Endurance

If any of you have participated in sports, or even something as simple as casual walking, one thing that we all learn is that endurance cannot be purchased at the store.  We can buy good shoes, and sports equipment of all kinds, but the ability to play through an entire game, whether it is a walk in the park, or full contact football, or tennis, golf, soccer, or anything else, can only come from hard work.  If we say that there is a price for endurance, then that price can only be paid in sweat.  I have friends who, after major surgery, could barely walk across the room without stopping for rest.  But they persisted.  First it was a walk across the room, then to the end of the driveway, and then walking down the street one telephone pole at a time, until finally they were walking several miles every evening.  The same growth in endurance is seen in other sports in much the same way.  As strange as it sounds, just as we learn patience by being patient, we learn endurance, we train our bodies to endure, by repeatedly enduring.

And, as difficult as it is for us to live through a global pandemic, we are learning to endure, and we learn endurance by enduring.  Granted, compared to the bread lines of the Great Depression, or ration cards and blackout drills of World War Two, the difficulties and hardships that we face may not be as great as those faced by other generations, but like it or not, great or small, these are ours.

But as we stay at home, practice social distancing, and are separated from one another and from loved ones by doing so, as many of us suffer from unemployment caused by the shutdown, or by other byproducts of the pandemic, it is worthwhile for us to remember that the writers of scripture were no strangers to suffering and endurance.  In 2 Corinthians 1:3-11, Paul writes:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you, patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. 10 He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, 11 as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many.

Let me pull a few bullet points from Paul’s words that apply to our current situation:

  • We worship the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort
  • God comforts us in all our trouble so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we have received from God.
  • We are distressed for the comfort of others. In this situation, we are fighting against our desire to be together so that we might not, unwittingly, pass this virus to others, family, and friends that we care about, and bring harm to them.
  • Paul says that they were distressed, and experienced trouble, beyond their ability to endure, but at the limits of their endurance, they learned that they could rely upon God rather than relying upon themselves.

It is the calling of the strong to protect the weak, and today we struggle against the pandemic by denying our desires to protect the weak and the vulnerable among us.  But our struggle is not without cost.  The cost of our endurance is being paid in sweat, in tears, and in great frustration.

Proverbs 18:14 says, “The human spirit can endure in sickness, but a crushed spirit who can bear?”

Please don’t allow your spirit to be crushed.  Pray that God might give you strength and endurance beyond your own.  Pray that we might learn to rely upon God rather than upon ourselves.  Encourage one another wherever, and whenever, possible.  Call, write, email, text, video chat, Zoom, or whatever it takes to stay connected and to encourage those around you who are struggling.  And please, please, don’t feel as if you must stoically struggle alone.  If you are struggling, don’t be afraid to ask for help.  Call me, call a friend, let someone know that you are struggling so that we can do whatever we can to help.

And finally, because we are still the church, and our mission to do the work of Jesus Christ doesn’t stop for a pandemic, also remember Paul’s words from 2 Thessalonians 3:12-14.

13 And as for you, brothers and sisters, never tire of doing what is good.

Hang in there.  Endure as long as you can.  Lean on God when your endurance ends.  Help one another.  Help the people around you.

And never tire of doing good.

 

Blessings,

Pastor John

Fear or Faith?

I am not afraid.

If you read my blog last week (Who Will Be the Canary?), you probably noticed that while I look forward to returning to worship in our church sanctuary, I prefer to err on the side of caution.  And, as I noted in my greeting yesterday morning, I find it a little odd that we are being told that it is safe to return to corporate worship (with proper spacing) but day cares, sports teams, and others are being told to limit activities to groups of ten.  Similarly, hospitals nursing homes and other care facilities remain closed to visitors and family members.  In that environment, I am just not convinced that it is responsible to put nearly one hundred of us in a room together.

I realize that there are several schools of thought on this issue.  A few of my colleagues believe, and have made it clear in online forums, that such cautiousness will harm church attendance and membership.  But I am not so sure.  In 2016, the entire Chipotle restaurant chain lost customers and revenue when 55 customers were sickened by the e coli bacteria in seven states.  The damage to sales (attendance) took years to repair.  An outbreak of the COVID-19 virus in your local church would be a major media event and, if we’re going to use church attendance as a measuring stick, would have an even more profound impact than cautiousness.  In any case, while we are making plans to return to corporate worship in our sanctuary, I think it’s more important to put the safety of our members ahead of worries about attendance.

But I am not afraid.

While there have been many posts on social media that churches (and pastors) should simply have faith, and trust that God will protect us, this isn’t an issue of fear versus faith.  While I have seen reminders about how God protected Daniel in the lions’ den or Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace, I don’t think that they apply here.  Yes, they all had great faith and, yes, God protected them, but at the same time, Daniel didn’t volunteer to be thrown to the lions.  And, realizing that Shadrach and company were bound hand and foot prior to their attempted incineration says something about their willingness to participate in the experience. 

Yes, Bible heroes the likes of Moses, Gideon, and David are lifted up as people of great faith, and they were.  But it pays to remember that they were also cautious.  Moses was content to raise sheep, for forty years, until God commanded him to return to Egypt and promised him divine protection.  Gideon led Israel’s revolt against the occupying Philistine army, but God spent days convincing him that the voice he heard really was God, and that God really was promising that Gideon wouldn’t die in the attempt.  Yes, David volunteered to fight against the giant Goliath, but David had spent years training with a sling and stones and had used them to fight against a lion, a bear, and other wild beasts before he did.

Being cautious doesn’t mean that we lack faith.  It just means that we choose not to risk our lives foolishly. 

Let us take the time to understand our enemy and the weapons we have at our disposal to fight against it.

Let us be careful, cautious, and listen for God’s voice.

The heroes of our faith did these things too.

 

 

 


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Who Will be the Canary?

Whether we know it or not, some of us are about to be asked to a “canary in a coal mine.”

While that phrase is probably familiar to many of my friends from coal country, let me offer you some brief historical background.  In the years before more advanced technology, the people who dug wells, mined coal, and worked underground often ran the risk of being overcome by carbon monoxide or other toxic, but odorless, gasses.  To defend themselves, these laborers began to carry small birds, often a canary, with them underground.  Since the birds were small, they would be overcome by the presence of toxic gases, or simply a lack of oxygen, before their, much larger, humans owners would.  These underground laborers knew that if the canary lost consciousness and fell off its perch, they were already on borrowed time and needed to head for the surface.

That brings us to this present Coronavirus pandemic, social distancing, and for my purposes, church worship.  Soon, as state health advisories are relaxed, church members will begin to ask, or even press, for pastors to resume congregational worship.  Some churches in our area have already set a date, in the next couple of weeks, to do so.  Certainly, we will do things differently.  We will offer hand sanitizer, our staff will be dizzily disinfecting everything in sight, we will space ourselves out in the sanctuary, we will refrain from shaking hands, and we might even eliminate singing for a while.

But should we?

I know what our congregation looks like, as well as all those parishes in which I have served and been a member or regular attender.  And all of them were, and are, full of wonderful saints who belong to any number of vulnerable populations.  Our churches are full of mature citizens, elderly persons, cancer patients, a variety of immune suppressed brothers and sisters, as well as those suffering from asthma, heart and kidney disease, and other health issues.  Opening our churches for congregational worship puts all these vulnerable friends at risk.

Think about your own friends, family and other saints in your church.

Which of them would you choose to bury before year’s end?

I’m certain that, like me, you’d like to avoid that.

But by rushing to be first, by opening as soon as we are “allowed” to do so, or as soon as state or denominational health advisories are relaxed, we are volunteering to be the “canary in a coal mine.”  Like those coal miners, we don’t have the technology to measure our safety.  We don’t have a test, or a meter, or a buzzer that will tell us when it’s not safe.

As reasonable as the voices around us may sound, everyone is guessing.

We think… that it’s probably… safe.

But the people who tell you that it’s probably safe will be watching the churches that go first to see what, if anything, happens.  And, as sincere as they might be, and as reasonable as their voices may sound, they won’t be the ones burying your friends, family, and saints of the church.  You will.

I miss our church family.  I miss our community.  I miss our hugs, and handshakes, and covered dish dinners.  I miss the choir, and coffee and donuts, and everything else.

I completely understand why you would want that back.  I do too.

But whomever goes first, is volunteering to be the canary.

And it’s worth remembering that, for the canary, it doesn’t always end well.

Like you, I look forward to welcoming our community of faith into the church sanctuary again.  I long for a return to “normal.” 

But I have no desire to be first.

My friends, my family, and my church are far too valuable to be used as a lab experiment to see if it’s truly as safe as some bureaucrat, government official, or scientist thinks it is.

You can volunteer to be the canary if you want to.

Feel free to go first.

But I’m in no hurry.

 

 

 


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When Will Church go Back to Normal?

Since both our governor and the President of the United States have been making a lot of noise about restarting the economy, and “getting back to normal,” I’m certain that many of us are wondering when church, and specifically, Sunday worship, will get back to normal.  It’s a great question, and it’s one that I have spent time thinking about, and one that has generated considerable discussion among my Methodist and other clergy colleagues.

And the answer is… it depends.

First, it depends on how quickly the rules are relaxed, both by our various levels of government and by our bishop.  But second, it also depends on how you define “normal.”  As to the first part, Governor DeWine has already made it clear that he intends to find a way forward with a “phased” restart which will insist that reopening businesses follow the safety protocols that have already been developed and put in practice by those essential businesses that have remained open.

What I think that will mean to the church, is that the restart will, at first, open things up to small groups of five or ten and then only if those group can insure a six-foot spacing between people.  It may also insist that meetings be kept under an hour.  Obviously, those guidelines will preclude worship, but we might be able to restart Bible studies, Threads of Love, or small Sunday school classes.  A little farther down that road, when larger groups are permitted, we might be able to worship in our sanctuary, but there will still be some significant changes.  We will have to be deliberate in spreading out across the sanctuary so assigned seating might be necessary.  We won’t want to shake hands, hug, or pass a plate from hand-to-hand, so our greetings and offering will look different.  Communion is going to be different too, and I have no idea how we will manage it just yet.  Similarly, it won’t be safe for the choir to squeeze into the choir loft, or the choir room, together so either we won’t see the choir for a while or, Lew and the choir will need to get a little “creative” in how they arrange themselves.  I honestly don’t know yet what that might look like.

And, more than that, any of our members and friends who are in a “vulnerable population” may well want to wait even longer.  Like it or not, gathering in groups is going to be risky, and potentially life threatening, until a vaccine is proven to be safe and becomes widely available.  That means that even though the economy restarts, people who are older, immune suppressed, have heart disease, asthma, or some other “underlying medical condition” may well want to stay home and join us in worship over the internet for some time to come.  That means that we should, and already are, thinking about how we can record, or livestream, our worship service over the internet even after we return to our sanctuary.

Altogether, the only thing that will be “normal” for a while will be change.  Things are going to be different, and the “normal” that we are used to, and the “normal” that we’ve seen for the last hundred years or so, is probably not going to return for at least twelve months.   And twelve months might easily turn intosomething like thirty-six months.  And, at some point, we might just have to accept that the old “normal” isn’t ever coming back and just get used to a new normal.

But no matter what normal ends up looking like, God hasn’t changed.  Our faith hasn’t changed.  Our mission hasn’t changed.  We are still the church.  We are still called to carry out the mission of the Kingdom and to be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ.  We will still go about doing the same work that we have always done.  How we go about doing that work might change a little, and that’s okay.  This is a pivot point in history.  The church has adapted to change through the Renaissance, through the Industrial Revolution, through the changes brought about by steam ships, railroads, electricity, automobiles, and the internet, and we will adapt to whatever new things lie in store for us today and in the future.

Take heart.  Have courage.

God is with us.

But hold on to your hat, because it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

 

 

 

 


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A Seuss-ian Easter Poem

My brother, Mark, received an awesome poem from Rev. Gill Hill, who was a shipmate of our father on the USS Manderson Victory, an ammunition ship in the Pacific, during WWII.  The author is unknown, but it is an Easter story written in the style of Dr. Seuss and the Grinch who Stole Christmas.  I was impressed by it and so I recorded it on YouTube and I wanted to share it with you here.  I hope that you enjoy it as much as I have.


Did a Grinch Virus Steal Easter?

 
 
Twas late in ‘19 when the virus began,
bringing chaos and fear to all people, each land.
People were sick, hospitals full,
Doctors overwhelmed, no one in school.
 
As winter gave way to the promise of spring,
The virus raged on, touching peasant and king.
People hid in their homes from the enemy unseen.
They YouTubed and Zoomed, social-distanced, and cleaned.
 
April approached and churches were closed.
“There won’t be an Easter,” the world just supposed.
“There won’t be church services, and egg hunts are out.
No reason for new dresses when we can’t go about.”
 
Holy Week started, as bleak as the rest.
The world was focused on masks and on tests.
“Easter can’t happen this year,” they proclaimed.
“Online and at home, it just won’t be the same.”
 
Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, the days came and went.
The virus pressed on; it just would not relent.
The world woke Sunday and nothing had changed.
The virus still menaced, the people, estranged.
 
“Pooh pooh to the saints,” the world was grumbling.
“They’re finding out now that no Easter is coming.
“They’re just waking up! I know just what they’ll do!
Their mouths will hang open a minute or two,
And then all the saints will all cry boo-hoo.
 
“That noise,” said the world, “would be something to hear.”
So it paused and the world put a hand to its ear.
And it did hear a sound coming through all the skies.
It started down low, then it started to rise.
 
But the sound wasn’t depressed.
Why, this sound was triumphant!
It couldn’t be so!
But it grew with abundance!
The world stared around, popping its eyes.
Then it shook! What it saw was a shocking surprise!
 
Each saint in each nation, the tall and the small,
Was celebrating Jesus in spite of it all!
It hadn’t stopped Easter from coming! It came!
Somehow or other, it came just the same!
 
“It came without bonnets, it came without bunnies,
It came without egg hunts, cantatas, or money.”
Then the world thought of something it hadn’t before.
“Maybe Easter,” it thought, “doesn’t come from a store.
Maybe Easter, perhaps, means a little bit more.”
 
And what happened then?
Well….the story’s not done.
What will YOU do?
Will you share with that one
Or two or more people needing hope in this night?
Will you share of the source of your life in this fight?
The churches are empty – but so is the tomb,
And Jesus is Victor over death, doom, and gloom.
 
So this year at Easter, let this be our prayer,
As the virus still rages all around, everywhere.
 
May the world see hope when it looks at God’s people.
May the world see the Church is not a building or steeple.
May the world find Faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection,
May the world find Joy in a time of dejection.
May 2020 be known as the year of survival,
But not only that –
Let it start a revival.
 
—Author unknown
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 


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It’s More Than Selfish

Note: The video of this commentary can be found at: https://youtu.be/R7cfHs15CNQ


 

It’s More than Selfish

 

For the last few days, we have all been watching people go crazy.  While society hasn’t broken down, it has certainly proven to itself that Agent ‘K’ in the “Men in Black” movie was absolutely correct when he said:

“A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it.”

And, when people are scared, they are the most panicky, dangerous animals in the planet.  It seems obvious to everyone, whether you are a Christian or not, that there is something horribly wrong with what is going on around us.  But for those of us who have spent some time in church, or in reading scripture, we have a pretty simple name for it. 

Sin.

In Matthew 22:36-40 some Pharisees asked Jesus which commandment he thought was the most important.  To which, Jesus replied that there were only two important ones.

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

The second, of the two great commandments, is for us to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves, and this is, fundamentally, a condemnation of selfishness.  It’s okay for us to take care of ourselves, and it’s okay for us to be concerned for our own welfare, but it’s not okay for us to be so selfish that we no longer care about the needs of our neighbors, and indeed take so much for ourselves, that there our neighbors cannot meet their most basic needs.

There’s no way that any one family, let alone any one person, really needed to go out and buy a hundred rolls of toilet paper or several gallons of hand sanitizer.  I’ve seen a large bottle of hand sanitizer, out in a public place at church, last through three or four entire flu seasons for our entire congregation.  I’m sure that there is no good reason that anyone really needed to buy an entire case of them for themselves.

If you’ve been shopping this week, or if you’ve seen the photographs of your friends who have, you probably noticed that the shelves are empty of almost anything remotely edible.  Sure, we’re going to need food to eat, but you know what?  Since those stores normally provide the food that most of us need week in, and week out, year in, and year out, it seems obvious that people are not only stocking up, but that, in their fear and panic, they have almost certainly bought more than they can possibly use and my bet is that, while some of our neighbors are going hungry, much of that food is going to spoil and go to waste.

And that bothers me.

Folks, I’m not going to mince words here.  This kind of behavior is not only selfish, and not only tragic.

It’s sin.

 

 

 


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