Anticipation

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Devotional for Monday, March 30

1 Corinthians 11:23-26
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

Confession time: I’m a little frustrated. If you haven’t figured it out by now, yesterday did not go as planned. We were supposed to have online worship at 9 a.m. and drive-in worship at 10:30 a.m.

Unfortunately, about 5 a.m. a wicked storm cut through Ten Mile, taking down trees and power lines. Guess what? You cannot get online without an internet connection, and you cannot broadcast an FM signal without electricity.

Sigh.

It’s safe to say I’m not the only one wanting things to be as they were. It’s likely that our world will never be the same as it was before the COVID-19 crisis, but much will be familiar after.

We’re going to need a way to mark a return to familiarity. Note the root of “familiar”—family. Brothers and sisters in Christ, I’ve made a decision regarding how we will mark that day.

Communion. The Lord’s Supper. Eucharist. Call it what you want; this will be our mark. It is possible that during this crisis, we may see some relaxing of church rules prohibiting online communion, allowing me to bless bread and juice you set out at home. It’s also possible to hand out sealed juice-and-bread kits in a drive-in church setting. But I think we’re going to forego such options.

Please understand, I love leading communion. It is one of a few pastoral acts that can bring tears to my eyes. I long for the experience. We’re going to save it, however, for when we are truly together, in the meantime anticipating it. 

As we wait for the day, know that there are other “means of grace,” places where God will always meet us and show us extravagant, undeserved love. Open God’s word and read. Take time to pray. Be in fellowship as much as possible online and on the phone (assuming there’s electricity and internet).

The day will come when we stand in our sanctuary together and break out the bread and juice—the body and blood—give our confessions, accept God’s forgiveness, lift up the Great Thanksgiving and partake. On that day, we will rediscover something like normal, and we will revel in it.

Lord, return to us the day of communion, that day of holy sacrament, very, very soon. Amen.

Escape for a Moment

Ezekiel_Saw_the_Wheel

“Ezekiel Saw the Wheel,” William H. Johnson, circa 1944-1945


Devotional for Thursday, March 26

This crisis in which we find ourselves seems so exhausting, I think, because it lurks somewhere in our minds all day. In my case, it’s as if I have an annoying tickle in my brain.

The tickle is chronic enough that I am a bit shocked when I realize I’ve been unaware of COVID-19’s effects for a brief time. That moment usually comes in the evening, when Connie and I have finished watching a movie or a favorite television show, or if I’ve been reading a book of fiction. (I’m in the middle of a Louis L’Amour short story collection right now.) For just a little while, I get lost in whatever story is before me, but then I’m snapped back to reality.

As you might expect, I spend a lot of time in the Bible, but the tickle doesn’t usually go away during those times. The lessons of Scripture are so applicable to this viral outbreak and our fears that I cannot help but place the verses in our current context. And I am grateful for the answers the Bible gives regarding how to live in such times.

There is some “escapist” literature in the Bible, however, and I want to encourage you to find it. I’m going to point out a favorite one of mine—in fact, it’s so out of this world that some people avoid it. I prefer to relish it.

To get the full picture, you’ll need to read at least the first three chapters of Ezekiel, although you will miss much if you stop there. This essentially is the story of a prophet being called to his work, but in a most unusual way. If you’ve read much science fiction, the story may seem from that genre, although we are to understand it as a symbol-filled vision of God, who cannot adequately be described with words.

In Ezekiel’s vision, there are angels in the sky, steering what look like wheels within wheels, carrying above them what Ezekiel describes as a throne. And then there is the vision of the one upon it:

And above the dome over their heads there was something like a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was something that seemed like a human form. Upward from what appeared like the loins I saw something like gleaming amber, something that looked like fire enclosed all around; and downward from what looked like the loins I saw something that looked like fire, and there was a splendor all around. Like the bow in a cloud on a rainy day, such was the appearance of the splendor all around. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.

When I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of someone speaking (Ezekiel 1:26-28).

There’s so much more in the Book of Ezekiel. I’m simply trying to encourage you to take a little time apart from the world today. Read it. Get lost in it. There’s nothing wrong with a mental break from our day-to-day concerns.

I’m also curious what Bible stories you might consider escapist. By that, I mean you get so caught up in them you forget everything else for a time. Feel free to post your favorites in the comments section.

Lord, we thank you for the power of your word: its power to teach, its power to comfort, its power to enliven our imaginations. Amen.

Closure Extended

Holston UMC Bishop Virginia Taylor has announced that church closures will continue until further notice.

I know this is difficult and painful for many of us to absorb. As your pastor, I was fairly certain this extended closure caused by the COVID-19 pandemic was coming, and yet I was surprised at how hard its reality struck me when word arrived.

It is hard to adjust to the idea that times are going to be different for awhile, but we will eventually be able to return to our normal worship and fellowship. In the meantime, your worship planning team is working to improve the online worship experience each week, using the resources we have and looking at tools we may need to acquire.

Pray! That is the most powerful act we share right now, to be together in prayer. I will continue our daily devotionals, and let’s use those as our community prayer guide. An early theme there has been to remember those in particular need of a phone call or other form of communication. Several of you have already stepped up to ensure the special needs of people in our community are met.

I’m praying for you. Please be praying for all of Luminary’s leadership as we continue to be the church in a time of crisis. Do not be shy about contacting me. My e-mail is cwgriffiniii@gmail.com, and my cell phone number is (423) 491-0506.

A Time to …

Devotional for Thursday, March 19

Hear these words from the third chapter of Ecclesiastes, verses 1 through 8:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

 

Or maybe you prefer to hear it from the Byrds:



“A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing” particularly leaps out.  Remember the bigger message: time passes, and the times do change.

Praise God for joining us in time and space through Jesus Christ, saving us from sin for all eternity and sustaining us through the Holy Spirit in whatever time we find ourselves.

Lord, as we move through our day today, may your Spirit lead us so we turn others’ lives toward what is better. Amen.

 

Homebound Simulator

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Devotional for Wednesday, March 18

Matthew 25:37-40: “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”

In 2018, as my father’s wife experienced a deeper slide into dementia, I had the opportunity to participate in an “Alzheimer’s simulator,” along with my dad and daughter.

We wore goggles to distort our vision and headphones playing multiple radio tracks to simulate auditory hallucinations. We slipped on rubber gloves filled with birdseed to replicate tactile difficulties, and we also had birdseed in our shoes. We took turns entering a room, where we were given a short list of simple tasks.

My dad went in with my daughter. A stranger—pity the poor woman—had to go in with me.

Once she and I were properly attired and inside, the instructor gave us a list of simple tasks to perform. Mine involved finding a t-shirt and a tie and putting them in their proper places, among other activities I would quickly forget. The instructor then turned out the light and closed the door.

My first goal was to obtain some light, so I could at least use my impaired vision a little. I fumbled around the room, trying to approximate where a light switch would be. I found it and flipped it.

“You’re not supposed to turn on the light!” the woman cried.

“She didn’t say we couldn’t turn on the light. A person with Alzheimer’s might try to turn on the light!” I replied. I was surprised at how quickly we raised our voices; of course, we were already hearing voices, so who was saying what quickly got confusing.

“You’re not supposed to turn on the light!” she repeated, this time more staccato. She yanked open the door, having found it a lot faster than I had found the light switch. “Are we supposed to turn on the light?” she called out.

The instructor came in. “Don’t turn on the light,” she said, turning it off. I did not find even one item, and I was—let’s see, what’s a really polite word—peeved. I blame my exaggerated response on the stress of the simulator, but I fear I am going to be a really grumpy old man.

It’s one thing to try to care for chronically suffering people. It’s another thing entirely to experience even a little of what they deal with all day.

When Jesus ties our judgment to how we have cared for the suffering, two of the needy types in the scene he creates, the prisoners and the sick, have something in common. They are physically trapped, unable to go anywhere.

As we restrict our movements more and more during this COVID-19 crisis, I feel like I am in a simulator again. I will not call it a good experience, but for those of us trying to live the Christian life, it could prove to be an important experience, one that generates new levels of empathy.

I eventually got to leave the room, take off the goggles, headphones and gloves, and shake the birdseed out of my shoes. We eventually will resume normal lives, going where we want and doing what we want.

Others will remain bound to a place, however, possibly for the rest of their lives. Having simulated what they face every day, perhaps we will find ourselves more mindful about reaching out to them.

Lord, keep the prisoners and the chronically homebound in our thoughts, and help us use the tools we have available to us to offer them your love and comfort. Amen.

Decisions Made in Love

Devotional for Tuesday, March 17

Matthew 7:12: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”

In my nearly 18 years of pastoral ministry, I have sat and prayed with families making life-and-death decisions, the kind of decisions for which there are no clear answers. Often, they have turned to me for guidance.

Should we remove the ventilator or the feeding tube? Should we have the doctors start the ventilator or feeding tube? How far should we go in treating our grandfather’s cancer when he already has dementia?

I’ve boiled my answer down as much as possible. In these gray areas, whatever decision you make in love for that person is the right decision. There’s no doubt Jesus established the Golden Rule with love as its context. He rooted this maxim in “the law and the prophets,” and then later, in Matthew 22:34-40, he used the same phrase in this conversation:

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

As I’ve watched (on social media) and listened to debates about whether churches should be closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, it has struck me that we should be applying Golden Rule principles to this decision-making process.

Reading Bishop Virginia Taylor’s recent letter, there is no doubt in my mind that she made her initial decision to mandate temporary church building closures out of love for people she has, for the most part, never met.

I should also note that before our bishop made it clear she was mandating and not simply recommending closure, the leadership of Luminary UMC decided we should close our building. I know these good people were acting in love, too. During my nearly six-year tenure, I have seen love is their primary motivation in most everything they do.

Confusion and even hostility around the subject of church closure have arisen because the current situation forces us to be counterintuitive. In our normal world, Christians best express love in person, in a handshake and a hug, in kind words closely spoken, and in the fellowship of worship.

COVID-19 weirdly inverts what we call normal. Right now, there’s even a possibility the virus is spread by people who show no symptoms, meaning it is very difficult for people at risk to tell which people in their vicinity might be a danger. Out of love, a lot of us have decided that in addition to prayer, it is a good idea to practice social distancing to parry this particular weapon of the devil.

I’ll not criticize those who lovingly decide to gather in person for worship. To close or not to close is a complicated decision. Simultaneously, I expect Christian courtesy and respect to be shown to those who shut down their facilities for a while.

I will repeat a point I’ve been making already: Church is more than a building where people meet at a particular time on a particular day. Properly understood, a church is a holy force in the community. I already see the people of Luminary rallying to serve the at-risk in our community without endangering them.

They are loving their neighbors as they would hope to be loved if the situation were reversed. And I am quite proud of them.

Lord, may we pause throughout the day and pray, “Are my decisions motivated by love?”

Survival Plans

survival-bible


Devotional for Monday, March 16

Matthew 24:1-2: Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. But he answered them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”

We’re not yet sure how seriously this COVID-19 virus will impact us in Tennessee, but there’s no doubt it has triggered our survival instincts.

There are a couple of ways to respond to serious threats in the world. There’s always the stereotypical “lone wolf” approach: Stock up on food and ammo (and apparently, toilet paper) and hunker down for a fight. But today, I want us to consider how a healthy church community serves as a key part of any survival plan.

With COVID-19 affecting everyday life so drastically, planning for worst-case scenarios doesn’t seem so kooky right now. We don’t like to think about disasters that very well may never happen in our lifetimes, particularly when we live in a relatively secure environment with easy access to water, food and heat. Serious events do happen, though.

Some of you know exactly what I’m talking about. You’ve volunteered or even been employed to work in the aftermath of a natural disaster, and you’ve seen how quickly modern urban areas like New Orleans and San Francisco can spend days, weeks or even months without basic necessities.

Human-caused disasters can wreak even more long-term havoc. For example, in 1984, Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, was modern and peaceful enough to host the Winter Olympic Games. By 1992, however, the Bosnian War was underway, and the city came under siege for four years. Its residents went from being model citizens of eastern Europe to constant targets of sniper fire as they ran about trying to buy a little bread.

And of course, we will never forget Sept. 11, 2001.

I’m not trying to make us feel more scared. It’s just a reality that the brokenness of the world can intrude anywhere, and people can be left struggling in the wake of such events.

Jesus was very open about what a hard place the world can be, and near the end of the Gospel of Matthew, in chapter 24, he is quoted as speaking in apocalyptic tones.

“And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars,” Jesus said. “See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.” (Matthew 24:6-8)

Hearing Jesus’ words as a child must have affected me. Since I was a boy, I have enjoyed reading books and magazines on survival skills. I suppose there’s something comforting in thinking you might know how to start a fire and make water clean enough to drink under difficult circumstances.

I ran across an interesting magazine, “Living Ready,” a few years ago. Within was one of the best survival articles I’ve ever read, mostly because the author went in a different direction than what you usually find in such a magazine.

In the article, Dr. Kyle Ver Steeg contrasted the stereotype of the lone survivalist in the “Army Guy” costume to the reality of how people actually survive difficult situations. He drew heavily on his experience working in Haiti shortly after the massive earthquake that struck there in 2010.

To prepare for a long-term survival situation, “I am of the opinion that the single most important thing you can do is to build a network of trustworthy, capable and likable people,” Ver Steeg wrote. “I would add that you should also work on becoming a part of your community and to develop skills that will be useful to your particular group.”

Later in the article, he made this particularly pertinent point: “If you are a churchgoing person you already have such a network in place. Think about it for a second. Churches already have leaders and a community of like-minded people with varied skills. They are used to working together to accomplish goals. Many churches already do mission work in desolate areas of the world. These people have knowledge and experience that some of the most survival-minded people do not.”

It makes sense, doesn’t it? In a crisis, relying on the relationships and shared skills we’ve been developing for years in church should be a natural response. Think what we have at Luminary alone: medically trained people, soldiers, scientists, engineers, food-handling experts, logistical experts—that’s just a quick start to a very long list. And in the midst of all that, we have Scripture as our guide and the Holy Spirit to sustain us.

As disruptive as COVID-19 is, perhaps there’s an opportunity here. By the time we get through all of this, we may have a better understanding of just how valuable our community of Christians is, and perhaps we will be better equipped to work in this sin-broken world.

Lord, may we sense how we are part of something bigger than ourselves when we gather as a church. Amen.