Who is Jesus? A Podcast Previewing series on Hebrews

The purpose of this post is to invite you to listen to a conversation I share with Pastor Daniel Kane, our Worship Pastor at FBC Columbus, on a coming worship/sermon series we are sharing on Hebrews titled “Who is Jesus?”.

Please follow this link to listen in.

Hebrews was written to a group of Jewish believers in Jesus whom the writer felt needed encouragement to keep faithful and not grow weary or lose hope. To counter their tendency toward walking away from faith, or falling back into other patterns of faith pre-Jesus, the writer shares a couple of patterns: 1. How Jesus is Greater and 2. Words of Warning designed to encourage their covenant relationship with Christ and the Church.

The Bible Project offers a good overview video of Hebrews.

Right Now Media has a more in depth video study with New Testament teacher Chad Ragsdale.

Be sure to check in with us at FBC Columbus during August as we learn more about “Who is Jesus?” through Hebrews.

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The Freedom Trail

On a recent family excursion to Boston we explored the famed “Freedom Trail”. This is a 2.5 mile path that meanders through downtown Boston, passing by 16 historic locations significant in the nation’s colonial journey toward independence and freedom. It’s an interesting walk that combines the preserved markers of history in the middle of a contemporary urban center that is filled with the sights and sounds of progress. One particular visual that I found noteworthy was an old burying ground adorned with weathered markers and headstones, some of which were located flat against the foundation of a modern office building. The office building’s windows overlook the resting place of revolutionary heroes, buried just feet beyond. Such is the juxtaposition of contemporary life in the midst of history.

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Another Milestone Passed

This week the number of deaths in the United States due to Covid-19 surpassed 600,000. The worldwide death toll is now estimated to be 3.84 million. As the number of cases has significantly dropped in the U.S., in direct correlation to the availability and distribution of vaccines, it’s easy to move past these numbers and this news. We have become somewhat numb to all the numbers, the data overload of cases, tests administered, vaccinations given, and (sadly) deaths. This is especially true if your life has not been directly impacted by Covid-19. Perhaps you had a mild case, don’t know anyone who has been seriously ill, or lost their life. Perhaps you’ve bought into the conspiracy theories too frequently boosted by the politics of it all. You may be an anti covider (anti-mask, anti-vaccine). Afterall we each have the “freedoms” to think what we will, right?

Freedom, however, cuts at least two ways when it is immersed in an ethic of Christ following faith. If I am a follower of Jesus, I am not just free to do what I choose – come what may; I am free to act for the good of others – the love of others, as Jesus put it. In other words, I don’t just make decisions and choices based on what is best, easiest, or most comfortable for me; I consider the other as I live my life “freely”. I am free from the tyranny of oppression, but free for the expression of social good. I am free from the dictates of the state when it comes to worship, but free for the safe gathering of the body of Christ in worship. I am free from sin through the blood and love of Jesus, and free to not knowingly sin against others. Freedom is never just understood or expressed in terms of its individual application. Freedom, for those who know it in Jesus, always has the other in mind too.

For over 600,000 of our fellow countrymen and women Covid-19 brought the worst possible outcome – their death. In the confusion of understanding the disease and how it is contracted, persons often unwittingly shared it with family, friends, co-workers and neighbors. Now, however, we are in a different place. We have a greater understanding of how the disease spreads. We also have (at least in the USA) wide access to mitigating vaccines that have proven very effective in combating the disease. We are free to receive these inoculations. They are even being distributed for free. Our best chance of circumventing another Covid-19 spike and it’s related consequences is directly tied to the good public health practices we have all learned, capped off by becoming vaccinated.

For some, due to complicated health histories, this may not be possible. But for the vast majority of us, it is. Those who are hesitant would do well to speak with their primary care physician and get their questions answered one by one. Then they will be free to make an informed medical and public health decision. Not a political decision. Not a decision driven by fear or bias. A decision made with the best advice of medical science.

Yes, it’s a free choice. There is no mandate. No one can tell you what to do, or make you do it. This is America – at it’s best and it’s worst. But I imagine, many if not most of that 600,000, could they wind the clock backwards, and be given an opportunity to become vaccinated against Covid-19; I imagine many would freely choose to do so.

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Clipping In

In 2013 I took up road cycling as a means of exercise. Living in a community blessed with a growing public trail system and bike lanes on several city streets, this is a method of exercise that I enjoy. I quickly learned that having the right equipment can enhance the cycling experience. This includes having a good helmet, a well working bike, and the right pedals and shoes. The pedals you want are the kind where your shoes “clip in” keeping your feet from slipping off, and giving you a secure connection where you are “one with the bike”. “Efficiency, power, confidence, control and freedom” are all listed reasons one would consider being “clipped in”.

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Brood X and Living in the Present

It’s been 17 years since we’ve seen these creatures, or at least the prior generation of their kind. Some cicadas are annual visitors, but Brood X , the current emerging generation of cicadas (also known as the Great Eastern Brood) are now coming out and up from a 17 year subterranean gestational period to do their thing topside. What is their thing? Finding a mate is a top priority so they can perpetuate the species and come calling again in the year 2038.

Looking Back: 17 years ago my family and I were living in Bloomington, Indiana a densely tree populated part of the state, giving us a front row experience with these dude’s parents. I remember that time well, not just from of the overhead drone of cicada mating calls, but because of other things going on at the time. My oldest sister, Ruth, had passed away that Memorial Day weekend after too short a battle with glioblastoma (brain cancer), and we were participating in her funeral. Driving back and forth between Bloomington and Greencastle, we traversed the forested lands of Monroe, Owen and Putnam counties with the constant musical hum of the full-throated cicada choir in the canopies overhead.

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Logs, Specks and Neighbors

Recently, after a day working in the lawn and garden, I became aware that part of my face felt funny. High on my forehead where my cap fit snug against my temple, there was a little discomfort. I brushed my fingers against it and felt a bump. Occasionally it seemed a little itchy, so I scratched at it. Later that evening I looked in the mirror and discovered the bump was now swollen, puffing out my left cheek and causing my left eyelid to droop.

What’s a guy to do? I showed it to my wife. Complained a little. Took some Benadryl, and went to bed. By the next morning the swelling extended across the top and down below my eye, making it difficult to hold my eye fully open. Weird. I still had no idea what had caused this new look. I did not remember being bitten by any insect, wondered if it was poison ivy, ruled out shingles, and resolved not to google other possibilities.

Later in the day I remembered that Jesus had something to say about folks who are having trouble with their vision. Specifically he said: Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. (Matthew 7:3-5 NRSV)

Jesus had a way with words, didn’t he? That particular saying did not win him any friends among the scribes and Pharisees. But, coupled with my own temporary eye impairment, it got me thinking. One of the tragic side effects of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the need to distance oneself from others, especially those of other households. This was true in the pre-vaccination months, but even today we are repeatedly cautioned to maintain “social distance”.

The trouble with such practice, reinforced over months and months, is that keeping one’s distance can lead to isolation, which can lead to myopia in lifestyle, which might result in self-centeredness. (You ever read the book If you give a mouse a cookie? One thing does lead to the next!) One of the social side effects of Covid-19 is the tendency it has awakened in us to critique our neighbor’s speckled vision, when we’ve got lumber trouble in our own eyesight! Why is this?

My faith teaches me that people need people. We were created to be in community. That often translates to a faith community, or to Jesus’ command to love your neighbor. We are social creatures – even the most antisocial among us needs someone. And when we are able to come together and socialize, meeting unencumbered, face to face, there are certain norms of conduct that guide those interactions. In short, we might see some specks on our neighbors eye glasses, but we would never comment on them.

Removed from face to face proximity, the norms seem to change. I’ve noticed over the last many months that persons have said and shared things via the distance of technology (social media, text, email) that they never would have face to face. It’s as though social distance has given permission for some of the norms to be abandoned. We are quicker to point out specks than ever before. The current cultural-political divides are evidence of this. Unfortunately, what has been modeled at the highest levels, when it comes to vilification of others, has filtered down to workplaces, neighborhoods, PTA’s, faith communities and other forums of grass roots level living.

Which brings me back to my temporarily impaired vision. When your eye is swollen it’s hard to see past that. Your vision is a little blurry as you catch the shadow of eyelids, eye lashes, and squint through extra tears. After a day of this you want to go sit in the Lazyboy chair and close your eyes. It’s rather like coming to the end of a day of video calls, or screen work from home. Just about the last thing on your mind is your neighbor, unless of course that neighbor has done something that irks or annoys you just a bit.

The ability to move past such impairment and distortion in eyesight requires us to focus our vision beyond self again. Jesus had things to say about this as well. When asked what is the greatest commandment, he replied: love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. (And) … love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22:37-39)

Could it be that in pointing us toward the love of others, and not just a love of self, that Jesus is revealing how we can deal with the log in our own eye, and graciously overlook the speck in another’s? It seems that this ongoing time of pandemic is calling each of us to deploy what my sister sometimes calls “EGR” living. EGR stands for “extra grace required”. Many of the self-help gurus have counseled this for self during these challenging days. “Give yourself some grace. Don’t be too hard on yourself.” But what about applying that same generosity toward others? Looking outward, not just inward, will improve the eyesight and vision of us all.

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Living the Joy of Easter

This morning I began my day with some time in Psalm 47 and a prayer guide titled The Songs of Jesus by Timothy Keller. Psalm 47:1 says: Clap your hands, all you peoples; shout to God with loud songs of joy. In his reflection on this psalm, Keller writes: “Rather than think of ourselves as an embattled, political minority or persecuted underdogs, Christians should be so over-flowing with the joy of our salvation that we feel the privilege of singing his praise to those who do not know him.” (p.98 The Songs of Jesus)

As Christ followers we serve and follow a risen Savior. He is King Jesus, the One who overcome sin and death. His resurrection, celebrated just last Sunday, makes it possible for you and I to know joy. We can know the joy of our own redemption from sin. We can know the joy of abundant life in Christ. We can know the joy of a promise of eternal life with him when, one day, we enter into our life after death. In short, there is so much to be joyful about.

Yet how often do we project a different message through our countenance, our words, or our behavior? When we go through life long-faced, despondent, complaining or piously encumbered, we act more like that “embattled minority” Keller counsel us to avoid representing. My experience of Easter this year was joyful, was yours?

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Holy Week Pilgrimage

*Note: This blog post is also available as a podcast on “Dan’s Sunday Preview“, a podcast by Pastor Dan Cash which can be accessed at https://anchor.fm/daniel-cash, Apple podcasts and a variety of other sites.

Growing up in a Christian home, Holy Week was a time in the Christian year when I was reminded that as Baptists, we were not alone in this journey of faith.  You see during Holy Week we came together for a series of “special services” with our Methodist and Disciples of Christ brothers and sisters to commemorate the season.

These three congregations in my home community took turns hosting one of three special services – Maundy Thursday, Good Friday or Easter Sunrise – providing special music and preaching on the occasions when they weren’t serving as host.  I found the whole enterprise to be quite interesting.  Sitting in the pews in another congregation was a new experience.  Seeing people from the greater community who were members there, or at another church.  Listening to another preacher – my favorite was the Methodist pastor because he never preached longer than 15 minutes!  In contrast it seemed like our pastor couldn’t wind it down under 30!

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500,000

An unwelcome milestone crossed by a weary nation
“mask up”
“six feet apart”
“wash your hands”
Markers all of public fear fatigue

For some, like the boy who cried “wolf”
disregarded
inconvenient
an assualt on freedom
Not so for those who know an empty place

How does one return to “normal’ when normal left?
missing voice
missing face
missing presence
Slipped away, isolated, no visitors allowed

Repeated across the land, the absence felt
our curve is flat
our goodbyes muted
when we reassemble it will be with missing parts
A quotidian grief

Numbers mount
you speak of the herd
we see the one
now disappeared but never gone
Don’t pretend

Grief denied will resurface

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Leaning into Lent

I was not raised in a family or faith tradition that observed the season of Lent. As Baptists we were what some might call “low church” or of the “free church” tradition. That is to say the liturgical calendar, aside from Easter and Christmas, was not something we consulted on a regular basis. As for Lent, as I’ve often said, that was something you cleaned from the dryer trap.

Upon attending seminary and serving a Chicagoland church as a seminary intern, I learned about the Church Year and had opportunity to participate for the first time in the Lenten season. I learned that Lent was a period of 40 days, plus 7 Sundays, largely patterned after Jesus’ 40 days of temptation in the wilderness. I learned it was a time of spiritual preparation and reflection leading up to Easter. I learned it wasn’t something weird or other, but rather a season in which I could take on some spiritual practices in prayer, study or even mission to focus my own discipleship.

The church I served in seminary had a tradition of holding an annual Lenten Arts series. This was a time when some aspect of the fine arts were displayed in the sanctuary and became part of our worship space. One year it was art from a local sculptor. Another year we borrowed paintings of Jesus’ twelve disciples to display. This was a further enhancement of my experience with the season, and a good reminder – especially for someone who is word focused – that other media can speak to us. I remember studying the faces of the disciples during those Sundays and thinking about what they must have experienced with Jesus.

Today it has become more common for those of us from the “low/free” church tradition to acknowledge and observe the seasons of the Church year. As an American Baptist pastor, who has often felt I have one foot in the mainline and the other in the evangelical traditions, the Lenten season has become one I not only lean into, but encourage congregants to as well.

For me it’s not so much a focus on giving up something for the season, although that’s a fine practice if it works for you. I prefer to think about what practice I might “take on” for Lent. Usually that means reading through one or more devotional books, or changing a prayer pattern for the season, or engaging in some type of mission focus (beyond normal duties). The possibilities for such practices are truly endless. Especially during this ongoing pandemic, it might be meaningful to take on a practice of connection with someone who is isolated; or a good deed to one who needs extra help during the challenges of winter’s snow, ice and cold.

The hope is that these Lenten practices can help us to see life, see others, and see Christ with eyes that are refreshed or refocused. When we live beyond ourselves – helping others, praying for others, connecting with others – we engage in the acts of Christ who called us to love one another. That’s something worth leaning into, not just for a season, but for a lifetime.

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Names, Faces and Stories

You turn us back to dust, and say, “Turn back, you mortals.” For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night. (Psalm 90:3-4)

It was my good fortune during a ministry chapter in my life to make the acquaintance of a man who was both a pastor, educator and community chaplain. He may not have officially carried that last title, but in reality he functioned within his community in that way. This man, over 40+ years of serving the same congregation, working in school administration and living in the same community was well known. To sit with him for lunch in the local café was to have your meal interrupted time and again by folks who dropped by just to share some news, a prayer concern, or extend a friendly hello. Over the time that I knew this gentleman I became aware that he had officiated at over 1,000 weddings and funerals in that community.

By comparison, in my now 30+ years of ordained ministry, I have officiated over 170 funerals and about one third of that number of weddings. I think of those numbers, and especially my friend’s tally, as the United States surpasses 400,000 deaths due to Covid-19. This milestone comes roughly one month after we passed by the 300K marker, meaning that the death rate has vastly accelerated. It’s a number that exceeds all the American casualties in World War II, which occurred over a few years. This 400,000 number came in just 9 months. I could hardly fathom the 1,000 count of services my friend had lived and officiated in his small community over a lifetime. But as I sat over coffee with him in that local café he’d comment about the passers-by: “I did their wedding.” Or, “I did her husband’s funeral”. My point is, by and large, he could put a name and face and story to the many services he had officiated. They weren’t just numbers, they were people.

The same is true, of course, of the 400,000 plus Americans who’ve lost their lives to the virus. You probably know one, or know of someone. They may have been your mother or dad, your brother or uncle, grandparent, neighbor or friend. They are more than a number. They are a name, a face and a story. I applaud the efforts of news organizations who try and tell some of those stories each week. If we fail to do so, we become numb to the numbers.

I was moved this week by the display of light in our nation’s capital surrounding the Lincoln Memorial Reflection Pool in honor of the 400,000. It is a solemn and worthy tribute to all who’ve died. May their names be shared, their faces remembered, and their stories told.

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New Year Hope

What are you hoping for in the new year? Have you been thinking about that? The past few days have been filled with people saying how glad they will be to see 2020 go, moved to the year view mirror, or made a distant memory. Those are the sentiments the misery of facing a global pandemic will churn in us. If only it were as easy as turning the page on the calendar. Sadly, disappointingly, we’re likely to awaken to a 2021 that looks a lot like the end of 2020. I don’t mean to be a Daniel Downer, and I am optimistic that 2021 is going to eventually bring a brighter future, it’s just going to take a while.

So, realistically, what are your hopes for 2021? I’ve heard things like “being able to hug my (fill in the blank) – Mom, Grandma, grandchildren, neighbor . . . Having never been one that was too keen on hugs I’d have to say this one is not that high on my list, but I can understand the sentiment behind it. We’ve had to be so distanced from one another this past year, the need for compassionate touch is real. Handshakes, fist bumps, side hugs and even bear hugs will be welcomed (for the most part) in 2021. I envision a day when we can have a big facemask bonfire, shake hands at church again, and serve each other communion (though perhaps those things do not happen all together).

What else might we be hoping for? Speaking of church, I’m hoping for the resumption of in-person worship. We did 20 weeks of online only worship in our congregation in 2020 and we will begin 2021 that same way. I have not seen some people face to face since early March of 2020. While I am thankful for the ability to be connected in that way, I’m ready to see people in the pews again. Aren’t you?

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Candlelight and Christmas

“Festival of Lights”
by John August Swanson

There’s something about candles, candlelight services, and candle lit spaces and Christmas. The soft glow of a candle’s light brings an inviting warmth to a space and a moment. Candles held, lit and clustered together in procession or praise offer an ambiance unlike any other. I have early memories of attending Christmas Eve candlelight services, longing to be old enough to be trusted with my own candle. It was a right of passage, that moment, not just of age, but of responsibility and privilege to add my own small light to the collective whole. I was represented in that light, offering worship to the newborn king.

The candlelight Christmas Eve service remains one of the most cherished of the year. It’s a congregation unlike any other all year. People typically arrive at the last moment – rushing from family gatherings and celebrations to be there just in time. Those gathered are a combination of out of town family, neighbors and community folk looking for a Christmas service, and faithful congregants who help “swell the crowd” on a weekly basis. With many of our own having traveled elsewhere, the Christmas Eve congregation often has a newness about it. These are people whom I don’t know all that well – including a few who were drug along by insistent relatives, notably uncomfortable with the idea of singing or praying. They don’t linger long after the service. But when it comes time to light the candles, everyone participates and with enthusiasm. Why is that?

Sure, there is the peer pressure of the moment. You wouldn’t want to be the dud who refused to light your candle. You’d stick out like that half-strand of lights that went out on the tree at home. And there is the emotion, drawing us in like a baby’s smile or Grandma’s sugar cookies. But I’m want to think there’s something else – something akin to what awkward shepherd’s felt as they journeyed to Bethlehem to see the babe in the manger. It’s something like what regal wise men demonstrated on their later homage to the new king. We have, in our humanity, a need to acknowledge and worship the Christ.

Holding that lit candle, if only for the duration of a few verses of Silent Night, transports us into the presence of the Light of the World. And, we too, want to shed a little light; and add our lumens to those of many others in corporate recognition that this Light shines upon us and the world we call home. This Light burns in our heart – always, often, or only on this night. This Light floods the dark corners of our selves and reveals that God knows it all, sees it all, yet loves us and comes to redeem and restore us. This light, shared in collective worship, appeals to God on behalf of the world God loves for peace, hope, healing and restoration.

How can a simple lit candle, held aloft in unison with others, represent so much? What will it represent for you this year? Many a Christmas Eve service, including our own, will be held virtually in 2020 as this horrid pandemic keeps us physically apart. But I hope we will each light our Christmas Eve candles as we worship. Perhaps we will even share their light with our neighbors – finding ways to light the windows of our homes or lighting luminaries on the sidewalk or driveway. Our light(s) will be our witness to the hope of Christ for a broken and sick world, to the promise of redemption for all of our sin-sick souls.

So, fret not, you who are mourning the loss of tradition – including the Christmas Eve service as we’ve known it. Think not of what is being lost, but of what is being kept and perhaps shared in new ways. Hold your candle high and know that in its solitary light, it joins in solidarity with a multitude of other lights to show the way to Bethlehem.

Come, O house of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord! (Isaiah 2:5).

*The picture that accompanies this blog is called “Festival of Lights”. As with all great pieces of art, there is a story behind it. If you are interested in learning more about the painting and artist’s thoughts watch this video.

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300K

“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid . . . “ (Isaiah 40:1-2a NRSV)

This week the United States will surpass 300,000 deaths due to the Covid-19 virus. That is equivalent to a pretty good sized city. Pittsburgh was given as an example on one news report I heard today. I’ve been to Pittsburgh. Went there on a Sabbatical trip a few years ago to visit a couple of churches. I took time to walk around down town, through the farmer’s market and revitalized warehouse district. I went down to the waterfront and spent some time where the three rivers meet at Point State Park. I saw a lot of people that day, out enjoying their city – individuals and couples and families. It would be hard to imagine that vibrant city suddenly empty of it’s population. Yet, that’s the number of lives lost so far in 2020 to the coronavirus in the United States.

Sure, 300K out of the roughly 328 million USA residents may not register much of an impact percentage wise, but it does exceed the number of United States combat deaths during World War II. Over the past few days the daily death toll has risen to exceed the number killed in the attacks of 9/11 or Pearl Harbor. Perhaps you’ve known someone who lost their life? Perhaps you know someone who is fighting for their life? Maybe you are among those who work on the front lines of healthcare trying to preserve lives, or – sadly – representing humanity as lives slip away. Thank you.

Empathy is the ability to express concern because of a similar lived experience. Those who’ve lost loved ones bring empathy to their comforting efforts with others. Sympathy is the capacity to understand that someone is hurting or suffering. As we pass this milestone in the midst of the ongoing pandemic, our neighbors and fellow citizens who have suffered the direct loss of a loved one this year deserve our sympathy, at the least, and our empathy if we are able to share it. 300,000 holiday celebrations across this land will be missing someone. 300,000 households, families, or sets of friends will remember who should be with them, but isn’t.

No, it’s not the same as losing the population of a good sized city all at once. The pain isn’t that geographically concentrated. It’s more diffuse, easier to avoid noticing – especially if you’ve escaped direct impact. But it is still painful, and very real, and needs to be acknowledged.

The prophet Isaiah’s words, quoted atop this post, were shared to a people who faced the horrors of exile. Amidst that tragic event in the nation’s history, God sent a word, but not to spare the nation from what was happening. They still had to endure the exile and go through its suffering and loss. But God, through the prophet, let them know they were not alone. God brought a word of comfort to their grief and loss. It seems the least we can do, in God’s name, for those who suffer now.

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Best Laid Plans

2020 has been a year of plans made, plans re-made, plans announced, plans adjusted, plans cancelled, and plans repurposed. Most all of this has been due to the Coronavirus and it’s ebbs and flows, spikes and surges. Businesses, schools, families and congregations have had to adjust their plans accordingly. Just when we think we’ve arrived at a plan that will work, some adjustment is required in response to the ever changing situations driven, writ large, by the virus.

This has caused me to think about God’s plans – or, namely God’s plan – announced and reviewed during Advent. We often turn to the prophets during this time of year, most especially Isaiah, to remember how God announced the plan of the Messiah. Texts such as Isaiah 7:10-17 (v.14 says, the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel) or 9:2-7 (v.6 says For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace) offer snippets of the plan. The plan is further announced in Isaiah 61, a passage Jesus quotes for his first sermon in Luke 4:18ff: The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news. . .

When we consider the full story of the Bible, we come to view God’s plan not so much as an unaltered script unrolled at creation, but a plan that has been edited and revised, always with the purposes of God’s love and justice in mind. Consider that on the seventh day, God rested having pronounced the creation very good. Yet shortly thereafter humankind yields to sin and what was perfect is marred. Does God give up on the plan? Hardly! God sets about redeeming and restoring creation, including the redemption of the crown jewel of that creation – humankind.

The plan is altered, revisited, and unfolds in a sequence of narratives from the do-over of the flood and covenant made with Noah, to the covenant with Abraham (a redemption covenant through which all persons shall be blessed), to the covenant with Moses, then David (who will have an heir that reigns and rules forever). The plan is nuanced and flexed to include such unlikely persons as Rahab and Ruth. It overcomes the fickle and imperfect lives of David and Solomon, incorporates the humble lives of Mary and Joseph; yet all along the Lord works the plan. Throughout it is the same plan, just altered and revised so as to account for the unpredictability of free choice, and the ever present love of the Creator who designed it in the beginning.

The plan comes into a greater focus at Bethlehem with the birth of Jesus, though the Christ is present and foreshadowed in many prior ways. It’s in Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection that the plan follows its course toward creation’s restoration. And one day this plan will come to a perfect conclusion, upon the return of King Jesus, as a new heaven and new earth are revealed.

We revisit and rehearse this plan during Advent, and throughout the Church Year. Why? All for the purpose of finding ourselves in it, I suppose. We play a small part, though I suspect the Lord would say there are no small parts. As the object of God’s love and joy with creation, we are part of that which was first pronounced “good” so long ago. It’s in restoration of that “goodness” that this plan has continued to be followed and fulfilled. Sometimes plans are worth revision. Despite the throw away tendencies of our own time, some plans are just too important to abandon. Aren’t you glad?

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Advent Light!

Isaiah 9:1-3 is a familiar text for this season of Advent. I bet you’ll know it when you see and hear it:

The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
    on them light has shined.

Those are the most quoted words of the reading, and likely have a familiar ring to them. But did you ever notice how Isaiah 9 begins? It doesn’t begin with “light” but with “gloom”. But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

So there it is. The people have been living in gloom. Rather like this late November gloomy day outside my window here in the Midwest. Only for the people of Zebulun and Naphtali, who had frequently been under threat and occupation of Assyria, gloom was a too well-known companion, having little to do with the weather.

I am among those who find their mood affected by seasonal darkness brought on by winter. Don’t let anyone tell you that SAD (seasonal affective disorder) isn’t real. I know it is. My sleep patterns change as the days shorten. When the sun sets just after 5 p.m. I’m ready to draw the drapes and call it a day. Tack together gloomy weather day after gloomy grey weather day and I will shout “hallelujah” when the sun decides to finally peak forth! And that’s just weather complaining I’m spewing out!

What about those who for whom 2020 has been day after day of isolation, loneliness and loss? I know some for whom this is true. They are afraid to leave home, be in public, or share with extended family. They’ve just come through a different kind of Thanksgiving and they are afraid Christmas will only be more of the same. There is a weightiness, a gloominess to this reality for so many this year. Oppression doesn’t only come from an enemy army’s occupation, or the winter blues, it is also the product of a highly contagious and rather unpredictable virus that has people holed up in the seclusion of waiting it out. Sadly, it’s also come in the judgment of others who have not been as impacted by the virus and who may look with scorn on the precautions the more vulnerable take, or minimize the loss that has been known. Can light come into this gloom? Can hope shine forth amidst this deep darkness?

I must say I’m hearing the hope of Isaiah’s promise in new ways this year. The prophet said of those who had lived in “deep darkness” that a light had shined – the light of hope found in the promise for what is to come. No, not a vaccine or herd immunity, or the delusion that the virus will disappear; the hope that is ours and the light that is ours is found in Christ Jesus.

Advent is a time of waiting for the coming of Christ. We wait for the light to shine. We wait for the reassurance of hope. We wait for the promise of deliverance for all things that may oppress us.

Last Sunday as I was sitting in the pew of our sanctuary at First Baptist Columbus, waiting for it to be time to share our online worship service – just the few of us again with the cameras – I watched as the light of that morning’s sunlight began to spread across the pierced wall of the chancel. It began from the east and worked it’s way toward the west – overcoming the shadows of the openings in the brick, illuminating the cross and seasonal decorations below, until all the wall was awash in light. That was my sermon on Sunday, and my worship experience, and my reminder of the truth from Isaiah 9 – on those who lived in deep darkness, a light has shined!

May it be so for you this season as you spend time with the One who is the Light of the World.

Light overtakes the pierced wall at FBC Columbus, IN.

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Giving Thanks When You Do Not Feel Like It

As the Thanksgiving holiday fast approaches it looks as though we will be celebrating it in different ways this year. Many families will forego the larger extended family gatherings. Travel that brings households together from across the state or nation is being discouraged. Plans are being made for virtual gatherings, or smaller gatherings where check-ins can be had through Facetime or Zoom meetings. All of this is of course due to the continued spread of the Coronavirus, which is clearly in the midst of a surge in most places.

Given these circumstances, and the impact Covid-19 continues to wield on many other facets of life, I found myself thinking lately that I’m kind of over all of it. (Or I wish we could be). I never thought, as a pastor, I would discourage people from coming to church once in the course of a year, let alone twice. Just as we were enjoying and doing pretty well with some additional in-person gatherings, we’ve felt it best to pull back on those in an abundance of caution. But man, it just stinks to have to do this again! And it’s difficult to break that news to people – even people who agree with it, let alone those who have different opinions. So, for much of the past few days I’ve not been feeling overly thankful. In fact, given all that 2020 has thrown our way, I – like a lot of people – would just as soon usher it out the door; if only that would solve all our challenges.

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Weary of Waiting

Waiting can be one of the most challenging things a human being is called to do. When we are young it is especially hard to wait. We say, “I can’t wait for Christmas! or my birthday, or whatever it is we are anticipating. But, as we get older waiting doesn’t seem to get any easier, does it?

It’s hard to wait for news from the lab. It’s difficult to wait for a hoped for phone call, text or email. We may find ourselves checking our devices repeatedly, anxiously waiting when wanting to know something now.

America is currently getting a lesson in waiting. We are awaiting the results of this week’s Presidential election, after waiting all the weeks for it to get here. Several states remain in play as I write this blog, two days after Election Day. But this is not all we are waiting on. We are also waiting on some good news about the 2020 health pandemic. We are waiting on a vaccine or proven therapeutic that will hold this virus at bay and allow life to return to some semblance of pre-pandemic living. Once that treatment is approved we will be waiting for it to be distributed.

As a full-fledged citizen of contemporary culture I too wish we didn’t have to wait so long. Like you, I’m used to day of results, quick service and timely outcomes. Yet, as one who reads and studies Scripture and strives to follow Christ, I know that God often reveals things through waiting. Just consider how many times the people of God endured long periods of waiting. Generations of Hebrews waited for deliverance in Egypt (430 years). Then they waited 40 years in the wilderness. Later it was 70 years in exile. Then they waited 400 years from the last Old Testament prophet to John the Baptist’s announcement of Messiah Jesus. Waiting has been baked into the faith experience. God is seldom in a hurry. Faith is a long obedience in the same direction.

In truth when we follow Christ all of life is about waiting. We await the full coming of the Kingdom of God. We wait for creation to be restored. We wait to join the company of all the saints. We wait for Jesus to come again.

So, this waiting thing, while tiresome and a bit tedious, is not new. We should be well-practiced in it. It’s what we do while waiting that may be more important. Do we fret? worry? complain? whine? Not too much will come of any of that. Do we pray? ponder? reflect? listen? Probably a much better set of choices. Do we trust? Put our faith in God’s future? Prioritize not according to this world’s powers and principalities, but those of the kingdom of heaven? Do we sit with the one who is anxious? Console the one who is grieving? Encourage the one who is despondent?

Waiting could be a productive exercise if only we had the patience to do it well.

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Crisis Fatigue

In a recent article, author Jake Owensby uses the term “crisis fatigue” to describe the tumultuous climate we are living through today in the world.

He says, “Confronted by a relentless barrage of stress-inducing events, we respond with a draining mixture of exhaustion, rage, disgust, despair, anxiety and grief. We want things to change, but the problems seem so huge that we don’t know where to start. We begin to wonder if we could make a real difference anyway. We’re overwhelmed.” (Ministry Matters: “Do the right next thing”)

Owensby’s words resonated with me as I consider my ongoing response to 2020, and as I walk alongside many others who, like me, are trying to faithfully follow Jesus in the midst of a global pandemic, struggling economy, racial unrest, natural disasters and contentious election year. People are simply tired. In fact, “tired” doesn’t do it justice. “Fatigue” is a much better word. Fatigue carries in its meaning the accumulative effect of tiresome events, issues, and engagements. Tired is overcome by a good night’s rest. Fatigue is only overcome by a more intentional and lengthy response.

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Remembering . . .

Earlier this week the United States surpassed 200,000 deaths due to Covid-19. This NBC News story gives a good summary of the impact of this number in our country.

On May 29, 2020 I wrote about the 100,000 deaths caused by Covid-19. In just shy of four months we’ve doubled that number, and some experts estimate it could double again toward the end of the year.

So, why focus on these numbers? Why blog about such sad news? My answer to that as a pastor is that we need to grieve. There has been so much focus on “getting back to normal” and “re-opening the country and our economy” and “pushing for a fast-track vaccine”. I fear in the rush and hurry we are overlooking our need to grieve.

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Inch by Inch, Row by Row

“Inch by inch, row by row; gonna make this garden grow. All it takes is a rake and hoe and piece of fertile ground.”
Those are the opening lyrics to David Mallet’s folks song often performed by John Denver. They’ve been in my mind and heart this summer as I have been giving effort toward tending a new garden plot.

Gardening is part of my therapy – my mental health therapy. When I’m in the garden, planting seeds, pulling weeds, tending plants or picking produce; my mind is not occupied with outside worries. For some reason working in the soil and watching the wonder of plants grow, blocks out all the other stuff. I think I inherited this behavior from my dad. He used to tend a large garden, spending hours in the summer evenings cultivating produce that blessed our dinner table. Now, as I look back, I wonder what kinds of things he was working out during his gardening therapy?

This season I’ve been breaking in a new garden plot – or is it breaking me in? We moved in the late winter and I converted some of the new home’s landscaping area into my flower and vegetable garden. It’s worked out pretty well. Early spring lettuce and spinach have been followed by bush beans, carrots, green peppers, summer squash, a variety of tomatoes, pole beans, and an abundant crop of butternut squash. The Covid-19 pandemic made it difficult to procure all the seeds I had hoped to sow in the spring, but I’ve enjoyed tending what’s come up.

I have also enjoyed having a new gardening buddy, our grandson Oliver. He is my produce picker. At 2 1/2 he has great enthusiasm for picking a tomato and digging a carrot. It’s fun to see the growing season through his eyes. I’m hoping we’re planting the seeds of new generation of gardener in this young lad. He does like to water the garden, so maybe that’s a start!

Granted my generational effort at gardening is less industrious than was that of my parents. For them, a big garden was a means of helping feed a family of five children. All of the canning and freezing of vegetables was a lot of work. In our household it’s really just a pick it and eat it endeavor. In that respect we enjoy most of the produce in the moment, while holding on to what will keep (without much effort on our part) for later. Any extra the garden produces is given away – which is fun as well.

“Inch by inch, row by row. Someone bless these seeds I sow. Someone warm them from below.”
This prayer reminds me that gardening, for me, is not only practical work and mental health therapy; it is spiritual practice. My image of God is often that of a gardener, working in the midst of our lives, cultivating, pruning, training, producing, and harvesting. God invites us to grow and asks that we yield to a Gardener’s best practices when it comes to bearing fruit.

Maybe this is why the garden is for me such a natural place of prayer. Life began in a garden and I believe will begin again in a garden. God has never left the garden of Creation, but waits in eager expectation for the sons and daughters of creation to come into their own.

The work of discipleship is the tedious, enjoyable, cultivating work of tending – cultivating – training – pruning – producing – bearing and harvesting. Time to get back to the garden . . . . .

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Living Forwards

There is a quote attributed to philosopher Soren Keierkegaard that says: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” I think this is a very apt saying in these days. In my pastoral visits and talks with people over the past few days, the conversation has often paused around current events for a time. Top among these events, of course, is the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, and it’s related happenings:
– Should school resume? If so, how? In person or online?
– When will we all be able to come back to church? As it used to be?
– When will this (virus, time of caution, etc.) be over?
– What will life (ministry, work) look like post-virus?

Many of these questions are forward looking. But they also carry a yearning for understanding that may only be available in hind sight – that is by looking backward. This makes me ponder the relationship between the choices we make to move forward, and how they will be judged when at last we can look backwards. Do you follow?

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Staying Vigilant in Loving Others

Note: My day began with a news report that 31 states in the USA are now seeing a spike in COVID-19 cases. Thankfully, Indiana is not among them. However, cases here remain steady and could always spike again. All of this has me thinking about what is asked of us as followers of Christ in doing our part to keep the virus from spiking? This blog post attempts to address that question.

I have often thought that pastoring a congregation is something like trying to herd cats. Cats, in my observation, are some of the most independent mammals on earth – next to human beings that is. As an American Baptist I have long respected the individualism of our faith heritage. Baptists, in general, are a people who talk about freedom. We champion the religious freedom we enjoy in our nation, and we also champion the soul freedom of each individual to directly connect with God through Christ Jesus. We generally do not like to have our freedoms curtailed or imposed on by others. If you do not agree with that last sentence, I’d like to invite you to the next Baptist congregational meeting where any substantive change is being proposed.

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A Time to Mourn

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die. . . . . a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn . . . Ecclesiastes 3:1-2,4

This past week our nation surpassed the 100,000 mark of persons who have died from the COVID-19 pandemic.  This morning I listened to a New York Times podcast that marked this awful milestone by sharing the names – and a little of the story – of 100 of those individuals.  I was moved by this memorial effort.

It is important that we remember and mourn these lives.  We may say, I don’t know them, how can I grieve?  To which I would say, you likely do know someone who has suffered a loss to COVID-19.  Our congregation mourns the loss of two of our members to date.  Our community has counted thirty-four deaths due to the virus.  In the future both of these numbers may rise.

Others have lost income, jobs, and security.  Many are living with a heightened sense of anxiety and have lost innocence, independence, and peace of mind.

Loss has a way of adding up, over time.  Loss not acknowledged or mourned can overwhelm us as its toll accumulates within our person.  If not processed, it will come out as anger, frustration, stress, or surface in other ways.

My own temptation is to press on, push down those feelings of loss, and not dwell on the bad news.  But that only works for a little while.  Each day something eventually reminds me that we are not in a normal time. There are visual cues everywhere, auditory ones as well.  The loss is often palpable.   

So, despite my first thought to not listen to today’s The Daily podcast, given its topic; I’m glad that I did.  It gave me permission to sit for a moment with the reality of those 100 lives, representing over 100,000 lives and over three times that world-wide.  

It helped me process some of what I’ve been feeling. It interrupted my day and my avoidance, pulling me back to simple faith amidst the uncertainty of life.  Faith, that now and in the end . . . . “all shall be well, and all shall be well” (a quote attributed to Julian of Norwhich which comes out of her arguing with God regarding the presence of suffering and death in the world).

Grief processed, mourning permitted, loss acknowledged, and – yes – prayer argued helps reset our mental outlook and reorient us under the care of the Good Shepherd, whom we follow even through death’s dark valley. 

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Hybrids

A “hybrid” is defined as “a thing made by combining two different elements, a mixture”.  Hybrids exist in nature – the offspring of two plants or animals of different species.  For example, a mule is a hybrid of a horse and donkey; a tangelo is a hybrid of a mandarin orange and tangerine.  Apparently, strawberries are hybrids – I didn’t know that, did you?

I used to own a hybrid bicycle – it was a cross between a road bike and mountain bike. And there are many varieties of hybrid cars on the road today – in this case it’s the engine that offers the hybrid quality of gasoline and electric. 

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Why the current Diaspora is not a Displacement

The term “diaspora” is both a historic and religious term used to describe “a large group of people with a similar heritage or homeland who have since moved out to places all over the world.” (source: vocabulary.com) The Old Testament diaspora describes the exilic period when the Jewish people were deported and scattered from Judea to Assyria, Persia and Babylon over several generations.

A similar diaspora of the followers of Jesus took place after Pentecost, as the Christian movement went from Jerusalem into Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). The word has subsequently been used to describe the scattering and migration of refugee populations across the globe. As these phenomena occur, language and culture are also dispersed with the people.

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Producing the fruit of Perseverance

We discussed the topic of “perseverance” in a weekly Zoom Bible study yesterday, and it’s a topic I keep thinking about. Specifically, I’m pondering the extent to which perseverance is a human effort or a spiritual gift. What do you think?

While I do not find the word listed in any of the typical spiritual gift passages (I Corinthians 12, Romans 12, Ephesians 4), Paul does write about perseverance in Romans 5. There perseverance seems to have a quality of a spiritual fruit, if not gift. Paul writes, “we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance, character, and character, hope.” v.4

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The Juxtapositions of Spring, COVID-19 and Holy Week

We are having a beautiful Spring in south-central Indiana. Vibrant green grass, trees in full bloom, flowers replacing one another in a sequence of staging: crocus to daffodils to tulips. Add brilliant sunshine and warming temperatures and it has been a prescription for lawn work, walks, bike rides, and sitting on the patio or porch.

Yet as creation shows off its multicolored palate, there is the reality of an invisible virus stalking humankind. In it’s wake the coronavirus is leaving behind dis-ease and death. I continue to marvel at this juxtaposition of the two – Spring and COVID-19.

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Where Behavior Change Might Lead

Of all the psychology therapies the one that has most often made sense to me is “behavioral therapy”. What appeals to me about behavior therapy or counseling is the belief that “we often live, or act, our way into new ways of thinking”. So, if I am turned inward in my thoughts to the point of overwhelming anxiety or depression; taking the action of doing something for someone else (a different behavior) has potential to change my mindset. I begin thinking more about others than my own situation.

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Minding Your Mind

I took some time over my lunch hour today to mind my mind. That is, I engaged in some mental health behavior. For me that equated to going for a bicycle ride. I didn’t go far, but it was good to be outdoors, take part in one of my favorite forms of physical exercise, and improve my mental outlook as well. There’s nothing quite like the solitude of a wind in your face bike ride to provide time for prayer and unwinding of the mental pretzels you’ve created in your thinking. Perhaps you have a different means of minding your mind. Whatever it is, now is an important time to practice it.

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Staying Connected While Social Distancing

As the COVID-19 outbreak continues to cause major disruptions to normal life, I have been thinking about the importance of community. Community and connection are vital aspects to our Christ following faith. I cannot recall how often in my ministry career a person who has missed public worship due to illness or recovery for a few weeks, upon return has said, “I really missed being with the church family” or “my week was just ‘off’ because I wasn’t able to be there on Sunday”.

Well, none of us are able to “be there” on Sunday in the ways we have been used to now. So, how do we stay connected to Christ and to the body of Christ (the church) during this time of social distancing? Here are some thoughts that have come to me:

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It’s all about Dust!

“. . . you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Genesis 3:19

As a Protestant, and Baptist at that, I have only participated in an Ash Wednesday service where I received the imposition of ashes one time. It was a sobering event. The minister shared the words of Genesis 3:19 as she put the ashes on my flesh, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return”.

Could any verse more fully capture the morbidity of our condition? And that’s the point, isn’t it? To be reminded, as we begin the Lenten journey, of our humanity and it’s limited length of days. We are to be reminded of our complete and total dependence upon a Savior who provides us with both a newness and wholeness of life, even as he prepared to lay down his life for we dusty disciples.

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