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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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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