The Gathering

119210481_2739646652972698_3996907172632778430_nI first noticed it when I was checking Facebook.  And yes, to my shame, I was looking at Facebook on a Sunday morning.  One of our pastors had just announced that our services were cancelled.  The weather forecasters had been calling for ice to blanket our area during the exact same time that we would in church.  While I knew that services being cancelled was a possibility, the actual announcement hit me in a strange way.  It was almost like I was having Covid Church PTSD.  I immediately remembered what it was like two years ago when in-person church was cancelled indefinitely and services went to live stream.  Everything about church seemed to be upended and we didn’t know when that was going to change.  This time around the cancellation was sudden, but temporary.  And yet, it still didn’t feel good.  Instead of looking forward to more time at home on the weekend, I felt a strange unease and the realization that church means something different to me now.

So, what’s so different about church in a post (or almost post) Covid world.  For me, it is the recognition that I can’t take it for granted.  Sadly, that has been a reality for many of my brothers and sisters in Christ all over the world for a very long time.  Believers in China and the Middle East have had no guarantee that they could gather together on any given Sunday and certainly no guarantee of personal safety.  All of my life, I have lived in places where gathering for corporate worship was allowed and, in my circles, – encouraged or expected.  Then Covid hit and that was not an option.  Streaming services were the only alternative and not a great one.  Watching church on TV is not the same thing as gathering with God’s people in person.  It allowed me to become a worship spectator and not a worship participant and that was not healthy.

Before I go further, let me say a huge thank you to pastors and worship leaders who provided streaming options and who kept the light on at church when we could not be there.  Even though it was not a great option, it was the only one for a while and I am grateful for their efforts.

As we began to gather again for worship with masks and social distancing in place, many folks commented on how much they appreciated being with God’s people again.  I felt the same as I had been longing for personal interaction and fellowship.  Maybe that is because I am an extravert, but mostly I think it is because something special happens when we worship together.  If I wanted to simply hang out with people, I could go to the gym, a concert or a movie.  An in-person book club meeting or meal with a small group of friends would have helped me deal with my feelings of isolation, but it would have done nothing for my need to worship God with his gathered people.

What has really changed for me is a recognition that not only can I not take church for granted, but that I deeply need to experience the power and presence or God in corporate worship.  It is not about how it makes me feel, but about what God is doing in my life.  Singing is no longer just singing, it is lifting up praise to an almighty God in the presence of my brothers and sisters despite how bad my voice might be.  Hearing the call to a confession of sin and the assurance of pardon reminds me that this is not just a personal activity, but one that we do together as a church.  Participating in the sacrament of communion each week has taken on new meaning as this was one of things I most missed when church was virtual.  Listening to a sermon in person and experiencing the work of the Holy Spirit opening our ears and hearts has made God’s word that much richer in my life.  Maybe it is the person who occasionally says amen out loud when our pastor is preaching, but something is different in the way that I experience a sermon when I am with others in the same room.

As I lead our congregation tomorrow in the corporate confession of sin and the assurance of pardon, I am praying that God will use my feeble words to draw his people to himself in new and significant ways.  While it is true that we were made to be in community, it is even more true that we were made to worship.  May we yearn to worship in community together and never take it for granted.

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The Message

watch_night_svcIt was a late night, we were at church and I did not want to be there.  As a thirteen-year-old boy, the last place I wanted to be on New Year’s Eve was at church when my friends were at home celebrating with their families.  Growing up, we went to church every Sunday and I normally enjoyed going.  Sunday school classes were a place to make new friends, to compete in Bible memorization quizzes and to enjoy the creative ways that my teachers explained Bible truths.  As I entered my teen years, however, church attendance became more tedious and harder to explain to my friends in school.  I faced new temptations and began to lead a double life.  In school, I could curse and joke like a sailor, but on Sunday, I was winning prizes for Bible memorization.  I was beginning to learn that all too familiar adult skill of compartmentalization and I was good at it.

So here I was sitting in church again at the precipice of a New Year and I was squirming.  I was angry at my parents, I was angry at God and I was angry at myself.  I knew I was leading a double life and it made me uncomfortable, but I didn’t see any other way to keep both my church friends and my school friends.  It seemed like the only answer was to be a better performer and to keep these two worlds separate.  Then the preaching started and I knew I was in trouble. The pastor was preaching from Revelation 3: 15 & 16 and talking about the concept of being lukewarm and how God wanted something different for us, but it meant making a choice.  It was as if the pastor had peeked at my diary and knew what I was wrestling with every day.  I felt like I was an audience of one and he was speaking directly to me.  If I was going to take my faith seriously and no longer live a dual life something was going to have to change.

In that moment, it became clear that there was only one path forward if I truly was going to call myself a Christian.  I had to surrender my will and see that Jesus was more than just my savior, He was also my Lord and that had implications for my daily life.  It meant I was going to have to take risks, possibly alienating some of my friends, and to be willing to talk about my church life with my school friends.  Something happened that night that changed the direction of my life forever.  A pastor took a risk in challenging his congregation, preaching a hard message on a night when many might have expected a light, joyful and hopeful presentation.  I don’t know how many others were affected, by I was never the same again.

As I look back now, I realize that night was only the beginning of a long journey.  In an attempt to live for Christ, I leaned into performance and “doing things for God”.  I led Bible studies at school, talked about my faith, prayed more and read my Bible.  I was a different person, but in many ways, I was also falling into a different trap.  I was becoming a good Pharisee and really good at judging others who had not made similar choices in their lives.   It took many years for me to understand that what happened that night was the work of the Holy Spirit and not just a choice I had made.  I was surrendering my will to a sovereign and holy God who loved me as his son and did not “need” my good works.

In studying that passage of scripture as an adult, I even came to see that it might not have been properly exegeted.  So here I was a kid that did not want to be in church, listening to a sermon that might not have been a completely accurate theological interpretation.  And yet, God did a marvelous work in my life.  For all the pastors that wonder if their messages are making a difference, I am living proof that preaching matters.  For all the parents that wonder if making kids go to church is the right choice, I am here to cheer you on.  Keep it up.  You never know what God has in store for your child.  He truly does work in mysterious ways.

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The Invitation

It was probably a sunny day in Florida when Billy saw them coming.  Most days are sunny in Florida.  Several people from a newly established Brethren church were canvassing the community to tell people about their church and to invite children to attend their Sunday school.  They even promised to send a bus to pick him up.  Life had not been easy for Billy.  His home was a place of chaos and uncertainty on the best of days.  The prospect of meeting new people, getting away from the mess at home and making new friends was really appealing.  When the bus showed up, he got on and it changed his life forever.  That little local church became a place of safety and certainty with just the kind of structure that he needed in his life.  He attended every chance he got and looked forward to midweek services the way most kids thought about attending a major league baseball game.  The children’s ministry leaders became surrogate family members and provided much needed guidance at a critical time in his life.

At the age of ten, Billy learned about a summer camp that was attended by children from several Brethren churches in the area and he wanted to attend.  There was just one problem, he did not have the money.  This was no problem for a kind woman in the church.  She offered to provide him plants to sell in the neighborhood as a way of raising the needed funds.  Billy quickly accepted the offer and earned the money he needed.  At that camp, he heard the gospel preached in a way that made sense to his young heart and he made the decision to receive Christ as his savior and Lord.  There would be no turning back.  He would share his newly found faith as often as he could.  Several years later, he joined the Navy and was so serious about his beliefs that he was nicknamed “preacher boy” and was asked to lead services on board the ship.

So, what happened at Billy’s home?  He chose to share his new-found faith with his parents and siblings and deep seeds were planted.  Despite this, things were still chaotic.  Alcohol, poor life choices, poverty and daily dysfunctional relationships were the norm.  The church remained the one positive constant in his life and rescued him from a life of tragedy.   Though his father died at a young age, Billy was able to see his mother and several siblings eventually receive Christ as their savior and begin their own journey of faith.  After the Navy, he attended Bible college, met his wife and began a career as a missionary that would last over forty years and impact people all over the world.

You never know what a small act of courage like inviting someone to church will do.  That young boy became a Godly man as the result of a few people willing to take the risk of rejection.  I will forever be grateful for their efforts.  Billy is also my Dad and my spiritual hero.  I call him Father and am truly blessed to be his son.  He is living proof that God can and will rescue those He chooses even from the most difficult childhood experiences and the most dysfunctional homes.

In this age of internet connection and social media marketing, I am deeply challenged by the notion that one on one personal invitations are still the most important means of attracting people to attend church.  What a risk worth taking.  You never know what God will do with our feeble efforts to step outside of our comfort zones.  Maybe we will meet the next Billy this week.

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Hearing His Voice Again

Sometimes I notice when I forget, sometimes I just forget.  Usually, it is not the big things like misplacing my car in a parking lot or forgetting to pick up my wife on time.  More often than not, it is the smaller, ordinary things like keys, a hat or glasses.  Like most people, I have created habits to help me with this little problem like always putting things in the same place when I come home.  Despite this, I still have occasions when things get left where they don’t belong and a certain kind of frustration sets in.  How could I have done this again?

Recently, I have been forgetting something else.  Something much more important.  In the cacophony of voices vying for my attention, I have begun to forget the still small voice of my heavenly father.  I should have seen it coming.  Maybe it was the bad habit of checking my phone first thing in the morning or reading the endless negative news feeds.  Whatever the cause, it got worse as the year progressed.  The panic of the pandemic became louder and louder in my ears while the creator of the universe seemed more and more distant.

One night as I lay in bed praying, I asked God to remind me once again of his love and protection.  As I was pouring out my heart, I asked to be able to hear his voice more clearly, more directly.  If only he could speak audibly and I could know for certain that my words were not in vain.  In that moment, I remembered something.  He had spoken, He is speaking and I had access to those words any time I needed them.  He even took the time to ensure that His words were written down.  He knew, even before I was born, that I would be forgetful and had prepared for that eventuality.

Knowing that God had spoken in general and that His very words have been recorded was encouraging, but not all that I needed.  I wanted to know specifics.  What was he saying to me at this very moment?  I had just been reading about Solomon.  Could I simply pray for wisdom and receive it? As I mulled this over in my mind, I was reminded of God’s command and promise in Romans 12:2

  • Don’t conform to the pattern of this world
  • Be transformed by the renewing of your mind
  • Then you will be able to test and know what God’s will is
  • That which is good, pleasing and perfect

That reminder sounded great and was comforting, but it was still not enough.  If I stopped conforming to the pattern of this world, how was my thought life really going to be renewed?  I couldn’t just stop one bad habit without replacing it with a new one.  How was I going to start hearing God again?  What did He really want me to focus on?  Once again, he spoke through His word and reminded me of Philippians 4:8.

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” 

Shortly after praying this prayer, I came across the wonderful book by Hannah Anderson, All That’s Good.  Her stories of motherhood and ministry in a small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains unpacked this verse in ways that I had not considered.  Each concept came alive chapter by chapter with fresh insight and helpful illustrations.  Her words reminded me of a God who cares deeply about what and how I think.  He longs for me to sit at His feet and dwell on those things that bring Him joy and magnify His glory.

As I have been reflecting on what God is saying to me directly through His word each day, the chaos in the crisis of the moment begins to fade.  Like a lost and wounded sheep, I am becoming more attuned to the voice of my shepherd.  Oh, how grateful I am that He came to rescue me.  He has provided a way of escape from the voices that tempt me to doubt and fear.  My prayers no longer feel like I am shouting into the abyss, but are beginning to feel like a conversation that I have always longed for.

So, as I wake up tomorrow and the bad news waits to distract and discourage, I will continue my new habit.  Not just talking to God and baring my soul, but soaking in His promises and remembering His voice.  The voice of truth, nobility, righteousness, purity, loveliness, and so much more.  It is on these things that I will choose to focus.  Through the power of the Holy Spirit, I will do battle with the voices that tempt me to forget.  I serve a risen and conquering King and no disease, no economic disaster, no political problem is too big for Him to handle.

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Dad Shoes

I am not quite sure when I joined the club, but it was probably somewhere in my early thirties.  The club is quite informal, but highly recognizable.  Dad’s come in many shapes and sizes, but many of us have one thing in common.  We wear a pair of sneakers that practically define “men of certain age”, most of whom are fathers.  Normally they are white, bulky and have a Nike or New Balance logo on them.  To some they may seem like an everyday wardrobe malfunction, but to those of us who wear them, we know otherwise.  Despite looking like a sneaker created for astronauts, they are some of the most comfortable and durable shoes on the planet.

This footwear had become such an ingrained part of my life that I did not even recognize them as unusual or distinctive of my season in life until one of my boys said something.  We were getting ready to go to an event when one of my guys looked me up and down and said, “Are you really going to wear those?”  At first, I thought he was talking about some other aspect of my dad attire like my baggy jeans or polo shirt, but his eyes were resting on my shoes.  Admittedly, they had seen better days, but that was not his real problem.   Apparently, I had failed some standard of dad “coolness” and my shoes were exhibit number one. As the years wore on and they moved from being teenagers into adulthood, they even started using the words “dad shoes” when referring to my sneakers.

To compensate for this newly revealed fashion faux pas, I entered my dark sneaker phase.  For several years, I bought the black version of these sneakers and fooled myself into thinking that they were somehow much cooler.  Then I made the mistake of actually changing styles of shoes from “cross-trainers” as they had been labeled to “joggers” that were really just running shoes.  Did I really expect to take up jogging now that I had changed sneakers?  Was anyone actually going to notice that I no longer wore those bulky relics of the past?  No.  Instead, I had to live with the fact that these new shoes were not nearly as comfortable and wore out much faster.  So maybe I did go to the gym a little more often, but I was never going to become a fashion icon.

Recently, I discovered something extraordinary.  Dad shoes have evolved.  Someone has finally started designing these shoes with a little bit of flair.  I couldn’t resist and immediately bought a pair.  As clear vindication of this wise decision, both of my boys commented on the shoes and gave me that knowing look that said – “Hey those are not too bad after all”.  One of them even made some reference to them looking like Michael Jordan throwbacks.  Now I can be comfortable again and not feel like a total embarrassment.  Or maybe, I have finally accepted that part of being a Dad is membership in the “white sneaker” club and that it really is OK.

Growing up, I remember having similar feelings about my Dad’s choice of attire, but not because of his choice of sneakers.  In those days, the dreaded choice of embarrassing footwear was dark dress shoes with white socks.  Did men of that era really think that they were somehow going to be more athletic by wearing white socks?  In a few weeks’ time, I look forward to seeing my Dad again in person.  We will both sit in recliners, share terrible jokes, and drink a diet coke.  As we lean back and put up our feet, I suspect we might have one more thing in common – the most comfortable shoes a man can wear and we will do so proudly.

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Not as It Should Be

It started out normally enough.  Our weekly community group meeting on Zoom began with our typical banter and catching up on each other’s lives.  Ron had started the study in Daniel when we noticed the problem.  For some unknown reason, we could not hear each other properly.  There was a strange reverb sound and it was not easy to figure out what was going on.  One by one, we tried muting our audio to see what was causing it and never really figured it out.  It was our last meeting via Zoom anyway and it did not surprise us that it did not go perfectly.  Most remote meetings are a far cry from what they are like in person and putting up with a little technical difficulty is par for the course.  This small snag, though, was one more reminder, things are not what they should be.

This Sunday, we get to go back to church in person in our part of the country and I can’t wait.  In order to do this, however, I had to register on-line and read the list of pre-cautions our church is taking.  We will be meeting outside, will be social distancing, will be wearing masks, will not have bulletins, will have pre-packaged communion and will not have child-care provided.  The registration limited us to groups of 50 for each service.  I am very grateful that our pastors are taking these measured and careful steps to keep us safe, but this is not normal.  Going to church is a time when we love to be around those in our spiritual family and often involves shaking hands and hugging.  Not tomorrow and maybe not for a few weeks.  While things are improving, they are not what they should be.

Last week, a remarkable event took place as two men were sent into space on an American built rocket from an American launching pad and made it safely to the International space station.  This was the first time in nine years that Americans did not have hitch a ride with the Russians and was a great achievement.  It was a nearly flawless undertaking and made even more remarkable by how smoothly it went.  And yet …. This was not what dominated our news.  Sadly, the brokenness and reality of inequality in America stormed back into our consciousness with the tragic death of George Floyd, the massive protests and the rioting and looting that took place across the country.  Pent up emotions, not just from the recent quarantine, but from hundreds of years of oppression, indignity and suffering brought a raw reality into our living rooms.  Things are not what they should be.

The truth is that we live in the “shadowlands” as C.S. Lewis so poignantly said.  Paul captured the same sentiment in 1 Corinthians 13:12, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”  We often have a vague sense that there is something more, something better that what were currently experiencing.  This year, nothing is vague anymore.  We live in a season of lament and longing.  Our petty comforts have been disrupted, our duct taped relationships have been torn apart and the truth of our frailty has been exposed.  We are a mess and we need a savior.

As I head to church tomorrow with my mask and hand sanitizer, I will go over South Mountain and look at the beautiful Lehigh Valley one more time.  It is the place that God has given me to live in this time, but it is not my home.  I am a sojourner and exile in a foreign land.  My true home is in heaven with the one who will make everything right one day.  It would be easy to keep that as my focus in these days of disruption but God is calling me to something more.  I cannot simply wait until the suffering stops.  My calling is to be a part of bringing Shalom into this broken and fractured time.  The exiles in Babylon were not allowed to simply lament and long for the future.  Jeremiah gave them a new mandate – “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”  This week, I will be praying for the welfare of my city and seek to love and serve with renewed vigor and strength.

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The Big Review: Gentle and Lowly by Dane Ortland

Every now and then I come across a book that surprises and delights.  When many of your “reading” friends are talking about the same book, it is generally a good idea to pay attention.  Dane Ortland’s book not only surprised me, but it exposed my heart to truths that I had not contemplated in a long time.  Its premise is that “what animates Jesus most deeply, what is most true of him – when he exposes the innermost recesses of his being – what we find there is:  gentle and lowly”.  He points out that the only verse in the four gospels where Jesus tells us anything about his heart is Matthew 11: 29 where he says, “I am gentle and lowly in heart”.  While Ortland takes great pains to assure the reader that these are not Jesus’s only important attributes, they are the ones nearest to his heart.

Flowing from this premise is an even more startling perspective.  Ortland spends the rest of the book making the argument that as a result of Jesus primary disposition, he is drawn to the sinner and sufferer, not repelled or disgusted by them.  A couple of key quotes are in order,

“..if the actions of Jesus are reflective of who he most deeply is, we cannot avoid the conclusion that it is the very fallenness which he came to undo that is most irresistibly attractive to him.”

This is deeper than saying Jesus is loving or merciful or gracious.  The cumulative testimony of the four Gospels is that when Jesus Christ sees the fallenness of the world all about him, his deepest impulse, his most natural instinct, is to move toward that sin and suffering, not away from it.

This was really encouraging to read, but also brought lots of questions to mind.  What about Jesus and justice?  He didn’t seem so gentle and lowly when dealing with the Pharisees or the money changers in the temple.  Ortland clearly expected these concerns and spends entire chapters discussing these topics while still holding onto his main point.  One of the key chapters is called “His Natural Work and his Strange Work.”  Utilizing Lamentations 3:33 “He does not afflict from his heart”, Ortland makes the claim that “the one who rules and ordains all things brings affliction into our lives with a certain divine reluctance.”  He goes on to say that “his deepest heart is for merciful restoration”.  Relying on the testimony of scripture and the teaching of theologians Jonathan Edwards and Thomas Goodwin (a Puritan writer) he states that mercy is what God most delights in and judgment is his “strange” work.  As Ortland points out, no one would accuse Jonathan Edwards (the author and preacher of Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God) as “mushy” in his theology.  Edwards clearly affirmed divine wrath and eternal hell and yet taught that calling God’s judgement “strange” work did not dilute His wrath or justice.

This book is a stunning work of gospel exposition and Biblical exegesis.  Ortland does an amazing job of Biblical theology as he explores this theme from both the Old and New Testament.  Additionally, he acquaints the reader with the wonderful writing of Thomas Goodwin throughout the book.  Despite the rigor with which Ortland makes his argument, he never takes his eye off his reader and ensures that while the content is challenging, it is never inaccessible or overly scholarly.  Some books can peter out at the end.  Not this one.  In fact, it virtually comes to a crescendo in last chapters.  I will close this review with Ortland’s words in a paragraph that I will be savoring for a long time to come

There is an entire psychological substructure that, due to the fall, is a near-constant manufacturing of relational leveraging, fear stuffing, nervousness, score-keeping, neurotic-controlling, anxiety-festering, silliness that is not something we say or even think so much as we exhale.  You can smell it on people, though some of us are good at hiding it.  And if you trace this fountain of scurrying haste in all of its various manifestations, down to the root, you don’t find childhood difficulties or a Myers-Briggs diagnosis or Freudian impulses.  You find gospel deficit.  You find lack of felt awareness of Christ’s heart.”

This is not a book to be read in one setting or rushed through.  It is best handled like a good meal, slowly and reflectively.  It is probably the most impactful book that I have read so far this year.  I am deeply grateful for writers like Ortland that remind me again of the true heart of my savior.

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5 Things I Will Remember

The news came like the first rays of sunshine bursting through the clouds after a long and dreary rainstorm.  It was as surprising as it was welcome.  On Friday the Governor of Pennsylvania announced that our part of the state would be moving from a red to yellow status on June 5th.  After ten long weeks, we will no longer be under stay-at-home orders.  While things will be far from normal and many precautions will remain in place, this news felt like a glass of cold water to a man emerging from a trek across the desert.  Finally, something to look forward to and a glimmer of hope that things are beginning to move in the right direction.  Maybe we could even begin planning some family getaways.  Oh, how quickly my mind began plotting the future.  Then it hit me.

I am so future focused that I can easily ignore the blessings of the present moment and the lessons of the past.  So, for today, before I go racing into some new unknown future with all of its uncertainties and challenges, I will take a moment to think about those things that I must not forget.   These are some of the lessons I have learned during this strange season of sorrow, silence and solitude.

  1. Sometimes more information is not helpful.

Very early on in this crisis, I realized that one of my core daily habits was no longer useful.  For many years, I had made it my practice to watch the nightly news each evening to catch up on the activities of the day.  As each new day proceeded, it dawned on me that the news was not really changing and often it was creating more confusion than clarity.  Even the experts were struggling to interpret the data they were receiving.  Worse yet, it was really easy to get sucked into the vortex of becoming fixated on the data on escalating new cases and deaths being reported each day.  The information overload became overwhelming, fear producing and unhealthy for my soul.  Choosing to watch less television news, to use that time with my family and to curate my information intake became a new norm.  This I will remember.

  1. Loss of proximity does not mean the loss of presence.

When we first learned about the stay-at-home restrictions and the concept of self-quarantining, I had the reaction that most extraverts did.  This was going to be terrible.  I love being around other people and get energy from them.  How was I going to survive multiple weeks around a small group of people, even if they were my family who I love dearly?  Fortunately, the answer to that question came pretty quickly.  Many of the technologies that I had simply taken for granted became lifelines and old technology became relevant again.  Suddenly, Zoom became ubiquitous and FaceTime took on new meaning.  Letter writing was now in vogue again for some and I actually looked forward to getting physical mail.  People took time to reach out to me just to see how I was doing.  I was someone’s neighbor and they wanted me to know it.  This I will not forget.

  1. Intimacy requires intentionality.

In late March something wonderful and surprising took place.  As the significance of the crisis came into full view and the meaning of self-isolation took hold, group behavior started to change.  My brother suggested that our weekly WhatsApp call should be changed to a family Zoom call and suddenly, my family of origin was seeing each other again every Sunday night.  One of my friends from the Philly area suggested that we start up our Friday morning men’s gathering again via Zoom and we “got the gang back together again”.  Our church community group had been meeting every other week.  Someone suggested meeting weekly via Zoom and this became the new norm.  In each case, intentionality bred better and more significant intimacy.  These virtual conversations strengthened our bonds of friendship and helped us to bear each other’s burdens.  We learned to lament and laugh together.  This I will remember.

  1. The little things really do matter.

I am not sure if it was the hoarding of toilet paper or the lack of hand sanitizer, but the combination of both things missing every week in the grocery store served as ominous reminders of the fragility of our supply chain and how much certain things matter.  As the weeks wore on, I began to notice and appreciate other small things too.  The hand wave and smile from the neighbor walking his dog took on new meaning.  Conversations across the backyards from porch to porch in our development became the highlight of a day.  Watching the flowers come into bloom brought reminders that new life and a new day were still possible.  Being able to take a walk and breathe fresh air brought new joy and gratitude.  This I will remember.

  1. Creativity is not limited by governmental restrictions.

For many people (me included) these past few weeks have been really hard.  Parents have become exhausted in having to care for kids that would normally be in school and graduating students have felt the sting of not being able to celebrate in normal ways.  Remarkably, so many have responded to this crisis in creative ways and have inspired all kinds of new innovations.  The arts community has led the way with numerous groups finding ways to sing together on-line and putting smiles on our faces.  Authors have done live readings and group discussions to engage their audiences.  Painters have created webinars to teach people new techniques.  My favorite innovation, however, is the grandmother whose family found a way to create a safe method for hugging in their driveway.  They created a plastic barrier with arms.  That’s right, grandma could come right up to the barrier and put her hands through it and hug her grandkids.  What an inspiration.  This I will remember.

As I look forward to the days ahead, I will not soon forget the example set by the people of Italy.  When they were stuck at home watching so many being hospitalized, they chose to come out once a day onto their balconies and to sing together.  Shared sorrow turned into shared lament and ultimately a reminder of the power of community to bring joy, even if only for a moment.


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The Cardinal

It was only a couple of months ago that we first noticed him.  A bright red spot hidden in the foliage suddenly took flight.  Startled for a moment, we couldn’t take our eyes off of him.  He was the first Cardinal we had seen this year and was a welcome sight.  At the close of winter, it was a delight to imagine the forest along our walking path coming back to life and color returning to the dreary landscape.  It was also fun to see a bird that is so distinctive and familiar and be reminded that Spring was on the way.  If only for a moment, he brought joy into our lives.

Little did we know how many walks we would take along that same path in the weeks to come.  Looking for the Cardinal became a part of our new routine.  Some days he was easy to spot and on others, he startled us again.  Sometimes, we did not see him at all.  Many more birds are now evident along the path, but none is quite so colorful and bright as that Cardinal.  Today, we even noticed his mate and watched them flying about from branch to branch together.  Her coloration was not as bright, but no less beautiful.  What a pair they made.

Birdwatching is not something that I normally do.  In fact, I might have considered it a waste of time at previous moments in my life.  With so many other things to do, this seemed like a trivial activity and maybe even a distraction from more important things.  All that has changed now.  Not only do I have more time, I am also noticing different things and recognizing God’s hand in new ways.  His handiwork in nature and especially the beauty He has created are no longer peripheral matters, they are essential to my well-being.

All of us are rethinking what is essential and non-essential these days.  If I ever did take a moment to think about birds and their purpose, I assumed it was to function as seed spreaders.  They perform an important and essential part of the ecological plan that God put in motion at creation.  But they do so much more than that.  They sing, they fly, they mate, they provide for their young and they bring joy to the lives of us human beings.  Before I go to much further, however, I should state that I am fully aware that not all birds perform the same function and some are not as pretty as others.  In fact, some can be menacing and even scary.  Not so the Cardinal.

The Bible makes the point that birds have another essential purpose.  They remind us of God’s provision.  Matthew 6:26 says,

“Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”

Recently I was talking to an author about the reality of anxiety in our world today and took a moment to Google what word is the opposite.  Interestingly, the word that came us was trust.  I had expected something like peace or calm.  Then it hit me that a proper trust does lead to peace and calm.  We just don’t trust in the right things.  We tend to trust what we can see and what we can count on.  Then are lives are turned upside down and we don’t really know what we are looking at and what can be counted on any more.

So, as it turns out, birdwatching is a trust building experience and quite essential to my life.  Every time I see that Cardinal, I am reminded that he did not worry for one minute about his next meal.  God is calling me to look at the things that matter, the things He created, the things that glorify and magnify His presence in our world.  God is calling me to trust Him and see with new eyes that He can be counted on now and forever.  How wonderful that He brought this reminder in the form of a bright red bird that provides so much joy.

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The Meal

One night in March we decided to go out for a meal at a Mexican restaurant near us.  My son joked that we better enjoy it, because it might be our last meal in a sit-down restaurant for a while.  Little did we know how right he would be.  Within days of that event, Pennsylvania was put under a stay-at-home order and all our restaurant options became takeout or delivery.  This week, we learned that the quarantine mandate will continue until at least June 4th in our area.

Eating an evening meal together has always been a priority for my family, but it has not always been easy to accomplish.  When our kids were young, our main concern was seeing that they ate the food we made for them without causing too much mess.  It was not easy to have adult conversations when you were trying be sure that veggies were eaten and that apple sauce was not being flung across the room.  As they got older, activities increased, the schedule got full and meals seemed to be eaten with efficiency as the primary goal.  How quick could we finish the food and do the dishes so that we could get started on homework or go outside to play a game.  Food was mainly fuel and not much else.

To be fair, we did have lots of fun times around the table, especially for special occasions like birthdays, holidays and my favorite – the cookout.  I do love to grill.  We always did our best to have guests over when we could and our kid’s friends were regulars at the dinner table.  Interestingly, as the boys got older and the conversations became more complex, it did not matter so much what we ate.  Pizza was a great excuse for a gang of boys to gather around the table and we learned what was happening in their lives at that moment.  More often than not conversations revolved around sports, school activities, and things going on at work.  Sometimes the discussion strayed into politics, culture and relationships.  Occasionally, we talked about matters of faith and belief.

In recent weeks, the evening meal has taken on new meaning.  With the current quarantine restrictions in place, we know who we are eating with every night.  No guests are allowed. It has required more thought and planning on our part to make the meals interesting and not too repetitive.  Our son has decided that he wants to be healthier and so he has chosen to eat lots of salads and has encouraged us to do the same.  We often prepare the meal and set the table together.  Sometimes, I even cook when Deb gets home later than I do.  What has really changed, however, is the pace of the meal.  No one is in a hurry these days and we tend to linger over the conversation.  While we do take time to ask about the more mundane aspects of life, we also seem to delve into deeper issues more easily.  Often, after the meal is finished, we go for our evening walk and continue the discussion.

As I read the gospels, I am fascinated by the number of meals that are mentioned.  Many of the significant events of Jesus’s ministry took place while he and his disciples were eating together.  He caused scandals by eating with outcasts, sinners and scoundrels.  He celebrated at banquets, weddings and feasts.  He spent time with his friends who often invited him for a meal.  Some of his greatest miracles involved bread, fish and wine.  In many ways, you could argue that “the meal” was central to his life and work.  It is not surprising that his last evening with his disciples was spent in the upper room as they celebrated the Passover feast together.

As the Coronavirus crisis eases one day and restaurants begin to open again, I look forward to being able to eat out with my family.  Hopefully, some of the lessons we have learned from these many meals at home will make a difference in the way we think and eat.  While I will enjoy dining at one of the many great small restaurants in downtown Bethlehem, I will also be much more aware of how much the conversation around the table matters.  Maybe I won’t be in such a hurry to get the check or move on to my next activity.  Maybe I will finally learn to linger and simply treasure the time I have with others.  I will certainly never take for granted the ability to eat a meal outside of my house and I will enjoy having others join me around our dining room table again.

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