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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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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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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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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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