Reopening after COVID is HARD!

Do you have any frenemies? You know what I mean, family members, friends, or others that just get under your skin? You are friends, but they are just as easily classified as enemies. Passive-aggressive behavior is their specialty. They say things like, “Do you think that color looks good on you?” or “Do you like your hair that way?” Both comments sound innocuous, even helpful, but you know they are really trying to get in a jab under the guise of “speaking the truth in love.”

I like Nathanael-types as in John 2:43-51. Nathanael thought out loud like many of us do and said about Jesus’ hometown, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from Nazareth?” When Nathanael finally meets Jesus, the Lord says of him, “Here is a true Israelite, one in whom there is no guile.” Some Bible translations say, “deceit” instead of “guile.” Either way, Jesus pegs Nathanael’s basic character trait as a straight-shooter, one who isn’t a passive-aggressive flatterer who is a well-intentioned dragon, or a devil in disguise.

Can our world take the truth, or have we created a world where truth gets so massaged that it is hardly recognizable? COVID-fatigue has severely hampered our abilities to be honest with each other. Our lack of Nathanael-like clarity for fear of being labeled or chastised in our hyper-sensitive world has caused us to keep quiet and repress our true feelings. Unfortunately, those repressed feelings come boiling to the surface at some point, and one of the easiest places for that to happen is the church. At first glance, this is a good thing. The church is where we should be able to voice our thoughts without impunity, but, let me tell you, loosening our restrictions has been TOUGH on everybody who works in and with the church! It has become quite apparent that it was easier to shut things down than to open them back up. I had hoped that we wouldn’t have to get back to “normal” in stages or in a piece-meal fashion, but thanks to the powers that be, “Here we go!”

This is all on my mind because we’re so tired as a culture, and our feelings are on our sleeves. Some people haven’t been vaccinated. Some have. Some people can’t get vaccinated due to health issues. In other words, there cannot be a one-size-fits-all plan or strategy for reopening, so can’t we be patient and quit being so “what about me” in our selfish desire to get back to what WE think is normal? Worse is that COVID and reopening our shut-down world has given a megaphone to everyone’s opinions. We live in an age where the squeaky wheels get the grease, and with all that we have been through this year it seems that everybody’s wheels are way louder than a mere squeak. We have taken the autonomy of the individual to an extreme. Everyone’s truth is declared to be THE truth, and if everyone’s truth is THE truth, then there is no truth. It’s really all just opinions and everybody’s got one, and a lot of people have had theirs on full display.

The truth is that only God is TRUTH. I am not the absolute truth, and you are not the absolute truth, so why can’t we all just keep trying to do the very best we can under whatever our circumstances, let God be God, and we all do the right thing as consistently as possible. It could be said that the Golden Rule is an excellent example to follow. However, in our autonomy-worshipping society, even the Golden Rule has been co-opted by free-thinkers and self-absorbed survivalists who don’t give a whit about what’s good for everybody. Our self-interests and so-called “rights” have made us little kings and queens of our own domains. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” has been flipped, reversed, and turned into “What’s good for me better be good enough for you, end of story!”

It is reminiscent of the passages in the Book of Judges (17:6 and 21:25) that are so indicative of our world right now, “Everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” Everybody can’t be right, right? So, how do we determine the best course of action in any given situation? Do we go with our gut, what our friends say, what the media suggests, the advice of sage counselors, or as in the words of the main song in the popular animated film, Frozen, do we just let all boundaries go? Unfortunately, I can hear the echoes of my youngish granddaughters singing “Let It Go!” in perfect pitch. Great, except the self-proclaimed independence it promotes is rubbish. Read this snippet:

It’s funny how some distance makes everything seem small

And the fears that once controlled me can’t get to me at all

It’s time to see what I can do

To test the limits and break through

No right, no wrong, no rules for me

I’m free

To be sure, things turn out better as Elsa mitigates her newfound acceptance of her own autonomy by remembering her family and the community of friends that she has. She realizes that “me being me” isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. I sure wish our world and everyone in it, including me, and a boatload of church members would figure that out. We, like Elsa, may discover that our own worst frenemy is ourselves.

Individual autonomy can be helpful for traumatized ice princesses, but not if our independence sinks us deeper into selfishness. That is the prison that our culture is embracing. Isn’t that the root of a lot that’s going on? It can be called such things as sheer selfishness, my way or the highway, or the living out of the words in William Ernest Henley’s Invictus, “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” NO, WE ARE NOT! Jesus is, and His two great commandments, not one without the other, are, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.”

The Cowboy Code Speaks to the Church and Culture


I’ve seen bulls duke it out and butt heads. Goats, too, and it doesn’t take a genius to spot a goat in a flock of sheep, and neither species is very high on the smartness scale. Growing up with a Daddy who had enough auction barns that he ran around 4,000 head a week, plus working in those barns may not have made me a full-fledged cowboy, but it sure made me appreciate good old wild west wisdom. There are lessons to be learned from the things my Daddy used to say whether you are a city slicker or somebody from Africa.

Wisdom is wisdom even when the idiom or words change from one setting to another. What’s going on among some United Methodists who are arguing about progressive and traditional theology is a lot like watching two bulls charge each other trying to establish who’s in charge. You know, trying to establish the pecking order. Isn’t that what’s going on at a lot of levels in our world? It’s like watching a bunch of big-rig trucks play chicken, and waiting to see who blinks first. In many ways, most of this head-butting is quite comical because Jesus is already in charge no matter how poorly we use our free-will, and while we play the game of “My lawyer’s better than your lawyer,” God is either chuckling or crying over our stupidity. The end result isn’t a game of chicken, it’s a demolition derby.

Let me suggest to a COVID-weary, divided, and frustrated world that we could learn a thing or two from cowboy wisdom. For instance, I think I can hear my Daddy say about some of the people who think they know everything, that they are, “All hat, and no cattle.” They can look the part, but can’t back it up. I think there’s a bishop or two in that bunch, and more than a few CEOs, preachers and parishioners, too. A leader without followers is somebody out taking a walk by themselves. In western terms, if you’re riding ahead of the herd, you better look back every now and then to make sure it’s still there.

Only cows know why they stampede, and I know at least one bishop who has poked a bear called the laity, and the stampede is fixing to start. Talk about thinning out a crowd real quick. A lot of preachers with their highfalutin thinking are more liberal than the average parishioner, so those folks in high positions or pulpits better know and appreciate what the herd thinks before things get out of hand. Common sense goes a long way, and people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

It takes leaders, bishops, pastors and laity of every ilk to work together and do one another’s part to fulfil Jesus’ rescue mission to planet earth, but the first thing you need to do when you find yourself in a hole is to stop digging. Take a breath! If you think you’re so big and bad, try ordering somebody else’s dog around. You’ll quickly find out that you’re not as big as you think you are, so chill. In many a church’s case, most of the flock knows that they need to listen to Jesus before they listen to somebody who ain’t from there, doesn’t know the lay of the land, and has no clue what really matters to the common folk. That’s been the problem with Washington, D.C. for a long time, and too many other places. The people in charge don’t serve their constituency anymore. They are serving their own agenda, much less the Lord.

One of the primary jobs of the cowboy, shepherd or leader of any kind is to protect the herd or flock. It seems to me that the Bible has plenty of safe boundaries on what’s right and wrong. As they say out west and on the farm, “Never approach a bull from the front, a horse from the rear, or a fool from any direction.” There’s an addendum that’s just as true, “A wink is as good as a nod to a blind mule.” Because it’s a blind mule, it doesn’t matter whether you wink or nod. You have got to be clear in what you communicate, so we need clarity in this upside down world. Fences need to be horse high, pig tight, and bull strong. And, finally, remember to never squat with your spurs on, or any kind of movement is going to be awfully painful. Let’s take our spurs off, and quit hurting ourselves. Let’s honor God and the Cowboy Code.

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Valentine’s Day and a “New Baptized” Church

I love the church, particularly the United Methodist Church, though I am reminded of Juliet’s words to Romeo: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet…” It’s as if Juliet is saying it doesn’t matter if one is called Montague or Capulet if they love one another. To which thought, Romeo responds by saying to Juliet, “I take thee at thy word: Call me but love, and I’ll be new baptized; henceforth I never will be Romeo.” I can love a church, a particular church, and wonder the same thing: Does it matter what the name is? My mother belonged to Edgefield M.E. Church, South as a little girl. Then in 1939 she became a member of The Methodist Church. In 1968 she found herself as a member of the United Methodist Church, and the irony of the matter is that she belonged to all three denominations and never had to change buildings. It matters not what’s in a name if the people matter more than the steeple.

Approaching this Valentine’s Day, it strikes me that the words of Revelation 2:4-6 to the church at Ephesus are appropriate as I ponder my relationship with our denomination and the potential of yet another name change: “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.”

Our theology is great, as it includes wonderful teaching and doctrine about the Christian faith, but how are we doing in honoring our “first love” for Jesus? There are some in our ranks that have switched the order of the two great commandments to love God and neighbor, and have put neighbor before God. Apparently, there is nothing new about this. The author of Revelation plainly says, “You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” It is a hating of practices, not people. Practices are the “which” God hates, not the “whom.” We have switched that up and condone and bless everyone’s practices along with the whom of identity-politics and theologies. We have worshipped the Creature more than the Creator. Changing our focus away from God feels a bit like rewriting your wedding vows, or losing your first love.

An example of losing our first love will be on full display at the meeting of the Commission on the General Conference that begins February 20. Decisions will be made as to whether an in-person General Conference can be safely held this year, or whether or not it can be done virtually. As a denomination that makes conciliar decisions, and values everyone’s opinions, it should be apparent that a virtual General Conference will disenfranchise many people around the globe. After postponing the spring 2020 one, what makes it so critical to get it done now? Why can’t we wait another year or more? Again, it makes one wonder whether or not we have forsaken our first love. What or who do we value more? How US-centric are we? Is it important to have everyone’s voices at the table, or only a select few?

When it comes to genuine love, doesn’t that require that we say what we mean and mean what we say? If our values as a denomination are to hear all voices, the question of holding a General Conference is moot. Since Jesus prayed in John 17:21 for the church to be one, then it makes sense not to exclude people of other cultures, time zones, or those without internet capability. As much as I would like to move on to whatever our future is going to look like as a denomination, I am willing to take it slow and easy for the sake of good face-to-face conferencing that honors both God and others. The issues before us are too important to rush things. In spite of its horror, COVID-19 has given us an opportunity to pause and ponder. If, for the sake of love, I’m willing like Romeo to be “new baptized,” and seek a name change, then why the compulsion to hurry things. We have a great opportunity to slow everything down and do our best work, in love!

Repentance and Racism

Straight-up, let me say that there is nothing that I can say to adequately address George Floyd’s death or lessen its pain and injustice, or that of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, or the countless others.  Every time I’ve tried to say something in the past few days on social media, it has been misunderstood, misconstrued or politicized. I own that as my fault, but I have my own stories about racial justice from my childhood. Those who know me, know the facts about Frank Arthur, Gerald Moseley, Randy Fields, and how many times Cindy and our children marched in Columbia to urge that the Confederate flag come down, and how as the Columbia District Superintendent I led our district clergy in communion at the African American Memorial, and then marched over in silent protest to where the flag stood.

Some of you know the story of how we were given a framed print depicting the last night that the Confederate flag flew over SC’s Statehouse. Cindy took it back to the gift shop where it came from, as noted by a label on the back. She handed it to the cashier who said, “I can’t give you a refund.” Whereupon Cindy said, “I don’t want one. It’s either give it to you, or toss it.” The woman said, “But, you’re a Southerner. This is your heritage.” Cindy’s reply is worth noting, “No, this is my history, not my heritage. History is something you learn from. Heritage is what you pass on to your children.” That same sentiment led me to use every parliamentary maneuver I could think of to bring a resolution to the floor of the 2000 United Methodist General Conference in Cleveland, Ohio so that United Methodists could go on the record as wanting the Confederate flag down. The resolution passed!

I could get very defensive about anyone who questions where I stand or whether I’m sensitive enough on racial matters. I served on the UMC General Commission on Religion and Race, but no matter. This isn’t about me, or who has better cred than someone else. It’s about systemic and personal racism. Racism has to stop so that no one gets stopped 9 times a year “driving a car while Black” like SC United States Senator Tim Scott. We don’t need any more Emanuel 9 massacres, or Walter Scott killings in South Carolina.

But, what can we do? That’s up to you, but do something! I know this is a watershed moment. We have tried to legislate solutions to our problems, and thank God for those efforts, but they didn’t go far enough. You cannot legislate a solution to a spiritual problem. Only God can truly change the human heart. Our problem is sin. Racism and slavery have been called America’s “Original Sin.” We can legislate all we want, and we should, but we mostly need God’s redemption to free us from this original and actual sin.

Racism and tribalism are a part of the original sin of the world. Ever since Adam and Eve we’ve been corrupted by an “us and them” pre-judging called racism. We can sing “Red, and yellow, black, and white, all are precious in His sight,” until we’re blue in the face, but unless there’s a heart change, it doesn’t matter. The human condition in its fallenness has embraced a bigoted biased one-upmanship that has pitted group against group since the beginning of time.

It is a universal crisis that many of us have witnessed if you’ve done any travel. I’ve been on mission trips and a couple of simple travel jaunts to lots of places: To the Philippines, Hong Kong, Canada, Bulgaria, Ivory Coast, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zambia, Ethiopia, Mozambique, South Africa, Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales, Austria, Nicaragua, Mexico, and the impoverished west-end of Grand Bahama. The human condition of prejudice is EVERYWHERE.

In the Philippines the Lumad people are looked down on, and so are the Payatas. In Bulgaria the Roma (Gypsy) orphans are treated poorly. In Ireland it’s Catholics versus Protestants. In Scotland it’s Highlanders against the Lowlanders. In the Congo the main tribes of Mongo, Luba, Kongo, and Mangbetu-Azonde have difficulties with the Batwa, otherwise known by the derogatory term, “Pygmies.” Racism and tribalism are universal! It’s not just an American problem.

It’s an everywhere problem, and we need solutions that work in our personal context and worldwide. That solution isn’t just recognizing the Image of God in everybody. It is also recognizing that we are all guilty of the original and actual sin of racism. We need Jesus, the only cure. Sure, we can legislate, but we need a spiritual solution first and foremost. God had it right in becoming flesh in Jesus, a Jew from the Middle East – not African, not European, Not Asian – from right in the geographic middle of all humankind. Jesus ably represents all of us, died in our place to redeem us, and gave us the words to combat racism and bigotry in Matthew 7:12, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

So, pray with me if you want, “Forgive me, Lord Jesus, of all the ways that I have been an insensitive bigot, prejudging instead of pre-loving. I repent of my sin. Set me and our country free from the sin of denigrating whomever we count as the ‘other.’ Help us to embrace you as the only hope for forgiveness and justice, then help us to act like it. Change my heart and my life; in Jesus’ name. Amen.”

God’s Right Hand Man, Ours, too!

Ascension Day doesn’t really make the hit parade of Christian holidays, but it should! It proves Jesus’ triumph and exaltation to “the right hand of God the Father Almighty,” as the Apostles’ Creed declares. Easter is the highest point of our faith and has, of course, always been tied to Passover. The reason the date of Easter shifts is because Jesus’ death and resurrection coincided with the Passover. So, ever since the inaugural Easter, it has always come on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. Easter, therefore, can range between March 22 and April 25 each year.

Ascension Day is always 40 days after Easter because Luke says in Acts 1:3, “After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.” Forty days after Easter is always a Thursday. This Thursday is Ascension Day!

We need to recapture its importance because it gives so much hope and encouragement, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Ascension Day confirms that Jesus has been elevated to God’s right hand. That act symbolizes his identity as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He’s literally God’s Right-Hand-Man! We usually shake hands with someone using the right hand because the right arm is most people’s side of strength and where a weapon might be held. Shaking right hands reveals that a person comes without a weapon, in peace.

A right-hand-man is, therefore, exalted, strong, dependable, the first to be called upon, and a representative of the one at whose right hand they sit or stand. When you see one, you see the other; and we know Jesus said when you’ve seen him, you see the Father (John 14:9). There are many passages about Jesus sitting at the Father’s right hand: Luke 22:69, Colossians 3:1, Psalm 110:1, Hebrews 12:2, Hebrews 8:1, Matthew 26:4, I Peter 3:22, Mark 16:19, Acts 2:33, Hebrews 10:12, Revelation 3:21, Hebrews 1:3, Ephesians 1:20, Mark 14:62, Acts 5:31, and there are more! Please read them this week and be encouraged!

Ascension Day’s importance as evidenced in Scripture gives great hope. Jesus is too tough to tame. He’s king of the universe, an embodiment of the Father’s glory, power, and strength. There is nothing too big or bad that can defeat him. He has already defeated everything that comes against us, and it keeps getting better and better because He ascended. Jesus told the disciples that it was better for them if he ascended so the Holy Spirit would come (John 16:7-16).

In other words, Jesus said that his ascension triggered the outpouring of the Holy Spirit 10 days later at Pentecost. Jesus could only be in one place at one time, but the Holy Spirit, which is His Spirit, can be everywhere. This is what Peter meant in his first sermon after Pentecost when he spoke about Jesus and what was happening, “Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear (Acts 2:33).” Amen!

Jesus’s exaltation through the Ascension gives us the Holy Spirit and confidence so that we might have forgiveness of sins and be empowered by the Holy Spirit!  Over and over in the Bible it tells us what Jesus is doing while He is at the Father’s right hand. He’s praying for us, you and me! What could be more encouraging? Romans 8:34b says, “Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.” Hebrews 7:25 says, “Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.” He is interceding for us, intercedere, as our literal “go between,” as the word itself means. Jesus becomes our “Right-Hand-Man,” along with God the Father’s, in speaking up for us, defending us, doing everything possible to help us. What an encouragement!

The most powerful example of Jesus interceding for us is with what happened to the first deacon, Stephen, in Acts 7:54-60. Stephen is being stoned to death as the first Christian martyr when, as he was being executed, says “Look, I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God (Acts 7:56).” This is amazing confirmation of the importance of Ascension Day and what Jesus continues to do for us who believe.

The interesting thing is that it portrays Jesus, the One that the Scriptures mostly say is “seated at the right hand of God the Father,” as standing at God’s right hand in this passage. Some say this is Jesus giving Stephen a standing ovation! It leads me to believe that there are times, tough times, in our lives that Jesus stands up and shows up in mighty ways on our behalf. Amen! Amen! This is my prayer: “Please God, remind us this Ascension Day, this Thursday, that you have been exalted and are ever ready to pour out your Holy Spirit to comfort, empower, and teach us. You are interceding for us, STANDING UP for us when times are difficult. We are so grateful! In your powerful name, we pray; Amen!”

Press Conferences, Presidents, and a Search for Truth

When do we reopen the church? Is it safe to eat in a restaurant? Can people go visit family members that are in care facilities or hospitals? Is COVID-19 mutating? Will warm weather, UV light, or a pool’s chlorine kill it? How much alcohol content in a cleaner kills it? Can I go on vacation at some point, and will it be safe to sleep on a rented beach house bed? When can I safely go back to the gym? Should states reopen? Do we shut down our meat processing plants because they are the American version of a Wuhan wet market? Is it safe to buy “Made in China,” or is it time to bring all our manufacturing back home? What mitigations should we put in place so we can open Sunday Schools? Is it safe to reopen the church, and how many people can attend?

Ask any of these questions, others like them, and there will be more than one answer. There are webinars, seminars, advertisements and pronouncements on all of these questions. I get promotions and pronouncements everyday about which products the church needs to buy in order to open up. I’m thankful for the information, but, unfortunately there’s not a lot of clarity. Scientists are all over the map because there is still so much unknown about COVID-19. Politicians have seemingly politicized the situation, so much so as to make me doubt their veracity. The news media certainly has used this as a tool to bloody the President, and he is poking China in the face over the whole situation. A former President is throwing gas on the blame-game fire while the current administration defends itself.

I am so tired of watching the charade of what is supposed to be a “news briefing” at the White House when the President, whether one likes him or not, is baited and treated with out-of-bounds berating and disrespect by so-called reporters. It is appalling. It will be a long day in you-know-where before any clergy have an open-mic talk back session after a sermon. Somebody just give me the news. Give me the unadulterated truth! I long for Walter Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley, Harry Reasoner, somebody, anybody that is unbiased without an agenda. At least a short time ago it seemed as if everyone’s agendas were hidden. Now the agendas are so blatantly apparent that it feels like there is no truth. No wonder Russia’s state newspaper is named “Pravda,” or “Truth.” Yeah, right?

Pontius Pilate asked Jesus at his trial, “What is truth?” It’s really the same question, the penultimate question, behind the plethora of all our questions. We want the unvarnished truth. We want some certainty in the midst of our anxiety-ridden world. Unfortunately, we have entered the days predicted in 2 Timothy 4:3-4, “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine (TRUTH). Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the TRUTH and turn aside to myths.” Oh, how this so accurately describes our day and age. We want to make wise choices, and we can’t trust the information because we don’t trust the sources.

This isn’t just about our problem with COVID-19 information. It’s the story of our whole post-modern narcissistic world. We wrongly assert that what we think is the sole determinant of truth. We demythologize the Bible into what we want it to say as if we, the readers, are more important than the God who brought forth the Truth in the first place. We have fallen into the same abyss as one popular Christian author, one who wrote a book, Seeing Gray in a Black and White World. He is so wrong. I don’t trust my eyes to see that well, so I would rather let the Biblical text and its Author do the talking. Maybe then we will see black and white in a gray world.

Where do you think all this confusion about truth is coming from? Why do you think we are so at odds over what the truth really is? Jesus (John 14:6) said He is the way, TRUTH, and life, so He’s certainly not the author of confusion, but guess who is: Evil. Jesus, speaking in John 8:43-44, nails our current reality on the head, “Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil … for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”

So I pray, “Please, Lord, open our ears to the truth, and expose the lies and liar for what they are. Wipe away all the confusion, and give us clarity, especially to our scientists, those who govern us, and to all spiritual leaders. We need your truth. Speak, for your servants are listening; in Jesus’ name. Amen.”

King Jesus versus the Pandemic

The pessimist may be right in the long run, but the optimist has a better time during the trip! Who will do better in the COVID-19 pandemic: the person who sees the glass half-full, or half-empty? Think about our faith and Christian optimism. Isn’t the empty tomb the basis of our faith? The disciples weren’t behind just closed doors. They were locked! Being locked up is the story of our cooped up lives lately. The disciples were scared, and so are we. Where’s our optimism?

It’s in Jesus! Easter forever reminds us that Jesus was, is and will be triumphant. Certainly Jesus had moments of pessimism when dealing with the religious leaders, and even his disciples, but he never wavered in his trust of God. Even when he began his recitation of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he knew the rest of the psalm, and how it ends in victorious optimism. Please take the time to read the whole thing, and see the dramatic swing from a woeful attitude to the crescendo of faith. It ends with an exclamatory, “He has done it!”

Put that phrase into the context of Jesus on the Cross when he said, “It is finished,” and it makes what sounds like a sad surrender become a spike-the-football moment. “He has done it!” Wow! No matter what our trials, He has done it! He has done it before, and he can do it again! God’s got this! Do we believe it?

One can hear the echoes of optimism through the lives of the faithful over the centuries. Just focus on St. Paul and his life, and that’s inspiring enough. In prison in Acts 16:23-34, Paul and Silas were beaten with rods, severely flogged, stripped naked, thrown into prison, their feet locked into stocks, but at midnight, instead of crying, they started praising God while singing hymns. This is the same Paul who said in Romans 8:37-39 that we are more than conquerors through Jesus. So much so that, “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor ANYTHING in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Amen. Take that COVID-19!

It’s a rough world, to be sure, but Jesus is Lord of Lords and King of Kings. Oh, how we have an opportunity during these quarantine days to sing hymns at midnight, to be people of joy, to be overcomers that are more than conquerors! What good does it do your spirit to be a whiner? Nothing. We all know it’s tough, some more than others. There are things that can keep us awake with worry every night, but remember the words of Isaiah 26:3, “He will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are stayed on Him.”

What are our minds focused on? Three people were visiting the Grand Canyon: an artist, a pastor, and a cowboy. As they stood on the edge of the huge gash in the landscape, each one responded with surprise. The artist said, “Ah, what a beautiful scene to paint!” The minister cried out, “What a wonderful example of the handiwork of God!” The cowboy said, “What a terrible place to lose a cow!”

Can’t we look on the bright side and choose joy instead of woe and worry? Joy isn’t the absence of suffering, it is the presence of God. As someone said, “An optimist may see a light where there is none, but why must the pessimist always run to blow it out?” As people of faith, we know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and it is not an oncoming train. It is the light of the glory of God seen in the face of Christ. The devil isn’t going to have the last word, and neither is this pandemic. God has got this! He has done it! God has got this! Jesus is King! He has done it! Jesus Christ is King!

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.

Holy Week Isolation

A theme for Holy Week 2020 for me is isolation. We’re all doing our best to keep others safe by isolating from one another. It protects us, too, and we sincerely pray that it stops or at least slows down the COVID-19 spread. That first Holy Week created an overwhelming sense of isolation for Jesus. It shows up throughout the week. It is showing up across the world right now, too.

Isolation is something that weighs heavily on all of us today. Some of you have already known it because of treatments or immune-deficiency conditions. COVID-19 has made it real for everyone. Residents of care facilities cannot see their families, funerals are graveside only, hospitals have necessarily strict visitation limitations for every patient, and churches have gone virtual at a time when we really need a hug. God made us in God’s own image, and a huge part of that is being social. If God exists in the community that we call the Trinity, how much more do we want and need to be with each another.

“Non-essential” small business owners are especially feeling isolated. God bless each category of person or business in this period of isolation. God bless all our healthcare workers, first responders, SRS employees, grocery store and pharmacy workers, and all the others that have to come home every day in fear of contaminating their loved ones. Then there’s another kind of isolation felt by the teachers that are  at home, but are still producing lesson plans for their students. Another isolation is the “cabin fever” that separates children from their friends, neighbors, and classmates. Plus, there are the students that will not have a prom or a graduation ceremony this year. God bless every person who is feeling isolated and alone.

This is exactly why Holy Week 2020 will be especially poignant and helpful. If we wrap our minds around the fact that God in Christ knows our difficulties and pain, it lets us know we’re never truly alone. Jesus literally knows what each one of us is going through and desires to redeem it (Romans 8:28-39). That is the promise of Holy Week every year. We have a God that has skin; mysteriously truly divine and utterly human – One who is able to empathize with our every weakness (Hebrews 4:14-16).

It wasn’t long after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday that he experienced a distancing between himself, the authorities and even his friends. Judas, the group’s treasurer, betrayed him with a kiss. Peter who was usually brash and brave cowered in fear in the courtyard of the High Priest’s home, and denied ever knowing Jesus three times. When the temple soldiers came to arrest Jesus, all of his disciples fled. Jesus was totally isolated.

One can really “feel” his isolation when it came to his late-night prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane. He ventured into the darkness with only three of his disciples with him. He asked Peter, James, and John to offer their nearby prayer support while he went further into the darkness and prayed alone. The Scripture says that he agonized so much in his praying that it was like he perspired “great drops of blood” (Luke 22:44). He went back to his three closest disciples over and over again and each time found them sleeping.

His horrible isolation on the Cross is so evident. In one of his last statements, Jesus said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This was isolation within himself, being both fully God and fully human. Some of us have felt that kind of turning on oneself when we cannot see past our own hands. Good Friday was only good for us, not at all for Jesus. One can feel his emotional, spiritual and physical heaviness as his body sagged on the Cross.

Holy Week 2020 is a unique time for us to see what Jesus went through with a fresh albeit difficult perspective. It may be the closest we have been to it ourselves in our lifetimes. May our sense of isolation help us grasp the depth of sympathy God has for each of us, and also take hold of hope because it may be Friday, but Sunday is coming. We are not quite yet to Easter yet in our fight against COVID-19, but it will not be long. Until then, we travel our own via dolorosa (Way of Suffering), but, like Christ, we will win. There is a resurrection!

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.