Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Two Broken Lives Result in Most Beloved Hymn

 

It was not a very popular hymn when it was first published in the mid-nineteenth century.  The words seemed trite and the poetry was not very good.  The music was certainly not church music, and few thought it would be around for long.  

 

The words were never even intended for publication.  His mother was dying in Ireland and he didn’t have the money to cross the ocean and see her, so he wrote her a poem to bring her comfort—a poem she never saw.  

 

His entire life had been one tragedy after another.  He had been engaged twice, but both of his fiance’s had tragically died, one the day before the wedding.  He spent his time chopping wood for the poor and caring for the sick, but he found no fulfillment in his life.  He battled depression for years until one day they found his body floating in a river.  

 

The music was inspired by a man who suffered from alcoholism.  His wife had left him and he wandered the streets selling anything he could find for liquor.  He was only 37 years old and living in a slum when he fell in a drunken stupor and fatally hit his head.  

 

Out of these two sad, broken, and tragic lives come one of the most beloved and popular hymns of all-time, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” Joseph Scriven’s life started with great potential, but multiple tragedies left him scarred and wounded.  He had lost everything and when the news came that his dear mother was at the point of death, it was more than he could bear.  He remembered his mother’s unfailing faith and he knew that she had a friend in Jesus.  He wrote the words we know so well, ostensibly to comfort his mother, but they may have been his own cry for faith as he was “weak and heavy laden, cumbered with a load of care.”

 

The trials and temptations of his life had led to trouble everywhere.   But deep down in his soul he knew that he had a precious Savior who was still his refuge.  Yes, he too had a friend in Jesus.  

 

The music for this most beloved hymn is not church music, it is American Folk music that was inspired by the “Father of American Music,” Stephen Foster.  Charles Converse who is credited with the music simply adapted a Foster tune.  The great American composer who gave us such classics as “My Old Kentucky Home,” and “Swanee River,” died penniless and alone as a result of his alcoholism.  He too, had many sins and griefs to bear.  

 

Isn’t it amazing how God can use two sinful and broken lives to give us such hope and comfort?  Out of the depths of these two anguished souls come one of the most uplifting and encouraging reminders of God’s faithfulness and love.  In the midst of this long and protracted Pandemic that continues to cast a shadow of darkness and doubt, we find the promise that “In his arms he’ll take and shield thee; thou wilt find a solace there.”   

 

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Remembering "False Alarm At Midnight" And the 1918 Pandemic

 In early 1999 I received a phone call from a respected doctor in a neighboring town.  He offered to come to our church and give a presentation on the Y2K situation that was creating fear and concern among many as we approached the end of the millennium.   Most computerized systems back then recorded the year with only 2 digits.  The year was 99 to the computer, not 1999.  The fear was that when we entered the year 2000, the computer would think it was the year 1900.  As a result, electrical grids would fail, planes would fall out of the sky, defense systems would be rendered useless, our infrastructure would collapse, and there would be nationwide turmoil, chaos, and panic.  

 

I asked the good doctor what type of presentation he wanted to give.  He said he wanted to prepare our church members for the coming disaster that he described in apocalyptic terms.  He would talk about storing food, water, medical supplies, and essentials.  He would instruct people how to obtain gun permits and what types of weapons would be necessary.  Since it would be months, if not years, before order would be restored, he would teach us how to survive in the desolation.  

 

I told the doctor that I did not believe there would be any crisis, except for the crisis of people creating panic through fear mongering.  Therefore, his services would not be needed.  He told me that I was making a serious mistake and the “blood of the congregation” would be on my hands!  

 

It was this type of fear and paranoia that led to the 1999 New Year’s Eve presentation at the Civic Center, “False Alarm at Midnight.”  We wanted to reassure people that we had no reason to be afraid.  Extremists, like this doctor, were sounding a “false alarm.”  As we came to the end of the century, we wanted to show how the church had helped in times of great crisis and uncertainty during the past 100 years.  We highlighted the church’s role in the Second World War during the 1940s and the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, but we were looking for something in the early part of the century.  What was the greatest crisis during the first quarter of the 20th Century?  

 

It was the Influenza Pandemic of 1918.  

 

It was because of people’s faith in God, a faith that had been consistently proclaimed in Lexington’s churches that people made it through.  I look back now, 21 years later, and try to remember what exactly led us to focus on the Pandemic in our presentation.  

 

It was not until I started researching that I discovered 675,000 Americans died during the 1918 Pandemic, also called the “Spanish Flu.”  This was more Americans who perished in the First and Second World Wars combined. Davidson County had 713 confirmed cases and 6 deaths due to the influenza, largely due to the strict quarantine ordinances that were implemented.  All schools and churches were closed.  Public gatherings of any type were prohibited.

 

Churches did not have a radio to broadcast services in 1918.  Of course, there was no YouTube or Facebook.  The only “modern” tool of communication was the telephone, which many people did not have.  But people knew how to pray and they knew that God was their rock and their salvation, he was their “refuge and strength, a very present help in times of trouble.”  

 

I remember working on that presentation and thinking how far-fetched it would be to actually have to close our church.  I couldn’t see it happening, not in our modern and advanced world.  I never really thought Y2K would be a problem.   I didn’t lose any sleep over what the doctor said to me.  And if Y2K couldn’t touch us, then surely a global Pandemic could never happen—not in our world!

 

At this writing we are about to pass 190,000 deaths in the United States, 3,000 deaths in North Carolina and 32 deaths in Davidson County.  The majority of schools and churches remain closed.  There are strict guidelines on wearing masks and keeping a safe distance from others.  Public gatherings are for the most part prohibited.  

 

God is still our rock and our salvation, He is our refuge and strength, a very present help in times of trouble.  God saw us through the 1918 Pandemic and He will see us through the 2020 Pandemic.  God is faithful and He has a plan.  Put your trust and faith in Him!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Thinking About Our Visit to the Bonhoeffer House

Joyce and I have commented several times during this Pandemic that we are so thankful we went on Sabbatical last year.  If our Sabbatical had been planned for 2020 rather than 2019, all of our plans would have been canceled.  I will always be grateful to my friend Randy Hall who graciously served as our Interim minister, allowing us to go.  

 

There were so many great lessons that I learned during that three-month sojourn.  There were so many highlights that I would be hard pressed to place one above the other.  One of the unforgettable and inspiring moments took place on a beautiful Saturday morning in Berlin when we visited the Bonhoeffer house.  

 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is recognized today as a 20th Century Martyr.  In his epic book, The Cost of Discipleship he wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”  Little did he know that he would be called to do just that.  Bonhoeffer was a true man of God who lived and died with dignity, courage, and grace.

 

I don’t know of a Bonhoeffer memorial, a Bonhoeffer museum, or a Bonhoeffer historical site.  He never owned a home, but in 1935 his parents built a retirement house in west Berlin and Dietrich lived his last few years of his life there, writing and plotting the resistance against the Nazis.  

 

I gave the taxi driver the address for the Bonhoeffer House. I had read there was an English tour every Saturday morning at 11 a.m.  It was a long taxi ride.  At one point I thought the taxi was either lost or I had given him the wrong address.  We were in a quiet residential area.  The taxi driver was driving very slowly and turned down a short dead-end street.  He stopped in front of a house. 

 

“This is it,” he said in broken English.  


I looked at the attractive home that gave no indication it was any different from any of the other neighborhood houses.  The meter was already up to 20 Euros.  I was afraid I was going to have to pay another 20 Euros to go back to the hotel without finding the Bonhoeffer House.  I got out of the taxi and then saw a small sign at the gate: “Bonhoefferhaus.”  This was it.

 

I paid the driver and we walked to the front gate.  But I discovered the gate was locked.  I found a bell on the gate that I rang.  A moment later a rather large German man opened the door and said to reach inside and open the gate.  We did and he welcomed us to the Bonhoeffer House.  

 

There is only one room in the house that has been restored historically.  It is the upstairs room where Dietrich lived.  The desk where he wrote, his piano, and his bookcases are all original.  The man told us that before we would visit the room, we would have a conversation on Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  The “conversation” was a rather lengthy lecture in broken English, but it finally ended and we ascended the stairs and had the unforgettable experience of standing in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s room.  He was in that room on April 5, 1943 when the SS agents came and arrested him on direct orders from Adolf Hitler.  

 

I knew I was standing on holy ground.  There was a sacred hush as we stood there.  I was looking intently at the desk where he wrote.  In was here, not long before that fateful April day that Bonhoeffer wrote these words:

 

There remains for us only the narrow way, often extremely difficult to find, of living every day as if it were our last, and yet living in faith and responsibility as though there were to be a great future.  It is not easy to be brave and keep that spirit alive, but it is imperative.

 

This is how we should live each day during this Pandemic, in faith and responsibility.  The days are long and yes, it is not easy to be brave and keep our spirit of faith and responsibility alive, but it is imperative.  While we are not facing the same danger that Bonhoeffer did, the COVID virus has been just as deadly for over 2,000 North Carolinians.  We believe that with God’s help we will have a great future on the other side of this Pandemic.  Until then, it is imperative for us to live in responsibility---being safe by wearing a mask, keeping at least six feet distance from others, and washing our hands.  

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

My Final Column for the Lexington Dispatch

A Final Word for A Final Column


For over a quarter of a century it has been a rare privilege and a great joy to share my thoughts and reflections with you through the pages of The Dispatch.  It was almost 30 years ago when a young Dispatch reporter by the name of Chad Killebrew stepped into my office on a Sunday morning.  He explained that Dr. Lee Jessup, who had written a weekly religion column for a number of years, was leaving First Reformed and while he would continue to write a weekly column, the paper wanted to find new writers for the religion column.  Chad asked me if I would be one of those writers.

I hesitated for two reasons.  One, Lee Jessup was legendary in Lexington and I knew no one could replace him.  Indeed, it took four of us to take his place! Secondly, I never really saw myself as a writer, but since the commitment was once every four weeks instead of weekly, I agreed.  I soon found myself enjoying the opportunity to reach into your hearts and homes each month through Saturday’s religion column.  

I have written almost 400 columns and I’m proud to say that I never missed a deadline.  (I almost missed one a few years ago, but Jill Doss-Raines emailed me when she didn’t see my column by Wednesday).   Many of my columns have been serious, many have been light-hearted.  Some have just been downright crazy! (Does anyone remember “Joe, Mary, the Baby and the Mall?)  

It has been my privilege to walk with you during times of crisis: The Y2K scare, 9/11, the close of our furniture plants and textile mills, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and most recently, the COVID Pandemic.  I have shared Lexington history with you and I will always appreciate Editor Bob Stiff endorsing my proposal for our community to promote Lexington as the first Lexington named after the “shot heard round the world.”  (We were, you know.  I can prove it!)  

I have reflected on community events:  the BBQ Festival, the Davidson County Fair, Kamp Kiwanis, American Legion Baseball, MLK Celebrations, the Palm Sunday Community Celebration and more.  Together we have shared holidays, the changing of the seasons, and our mutual losses.  I have written about the deaths of my father, my mother, my brother, my sister, and my beloved dog, “Little Buddy.”  

I’ve had a wonderful relationship with The Dispatch and all of the staff.  I remember the old days when I would hand deliver a printed copy of my article.  It was always exciting to walk up those stairs and hear the buzz of the newsroom in action!  I will never forget meeting with Joe Sink in 1999 and asking if The Dispatch would sponsor our New Year’s Eve production at the Civic Center, “False Alarm at Midnight.”  I didn’t really know Joe and I was scared to death.  Joe not only graciously supported our effort, but Joe and Libby became good friends and we traveled together several times.  In 2003 The Dispatch provided the funding for the first MLK Worship Celebration to be held in a white church—First Baptist on West Third.  The Dispatch also generously sponsored the highly successful 175th Historical Celebration at the Civic Center that Evelyn Harris and I produced and directed.  

Your comments, your encouragement, your words of affirmation have meant the world to me.  It was always a blessing to meet someone in the community who told me they appreciated my columns.  Now, I’ve had a few detractors along the way.   Remember the “Bricks and Bouquets?”  I had several bricks hurled my way as well as a number of letters to the editor.  That comes with the territory.

But now that my final column is coming to a close, I will leave you with a word that I hope has been evident in every one of my 400 columns—kindness.   We are all children of God, we are all equal in the eyes of God.  We must respect all people and most of all, be kind.  There is something more important than being right and that is being kind.  Kindness is a gift.  Kindness is a blessing.  Kindness will not just make a difference in this world, it will transform it.  

Farewell, my friends.  Be kind one to another.  

Ray N.Howell III is Senior Minister of First Baptist Church on West Third Avenue in Lexington






Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Waiting with Patience for the Hope we Cannot See


I keep thinking about our New Testament lesson this past Sunday from Romans 8.  Paul is talking about the promise of redemption not just for us, but for all creation.  He speaks of creation being set free from its bondage as it is “groaning in travail” awaiting its glorious redemption as a mother “groans” in labor pains awaiting the glorious birth of a child.  

Ancient man didn’t have a scientific world-view, but he did understand the precarious state of the created order.  The ancient world-view was a three-tiered universe with a heavenly ocean above us and another underground ocean beneath us.  Looking at the beautiful blue sky, our ancient ancestors thought they were gazing at the bottom of the heavenly ocean.  What was holding it in place?   The grace of God.  

When God sent rain to the earth, he simply opened a “window” in heaven and the rain came pouring down.  But creation would suffer when God did not open the windows of heaven.  Drought and famine were common in the ancient world.  Then, there was disease.  

Creation suffers from famine, drought, pollution, waste, viruses and diseases.  Viruses are a part of life, something we live with every day.  Our bodies have built up defenses against most viruses.  But the Coronavirus is new, our bodies don’t have any built-in defenses to stop it.  Here is one of the best analogies I have heard to explain the virus.  It’s from Dr. Dan Pastula from the University of Colorado Medical School.

So, the virus isn’t more powerful, per se, than other viruses. But when it enters the human body, we have no pre-existing defenses since our bodies don’t immediately recognize it as a dangerous intruder. Imagine an old, walled medieval town. If this virus were a disguised attacker arriving at the town’s protective walls, but open gates, the guards would not immediately know to be suspicious. With this coronavirus, it’s as if the guardians of our cells have kept the gates open and let the coronavirus in without immediately recognizing its danger.

Then the virus starts to spread.
“It gets in and hijacks the human cell’s machinery. Instead of the cell doing what it’s supposed to do, the virus overrides the cell’s normal programming and turns it into a machine to make more of the virus. It goes and goes and goes until the immune system stops it,” Pastula said.
I am sure that all of God’s creation is “groaning with travail” to be set free from this Coronavirus bondage.  The promise in Romans 8 is that it will happen!  There are so many unanswered questions right now, but Paul reminds us that “hope that is seen is not hope.”  We hope for what we do not see and--this is important--we must wait for it with patience. (Romans 8: 25).  We can wait with patience because we know, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (vs. 31)
As much as we don’t know, there is something very simple that we do know.  We know how to stop the spread of this disease.  All we have to do is Wear a mask, Wait six feet away from others, and Wash hands frequently.  You may have seen Tom Hanks interviewed on TV yesterday.  He and his wife were both ill with the virus.  He urged everyone to do their part, saying that it’s very simple.
"Wear a mask, social distance, wash your hands. That alone means you are contributing to the betterment of your house, your work, your town, your society as a whole and it's such a small thing," Hanks said.

And I would add, it also means we are following the command of Jesus to love our neighbor.  



Tuesday, June 16, 2020

He Maketh Me to Lie Down

He Maketh Me to Lie Down

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures;
He leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul.

The soothing words of the 23rd Psalm come to my mind often, especially in times of difficulty.   As I reflected on these timeless words this week, the word “maketh” jumped out at me.  The shepherd has to make his sheep lie down.  They won’t do this on their own.  As much as they need green pastures and still waters, they depend on the shepherd to make them stop and rest. 

There is an old saying that God has to put us on our back before we look up.  Yes, we are stubborn and we get so busy with the demands of life that we have to be made to stop and rest and find nourishment for our souls.

I am not suggesting that God created this COVID crisis to teach us a lesson.  But it is true that the greatest lessons of life are learned when we are forced to stop, slow down, and lie down in the green pastures. 

I’m reading an excellent book by one of my favorite authors and esteemed Presidential historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin, titled: Leadership in Turbulent Times.  The book is focused on four great American Presidents who exhibited strong and exceptional leadership in turbulent times:  Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson.  

She highlights the common traits of leadership that they all shared and traces the development of these characteristics in their lives.  All four of these great leaders went through a traumatic time of personal crisis that prepared them for the later national crises they would each face.  

Abraham Lincoln went through a time of depression so severe that his friends had to hide knives and weapons from him because they were afraid he would hurt himself.  Theodore Roosevelt experienced the tragic death of his wife after the birth of their first child, Alice, and his mother died the same day in the same house.  He spiraled into a profound grief.  Franklin Roosevelt was crippled with Polio in the prime of his life and his family and friends felt that his public life was over.  He worked for years to overcome his personal depression and strengthen his diseased body.  Lyndon Johnson, the hyperactive and powerful majority leader of the Senate, suffered a near-fatal heart attack that resulted in months of convalescence and a personal and spiritual transformation.       
       
You can say that that the greatest characteristics of leadership that guided our nation through some of its most perilous times were formed when these future Presidents were made to “lie down.”  
       
There is no question that the COVID crisis has forced all of us to pause, to “lie down,” and reflect.  I know we are all anxious for life to get back to normal. We want to come back to church, to sing, to fellowship, to worship together.  But the good shepherd is making us “to lie down in the green pastures.”
       
I pray we will use this time to listen, to look up, to be renewed in mind and spirit.  I went back almost two decades to another time we were all forced to stop as a nation.  The week after 9/11, I wrote these words:

Have you noticed how the world has changed since September 11?  The haze has lifted and we see the world in a different light.  Now we see clearly the important things of life—the value of relationships, the priority of family, the significance of devoting our time and energy to lasting endeavors.

 I listen as the birds call out to one another.  Most of the time, I just hear birds.  Today, however, I listen closely and realize that each bird has a distinctive sound.  Every human is unique, individual and distinctive—like the birds. 

I listen and watch the birds as they sing their individual songs.  Yet, they have found a way to live together in peace.  They do not fight and destroy each other.  There is room in God’s forest for all of the birds.  Is there not enough room in God’s world for all of us?  Listen to the birds and learn from them. 
          

Friday, June 12, 2020

Defining the Defining Event

I stood before our high school graduates on June 7 at our annual Baccalaureate Service.  Our church is normally filled for this celebratory Sunday with teary-eyed parents, doting grandparents, smiling friends, and a proud church family.  The graduates are beaming as they march into the sanctuary while cameras and phones record the happy scene.  But last Sunday all of the graduates wore masks and the sanctuary was empty, except for immediate families who were social distanced. 

I shared with the graduates that every generation has a defining event.  The question is whether we allow the event to define us, or do we define it.  I talked about the Great Depression being the defining event for my grandparents, the Second World War for my parents, and the Civil Rights movement for my generation.  The masked graduates left no doubt as the defining event of their generation.

These young graduates actually have more than one life-defining issue on their shiny new plates.  They are not only graduating in the midst of a health pandemic, but also in the midst of a moral and ethical pandemic.  Over half a century after my generation wrestled with Civil Rights, we are still waiting for the day when people will be judged by the content of their character, rather than by the color of their skin.  

As people of faith we are grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition that believes in the dignity and worth of every human being.   Genesis announces that God made humanity in his own image, after his likeness.  The Psalmist proclaims that humanity has been created a little lower than the angels and crowned with glory and honor.  The Apostle Paul wrote that before the foundation of the world we were destined in love to be the children of God.   

Scripture also teaches us that we have distorted God’s magnificent creative order.  We have all sinned and fallen short of his glory.  One of the greatest sins is to disparage others and claim a false superiority over other human beings, denying them the dignity and respect they deserve as children of God.  

Slavery was justified by a horrible perversion of Scripture with ludicrous claims that the “Mark of Cain” and the “Curse of Ham” resulted in the servitude of the black race.  

Racism is grounded in the belief that all human beings are not created equal.  The theme of the last protest march led by Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968 was simply, “I Am a Man.”  The words plead for equality and respect.   Fifty-two years later the words, “I Can’t Breathe,” echo the same plea.  

The ancient prophet Micah condensed all of life and religion into three beautiful mantras:  Do Justice, Love Kindness, and Walk Humbly with your God. 

But what does walking humbly with God look like?   It’s doing justice and loving kindness.  Justice is founded on the equality of every human being.  Kindness is when we make it so.  

We can begin by treating others with dignity and respect, especially those who are different or with whom we disagree.  Hurling insults at others has become status quo in our society and that in itself creates an atmosphere for racism to thrive.

I told the graduates last Sunday that the greatness of America will never be found in “Trash Talking.”  But the greatness of America will be found in compassion, understanding, reconciliation, forgiveness and mercy.  America becomes great when we lift up the weak and bridge the gaps of inequality.  America becomes great when we welcome the stranger and share in the goodness of our land.  America becomes great when we treat everyone with kindness and respect and when we love one another as Christ has loved us.  

The defining event of a generation usually defines that generation.  My hope is that these young people who are embarking on their life’s journey, will not be defined by these perilous times, but they will define the times by transforming the darkness of our world into the light of hope and the promise of a new day. 









Monday, May 18, 2020

Special Statement Concerning Reopening the Church

We have been richly blessed by our YouTube Channel and our weekly radio broadcast.  This has enabled us to continue to worship even though we cannot physically be together in the sanctuary.   Yet, we are all looking forward to the day when we can be back together and worship in person once again.  

We have been following the Governor’s guidelines, but on Saturday a Federal Judge issued a temporary restraining order, allowing churches to meet again for indoor worship.  This has led to confusion and some misunderstanding as to why some churches are electing to have in-person services and other churches, like ours, are not.  

Our deacons met via Zoom on Sunday night for their monthly meeting.  We discussed the issue of reopening.  The deacons, based on my recommendation, unanimously adopted the following statement: 

First Baptist Church of Lexington will not reopen until the Davidson County Health Department informs us that it is safe to do so.

We adopted this statement for two reasons.  One, we do not agree that the Governor’s order restricting public indoor worship is a First Amendment issue.  This is a Public Health issue. I used the comparison on Sunday of our church being evacuated because of a gas leak.   Evacuating the church because of potential danger is not denying our right to worship, it is protecting the health and safety of our congregation.   The threat of COVID-19 is just as potentially deadly as a gas explosion.  

The second reason that we adopted this statement is because we care about our church family and feel it would be too risky to engage in pubic worship at this time.  Confirmed cases in Davidson County jumped almost 50% last week.  On Mother’s Day there were 199 confirmed cases.  Today there are 294.  The Health Department is reporting that the great majority of cases have come from people who have congregated in groups.  Considering the demographics of our congregation, we would be irresponsible and foolish to open our doors and place our people in jeopardy.  

When the Health Department informs us that we can safely begin steps to reopen, we will.  But I want you to understand that public worship will be much different than it was before.  When we return to worship in the sanctuary, we will encourage people to wear masks and practice social distancing.   We will not be able to pass the offering plate.  Every precaution must be taken to protect the health of our worshipers.  

Following each service of worship, the sanctuary must be sanitized by professionals.  The same is true of any activity in the fellowship hall.  We will probably open the doors of our sanctuary to worship before we open our educational space for Sunday School and small groups.   Most of our classrooms are not large enough to practice social distancing.  Any space that is used must be sanitized before it can be used again.  Churches that have had two worship services on Sunday mornings will not be able to do so anymore because of this requirement.  

One of the biggest issues in reopening is congregational and choral singing.  Saliva droplets are considered a prime vector for spreading the coronavirus.  When people are singing with passion and conviction, saliva droplets can carry well beyond six feet.   One of the first major outbreaks of the virus in March was a community choir in Washington.  Almost everyone in the choir came down with the virus.  As hard as it is to say, and as hard as it is to imagine, we may be returning to public worship without a choir to sing and without congregational singing.  This is already happening in Germany where churches are meeting again, without singing. 

I am sharing this with you because I want you to understand that reopening the church will not be as simple as opening the doors and welcoming people back in the sanctuary.  Public worship will look different, feel different, and sound different for a long time.  

On Mother’s Day a church in California decided to ignore the Governor’s order and meet for worship.  About 180 people gathered.  The next day one member of that congregation tested positive for COVID-19.   Today, the entire congregation is in quarantine. 

In Jewish law there is a concept of “pikuach nefesh” or mortal danger.  In cases of mortal danger, almost the entire body of the Jewish law can be put aside until the danger is resolved.  We find ourselves in a state of mortal danger.   Until this danger is resolved and we are convinced it is safe to return to public worship with restrictions, we will continue to worship only through YouTube and on the radio.  

This is the dark reality that we find ourselves in, but as I said Sunday, we can’t change the dark reality but we can change the darkness.  There are many ways to let our light shine.  Your continued financial faithfulness enables us to continue to be a light of hope and healing for our community.  

There are many creative ways we can continue to be the church.  If you have ideas of different ways we can minister and worship in this crisis, please share them . . . we are all in unchartered water together.  Or as a friend said the other day, “We are building an airplane in the air!”

One day we will all look back on this experience and reflect on the lessons we learned and the many different ways we saw God in the storm.  And we will give testimony of how we emerged from the darkness into God’s marvelous light!




Wednesday, May 13, 2020

One Of Our Greatest Christian Hymns Was Written in A Global Pandemic


       
It’s hard to believe that a year ago at this time I was in the middle of a three-month Sabbatical.  Joyce and I traveled to six different countries and eighteen different states in our memorable odyssey.  I look back now so very grateful that we were able to travel when we did, for none of that would be possible today.  
       
One of the great highlights of the Sabbatical was visiting Wittenberg, Germany, the home of Martin Luther and the Reformation.  We stayed in a 600-year-old inn that overlooked the chapel doors where Martin Luther nailed his revolutionary “95 Theses.” I studied Martin Luther, visited his home and museum, read books on his life, perused historical documents, and joined other sojourning Christians in the Chapel Church for a worship service that included singing his majestic hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”   
       
But somehow, I missed one of the most important events in his life that may not have seemed so important last year, but it really does today.  Martin Luther survived the most fatal pandemic recorded in human history—the Bubonic Plague.  He not only survived, but it inspired one of the greatest hymns in Christian history. 
       
The Plague first hit Europe in the 14th Century and killed an estimated 60% of the population.  It was highly contagious as it was transmitted through the air and also by fleas.  The Plague killed its victims in a horrific manner, leading to the name “The Black Death.”  Doctors and Priests were often the first ones to die, so most people faced this terrifying ordeal without a doctor to treat them and without a Priest to administer the last rites.

For over 300 years there were outbreaks of the disease, including the summer of 1527 in Wittenberg.  The entire university left town, most professors and their families fleeing the city—but not Martin Luther.  He felt God was calling him to minister to those dying of the Plague.  He was ready to do battle with the Prince of Darkness himself.  
       
Luther knew all too well the deadly power of this cruel enemy.  Two of his brothers died in the Pandemic.  In spite of the fact that his wife, Katie, was pregnant, Luther turned his home into a hospital to care for the sick and dying.  Writing to others about the danger of this mortal ill, Luther said that if you truly love your neighbor, you will self-quarantine to stop the spread of the disease.  
       
The personal strain of living in this world that was “devil filled” threatened to undo Luther.  He was slipping into depression, an ancient foe that Luther battled his entire life.  But he found great strength and solace in the Word of God, especially Psalm 46.  “God is our fortress and our strength, an ever-present help in time of trouble.”
       
Struggling with depression, Luther knew that he in his own strength could not prevail.  He put his hope and trust in the one who is our refuge and strength.  In the midst of a Global Pandemic as he battled his own personal demons, Luther wrote the enduring words that have lifted millions of hearts throughout the centuries.  “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing!”  
       
When you look carefully at the words of this powerful hymn, you can see many references to the devastating pandemic. “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; the body they may kill:  God’s truth abideth still:  his kingdom is forever.”
       
As we find ourselves struggling with a flood of mortal ills known as COVID-19, let us find courage and resolve in the words of the great Reformer:  “And though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us, we will not fear, for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us.”  It is Christ who will win this battle!

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

In All Things God Works Together for Good

Mr. John Henry was a plain-spoken, opinionated, and tight-fisted man who was a member of my first church.  He was a faithful church member and became a good friend, but sometimes he would say things that would make me cringe.  

He never had anything good to say about the government, civil rights, or equality and was generally opposed to any new, forward thinking idea.  He longed for the “good old-days” which had become idealized in his selective memory.   One of his favorite sayings was, “What this country needs is a good depression!”

I didn’t challenge Mr. John Henry very often, primarily because he was much older and his mind was always closed, not to mention the fact he refused to listen to other views.  But one day I said, “Mr. John Henry, you know you don’t mean that.  You really don’t think a depression would be a good thing.”

I must have caught him off guard, because he paused and gave it some serious thought.  Then he surprised me with his thoughtful response.  “No, I know we don’t need a depression.  But there were a lot of good things that came out of the depression that we could use right now.”  

The last thing this country needed was the Coronavirus Pandemic, but I believe there are some good things that will come out of this that will make us better people.  In a strange way, social distancing and “stay at home” has brought us closer together.  We realize how much we need each other and we are all finding ways to connect either through social media or an old-fashioned telephone call.  

Last Sunday, Easter Sunday morning, I stood in the pulpit of my church and looked out over an empty sanctuary.  It was so very strange, and so very sad.  I thought about Easter Sundays in the past when the sanctuary was full of faithful worshipers dressed in their Easter Sunday finest.  I will be so thankful to actually see people gather for worship again and I think people will be anxious to get back to church for corporate worship.  

 I don’t know about you, but I am noticing the little things more.  God has blessed us with a beautiful spring.  The azaleas and dogwoods have been stunning in their beauty.  We are watching Cardinals, Blue Birds, Gold Finches, Chickadees and Red Headed Woodpeckers visit our bird feeders.  The Hummingbirds will be here soon.  All of creation is celebrating the rebirth of nature and it reminds us that we will soon emerge from this “momentary affliction” to rejoice again in the goodness of God’s creation.  

There have been other blessings as a result of this crisis.  We are recognizing the sacrifice of our healthcare professionals who are serving on the front lines, putting their own health at risk to save others.  We are reaching out to the most vulnerable in our communities.  I applaud our school systems and the YMCA for finding ways to feed our children.  Pollution is down and we are learning that there are many things we can actually live without.

Romans 8: 28 reads:  “In all things God works together for good to those who love God.” It does not say that all things are good, but God can use any situation, even a Depression or a Coronavirus Pandemic to bring about good.  When life is good, when we are healthy and the economy is strong, we fall into a false sense of security, believing that we are in control of our life.  How suddenly it all can change. 

The Apostle Paul stood on top of Mars Hill in ancient Athens and proclaimed, “The God who made the world gives everyone life and breath and everything else.”  Yes, it is he who has made us and not we ourselves.  “We are his people, the sheep of his pasture.”  We realize that truth now, more than ever.

No, we didn’t need a Global Pandemic, but God is working for good in the midst of this.