A “Pear-able” for Our Times (Advent Devotion for December 1)

A little like some guests may do, they showed up a bit early.  For the intention was to give them out on St. Nicholas Day, December 6.  When they were delivered to my office last Tuesday, however, plans quickly shifted.  Because the last thing you ever want to do is to put the “pears” into “perishable” fruit.

I get it, of course.  And given the current conditions on shipping (and even people being allowed to show up for work in some places), the company out in Oregon was right to send them on when they did, no matter what the order might have said.  What’s more, for the pears to reach the peak of their perfection they will no doubt have to ripen at room temperature for at least another week or so anyway before they become both squishy and “delicioushy.”  

But it does remind me that in the end, we’re not really in control of much of life, no matter how much we may have thought we were.  We can carefully make our plans and schedules, but pears will ripen when they do.  Deliveries will arrive whenever they make it past the postal obstacle course.  And God will work in our lives according to His own timing, not ours.

The ancient Hebrews understood this, I think.  For centuries, in fact, they waited for the promise of God on whom the Spirit of the Lord would rest, that shoot that came up from the stump of Jesse, as Isaiah called Him.  Out of Bethlehem Ephrathah, so Micah suggested.  Or as a hymnist was to put it centuries later: “O come, o come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.” 

And that’s the point of Advent, in fact.  For in the end, Advent is a season of waiting.  Not just for Christmas, mind you, but waiting for the darkness to end, and the Light to appear.  Waiting for the end of all of our uncertainties and anxieties, and for the world to be made right once more.  In short, waiting, hoping, and eagerly looking for the Messiah.

A box of fruit, of course, is not exactly what anyone has long been longing for.  But perhaps it is a reminder that early or late, good things are always worth the wait.  You might even call it a “pear-able” that can point us back to that unwavering and wonderful truth. 

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Planting Hope–Advent Devotion for November 30

We started with jasmine but eventually the trellises began to rust out and had to be removed.  So we turned instead to crepe myrtles which were absolutely lovely…until the wicked westward exposure to the sun overtook them, their valiant efforts to weather the withering notwithstanding.

But then while walking through the nursery recently we came across a tropical perennial that can tolerate any number of soil conditions and should be planted in full sun.  Easily recognized by their lightly scented and trumpet-shaped yellow flowers, their cheery color attracts both hummingbirds and butterflies.  And despite its pollen being considered toxic, the plant has been used over the years for medicinal purposes and some have even made a beer from its roots, though we would not be the ones to ask if it is any good.

The nursery manager warned us, of course, that planting an ornamental at this time of year is not exactly optimal, especially one that typically blooms from spring through fall.  But on the other hand, sometimes the seasons deceive us.  For as Natalie Sleeth’s lovely “Hymn of Promise” reminds us, even in the “cold and snow of winter there’s a spring that waits to be.”  

The start of Advent brings us to just such a season.  Indeed, in what St. Paul called “the fullness of time” when the world was yet at its darkest, then came the Light.  And in this oddest of all years, perhaps the gift of this upcoming Christmas may be all the better just because of the long wait for good news we’ve all been experiencing since the pandemic began.  Until that day, then, our calling is simply to continue to have hope and trust that the Lord is still in charge of this world.

We planted two of those bushes by our west wall and so far they are not only doing well in their new environs, but they continue to bloom.  Formally, they are known as tecoma stans, but they answer to many other names, as well, including yellow bells and hardy yellow trumpets.  The nursery called them gold star esperanzas, however, and that’s part of why we bought them.  For in Spanish, of course, “esperanza” means simply “hope” or “expectation.”

And could it be that Advent is a season for planting hope in our hearts as well?

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“Thank You For Your Service”

The family tree is full of them.  Charlie, for instance, had lied about his age to join, a habit he continued when he met my mother, only in the other direction when he didn’t tell her he was actually younger than she was until their wedding day.  But the lanky kid from Waco was determined to do his part in the war nonetheless, and so the Navy put him to laying submarine nets in the Pacific even though he couldn’t swim. While half a world away, my wife’s father John found himself a German P.O.W. before managing to escape and somehow make his way back across hundreds of hostile miles. 

Then there was Durwood whom I never met but often heard about while growing up.  For my mom’s favorite cousin was also there on that fateful morning in June when Operation Overlord, more commonly known as D-Day, began the beginning of the end of the war that had ravaged all of Europe.  Only Durwood never came back from the invasion and I still have the photo of him, looking for all the world like just another teenage kid in a uniform that seemed too big for him, doing a task that was similarly oversized for his simple farm boy upbringing.

Roy, too, died while serving, though later on and not in a far-off land.  His Navy jet crashed far closer to home one night, leaving behind a wife and three young children, my wife’s only aunt and cousins.  Then later still, my older cousin Benny (rhymes with Vinny, I know) went to what is still the largest U.S. Air Force base in the Pacific, the Japanese island of Okinawa.  And though it had been several years since the last major battle of the Pacific war took place on that rock, with some 50,000 Allies killed or wounded, I still remember how the family prayed for him and hung upon every letter he wrote.

When Vietnam came along, another cousin closer to my own age, Bobby, was drafted.  And though like Benny he returned from his military service overseas, he brought back numerous demons from that jungle with him as well.  He died far younger than he should have, having never been quite the same after his experiences there.  

All of them had one thing in common, however, which is that when the call to duty came, they responded and went.  And it strikes me that such has been the experience of millions of men and women over the years who on this day we honor as veterans.  For in serving their country they served all of us as well, growing up much faster than many ever have to do.

The next time you see a veteran go ahead and thank them for their service, even if the phrase sounds a bit cliché these days. And when you say your prayers today, don’t forget the vet. For the very fact that you and I have the freedom to practice our faith so openly is in large part because of what they did.  

Even if they had to lie about their age to do it.

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Can You Still See?

It’s not entirely certain what happened that night in September long ago.  All we are sure of, in fact, is that the lawyer who had gone out to negotiate a prisoner exchange with the enemy found himself stranded on the ship where those prisoners were being held, some eight miles out in the harbor.

Just weeks before, the enemy had already burned the capitol and now the full might of their impressive naval fleet was trained upon a fort that guarded what was then the third largest city in the young country.  And so all that the thirty-five year-old lawyer could do was to simply watch from the deck of that enemy ship while his countrymen, imprisoned in a cargo hold below, anxiously awaited the outcome.

To be sure, the bombarding force had offered the inhabitants of that fort, many of them women and children, a way out of what seemed like inevitable defeat.  All they had to do to immediately stop the shelling was to lower the flag which flew over their encampment, all the more noticeable for the captain of that garrison had commissioned it to be made so large–30 by 42 feet, in fact– that the enemy “would have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance.”

It’s no wonder then that the prisoners down below kept yelling up at the man on the deck, “Tell us where the flag is.”  And indeed, as the night wore on, the enemy trained all of their firepower on that target hour after hour, discharging some 1500 to 1800 shells in all.  “It seemed,” according to that reluctant eyewitness, “as though mother earth had opened and was vomiting shot and shell in a sheet of fire and brimstone.”  Yet despite being directly hit several times, whenever the glare of the rockets illuminated the sky, what the lawyer saw was that the flag was still flying somehow.

And when the morning sun arose on September 14, 1814, as those on the ship looked through the haze, it was not the Union Jack of the British forces, but Mary Pickersgill’s oversized American emblem that was still fluttering on the flagpole of an undefeated Fort McHenry.  Admittedly, it was somewhat in shreds, and the flagpole itself leaned at an odd angle.  But all of that was because it was fixed in place by the bodies of patriots who knew what it meant for that flag to be on the ground, and had simply held it up by their hands until they died and someone else took their place.

It’s no surprise that the lawyer thus took the only paper he could find– the back of a letter that had been in his pocket– and began to scribble down his experience, finishing it when he was finally able to return to shore later that day.  And within a week, his stirring poem was published across the country and soon put to music.

Through the years, many have complained about it, of course, saying it is too militaristic to be a national anthem.  Likewise one New York newspaper long ago argued that the song had “words that nobody can remember to a tune that nobody can sing.”

What’s more, the irony of the inconsistencies in the life of that young lawyer– Francis Scott Key– have not been lost on others.  For Key had not only originally opposed the War of 1812 as a “lump of wickedness,” but more significantly, he was a slaveholder who only later through his faith came to understand the sheer villainy of that injustice.  In the current climate, it’s no surprise thus that his statue in San Francisco was among those that have been toppled in recent months.

But it’s the story of the flag itself that bears remembering.  For  even as the men below in the cargo hold prayed that night long ago, others in Ft. McHenry exemplified the ideal that it is better to die on your feet sometimes than to live on your knees.

And as another football season begins–when what happens on the sidelines as the National Anthem is played may be as controversial as any referee’s call during the game–as well as yet another remembrance of 9/11–perhaps that’s worth keeping in our hearts as well.

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Knowing J.I.

He was the epitome of a “gentleman and a scholar.”  For his first book, Fundamentalism and the Word of God, a rather brilliant defense of the historic Protestant position on the authority of scripture, made it plain that in his view the scriptures were not meant to provoke a debate but to provide ethical direction to our lives, regardless of any cultural winds which might be blowing otherwise.

It was Knowing God, however, that touched me at a far more personal level.  For the conviction behind his writing was that “ignorance of God lies at the root of much of the church’s weakness today.”  (And if that was true almost five decades, just imagine how much more it is so today.)

Likewise, he went straight to the point suggesting that if you really want to judge how deeply a person understands the Christian faith, look no further than to see just how much he or she makes of the idea of being God’s child and of having God as a Father.  For that is at the crux of enjoying a relational faith with God and not simply embracing a theological concept of Him.  And for J.I. Packer, it was clear that he was a man who knew God as Savior indeed.

To be certain, Packer could mix it up intellectually with the best of them.  He once characterized Bishop John A.T. Robinson’s rather well-known book Honest to God as “a plateful of mashed up Tillich fried in Bultmann and garnished with Bonhoeffer.” And when his Anglican Diocese authorized a decision that, in his judgment, betrayed “the church in its God-appointed role as the bastion and bulwark of divine truth,” he joined other clerics in walking out rather than let “experience judge the Bible,” resisting the notion that “the newer is the truer, only what is recent is decent, every shift of ground is a step forward.”

Still, it was not his scholarly acumen that impressed me the most when I first met him more than four decades ago.  For what struck me deeply about the rather distinguished visiting professor at my seminary in New England was his extravagant kindness and attentiveness to others, even lowly seminarians asking what were no doubt rather obtuse questions.  In the words of his longtime friend Timothy George, the Englishman’s smile was irrepressible, his laughter was contagious, and his love for all things human and humane was consistently on display.

The last time I was with him, in fact, at a small weekend retreat at Laity Lodge in the Texas hill country, the good professor extended that generosity of spirit not just to me, but to our daughter as well.  For though she had been slated to speak during the conference, her remarks were cut because of the verbosity of another’s presentation. Walking back to our rooms, Dr. Packer looked at Angie and asked her what she had planned to say anyway.  She gave him a brief synopsis of the comments she had prepared after which Packer, by then in his 80s, simply smiled and replied, “Well, that would have been a very good thing to have said indeed.”  And that affirmation was worth more than any other accolade she could ever have received.

James Innell Packer died on Friday at the age of 93, having faithfully followed the admonition of Jeremiah 6.16:  “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.”  For although he never shied away from fighting for that ancient Word, he once wrote that he would like to be remembered as one who simply “pointed to the pasturelands.”

And so he did, not just for millions, but for me as well.


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COVID Contemplations (May 29) – “Allergic to Hope”

The calendar will tell you that it’s not until June 20, while the temperature gauge will suggest it started weeks ago.  But for my money, summer officially begins today as area schools have now limped to the finish of the oddest academic year ever.  And there’s some comfort in knowing that, I think. For as tedious as these months of quarantine have been, there’s a new season ahead, which always means there’s a new hope as well.

I completely understand, of course, that we are in no way out of the woods when it comes to this pandemic, and that the coronavirus may even become a lasting part of our lives for many years ahead, at least until an effective vaccine and therapies have been perfected.  But as the world around us begins to re-awaken to summer once more, I can’t help but think that this change of seasons may be a particularly meaningful one.

Many churches and other houses of worship such as our own, for instance, are now making plans to re-open in June, albeit with a host of new procedures and policies.  Like an ancient Jewish miqvah, or ritual bath which worshipers entered before going to the Temple in Jerusalem, we’re installing some portable handwashing stations in our Gathering Hall, and the rest of our facilities have never been cleaner.  And we’re shortening the services a bit to limit some of the exposure for folks, along with rethinking how we do offerings, communion and music.  What’s more, we’re encouraging our members who may be more vulnerable to the virus to continue to worship with us at home via YouTube or our website.

But even with these modifications, just opening up the place once more is an encouraging sign that things may indeed be changing in both the culture and the church, if ever so slightly in the eyes of some. It’s a bit like what Albert Camus wrote toward the end of his novel The Plague when, against all expectations, signs begin to emerge of a slight abatement in the darkness.  The season was changing, in fact, but not everyone realized it.  And Camus explains it this way:

“Plague had imbued some of them with a skepticism so thorough that it was now a second nature; they had become allergic to hope in any form.  Thus even when the plague had run its course, they went on living by its standards.  They were, in short, behind the times.”

As we finish this strangest of all spring seasons, thus, we’re going to do our best to move into a summer that we hope can be filled with hope.  As a part of that, these daily blogs will end for a while, though I’ll still be checking in on a regular basis.  (If you want to know when a new piece is up, just subscribe at the bottom of the blog page and you’ll get an email each time.)  And while we will continue to respect the power of this pandemic, we’re simply not going to cower in fear of it or even hide in the shadows when we can do otherwise.

After all, it was God who not only “fixed all the boundaries of the earth” but who “made summer and winter.” (Psalm 74.17) Now that summer is here let’s not live behind the times.

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COVID Contemplations (May 28) – “When the Music Fades”

You could hear the pain in their question.  For after being defeated by an enemy that overwhelmed them, then forcibly relocated along a Mesopotamian Trail of Tears, the Jews who found themselves by the rivers of Babylon were in no mood to celebrate anything.  And so when their captors demanded that they sing something in their native tongue, their reply was understandable:

“How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?”  (Psalm 137.4)

Ironically enough, however, we find ourselves asking the opposite question as we look towards the resumption of in-person worship alongside of continuing our livestream in the coming weeks.  For though we may be “back home” in our sanctuary, if there is one thing that both health officials and musical experts agree upon it is that congregational singing is perhaps the most contagious activity that people in churches can do.

In the words of one German disease control official, in fact, “evidence shows that during singing the virus drops appear to fly particularly far.”  In addition, virologists believe that those singing themselves absorb many more particles because of breathing deeper into their diaphragms while belting out a tune.  Others disagree, of course.  For it is the nature of our times that everything— including science–is now partisan and our addiction to outrage touches all of our common conversations.  And so what’s a church like ours to do?

Well, in order to care for all, the answer is that we will refrain from refrains and sing only the rest notes for a season.  For as integral as singing is to the praise of God, it’s not the only way believers can express themselves or their love for the Lord.  Indeed, sometimes singing may even be an impediment to true faith.

Twenty years ago, for instance, an English pastor by the name of Mike Pilavachi began to realize that amidst all of the music and fervor which his growing church experienced each week there was something missing, a dynamic that the cutting-edge music seemed to actually mask:  authenticity in worship.  And so Pastor Pilavachi did something rather amazing:  he got rid of the sound system and the band for a season, which left his “worship leader” with nothing to do.

And, in turn, that musician, Matt Redman, began to ask a rather critical question, too:  “When you come through the doors on a Sunday, what are you bringing as your offering to God?”  He then put that pondering into the lyrics of a song which now has become familiar all across the world:

“When the music fades, all is stripped away, and I simply come, longing just to bring something that’s of worth that will bless Your heart.  I’ll bring you more than a song, for a song in itself is not what You have required.  You search much deeper within, through the way things appear, You’re looking into my heart.”

Then in the chorus of that song, to a consumer culture fixated on feeling good, Redman made his point:

“I’m coming back to the heart of worship and it’s all about You, it’s all about You, Jesus.  I’m sorry, Lord, for the thing I’ve made it when it’s all about You, it’s all about You, Jesus.”

Or to put it another way, what Redman wanted to know was simply, “Am I producing worship when I come to church, or consuming it?”  And the changes occasioned by the current coronavirus have perhaps given us the opportunity to ponder that same question for ourselves.

To be sure, we’ll still have music in our services when we return to the sanctuary in a few weeks.  But during this particular period, out of our concern to “watch over one another in love” (as John Wesley once expressed it), we will forego congregational singing at least as we’ve done it in the past for a while.

It won’t be forever.  But as we “simply come,” my prayer is that we’ll rediscover the heart of worship as well.  For whether we find ourselves by the Brazos, or by the rivers of Babylon or Great Britain, it really is all about Jesus.



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COVID Contemplations (May 27) – “Picking Up the Pace”

I suppose I could have yelled at him to watch where he was going, but it wouldn’t have helped.  For as it turns out, they can see but they can’t hear.  Similarly, expecting him to stand up for himself wouldn’t work either, for in addition to having no ears, they also have no backbone.

In truth, there is probably no one slower at going through life, thus, than a snail such as the one I almost stepped on yesterday.  For their average speed is only around 0.03 miles per hour and that’s with juicing the surface with a slime they secrete as they move along.  What’s more, it’s said that the lazier ones try to travel in the “slipstream” of other snails, moving along whatever slimy trails they left behind in order to save energy.

And in the view of some, I’m sure it seems like that’s what we’ve been doing as well in both the church and nation as we cautiously re-open all that’s been shut down by the pandemic. It might be encouraging to note, however, that a recent study discovered that snails were yet fast enough to explore the length of an average English garden in a single night.

In a similar way, whether fast or slow, we’ve been studying all of the options for how to return to something more normal in a way that respects everyone’s fears and faiths.  And we’ve been working to find that middle way that Methodists have been so famous for over the years.  For in the end, we’ve can’t really love God unless we love our neighbors, and we can’t adequately love them unless we love God first.

I’d like to go faster, of course, for I’ve really missed seeing all of your smiling (including a few sleeping) faces in worship.  But we’ll find our way together in the coming weeks, however short or long they last, and I can’t help but think we may also find a blessing along the way. After all, without all the pressures of a fast-paced society, snails can actually live in captivity up to 25 years!

It’s a bit like the story of a snail riding on the back of a turtle when the turtle crashed into another turtle at an intersection.  The snail was thrown off and when asked about the accident afterwards, he replied simply, “I don’t know– it all happened so fast.”

Here’s hoping the return to more normal times is just the same for us.


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COVID Contemplations (May 26) – “A Pew With a View, Please”

You might say that it was standing-room-only in those days.  For at least insofar as historians can tell, though believers could stand, kneel, or even lay prostrate on the floor during the first fourteen centuries of the church’s life, the one position they apparently could not adopt in worship was to sit down during the services, for there were no chairs or pews.

Indeed, in the words of Luke Harrington, “seating in churches didn’t really become a thing until parishioners got bored enough to wish they were sitting down,” that is, about the time when the focus of worship shifted from more participatory acts like confession, creeds, and communion to simply listening to long sermons, causing some to say, “Can we at least sit down for that?”

The placement of pews in churches also took on a rather commercial feel in their early years, as families often bought custom-built pews to help pay for the cathedrals. With their shoulder-height walls, doors, windows, curtains and sometimes even fireplaces, those early “skybox-seats” (a social distancing dream) were a sign of one’s status– real properties with a deed, in fact, that could be passed down from one generation to another.

Eventually, of course, such visible symbols of the inequities between rich and poor folks in church gave way to the idea of “free and open” benches, and there is still a stipulation in our own denomination’s governing Book of Discipline, in fact, that “pews in The United Methodist Church shall always be free” (Paragraph 2533.1), just in case some desperate pastor or finance committee is looking for a new source of income.

All of which makes the current conversations going on across congregations about how to re-open their sanctuaries for in-person worship at some point historically more interesting, I think.  For as entrenched as some folks are about sitting in the exact same place every Sunday, just imagine how difficult it would be if we had to worry about actual deeds and ownership and even giving refunds in closing every other pew for social distancing.

It all reminds me of what Jesus once said when he went to eat at the home of a prominent Pharisee one day.  Noticing how the guests tried to position themselves near the head of the table, the Master told his disciples that should they be invited to a wedding feast, for instance, they ought to take the lowest place to sit rather than jockey for the places of honor, “for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 14.11.)  A good case for sitting in the back rows, some might say.

Whenever churches are able to re-open thus, I hope that folks will be understanding about whatever kind of physical adjustments we are going to have to make to ensure we are indeed caring for those around us.  We all may need to be a bit like the fellow who was both his church’s organist and custodian, in fact:

It’s said he had to mind his pews and keys.

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COVID Contemplations (May 25) – “Methodist Musings on Memorial Day”

I have to confess that I really have no idea what to do today.  Because for the last 48 years or so, I’ve spent every Memorial Day dressed in church clothes sitting in a large sanctuary or auditorium somewhere for the Annual Conference session.

For those unfamiliar with Methodism, that’s our yearly meeting of pastors and lay delegates from a geographical area, in my case, the eastern third of Texas.  And our session has begun on Memorial Day weekend all these years for a simple reason:  Methodists are cheap.  We’ve taken the second of John Wesley’s admonitions about money—”earn all you can, save all you can, and give all you can”—to heart.  And since no one else has ever wanted to come to downtown Houston to celebrate a holiday weekend, the hotel rates are better.

It’s not to say that what we do at an annual conference is not important.  Forty-five years ago this week, for instance, I was first ordained as a deacon in The United Methodist Church and three years later on the same day I became an elder.  And along with all of the business matters and endless speeches I’ve sat through (think one unending church board meeting) there have been inspiring worship services and uplifting moments as well.

Mostly, however, conference is about renewing the ties that bind us as Methodists and even more particularly for some of us, as fellow pastors and preachers.  Since the days of John Wesley, in fact, every annual conference around the world has begun with the singing of one of his brother’s best hymns, written in 1749: “And are we yet alive, and see each other’s face, glory and thanks to Jesus give for His almighty grace.”

It’s a powerful moment for me personally.  For when I think of those largely unlettered circuit riders, many of whom died before the age of 35, I can’t help but glance around the room when we sing it to see the faces of those who have made it another twelve months, missing the faces of those who haven’t.  And I’ve recognized all too plainly the truth of Wesley’s third verse: “what troubles have we seen, what mighty conflicts past, fightings without and fears within, since we assembled last!”

There’s a special poignancy this year, thus, for those “fightings and fears” have certainly been manifest in the present pandemic which caused the postponement of our session for the first time in our history.  In the meantime, though, ministry goes on and I am reminded of another of Charles Wesley’s observations: “God buries His workmen but carries on His work.”

I’ll be remembering many of those workers in my prayers today, along with the relatives and friends I’ve known over the years who gave their lives up in the service of their nation.  For maybe in the end, Memorial Day has actually been a perfect time for we Methodists to meet after all.

I think I’ll grill some burgers out on the patio today too.  For isn’t that what regular people do on Memorial Day?

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