Category Archives: Christian Faith

Why?

*Note: It has been my practice through the pandemic to acknowledge the 100K milestones in deaths in the USA with a post. Sadly, its time for another post as America surpasses 900,000 deaths due to Covid-19. When one factors in unreported and excess mortality numbers (deaths over and above the norm during a crisis situation) 900K is most likely the low end of this data!

The United States has long prided itself on being a leader on the world’s stage. We like to think of ourselves as the best, or at least among the best. This past week we were right there again, leading the way (or at least among the leaders) when it comes to persons who have died from Covid-19. Why?

It astounds me, and embarrasses me, to be affiliated with such a callous national approach to the death toll this pandemic has racked up in our nation. Because it doesn’t have to be this way. It didn’t have to be this bad. Sure, initially while the world and science was trying to get its thinking around the virus, how it spread and why it seemed to attack those most vulnerable; death was on equal ground globally. But then we acquired knowledge on how to mitigate the spread, and then we acquired tools – incredible tools like vaccines – to further mitigate the spread and impact, including the number of deaths.

The response to those tools in the land of the free? Don’t inhibit my freedom! Don’t tell me what to do! Rather than embrace these tools as the gift of science and hope they represent, the tools themselves became politicized and . . . . well, if you’re paying attention at all, you know the mess we’ve found ourselves in. Why?

I think it’s a question worth thinking about? Why? For example, why in a society that continues to have such heated debate on the right to life, protecting the unborn, do we show such disregard for the right to continue living on the other end of life? Why? Why in a nation where we show pride and respect for those who go to war to protect the freedoms and lives of others internationally, do we find it so difficult to agree on measures for fighting a viral enemy at home? I don’t understand.

It does little good to rant, I know this. I have lamented these same things elsewhere, and unless you happen to agree with me, you are probably not paying attention or your just tired of it all and want it to go away. 900,000 no more gets the attention of the masses than did 800,000 or 700,000. It’s just a number – except, of course, it’s not. It’s a name, a face, a person, a loved one, a family member, a parent, a child, a friend, a spouse.

One of my less generous responses to those who want to dismiss the virus as “just the flu” or something with consequences to be ignored, has been to ask: “Have you ever officiated a funeral for someone who died from Covid-19?” Yeah, that’s usually a conversation stopper. But the point is, I have. I’ve looked in the eyes of those who lost a loved one and wished for a different outcome. It was and is very personal, very difficult, and very real.

So, 900,000 is a number that gives me pause, as did the other milestone numbers prior. It’s a number I lament because it represents lives lost. Why?

TOPSHOT – White flags are seen on the National Mall near the Washington Monument in Washington, DC on September 19, 2021. – The project, by artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg, uses over 600,000 miniature white flags to symbolize the lives lost to Covid-19 in the US. (Photo by Daniel SLIM / AFP) (Photo by DANIEL SLIM/AFP via Getty Images)

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Filed under Christian Faith, COVID-19, Ministry

A Winter Spirituality

The poetry of Christina Rossetti, who gives us the hymn lyrics for In the Bleak Midwinter asks the reader/singer to pause and consider the spiritual gifts of this season.  Later composed into a hymn by Gustav Holst, this poem, originally titled A Christmas Carol, is replete with the imagery and feeling of this dormant season. Consider a few of the phrases she uses to conjure the imagery of winter’s starkness:

  • “Frosty wind made moan”
  • “Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone”
  • “Snow on snow on snow”

It makes one cold and chilled just reading it! Yet, there is a purpose in winter’s fallow days. It is a season of replenishment as the rains and snows fall upon the earth. It is a season that marks the end to another cycle of growth and life – trees letting go of last year’s leaves and putting final touches on another ring of growth to gird their trunk. Winter is more than a mere season of meteorology, it is a spiritual season as well.

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A Weary World Rejoices

In my experience some of the best ideas in life and ministry are borrowed, so with a nod to Pastor Adam Hamilton of Resurrection United Methodist Church, who’s Christmas Service message bears the title “A Weary World Rejoices”; I offer my own musings on that theme. I assume Hamilton is borrowing the title from the well-known lyric of “O Holy Night”. One can quickly go down a rabbit hole searching the origin of that song, but let’s assume, for the sake of giving credit, that it was an adaptation of a French-language poem by poet Placide Cappeau, written in 1843, composed to music in 1847 by Adolphe Adam.

I confess ignorance as to what may have prompted reflection on being weary in 1840’s Europe, but I imagine each age has its own reasons to feel weary. Indeed it is the juxtaposition of that phrase “a weary world” that can yet “rejoice” that captures my eye and ear. We are a weary world these days, are we not? Weary in so many ways. Let’s recount just a few: We are, of course, weary of the Covid-19 pandemic, weary of death and disease, weary of yet another variant and spike in cases the world over. We are weary of tests, weary of masks, weary of wondering if it’s safe to gather, and what the vaccination status of our neighbor or extended family member at those gatherings may or may not be. In addition, we are worn out by the residual layers that have piled on and fueled our fatigue: division, politics, protests, animosity, recklessness, selfishness, anxiety, stress, and a lack of regard for the other. Yes, weary comes in all kinds of expressions these days the world over. But is it any worse, any more severe than in days past? Even the days that greeted the birth of the Messiah?

That world, at least the part of the world into which Jesus was born, had to have been weary. The people of Judea knew occupation, the absence of true self-rule, oppression at the hands of a foreign empire which taxed them economically, socially and spiritually. It was a world divided, where various sects and groups sought a better future through varied means – strict legalism, power through political partnerships, zealous separatism. Disease and a short life expectancy were also common place for the common person. Weary? There was surely some weariness present in Herod’s, Caesar’s and Caiphas’ world. This was the world of Joseph and Mary, pilgrims who trod from Nazareth to Bethlehem, a long three-days journey by foot, to comply with a mandated registration.

Yet, it was into that world that rejoicing broke forth. Luke tells us that an angel of the Lord broke the joyous news to shepherds, near Bethlehem: I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. (Lk 2:10-11) In response a “multitude” of angels brought forth a celestial flash mob singing: Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors! (Lk 2:14)

Yes, a weary world rejoiced. Shepherds and angels among the flocks and fields of Bethlehem, and not far away a young couple who had just experienced the miracle of birth and new life – swaddling their son in cloth and putting him down for a first nap in a manger. Weariness and joy are natural partners in childbirth, when it goes well.

So, I ask: If then, why not now? Why can’t the weary world of today wrap its collective self around this simple yet profound natal story and rejoice yet again? To think, ours is a world with a benevolent Creator, who having given us free-will did not then walk away from the creation, but set forth a plan to redeem it. Ours is a world created by a God who loves us, seeks restoration with us, and came to be among us – one of us – in order to sort out the mess we humans had made of things. Isn’t that a cause for rejoicing?

We humans continue to make a mess of things, in my opinion. We can no more come to agreement, much less collaborate for the common good, today than in the days of the Herod’s and Caesar’s. The names of those in power have changed, but the behavior isn’t much different. Nations continue to be at odds with one another. Rather than rally together in response to a virus that threatens life, we’ve splintered into camps that point fingers and seek to lay blame. Might we instead set aside the discord for the harmony of Christmas? Can we come together in this season to once again rejoice in the birth of a Savior? That in itself might serve as a balm for our weariness. The act of rejoicing, joining in common joy, thanksgiving, and praise; it’s an other centered act. It takes our focus away from self and puts it on the reason for joy. It’s a recipe for the thwarting of weariness. Let’s try it. What do we have to lose?

Consider afresh the lyrics from the carol, O Holy Night.

O holy night, the stars are brightly shining
It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.
The thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees,
Oh, hear the angel voices
O night divine,
O night when Christ was born
O night divine,
O night, O night divine,

The thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees,
Oh, hear the angel voices
O night divine,
O night when Christ was born
O night divine,
O night, O night divine,

O holy night

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Filed under Christian Faith, COVID-19, Holy Days, Hope, Ministry, Pastors, Uncategorized

What Giving Thanks Can Prompt

I thank my God every time I remember you . . .“. Those are the opening words of Paul’s prayerful greeting to the members of the church at Philippi. (Philippians 1:3 NRSV). It’s truly a beautiful and bold statement, one of my favorite beginnings to a New Testament Pauline letter. So, it seems a fitting jumping off place for some thoughts on giving thanks in this Thanksgiving season.

Here are three statements about Paul’s thankful statement and what giving thanks can lead to:

A BIG STATEMENT
Not only is Paul’s opening statement bold, it’s also BIG. To so emphatically declare that he is thankful “every” time he remembers these brothers and sisters in Christ must indicate that they hold a special place in his heart. Yet, if we stop and think about it, I would guess we might each have someone for whom this is true – someone for whom we give thanks when we think of them?

Maybe it’s a spouse, child, grandchild, friend or parent. Maybe it’s the person who led us to Christ, or the prayer partner we share our heart with? Who is it for you? Search your mind for a moment to see. Then give thanks for them. Then, tell them! Part of what makes Paul’s statement so BIG is that he shares it with the Philippians. Have you told the “someone(s)” you give thanks for when you think of them, how you feel? Go for it! Thanksgivings that are shared have more impact than those held too close.

A TRUE STATEMENT
I do not get the sense that Paul is engaged in any kind of hyperbole or stretching of the truth with his claim. This is not “preacher speak” or the buttering up of an audience. He is being truthful and vulnerable. Thanksgiving wells up in him when he thinks of these friends as he prays for them. They have been partners in ministry with him. They have stood with him during his imprisonment and separation from them. He knows that they “hold him in their heart”, just as he most assuredly does them.

Sharing a thanksgiving like this requires a certain amount of vulnerability. Many of us are not all that comfortable with such openness, yet that is part of what makes this prayer of Paul’s so memorable and touching. He’s taking the risk of being completely open and honest with his partners in the faith. When were you last this open and honest with someone? What was the outcome? Did you feel even more thankful for them after they returned some form or empathy or understanding? True statements of thanksgiving are often received with reciprocity.

A HOPEFUL STATEMENT
When we are thankful, we are by nature more hopeful. Would you agree? In my experience, both in being around thankful people and practicing thanksgiving myself, I have seen the relationship that grows between thankfulness and hopefulness. It is as if a thankful thought or comment prompts one to look forward with greater optimism and promise. Thankfulness, in this way, becomes a seedbed for hopefulness.

This past summer I expanded my vegetable garden, adding some additional space to the preexisting garden. The land I took in, however, was not in very good shape. It had been occupied for several years by a dead pine tree that over the years had dropped many pine needles and cones. Not only did I have to remove the pine tree and it’s stump, I then needed to cultivate the soil. I began to do this by bringing in some additional dirt, working it in with the existing dirt, and removing (by hand) rocks and other debris that surfaced in the cultivation of the plot. While I improved the seedbed it did not yield as nice or productive a harvest of vegetables as the preexisting garden plot did. I will need to continue working on the foundation of this new seedbed so that it will produce a better yield.

Thankfulness leads to the improvement of our hopefulness seedbed. When we practice thanksgiving it’s as if we aerate the soil, infusing it with oxygen and nutrients that will produce better results. In life those better results from cultivating thanksgiving frequently translate into a more positive, hopeful disposition.

No wonder Paul was so purposeful in the verbiage of his opening prayer to the Philippians. It’s as if he knew that his Big, True and Hopeful statement about giving thanks was going to have a lasting impact on that community of faith (and others) far exceeding his own life. Here’s hoping your expressions of thanksgiving can yield similar dividends this year and beyond.

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For All the Saints

The tradition of celebrating All Saints Sunday is one that goes way back in the life of the greater church. At FBC Columbus it’s a tradition we’ve observed for the past few decades. Our practice on this day is to remember those church and family members who have passed away in the prior twelve months. This is done as an element of worship as members of the FBC Foundation lead in a memorial service within the morning’s worship liturgy. Even though I know it’s planned, and that we will be sharing names and photos of those we’ve mourned on the screen, each time it happens I’m still caught up short with feelings of loss and reflection as we revisit the deaths of a prior year.

On more than one occasion there have been names of my own family members on the screen, and each year multiple names and photos of persons whom it was my pleasure to serve with in congregational ministry, many who’s funeral or memorial service I officiated. It is a special day, filled with meaning for the congregation and family of those honored.

This year I will be using the occasion of All Saints to invite our reflection on that term “saints” that the Apostle Paul used so often in his New Testament epistles. In Ephesians 1:1 he writes “to all the saints”. It’s a title intentionally chosen, not because of that community’s holiness, nor in anticipation of their later veneration, having gone through a beatification process. No, Paul uses the term “saints” much as we might say “believers” or “Christians” in our day. He is describing the collective people of God, in the case of Ephesians, who reside and worship at the Church of Ephesus. In using the term, however, I can’t help but imagine that he’s calling them to an identity in Christ he truly wants them to think about.

In the Apostle’s Creed there is a phrase, “the communion of the saints”. As with Paul’s letter to the Ephesians the term is plural – saints with an “s” and not singular. This seems fitting as a communion is of course more than just one. In the case of the saints of Christ said communion represents both those who follow Jesus on this earth, and those who have gone on to live in Christ, awaiting the Day of the Lord. The saints, then, includes what the writer of Hebrews calls the “great cloud of witnesses” and the living congregants, Christ followers who occupy the churches and homes of today’s world. Together we make up a communion of like-minded, like identified people in Jesus. If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, you are part of this communion, you are one of the saints. When you stop and contemplate the number of persons you’ve known who’ve gone home to glory, multiplied by the number of believers over all time who’ve died in Christ, the cloud of witnesses is “great” indeed!

Often, on All Saints Sunday, I like to imagine the sanctuary filled with those who made this their spiritual home during their lifetimes. So, in addition to the population of those in the pews, gathered for worship, I imagine the saints who’ve gone before. In my minds eye I see their familiar faces, remembering where they often sat, and before long I have a pretty full congregation gathered. This, of course only includes those saints whom I’ve known at FBC. What of the many others who’ve worshipped among this family of faith for it’s now nearly 170 years? Once you begin doing the math, you can’t begin to squeeze everyone into the worship space! Thus the cloud, I guess. Clouds of witnesses to me invite us to consider unlimited seating and participation.

One day we will each experience this gathering with Jesus, face to face. We will bend our knee at his throne and declare our worship in the courts of heaven. We will be part of that cloud of witnesses. Every day will be All Saints day and we will be in the presence of the risen Lord forever. Until then, may the purpose of our worship and our lives be to the “praise of his glory”. May we remember the promise that we are sealed with the Holy Spirit. And may the resurrection power that brought forth Jesus from the grave, empower us, the communion of the saints, to live saintly lives.

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Filed under Christian Faith, Dan's Sunday Preview, Holy Days, Ministry