Category Archives: Hope

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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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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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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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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