Identifying Your Highest Values

So far 2021 feels like 2020 part two. This has been an emotionally draining time for all of us. We can identify with the excerpted words of Psalm 13: “How long, O Lord? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? Look on me and answer me, O Lord my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death.” There’s almost a death pall over the world. We’re tired of this. We weren’t made to be isolated creatures. We long for relationships and interpersonal contact. Our country and world have seen tempers boil over because of the sheer weight of this prolonged assault.

Added stress to an already worn out world is the politics of division. No matter what “side” one is on, COVID and evil has taken advantage of our ongoing malaise and pitted us against one another. Our inward focus on self-survival in these past months has exacerbated our differences more than our common values. If someone were to ask you what your highest value is, what would it be? What would they be?

Our church just received 150 face masks free-of-charge from our denominational communications people. What they have written on them is very telling in terms of priorities and highest values: “Love Your Neighbor” is in big bold letters, and down at the bottom in small letters is “The people of the United Methodist Church.” My cynicism is on full display at this point because I don’t think loving my neighbor should be my highest value. It would have been much more preferable to me that the mask boldly said, “Love God,” “Love Jesus,” or “Love God and Neighbor.” In these days of division and hyper-judgement, loving our neighbor is extremely important, but when I read what Jesus called the two greatest commandments, he didn’t start with love your neighbor. He said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength,” and then he said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Celebrating the individual is our national pastime nowadays, and we justify ourselves by buying into this anti-social tactic. It is anti-social for us to say everything anyone does is fine. Don’t we realize that God made differences between plants, fish, birds, animals and people as a good, even great thing? We want to flatten the curve on differentiation by overplaying sameness. We have made individual autonomy our highest value. This over-valuing of self is most insidious when it demands that everybody else understand me; i.e., appreciate me, love me, support me, condone me, and applaud me.

You begin to see why the commandment to love your neighbor becomes a warped slogan of self-actualization when it requires everyone else to kowtow to whatever my self-proclaimed values are. The problem with this is that no one can really understand someone else. It is absolutely important and a good thing to try to walk in someone else’s shoes, and attempt to see their perspectives. We should value one another as made in God’s image, but identity politics is basically narcissism because it doesn’t recognize that we have all been marred by original sin. Everybody can’t be right, right? So, what do we do? What message would you put on your mask that represents your highest value?

Maybe your highest value might be to hang on to The Golden Rule – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” If that’s not good enough, we could go further and take our national conscience a bit higher by following the two great commandments, but doing them in order: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and Love your neighbor as yourself.” Hear me, I am talking both/and, not one without the other. One cannot even begin to understand and love one’s neighbor without first loving God. A blanket kumbaya that accepts any and everything from others too easily becomes a convenient rationalization of my own actions, desires, and identity. God has to come first before I can really appreciate my neighbor or love myself.

The Bible actually has a very clear statement that spells out what it means to love God first and foremost, and our neighbors second. That statement, of course, is the 10 Commandments, albeit in the McClendon version: “Have no other gods but Me; Don’t make or bow down to idols; Don’t use my name in a way to make it mean something it doesn’t; Keep at least one day holy so you can have time to remember Who I am; Respect your parents and those who take care of you; Don’t murder and that includes way more than you think; Sex is sacred, so don’t fool around in your head, bed or on your TV, computer, or phone; Never steal in any way, shape, or form; Don’t lie or spread anything that isn’t 100% accurate; Be content, and don’t be envious or want what you don’t have.”

These commandments are pretty evenly split between love of God and neighbor. They beg the question: What would happen if we took them to heart, and put them into practice? What changes would occur in our country, world, and our personal lives? How would they shape our values, how we treat one another, and, most importantly, how we view and worship God? These commandments, seriously observed, make me get out of my pompous perch of judgment and self-approval, and take God and everybody else seriously.

Fred Craddock, consummate story teller and preacher, gives us a hint of hope and instruction on how this can work. He talked about how he had to get from one place to another on his family’s farm when he was growing up. His experience as a young man gives us a good lesson in civics, civility, and Christianity in a world fraught with divided opinions. As he walked the fields working in the family truck garden, the red mule he used to plow with would often get loose and make Fred have to chase him through an old family graveyard.

He would complain to his mother about having to go through that spooky old cemetery. His mother’s usual reply was, “There’s no other way. Now when you go through the graveyard, make sure you don’t step on graves. Graves are sacred ground.” Fred, in the late hours of waning sunlight, was chasing the mule through the cemetery, and he got frustrated because, in the diminished light, he didn’t know whether or not he was stepping on his Mama’s precious graves. Getting home he told his mother, “Mama, I couldn’t tell what part of the cemetery was sacred.” And she said, “Well, I know, it sometimes looks the same. But if you’ll just treat it all as sacred, you’ll never miss.” Craddock concluded, “You treat it all as sacred, but that’s just the way Mama was.” Is that the way we are? Do we treat whatever or whomever as sacred or profane? Something to ponder as we name our values in our complicated world.

The Pecking Order and a Possibility for Peace

בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃ isn’t Greek to me, but it is Hebrew, and to follow it, you must read it from right to left. If we were to read this in English, it would be left to right and, if anglicized, it would read: “Bereshith bara Elohim eth hashamyim v-eth haaretz, “In the beginning created God the heavens and the earth.” “In the beginning” is repeated in John 1:1-3, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”

Here we are at the beginning of a New Year, with a new president and administration about to be sworn in, but somehow my expectations for 2021 have been diminished. So far, 2021 seems a lot like 2020, a year that most of us would like to forget. We are weary of isolation, death, disease, restrictions, high and low domestic drama and endless commercials attacking political opponents.

Fascinating to me is the Hebrew verb, “bara,” “to create.” It is ONLY used as God’s prerogative. The New Testament Greek verb to create, “κτίζω,” or “ktizo” is similar. It is also ONLY used of God. So, guess where that leaves me and you? We are not God, but we are caretakers. Psalm 8:5-6 describes where we as humans fall in the pecking-order and what our job description is: “You (God) made humanity a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor. You made them rulers over the works of your hands.” This sums up Genesis 1’s description (vss. 26-27) of us humans as uniquely made in God’s image crowned with glory, and though we are not equal to the God who creates, we do have responsibilities to have stewardship over the “works of God’s hands.”

Genesis 2:15 is even more succinct as it describes our function in God’s created order: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. So, how are we doing? Do we treat one another with proper respect? Are we taking care of the planet? Do we acknowledge the image of God in other people, or judge them too harshly? Have we exhibited stewardship of Spaceship Earth or taken advantage of it to its own demise?

God used positive words in Genesis 1 saying, “Let there be light…” and described everything as either “good” or as Genesis 1:31 puts it, “God saw all that he had made. And it was very good.” Wouldn’t we do well to follow God’s positive assessment rather than being hypercritical? God spoke into the formless chaos and brought forth order as his Spirit hovered over the waters. Our ill-chosen words too often create more chaos.

Can we please lay down our swords of vitriol and venom? Might we pray for peace and it begin with me, each of us? We pray for a peace that surpasses party, personal preferences, and tightly held prejudices. I know I have allegiances for things and ideologies that would put me at odds with others, and, worse than that, I have made choices that have put me at odds with the God who so loved the world that he gave his Son to redeem us.

I know that there are causes and truths for which sacrifices are necessary. This week I am utterly dismayed as people of both parties jockey to move God off the throne as the sole creator, and try to set themselves up as the arbiters of what or who is right and wrong. Yes, there must be standards, consequences, and repercussions, but I feel a strong need to say to everybody in D.C., “Please just be quiet!” As much as I love our flag, this week and every week, I need to pledge my allegiance to the one and only God, the Lord Jesus Christ, and stop the mutually assured destruction. I want to follow Jesus who looked into the storm (Mark 4:39) and said, “Peace, be still!” I want to watch the winds and waves of a horrible year subside into a calm that can only come from God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. Please Lord, redeem 2021 and our country. Please give us a second chance as the caretakers of your Creation. Amen.

The iconic “Earthrise” image taken by astronaut Bill Anders on Apollo 8 on Christmas Eve 1968. Friday marked the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 8 liftoff.

A Civil Body Politick

The Pilgrims and Indians make a great tableau to consider for Thanksgiving, but the peace between the two groups didn’t last long. Massasoit and Squanto of the Wampanoag tribe had already been on the losing end of things because of smallpox brought by Europeans to American shores. Squanto knew English so well because of captivity, not deliberate education, but the first Pilgrims joined forces with these friendly Natives out of common necessity to survive the attacks of hardship, hostile tribes, and hunger. Common enemies and privation caused the two groups to work together. How does that compare to America today?

Unfortunately, as is often the case, a balanced reciprocity surrendered to animosity and hatred. The Pilgrims who were Separatists saw no future at all in the English Church. They came to America to start over, not to redeem or revive what they saw as a corrupt institution. But, then came the Puritans. The Puritans were all about redeeming and purifying the English Church. The Puritans and Pilgrims had totally different goals, and the Puritan attitude of judgment and superiority annihilated any goodwill toward Native Americans. Instead of the partnership the Pilgrims enjoyed and promoted with peaceful tribes, the Puritans looked down their noses at Indians, and if they couldn’t convert them, they killed them. What a difference it would make if we had stayed Pilgrims and rejected Puritanism. Collaboration between the Pilgrims and the Mashpee Wampanoag should have been the norm, not the exception in relationships between European settlers and Indians.

The Puritans also led us into problems among Europeans. Immigrants went from the Pilgrim’s “Civil Body Politick” of mutual benefit found in the Mayflower Compact to a Puritan Work Ethic of overwhelming greed and capitalism. The essence of the Puritan Work Ethic is one that often raises its head among religious-types; i.e., “if I want to prove that I’m pure, and blessed by God, then I need to be as wealthy as I can, and own as much as possible.” Mutuality is replaced by an emphasis on individual rights and ownership. It’s easy to see that America bought into that notion big time, and the Mayflower Compact devolved or evolved, from your perspective, into a “Bill of Rights” and a confederation of states, and led to Nullification and Civil War, and spiraled into the anarchy we too often see today.

I know that this is too broad a subject for a blog, but I cannot help but to think about our current incivility. What would our Thanksgivings look like if we truly shared without being piggish? Tomorrow’s celebrations should be quieter because there are less people getting together, although we will miss our traditional feasts. But, won’t there also be less chance of tension because college football rivalry games have been mostly cancelled this year? There also seems to be no point in arguing about who won or lost the election. Maybe like the Pilgrims and Wampanoag, we can focus on our common enemy named COVID and communicate more about what we hold dear together.

I would hope that we ponder our American Indian brothers and sisters. As a group, though from many tribes, they have per capita enlisted and fought in every American war more than any other demographic group. They have been loyal to the American Experiment even when they have been the most mistreated, overlooked, disenfranchised group in our history. As a T-Shirt I saw said about them, they have “Been Fighting Terrorism Since 1492.” If Native Americans had not introduced the Pilgrims to the “Three Sisters” of corn, beans, and squash, the pilgrims would have starved to death. Think about American Indian contributions at your meals tomorrow, and be reminded of how wonderful it is to work together and get along.

Being Christ-Like in a Crisis

Red states, Blue states, and purple states abound. The same is true for people. If there is anything this election has taught us is that Americans are all over the map in our convictions. In spite of our acrimony and recrimination, I pray that we seek and find reconciliation. Some are not ready to move on because their disappointment is too fresh, but we cannot and must not continue to abuse one another. Just when I thought we might at least have a respite from the mud-slinging TV ads, Georgia has a run-off coming up that will decide the US Senate majority. Our TV market is 13 miles from Georgia, so our ads will continue to turn up the heat at least until the first week of January. For many it would be a good time to be like Rip Van Winkle who slept for 20 years and woke up to a changed world. On the other hand, wouldn’t it be better to stay awake and be a part of the change? In my worst moments, I simply want to tune it all out. Have mercy.

Oh, we do need mercy, don’t we? God is gracious enough to give it. Someone said it this way about grace: “There is nothing that we can do to make God love us less, and nothing we can do to make God love us more.” What a gracious way for God and us to act. Jesus loves us all and wants us to be His body, though with different parts and particular opinions. He wants us to work together and seek peace. What a tough message to hear when so many are so emotionally spent by the effects of COVID, racism, civil unrest, economic uncertainty, violence, and the aftershocks of election season. The holiday season we’re about to enter exacerbates our turmoil. Isolation and quarantine have upset plans for families to get together for Thanksgiving, and many, like me, are wondering whether or not to even put up a Christmas Tree. It’s so tempting to yield to this option and hunker down in our bunkers until all this passes.

This year has taken a huge toll in deaths and emotional stress, but God dares us to be people of hope and perseverance in spite of everything. It’s not like the church hasn’t been in this spot before. Goodness, according to a seminary professor, 500 Christians died from persecution every day for the first 400 years of the church’s existence. According to current figures it’s still about 100,000 per year. Nevertheless, we still have hope. The church didn’t just survive those early centuries of martyrdom, it actually thrived.

In their honor and for my own good, I will put up a Christmas Tree. I will not stay in my bunker and live on wishes and platitudes. I will put up that tree and turn on its lights because it represents that hope is ever green, even in bleak midwinter. That tree symbolizes the words from John 1:5 that we usually say at our Christmas Eve Services, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” If I ever needed the light of grace and hope in my lifetime, 2020 is it! This should be both our personal testimony and our message as the church to a hurting world. Our individual and corporate ministry is to attempt to bring healing and hope to the world by being the hands and feet of Jesus.

Seasoning our words with grace is far better than accusations whether we dealing with actual falsehoods or not. There was a fellow who came to know the Lord, but he really didn’t understand the Lord’s way of dealing with people. As a new convert he focused more on the texts of Scripture about Jesus using whips and turning over the money-changers’ tables. The man conveniently overlooked the fact that Jesus forgave Peter, and even said from the cross, “Father, forgive them. They know not what they are doing.”

The man’s pastor tried to have a conversation with him about the difference a kind witness makes versus one that is as bitter as vinegar. The man replied, “For years I worked for the devil full-time. Now I work for the Lord full-time. I have dedicated my life to opposing everyone whose beliefs are false and who teach errors. Fighting lies is a full-time job.”

The pastor asked the man if he had ever put himself in his opponents’ positions and felt what they feel. Additionally, the pastor pointedly asked the new convert if the man had ever thought whether grace or wrath worked better in changing peoples’ minds. The man replied, “Of course, I study my opponents’ positions carefully. I do it in order to make my arguments more devastating. Through study I discover their weaknesses. It’s not important how they feel!”

Suddenly the mild-mannered pastor exploded! He shouted at the top of his lungs, and repeatedly poked the man in his chest. He called the man names until the new convert begged the pastor to stop. The pastor did stop and resumed speaking gently to the man, “It is not enough to know what your opponents think. To be like Jesus, you need to feel what they feel. It doesn’t feel good to be yelled at or attacked. Jesus used love and wisdom much more than he did anger or temper. You go and do likewise, and you will not only be more like Jesus, but you will see God truly change people. Your desire to refute people’s falsehoods isn’t wrong, but the way that you’ve been going about it is.”

Pray with me: “Oh, Lord, we do not want to cause more harm than help. Forgive us for getting so worked up over other people’s opinions. Help us take the log out of our own eye before we try to take the speck out of a neighbors. Help us today to listen more than we spew. Help us to model your response to all of our world’s tension, and speak the truth in love; in Jesus’ name. Amen.”

Election Day Observations

I’ve voted and am proudly wearing my complimentary sticker on my shirt. I have no illusions about whether or not we’ll know anything about who won the election by tonight. Exit polls are about as reliable as the ones we’ve been hearing about for months. Americans are a fickle group. We’re about as bad as the Palm Sunday crowd that celebrated Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, but then turned on him by the end of the week, and asked for him to be crucified.

People will tell you that this is the most important election in American history. In many ways, I think they’re right. The differences between candidates could not be any starker, but the most important election is our vote for Jesus. If I vote for Jesus then I can hold my nose and survive whomever is elected president. Don’t get me wrong! I voted for issues that I think are hugely important and are non-negotiable. I am reminded, however, that solutions to issues can often remain elusive even if your candidate wins. Our political system necessitates bargaining and compromise, a negotiation that hammers out legislation that everyone can live with. If it doesn’t, then that party or person certainly won’t last long.

The way our democracy works reminds me of making hash with a little bit of this and a little bit of that. It’s not a pretty sight, but the finished product is darn good! The difference between Republicans and Democrats reminds me of the story of a fellow trying to explain the difference between capitalism and communism. Pardon the sexist language, but here’s what he said: “In capitalism, man exploits man. In communism, it’s the other way around.” In other words, either way you go, usually somebody is the exploiter and someone is the exploited.

If you think any candidate or party is pure and clean as the morning dew, good luck with that. So, what we do is to try and discern, while admitting that everyone is subject to the failures that are common to all humanity, who or what is closest to the truth. Whose track record delivers, and who best upholds your non-negotiables? Frankly, I’m astounded at why in the world would anyone want to go into public service anyway unless they have a strong streak of masochism. It’s often a damned if you do, and damned if you don’t proposition. Thankfully, there are those well-intentioned servants who are truly willing to get into the fray because they care passionately about the common good. Today, of all days, I pray for these brave souls and their families.

The mud-slinging, personal attacks, and vicious rumors that would kill a weaker person end up aging people before our very eyes. Even the humor, both on late-night TV and around the water-cooler, is tainted and doesn’t do our public servants justice. There was one story going around that the word “politics” says all that you need to know about people running for office. It comes from two words, “poli” which means “many,” and “tics” which obviously means “blood-sucking creatures.” Of course, it doesn’t really mean that! Another jab has its roots in the man who wanted to try to figure out what his son’s profession would be. The man placed a Bible, a $100 bill, and a bottle of whiskey on a table near the back door so that his son couldn’t miss them. He hid behind the door and looked through the crack to see which of the items his son would pick up, thus determining what his son’s vocation would be.

The son walked in and picked up the $100 bill and the father thought, “Wonderful, he’s going to be a banker!” The son, however, put the $100 bill back down on the table. Then he picked up the Bible, and the father thought, “He’s going to be a minister!” Then the son put the Bible back down, and picked up the whiskey bottle. “Oh no, the father thought, “He’s going to be a drunk.” Then the lad put the whiskey bottle down and stared at all three objects. Thereupon, he picked up the $100 bill, the Bible and the whiskey bottle. The father thought, “Dear God, he’s going to be a politician.”

We can easily make fun of public servants, but these serious times demand great sacrifice of our public servants. We need to pray for them all daily. With the pandemic, social unrest, wildfires, hurricanes, and all the rest, this is no time for the faint of heart in the political arena. This is a difficult time for our country. God bless our leaders, our people, and our world so that “government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.” God bless America. Amen.

Assault on Mt. Mitchell

Some of you have heard of the “Assault on Mt. Mitchell,” and a few of you may have done it. I’ve seen it, and witnessed the literal gut-wrenching agony of many of the participants, but I haven’t done it. The Assault is a 102.7 mile bicycle race that starts in front of the Spartanburg Memorial Auditorium in Spartanburg, SC and goes 11,000 feet up to the top of Mt. Mitchell near Burnsville, NC. The winners are usually able to accomplish this feat in around 5 hours. It is grueling to say the least.

Does this sound familiar as we make our assault on COVID-19? Have you ever had small kids on a trip ask every whipstitch, “Are we there yet?” That’s what is on everyone’s minds right now. “This too shall pass” is a popular phrase, especially when we are ready to move on. Even as I think of the eloquent, but simple language of the 23rd Psalm, there are lots of us that focus on the part that says, “Even though I walk THROUGH the valley of the shadow of death,” as if to say we’re only going to be in it for a short time until we come out on the other side. What if it’s not going to be a short time? What if we’re not there yet? What if we haven’t climbed that last hill on the way to the top of Mt. Mitchell or in our assault on COVID-19?

It seems like we’ve been in COVID-19 quarantine forever, but that’s exactly where we still are. We’re not through it, are we? Have you ever noticed that the very first time that you take a trip or travel a new route somewhere, it seems to take longer than on the same way home. Why? Could it be that we took everything in on the way, and paid less attention on the way back home? I don’t know the exact reason, but this is my experience. No matter the reason, a first time trip somewhere always seems longer than the trip back.

Well, this pandemic is a first time trip, and we aren’t back to normalcy yet. I’m not even sure if we’ve turned around yet. I am going to assume that we’re still on the trip. We’re still in the assault stage. We’re not ready to coast downhill. We need to stay the course right now, and not jump too quickly to the downhill side. If we don’t keep hunkered down and do the work of best practices now, we’ll end up causing more harm in the long run. I refuse to waste what this uphill battle has already cost us. I want the trip back home to normalcy to go by quickly.

So, let’s absorb all the info we can while we’re still on the way so that we can protect others and ourselves on the trip home. I don’t want anyone to die on the way to or from. I’ll have to admit I’m torn on the reopening issue. Sure, some businesses need to start. Economic disaster is tantamount to death for lots of people. We need to reopen everything at some point, but we’re not there yet, are we? We’re not through this yet.

The governor of Georgia thinks we are on the other side of this enough so that we can get our nails done and have massages. Are you kidding me? I want gyms and churches and everything that’s been closed to reopen, too, but is it safe yet? Thankfully we have a Bishop who will determine when our church will begin to have face-to-face worship. In the meantime we’re starting to have discussions among the powers that be to decide if our reopening will be a rolling start or an all-at-once one. I’m thinking a determined gradual reopening is best for safety’s sake.

One of our three rules that we Methodists live by is “Do no harm.” We will not violate that! We’re going to use these days of continued assault on COVID-19 to make sure we beat it completely! Thinking out loud or at least in print, we will most certainly avoid handshakes, hugs, and high-fives. We will have 6 ft. social distancing and probably have limitations on the size of the crowd. We may have to take reservations for attending church, block off pews and seat people on either ends and make sure that they’re staggered so no one is behind anyone else. There probably won’t be any Sunday School to start with. We’ll have to keep doing a lot of that by zoom.

We might have to have certain services for specific groups of people delineated by age, illness or whatever criteria works to mitigate risk. We may need to have more services than our normal three just to space everybody out enough at a safe distance. We will need people at preset entrances in full hazmat gear to take forehead temps of people. Children’s Ministry and Youth are already meeting by zoom. The choir is doing that, too, but letting there be face-to-face choir practice or sitting in the choir loft together is going to have to be a work in progress. Needless to say, it is going to be interesting. Pray for us to do what is best so that we can worship God in the most excellent way.

So, we’re doing what we can in this in-between time to get ready. We will do whatever it takes to get to the top of Mt. Mitchell. We’re just not there yet, so let’s use this gap-time wisely to pray and think it all through. In our impatience to crank back up, let’s put the brakes on enough to do everything we can to be smart. God gave us brains, so let’s use them. Let me encourage you, we will get wherever “there” is, but right now we are going to stay in this valley, and do what it takes until we can all come out on the other side as safely as we can. We want this assault to lead to complete victory, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

The Wisdom in Waiting During Quarantine

A man had just had his annual physical and was waiting for the doctor’s initial report. After a few minutes the doctor came in and said these fateful words: “There’s no reason why you can’t live a completely normal life as long as you don’t try to enjoy it.” Man, that is exactly how I feel today in quarantine. God bless those individuals who have already been experiencing social distancing because of treatment regimens or due to physical and other limitations. I have not had enough sympathy, and I’m sorry. This quarantine thing is harder work than I thought.

The first few weeks were filled with catch-up items from lists of things that have been lingering around for quite some time. Now they’re caught up, and as a “Do-it-right-now” kind of person, I’m about to go bonkers or slip into a Dr. Seuss-like Oh, The Places You Will Go “Waiting Place.” To be sure, there’s still work and ministry taking place, more than ever, but done so differently that it’s almost like running in place. I’m talking with parishioners every day; just got off two back-to-back Zoom meetings; have done research, written sermons, planned programs, talked budgets, and prayed and prayed ad infinitum, but it’s weird, isn’t it? Time seems out of joint.

Many of us have spent time in the hospital and know that there are some common experiences that everybody shares. One that comes to mind in these days of quarantine is losing track of time. If you’re in the hospital even for a short stay, pretty soon your days and nights are all mixed up. You wonder what day it is. Normal routines are out the window.

That’s what’s on my mind today. Is it Monday or Tuesday, whatever, and forget about what date it is. Is this what retirement will be like? That sounds pretty good at first glance, but here I am whatever the number of weeks we’re into this isolation, and sometimes I don’t know what to do with myself. One thing I know is that I need to wear a mask, not to help me avoid the virus, but to keep me from eating more than I should. I do read and pray, and have already Netflixed through every episode of some shows I had never heard of before.

In reading the Bible, the pastoral epistles of I and II Timothy, and Titus were great, but I felt quite un-pastoral without a tangible, huggable, handshaking flock to enjoy. Then came I & II Thessalonians, the Gospel of Mark, but things took a sharp turn down a dark alley this morning when I felt led to read Ecclesiastes. I should have never done that! Talk about depressing? It’s called “wisdom literature,” and it very much is, but Ecclesiastes calls into question much of what I/we valued before COVID-19, and it seems the most often repeated word in it is “meaningless.” It’s a downer, except that it’s true. Just like these quarantined days, it makes me question my values, purpose, and destiny.

Before you promise NOT to read it, let me implore you to do it. It strips away pretense and gets to the heart of what’s important in our lives. I won’t tell you how it ends except to say that it ends well. It is the most accurate assessment that I have encountered about my life in a long time. It may speak to you in a different way, but that is the wonder and power of the Bible. Even if we reread a passage, The Holy Spirit can bring forth new wisdom at just the right time.

The Byrds’ song “Turn, Turn, Turn,” that is straight from Ecclesiastes 3, says that there are seasons, juxtaposed and seemingly opposite, but to be embraced because when these vastly different things are combined we encounter real life – not some sham, not seen through rose-colored glasses, but REAL life. Maybe that’s what I’m feeling today – the depth and richness, not of busyness, but of the interplay of my inner thoughts, even God’s Spirit dwelling within, closer than my closest breath.

Nathaniel Hawthorne has been called “a dark romantic.” This is what he said about these kind of days when we ponder the meaning of life: “Happiness is a butterfly, which, when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.” May this week take you to a new place of self-reflection and discovery, even happiness? God bless and protect you and us all. Amen.

The Virus Didn’t Steal Easter

How the Virus Stole Easter

By Kristi Bothur, With a nod to Dr. Seuss

Twas late in ‘19 when the virus began

Bringing chaos and fear to all people, each land.

People were sick, hospitals full,

Doctors overwhelmed, no one in school.

As winter gave way to the promise of spring,

The virus raged on, touching peasant and king.

People hid in their homes from the enemy unseen.

They YouTubed and Zoomed, social-distanced, and cleaned.

April approached and churches were closed.

“There won’t be an Easter,” the world supposed.

“There won’t be church services, and egg hunts are out.

No reason for new dresses when we can’t go about.”

Holy Week started, as bleak as the rest.

The world was focused on masks and on tests.

“Easter can’t happen this year,” it proclaimed.

“Online and at home, it just won’t be the same.”

Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, the days came and went.

The virus pressed on; it just would not relent.

The world woke Sunday and nothing had changed.

The virus still menaced, the people, estranged.

“Pooh pooh to the saints,” the world was grumbling.

“They’re finding out now that no Easter is coming.

“They’re just waking up! We know just what they’ll do!

Their mouths will hang open a minute or two,

And then all the saints will all cry boo-hoo.

“That noise,” said the world, “will be something to hear.”

So it paused and the world put a hand to its ear.

And it did hear a sound coming through all the skies.

It started down low, then it started to rise.

But the sound wasn’t depressed.

Why, this sound was triumphant!

It couldn’t be so!

But it grew with abundance!

The world stared around, popping its eyes.

Then it shook! What it saw was a shocking surprise!

Every saint in every nation, the tall and the small,

Was celebrating Jesus in spite of it all!

It hadn’t stopped Easter from coming! It came!

Somehow or other, it came just the same!

And the world with its life quite stuck in quarantine

Stood puzzling and puzzling.

“Just how can it be?”

“It came without bonnets, it came without bunnies,

It came without egg hunts, cantatas, or money.”

Then the world thought of something it hadn’t before.

“Maybe Easter,” it thought, “doesn’t come from a store.

Maybe Easter, perhaps, means a little bit more.”

And what happened then?

Well….the story’s not done.

What will YOU do?

Will you share with that one

Or two or more people needing hope in this night?

Will you share the source of your life in this fight?

The churches are empty – but so is the tomb,

And Jesus is victor over death, doom, and gloom.

So this year at Easter, let this be our prayer,

As the virus still rages all around, everywhere.

May the world see hope when it looks at God’s people.

May the world see the church is not a building or steeple.

May the world find Faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection,

May the world find Joy in a time of dejection.

May 2020 be known as the year of survival,

But not only that –

Let it start a revival.

Easter Hope from Old Salem

Holy Week Hope is what I need this year. COVID-19 has ravaged the world and things like Easter services have changed in its wake. This doesn’t change the fact that Jesus is alive and well. Holy Week’s drama doesn’t end on Golgotha, but at the empty tomb. There will be differences this year because we can’t meet together, but I pray that we will hear the echoes of “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!” reverberate in our hearts.

I have always wanted to attend the Easter Sunrise service at Old Salem in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Being a pastor makes it nearly impossible to pull that off due to leading my own flock in worship. This year marks the 240th uninterrupted succession of Easter Services at Old Salem. The Moravians since Count Nicholas Von Zinzendorf in Herrnhut, Germany have given this poignant and powerful homage to Christian hope and faith. This year it will be just as rich except it will be live-streamed at http://www.moraviansunrise.org/. It’s not an extravaganza, never has been. It’s deep and worshipful. It is the essence of Christian hope because it’s not based on pyrotechnics or stage management. It is simple, yet extremely profound.

We need to remember the Moravian influence on John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, who was caught in a storm at sea frightened for his life and soul, yet surrounded by these German Pietists who had heart faith that inspired them to sing hymns and pray through the storm. They had more than the head faith of Wesley. The Moravian’s witness had a profound effect on Wesley that led him to believe Methodists would do best if we connected head and heart, and literally “felt” our religion. Wesley even met with Zinzendorf at Herrnhut to experience more of this living hope himself.

Feeling our religion is the essence of hope. So yearly, albeit 2020 will be quite different, the Moravians who have been in Old Salem since the 1700’s have celebrated their faith in a special way. At 1:45 am a brass band of nearly 400 using trumpets and tubas goes around the city and plays Easter music, alerting everyone that sunrise will soon be coming. Then they gather at the Old Salem Church at 6 am when the bishop steps out of the Moravian Church into the darkness and says the traditional Easter Greeting: “The Lord is Risen!” The gathered throng responds, “He is risen indeed!” Then silently they make their way to the ancient cemetery called “God’s Acre” where bodies have been buried or sown in faith as physical bodies so they can be raised up as spiritual bodies.

The cemetery is a witness itself of new life. Every flat recumbent stone is identical and they are covered with flowers: forsythia, jonquils, azalea and dogwood blossoms – whatever plants, bushes, and trees are full of color are carefully laid on each tomb as a sign of resurrection piercing the night’s fading darkness. The tombs are all the same for each person as a reminder that each of us needs God’s grace the same as anyone else. Tombs are not gathered in family plots, but are ranked in specific order of married women, unmarried women, married men, unmarried men, etc. Zinzendorf himself said this is the way it should be as if our bodies were “choirs,” of sorts, with equality and democracy the same rule of heaven as it should be on earth with no one better than another.

Gathered there at the cemetery in silence everyone looks toward the eastern hill beside God’s Acre and the cedars that were brought from Germany when the first Moravians settled Salem. The sun comes up over that hill and the Communion of Saints is revealed: the earthly saints in the Church Militant joined with the deceased saints in the Church Triumphant, all living saints as represented by the people standing and the graves festooned by every imaginable color of flower. It is impressive. “Christ is Risen!” “He is Risen indeed!”

Pray and plan that Holy Week and Easter 2020 will be as glorious as any in Old Salem. May we feel stronger in the faith as we visualize our deceased loved ones alive again and rooting us on in our quest for hope and resurrection today. Amen.

Holy Week, COVID-19, and The Serenity Prayer

This is the longest month of March on record! It’s not because this one has more than the usual 31 days, but these days have dragged on and on, and most of us have languished. The corona virus has unleashed so much havoc that it’s hard to believe that it was just a month ago in February that we had stock market highs, COVID-19 was only a blip on our radar, and life was pretty much normal. March has wiped out thousands of lives, and hundreds of thousands in everyone’s retirement accounts. I can’t wait for March to end.

I’ll probably feel the same way about April, but time has seemed to stand still during these days as we have sheltered in place. Days seem like weeks, and weeks like months. Is this our new normal? If it is, what do we do with it and how do we handle it? As I anticipate next week’s observance of Palm Sunday and Good Friday, it feels like we’re stuck in a perpetual Holy Week, and Easter hasn’t come.

Things can turn on a dime, can’t they? The loud hosannas of Palm Sunday turned into shouts of “Barabbas!” just a few days later. In Jesus’ life and ours, things can go quickly from adulation and good times to denial and the worst of times. This kind of tumult isn’t new. It’s just new to most of us. One minute we’re fine and enjoying life, and the next minute we’re scared to go outside. Some of you know this kind of about-face because you’ve seen tragedy before. One minute your daughter is alive, well, and everything is right with the world, and the next thing you know there’s a cop at the door, a somber doctor in the family consultation room, or an officer and chaplain walking up the front steps. Life is fickle.

People are fickle, too. They can and will turn on us. Woodrow Wilson knew both the height of popularity, and its quick demise. He was elected president before WWI, led us as a country through to victory, and had high hopes that he could create the League of Nations so that what had transpired in the trenches of France would never happen again. He wanted WWI to be “The War to End All Wars.” Unfortunately, his plans went awry. Not only did the US Senate fail to ratify the Versailles Treaty to end WWI, but they also rebuked Wilson’s idea of the League of Nations. He went from being a conquering hero to a broken man. He had a stroke in 1919 in the midst of all the stress, and served his last two years in office while completely bedridden.

Life is tough and filled with bad news. People praise us one minute and spit on us the next. What do we do with it, and how do we handle it? Jesus rolled with the punches, and stayed strong. Holy Week and its up and downs served as a crucible that forged more determination in him. Sure, he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane that he could be spared, but he also made the proclamation, “Not my will, but thy will be done.” That’s commitment. That’s playing the long game, and having a stick-to-it attitude that cares not one whit what people think.

That’s what we need during these difficult days. We should do the very best that we can, and trust the rest to God. It is the essence of the Serenity Prayer: God, Grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference. Amen.