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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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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 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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