What Others Say

Every time I read one of your columns, I am always always touched and moved in some way. Your heart and spirit come through clearly in your words. It's an oasis of comfort and serenity in a time when everything is so chaotic and unsettling.
- M Gardner, Deputy Managing Editor, Galveston Daily News

Monday, November 16, 2020

The Long Dark Winter

 They say we are in for a long dark winter.  Covid cases are surging out of control.  Many states are breaking records and the U.S. single day case count exceeded 180,000 on November 13.  It has been a long, difficult and wearisome journey since the first U.S. Covid-19 case appeared on January 21 in Seattle, Washington. 

 We weathered the lock-down in March, huddling in our houses, shutting down non-essential businesses, shuttering restaurants and shops.  We howled at dusk in our neighborhoods, a good-natured national protest against the virus.  And we did it.  We lowered the infection rate, survived the spring and earned a slight reprise from the restrictions in summer. 

 The bicycle business boomed as people took to streets and trails for natural distancing, fresh air and exercise.  I pulled my 27-year-old Giant bike out of storage; the same one I rode across Wisconsin in 1997.  It took 6 weeks for an appointment to have it tuned up, but I put over 400 miles on it and dropped 25 lbs. of excess weight.

 We walked our dogs and greeted neighbors who were walking theirs.  We attended church outside, setting up our lawn chairs under shade trees on green lawns where small children played in the grass.  The NBA played basketball in a bubble. Major League baseball completed an abbreviated season with empty stadiums and professional golfers competed without patrons. For the first time we watched the Masters with fall foliage.

 Many returned to work. Schools cautiously opened for students. Some ignored the Covid restrictions altogether and rode their Harleys to the Sturgis motorcycle rally.    But, as many of the epidemiological experts had predicted, fall and winter weather has resulted in an uncontrolled surge in Covid cases.  Increasingly we are hearing of people we know who have fallen prey to Covid.

 The most painful period of the pandemic is immediately in front of us.  We are faced with foregoing our most cherished American traditions: gatherings as family around Thanksgiving and Christmas tables; packing churches to hear children sing as shepherds and angels; The Messiah sing-a-longs.  We can scarcely imagine the echo of holiday music in empty hallways at the mall or virtual worship streamed from empty churches at Christmas.

 But there is hope.  Scientists have identified two vaccines promising 90% and 95% effectiveness against Covid by the end of the year.  The experts predict that we could have wide-spread distribution and “herd immunity” as early as spring or summer of 2021. 

 Now is the time, in this long hard winter, to redouble our efforts to protect our families, our friends and ourselves.  We are like a marathon runner nearing the finish line, weary an exhausted, but determined. The end is in sight.  It is time to sprint to the finish.  We must double-down with the disciplines of distancing, wearing our masks, washing our hands, never failing to encourage one another.

 Jesus set the example for us.  As Hebrews says, “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.  For the joy set before him he endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:1-2).  We can do this.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Lift Up Your Eyes to the Stars

I normally begin my day outdoors where I spend time in prayer.  When winter drops the temps and the sun rises late, I bundle up and find my place on our back deck, under the stars.

 Our deck is on the south side of the house.  Orion and Taurus greet me in the winter sky, easily distinguished among the lesser lights.  They have always been there, occupying their same place in the sky since time immemorial.

 These are the same stars Abraham saw when he left Ur of the Chaldees. The same stars that guided Moses in the wilderness. The same stars David watched when he shepherded sheep. The same stars the Magi studied when they found a star in the east that led them to Bethlehem.  When I look at the stars, I feel connected to the entire universe, no longer limited by time and space. In my fleeting moment on earth I am part of all that has gone before and all that will yet come.

 They are a stabilizing force.  Nothing we can do on earth will change them. The nearest star is approximately 25 trillion miles away, or 4.24 light years.  When the dust has settled from the Presidential election and the pandemic has passed, the stars will remain in their place as they have done through every plague, every war, every natural disaster, and every lifetime.  They are a constant, silent and brilliant testimony to God’s majesty.   

 The Bible has a lot to say about the stars: “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them?  Human beings that you care for them?” (Psalm 8:3-4) NIV.

 “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.  He determines the number of the stars; and calls them each by name.  Great is our Lord and mighty in power; his understanding has no limit” (Psalm 147:3-5).

 “Praise him sun and moon; praise him all you shining stars. Praise him highest heavens, and you waters above the skies.  Let them praise the name of the Lord, for he commanded and they were created and he established them forever and ever” (Psalm 148:3-6).

 “’To whom then shall you compare me? Or who is my equal?’ says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these?  He who brings out the starry host one by one and calls forth each of them by name.  Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing. … Do you not know? Have you not heard?  The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.  He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.  He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.” (Isaiah 40:25-26).

 The stars have a way of putting things in perspective. 

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Dogs To The Rescue

 When Covid first hit us in February, we thought perhaps it would be short-lived.  As it raged through Europe and set its sights on the U.S., we accepted the “stay-at-home” initiatives, hunkered in our houses, gave up shopping and eating out.  When the NBA cancelled its season, we knew it was serious.  We hoped, tough, that by summer it would be over. 

 Perhaps it was the sacrifices we made in the spring, perhaps it was luck, but Covid seemed to relax its grip and we ventured out.  Sports found a way, with the NBA bubble, golf tournaments without spectators and stadiums mostly empty.  Major league baseball concluded an abbreviated season and delivered a nail-biting World Series.  In some respects, we have learned to live with Covid.

 But, with our guard down, the number of infections has sky-rocketed and we could face more stringent measures going into winter and the holidays.  At least, for many of us, we have our dogs to get us through.

 Dogs are an important part of our neighborhood.  Our young neighbors across the street moved in a year ago with their pet bulldog, Rooney.  They adopted him as a puppy, pure white.  He is now full-grown and built like a bowling ball.  Rooney never meets a stranger. Everybody loves Rooney.  The newlywed couple next door to them just adopted Scout.  I am not sure of Scout’s breed. She is 5 months old and already a big dog, sweet, compliant and happy to have a home.  They treat her like their child. 

 We have a 12-year-old Pembroke Corgi named Buddy.  If you have read this column in the past, you are familiar with Buddy.  When he was younger Buddy went fishing with me in my flat-bottom boat.  The front of the boat was his.  He stood in the front and sniffed the wind to locate the fish.  He was good at it. At least he thought so.  Corgis think they are good at anything.

 Once he leaned too far and sniffed too hard and fell in the lake. Corgis aren’t built for water. Their stubby legs don’t give much traction for swimming. He coughed, sputtered, went under and splashed for all he was worth until I grabbed him and hauled him back into the boat, soaked and shivering.

 It reminded me of Peter’s experience when he stepped out of the fishing boat to meet Jesus on the Sea of Galilee.  I expect Peter was a better swimmer than Buddy, but there he was splashing and floundering around in the sea, helpless. Until Jesus reached out, lifted him up and hauled him back into the boat.

 God has done that for me many times. Across the years I have fallen out of the boat financially, unable to sleep at night, worried about how to make ends meet.  I have sunk over my head in work, overwhelmed by responsibilities and challenges.  I have found myself drowning in grief with the loss of someone I love.  And now Covid, and an uncertain future, seems to be overwhelming us all.

 Every time I have fallen into waters over my head, God has pulled me up and hauled me back into the boat. He is strong enough to save you and He will not let you drown when circumstances threaten to overwhelm you.

 Jesus said, “In the world you have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”  (John 16:33).  “The Lord Himself goes before you and will be with you.  He will never leave you nor forsake you. (Deuteronomy 31:8). 

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Covid Fatigue

 They call it Covid Fatigue.  I think I have it. I am tired of wearing a mask to enter a store.  I like to see the smiles on people’s faces.  Or, are they smiling?  Maybe they are frowning, or smirking.  It’s hard to read what people might be thinking behind those masks.

 I am tired of distancing.  I want to host friends and family in our home. I want to have all our kids home for Thanksgiving and Christmas.  I want to attend church, to greet fellow believers with handshakes and hugs, to sing without restraint or restriction.  Gathering is one of the important elements of our Christian faith.                                                                                                                                                         

I started a Bible study this summer with several men in our neighborhood, meeting outside on our back deck. They are all much younger than me. One is 27 and another is 31. We greet one another with fist-bumps.  But, with snow this weekend and darkness settling in at 5 PM when we “fall back,” I proposed that we take a winter break.  As a diabetic in my 70s, I explained I was not comfortable meeting with a group of guys inside. They fully understood my concerns but suggested we continue meeting outside in the cold and dark.  “We can bundle up,” they said.  So, we plan to continue gathering around the fire pit on my back deck for Bible study.

 Our response to Covid has created some positives.  The American Family Survey recently discovered that most marriages have actually strengthened under the stresses of Covid.  58% of those 18-55 reported they have grown to appreciate their spouse more.  Men have become more involved with housework and childcare. Husbands and wives have spent more time together walking and talking. Those who reported their marriages were in trouble fell from 40% in 2019 to 29% in 2020.

 Covid has forced us to strengthen our online connections for extended learning, work and family.  Last Saturday my wife and I attended the wedding for my cousin’s daughter online in Shreveport, Louisiana while sitting in our home in Colorado.

 But we are far from out of the woods with Covid.  Last week the U.S. reported the highest single day of new cases since the pandemic started. More than 85,000.

 For now, we must remain perseverant and patient. For the sake of our friends, family and others we must continue to wear masks and practice social distancing. while encouraging and praying for one another. 

 As Paul stated, “We celebrate in hope of the glory of God. And not only this, but we also celebrate in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope;  and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Romans 5:2-4).

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Choosing a President

 

When I listen to the insults and accusations political candidates continue to level against their opponents, I want to throw up my hands.  I find myself wishing for an earlier era when politicians were more civil, when the world was stable and people were in agreement.   

 I thought, “If we could only return to the days of our founding fathers!”  I did a little research about those days and was surprised.  Thomas Jefferson defeated John Adams and Aaron Burr to become our third President in 1800. But, he was not popular. And the campaign looked a lot like today.

 If Jefferson were elected, one newspaper warned, "Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes."  Aaron Burr leaked a private letter from Alexander Hamilton that accused Adams of having “great and intrinsic defects in his character.”  The Richmond Examiner referred to Adams as a “blind, bald, crippled toothless man who is a hideous hermaphroditic character with neither the force and fitness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”

 When the votes were counted, Jefferson and Burr were tied in the Electoral College with 73 votes each.  Adams received 65. The tie between Jefferson and Burr threw the election to the U.S. House of Representatives.  After 35 ballots, Alexander Hamilton persuaded some of Burr’s backers to shift their votes and Jefferson was elected.  Aaron Burr then challenged Alexander Hamilton to a duel and killed him, completing a story that would inspire Hamilton, the modern musical.  

 Jefferson, as President, negotiated the Louisiana Purchase that extended the U.S. territory from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains. Congress tried to block the purchase, but the vote failed 57-59. 

 In 1860 Lincoln was elected President with 40% of the popular vote. He was referred to as an “idiot, yahoo, the original gorilla.” Abolitionists abhorred him, calling him “timid, vacillating, and inefficient.”  One Ohio Republican claimed Lincoln “is universally an admitted failure, has no will, no courage, no executive capacity.”  Southern states were so incensed by his election that they seceded from the Union. The nation was thrown into Civil War.

 The past often appears more peaceful and purposeful than the present. We know the outcome. It is “today” that confuses us.  We must exercise our best judgement without knowing what will happen.  On November 3 we must choose the next President.

But every day we must make choices that shape our lives and the lives of those around us. We are like those who stood before Joshua at Shechem.  After reminding them of God’s repeated providence for their fathers, Joshua challenged them: ‘Choose you this day whom you shall serve. ... As for me and my house, we shall serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15).

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Recognizing the Moment

 My neighbor was walking down the street and greeted me with a wide grin. He had just bought a new bicycle for his eleven-year-old daughter.  “Is it her birthday?” I asked. “No,” he replied, almost giggling. “I realized she had outgrown her bike and decided to buy her a new one.  She hasn’t stopped smiling all day.  I just recognized the moment.” He grinned again.

 Every day we are presented with moments that make a difference with our families, our friends and with strangers. Recognizing these moments ultimately determines how we impact our world.

 Jesus was the master of recognizing the moment.  When He entered the city of Jericho, no one noticed a tax collector who had climbed a nearby tree to get a glimpse of him. But Jesus stopped, called him by name and spent the afternoon in Zacchaeus’ home. That moment changed Zacchaeus’ life. Later, when Jesus was leaving the city, a blind man named Bartimaeus cried for His attention. Many rebuked the blind beggar and told him to be quiet. But Jesus stopped, called for him and restored his sight.

 Jesus’ Good Samaritan parable is a lesson about recognizing the moment.  Twice passers by missed the moment of opportunity. Both the priest and the Levite continued on their journey without stopping.  Perhaps, like so many of us, they were too busy to take the time. For whatever reason, only the Samaritan saw the moment of opportunity and stopped to help. I sometimes wonder how many such moments I have missed.

 God presents all of us with moments that can make a difference. A few years ago I met Giuseppe who was working in his family’s pizza restaurant. We struck up a conversation and he spoke of his spiritual hunger. We prayed together and I returned to give him one of my devotional books.  Some time later he sent an email, “Now I read the bible before I go to bed. God’s been working in my life so much. I have been preaching the word of God to people that don't know him. … My heart hungers for the Lord.” He went on to tell how God used him to help a friend find a job.

A few years ago I met a young mother who was struggling with a decision about her husband’s alcoholism. Later she wrote, “God is healer and awesome in power! My husband will celebrate one year of sobriety next month and his health hasn't been better in years. He is completely off his meds and living a Christ-filled life. He was baptized and is growing spiritually every day.”  Her entire family is now active in a local church.

To each of us God presents life-changing “moments” of opportunity. How we recognize those moments and what we do with them may be the true measure of our faith. When Jesus described the final judgement He said, “The king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom that is prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you invited in; naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to me. … In that you have done it to the least of these, you did it to me.”  (Matthew 25:34-40).

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

The Journey

 

I grew up in a small town in north-central Texas.  Our family never traveled far.  I sometimes tell people that my first visit to a foreign country was across the Red River into Oklahoma. But when I was 18, I started a journey that has taken me to places I never imagined: the Opera House in Sydney Harbor, the coast of New Zealand, fishing for piranha on the Amazon, volcanoes in Guatemala, a lighthouse at Banda Aceh, Indonesia, the pyramids of Egypt, Mozart’s home in Salzburg, the Docu Zentrum in Nuremberg, the Pantheon in Rome, Lennin’s Tomb and the Kremlin in Moscow. If someone told me in my youth that I would visit these places, I would have thought they were crazy.

 Something about the human spirit is drawn to the journey.  Maybe that is why On the Road Again remains one of Willie Nelson’s most popular songs. We are mesmerized by the expeditions of Marco Polo, Columbus, Magellan, Lewis and Clark, Lindbergh, John Glenn and Neil Armstrong. We are drawn to the imaginary journeys of Hobbits seeking Mount Doom and Star Trek’s quest to go where no man has gone before. Covid has caused many of us to cancel or suspend our trips.  But we still hunger to travel.  Journeys, both real and imagined, change the world and they change us.

 God chooses to reveal himself through our journeys.  Redemption starts with God’s call to Abraham to leave his father’s country and go to places he had never seen.  Moses’ journey out of Egypt produced the Ten Commandments which provide the basis for all moral understanding.  No journey was ever more life changing than the journey Jesus started when he left Nazareth and gathered 12 men to follow him.  Their travels on foot through the regions of Galilee, Judea and Samaria changed the world.  The stories of their encounters with the lame, the blind, the rich, the poor, prostitutes and priests provide us the framework for understanding God and ourselves.

 We are all on a journey.  The journeys we choose, where we go, how we get there and who goes with us will shape us and change us for the better or the worse.  Sometimes our journeys lead us to distant places, sometimes close to home. The most important decisions about any journey is how we trust in God and how we treat others along the way.

 We like to think we will all arrive at the same destination no matter what we believe, what we do or how we live.  But the fact of the matter is that different roads lead to different places.  Jesus said “broad is the way and wide is the gate that leads to destruction and there are many who enter through it.  For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life and there are few who find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14)   He alone knows the way that leads to life and He continually invites us to join the journey that leads us there saying, “Come, follow me” (Mark 10:21).