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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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Passageways

I’m drawn to them, those places and images that invite a going through or coming toward. They are passageways, entry and exit points from what has been to what will be. Thresholds and more, offering promise and prompting thanksgiving. Call it a professional hazard of one who has been present as folks unite to cross a threshold, welcome a new beginning, or share a “farewell” and “see you later”. To be present at the passageway times of life – birth, marriage, death – is sacred work. It’s also humbling work, peeking into the intimacy of a family system and coming to share a presence and a word.

These passageways crop up in life, in nature, in travel and in the mundane. It seems we are always coming and going, sometimes with a lack of awareness and abandon that approaches the cliffs in danger; other times in a measured gait that belies our reluctance to enter the work at all.

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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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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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