tossed back and forth in bed frustrated by the strictures imposed by another weekend of pandemic lock down. Then it dawned on me. I was asking the wrong question.

When Israel spent decades in the wilderness, their days were filled with the challenge of living in a natural world setting that threatened to kill them on a daily basis. Dehydration, starvation, terrain, and predators took their turns disrupting the normal rhythms of life. They were constantly living on defense and it was exhausting. They too asked. How much longer?

In reply, Moses did not give them a time frame but a new set of questions to ask. The Lord was using their time in this ecosystem to humble them, to test their faith, and to teach them he was sufficient to meet their needs (Deut 8:2-3). It would take as long as it would take to accomplish those goals.

That gives me a new set of questions to ask as I navigate this season of wilderness. Is this pandemic defeating the hubris that gives me a false sense of control over my life? Am I allowing this pandemic to reveal the level of trust I have in the Lord? Am I learning to see God is capable of meeting all my needs even when the shelves are empty?

These are better questions, in part, because they address matters over which I have some control. I do not control how long the virus will disrupt society. And no one can tell me just how long the pandemic will last. But I do control the changes that are occurring within me. If I ask questions about such things, I stand to come out a better person at the end of this period of waiting in the wilderness–no matter how long the wait may be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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COVID Contemplations (April 23) – “The Heights of Love”

It’s making the rounds on social media but in case you haven’t seen it, the video is worth a look on YouTube.  For when a Massachusetts nursing home closed its doors to all visitors, one octogenarian nonetheless found a way to see his wife of 61 years who lived on the third floor.

In some ways, it wasn’t all that surprising.  For since his wife Marion moved into the nursing center a year ago, Nick Avtges had visited every single day, hardly leaving her side.  When the coronavirus closed off that opportunity to him, thus, it was pretty obvious to all of the family that the 88 year-old was deeply missing his bride.

And so their son Chris came up with a novel idea, and after reaching out on Facebook, an old friend agreed to help.  With the approval of the nursing home, the friend arranged for a bucket-lift truck which arrived last Wednesday afternoon.  After scrubbing it down with disinfectant, they then strapped Nick—wearing a New England Patriots facemask and gloves– into the bucket and lifted him thirty feet into the air to hover just outside his wife’s room.

For the next twenty minutes, the couple visited through the screened window and to everyone watching below, it was obvious that Nick was in heaven, or at least the lower altitudes of it.  Indeed, as he told a local reporter, “they could have lifted me ten stories and it would not have bothered me as long as I got to see her.”

I have a feeling that Jesus felt much the same way about you and me when He made that journey in reverse, coming down to earth and emptying Himself “of all but love” as Charles Wesley paraphrased Philippians 2, so that we might one day be raised with Him back to heaven.  And no matter what else may be “up in the air” in our lives right now during this crazy season around the world, that’s a down-to-earth truth worth holding onto.

Just before finishing his visit and being lowered back down, Nick held up a sign which read, “I Love You, Sweetheart.”  And Marion responded by saying, “I love you too, more than you know.”

I have a feeling Jesus might say the same to you and me.

 

 

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COVID Contemplations (April 22) – “The Deer Can’t Read”

I hadn’t seen one for many months, so it was exciting this week when I caught a glimpse of not just one deer, but three beautiful does in a wooded area near our home.  For the development of our neighborhood has increasingly decreased natural habitat spaces for wildlife and I had feared that the deer had been driven away for good.

What amused me, however, was simply where those deer were grazing—just yards away from a nicely made “No Trespassing – Private Property” sign.  For obviously, the deer either were oblivious to the sign or simply chose to ignore it, perhaps rightfully claiming prior residence in all this land before any of us ever arrived here.

But the truth, of course, is that when it comes to nature, there are things which we patently can’t control.  Hurricanes happen when and where they want to, and floods arise whether we have insurance or not.  Tornadoes strike at random and with little warning.  Hot weather comes and, at least in South Texas, stays for an uncomfortably long time.  Diseases like the coronavirus similarly follow their own patterns, irrespective of whatever schedules we may try to set for them.  And deer, for all of their other winsome qualities—their keen senses of vision, smell and hearing, for instance– can’t read.

In the midst of all these uncertainties, however, we have a God who exists above and beyond nature for, in fact, He is the Creator of all things.  His thoughts are not our thoughts and our ways are not His ways.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are His ways higher than ours. (Isaiah 55.8-9).  When our lives are clearly out of our control thus, it’s reassuring to remember that “this is my Father’s world… the Lord is King, let the heavens sing, God reigns, let the earth be glad.”

All of which means that we can trust Him with however this rather odd season continues to unfold. For as another hymnist long ago put it, “the wind and waves still know His voice who ruled them while He dwelt below.”  And so do both diseases and deer.

Even if they can’t read any of our signs.

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COVID Contemplations (April 21) – “Mind the Gap”

(Today’s contemplation once again comes from across the Pond, this one written by the Reverend Steve Harvey, who serves as a vicar at Emmanuel Church in Loughborough, England.  In addition to being a wonderful pastor, Steve also happens to be a great husband to our daughter Angie and a terrific dad to our three British grandchildren. We’re also rather fond of him.)

The warning encouraging passengers to take care when moving between the train and the platform is ubiquitous on the London Underground system (though not much needed at the moment, so few people are using the Tube).  We tend to think of the gap (not the clothing brand) as something dangerous.  Something inconvenient.  Something that needs to be either filled or bridged.  The physical (at least 2m) gap between me and the next person.  The gap between our income and our expenditure, for instance—an increasingly pressing concern for many in this time of economic uncertainty.  The gap between what is now and what might or will be in the future.  The gap between our hopes and expectations and the reality we see on the ground.  “It’s-not-like-it-was-in-the-brochure” syndrome, as we call it in our family.

 

When the lockdown began, I remember feeling an odd sense of excitement about it, like a kid who’s just left school for the summer.  I was excited because I dared to imagine that the physical closure of our church building would herald a period of enforced calm from what has become a rather frenetic life of programs, meetings and general activity.  I thought these weeks would be like a kind of spiritual retreat.  How naïve I was!  Instead, the ‘ordinary’ busyness has been replaced by the extraordinary busyness of trying to transfer the work of the church online—Zoom meetings, online services, video reflections to go out daily on social media, and so on.  What happened was that I merely traded one form of busyness for another, though in many ways the latter seemed even more tiring for its newness and uncertainty.

 

The more I reflect on it, however, the more I feel drawn to the awkwardness of Holy Saturday—that day between Good Friday and Easter– as a metaphor for the current time.  It’s a day when nothing happens.  Not to our eyes, at least.  But we don’t get from Good Friday to Easter by pretending that Holy Saturday doesn’t exist.  No.  We have to wait.  We have to rest from our ordinary fixation of ‘making things happen’ and ‘being in control of our lives’ to simply being—to know what we can’t do and can’t control.

 

Perhaps we don’t need to try and replicate online everything that we would normally do in person.  Perhaps our busyness recreating life via Zoom says more about us and our need to be needed or ‘useful’ than it does anything else.  Perhaps the gaps in our lives at the moment aren’t potholes that need filling, but springs from which living water would burst forth.

 

During the last few weeks, our oldest two children have both learned to ride a bike confidently without training wheels. However, as parents who have lived that phase of life before will know, there is a gap between letting go of the child’s seat and watching to see if they’ll ride or fall.  If we don’t let go, we’ll never know.  Perhaps this is a time to trust that the habits of prayerful attentiveness to God we’ve sought to model and teach take hold—to loosen our grip of the seat and see what happens.

 

It’s too early to say what God might be teaching His Church through this time, and I’m sure there will be many lessons—God is unfailingly resourceful like that, turning the worst of circumstances into the greatest opportunity for good (isn’t that the Easter story all over?!).  However, perhaps this time in the gap is a God-given opportunity for us to re-evaluate where we are—with ourselves, with others, with life, and with God.  Perhaps this long Holy Saturday we’re in right now is God’s gift to us.  Perhaps what we will discover is that we don’t need God to plug the gaps in our lives, because He’s already in them.

 

We may indeed find out, as Jacob did, that God is in this place, even though we weren’t aware of it (Genesis 28:16).

 

 

 

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COVID Contemplations (April 20) – “A Primer in Patience”

For decades after it was built it was known as “The Bridge to Nowhere.”  But by the 1970s for those of us who lived in the small burg of Brazoria, west of the river, it was actually our lifeline to the other side, where Lake Jackson offered downright cosmopolitan attractions, including the closest McDonald’s to our little town.   What’s more, driving over it was almost like going through a time tunnel.  For built in 1939, the bridge had seen little changes since the Brazos River itself was a far more mighty waterway.

Imagine our concern, thus, when they began to repaint that old truss bridge and for months, traffic was restricted to one lane only, alternating between going east and west.  Then one lovely spring day, the job was done, and the old bridge proudly wore a beautiful new grey coat of paint.  Like the rest of our neighbors, thus, we were excited indeed that our traffic patterns were ready to return to normal.

Until, that is, we discovered that the beautiful grey paint was only the primer coat.  Which meant that our waiting was not yet done and the inconvenience of changing our commutes was still not over.

And in a like manner, I have a feeling that many of us have been anxiously waiting for word of a change in our daily routines right now, too, hoping that somehow our time of separation is about to be completed.  The bad news is, however, that at least in our area where the infection rate continues to rise, we still have several more weeks to go.

But the good news, of course, is that just as that bridge eventually got its final coat of paint and our lives got back to normal, this rather strange season too will eventually come to a close and we’ll find our way back to our familiar routines once more as well.

In the meantime, the words of Ecclesiastes 7.8 may be helpful here: “The end of a matter is better than its beginning, and patience is better than pride.”  For indeed, after seventy years of service, the highway department finally built a new bridge in 2010, making the iron truss structure still standing beside it truly “The Bridge to Nowhere,” though it did make it onto the National Registry of Historic Places.

Whenever the end of this pandemic comes, I have a feeling we’ll all be more than ready.  Until then, we’ll continue to follow the guidelines even as we practice the words of St. Paul in Galatians 6.9: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”

For just in case you’re wondering, that old bridge really did look great with a new coat of shining green paint.

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