Wednesday, December 30, 2020

That One Solitary Life...


Christmas 2020 was one for the books--the history books--pretty much like the rest of the year. Will anyone cry if the door hits 2020 in the backside on its way out? Usually we celebrate the New Year with the ball drop in Time Square. There were enough balls dropped in 2020 that I don't care to see another one, though.

I want to say a good word about Christmas this year, even in its "stunted" form, due to COVID-19. There is a poem attributed to author James Allen Francis that goes like this:

One Solitary Life

He was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant. He grew up in another village, where he worked in a carpenter shop until he was 30. Then, for three years, he was an itinerant preacher.

He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family or owned a home. He didn't go to college. He never lived in a big city. He never traveled 200 miles from the place where he was born. He did none of the things that usually accompany greatness. He had no credentials but himself.

He was only 33 when the tide of public opinion turned against him. His friends ran away. One of them denied him. He was turned over to his enemies and went through the mockery of a trial. He was nailed to a cross between two thieves. While he was dying, his executioners gambled for his garments, the only property he had on earth. When he was dead, he was laid in a borrowed grave, through the pity of a friend.

Twenty centuries have come and gone, and today he is the central figure of the human race. I am well within the mark when I say that all the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned--put together--have not affected the life of man on this earth as much as that one, solitary life.

The object of the Christmas celebration was a little like that "Charlie Brown" Christmas Tree pictured above, as this poem reminds us. Even Isaiah 53 doesn't paint a pretty picture of the "suffering servant" we see in Jesus Christ. And yet, here we are--the reconciled, redeemed, empowered People of God--because of this one "solitary" life. I'm guessing that when we first run into Jesus in Glory we may just pass him by, because he won't stand out, and I'm also guessing that his being "seated at the right hand of God" will look a lot more like a child lovingly seated beside a doting parent. The great, great power of heaven is almost always understated. Burning bushes, pillars of clouds, sneaky angels, and a Jesus who heals a blind man by making mud with his spit and slathering it into the man's eye sockets--not exactly Hollywood stuff, at least until Cecil B. DeMille got ahold of some of it. 

Maybe Christmas 2020 was a most fitting one to pay homage to the founder of Christianity? I know that around St. Paul's, as I take stock of the things we did to "rescue" Christmas of the "Grinch" that was COVID-19, I begin to smile! "Light Up Night," a video "Christmas Eve Service" that touched so many hearts and showcased the great gifts of God's people, a parking lot service on Christmas Eve with incredible music, honking horns, and a message of hope--these all certainly paid homage to a God born in a stable. In fact, as I sat in the "preachers' tent" during the parking lot service, with two soggy feet, cold to the bone, icy rain drip, drip, dripping onto the top of my head, and with wind whipping all around, all I could think of what it must have been like on that night so long ago on a Bethlehem hillside when that "one solitary life" entered our world. I could almost hear the voice of Jesus say to me in that blustery tent on December 24 of 2020, "My friend, this is the closest you have ever been to Christmas!" And to top it off, Pastor Karen used wonderful "food pictures" in her sermon that night, making us all so hungry that Dara and I went home and raided the 'fridge for a hearty snack! As we warmed up in the comfort of our own home, we watched the St. Paul's Christmas Eve video, and Ms. Erin's video she made for our church's children, and the "best Christmas ever" got even better! And given it was my last as a pastor before a planned 2021 mid-year retirement, I now have to say it was my most memorable.

Friends, it's time to count our blessings, even as we say a prayer of grace for those battling this awful pandemic, either personally, health-wise, or on the "front lines" of the hospitals and clinics. It's also a time to pray fervently for the world to be vaccinated, ASAP so we can put this Coronavirus to bed for good. And let us pray that the scientific breakthroughs made while "warp speeding" the development of these COVID-19 vaccines will usher in a new era of tools to fight back future viruses before they become an epidemic, or God-forbid a pandemic. 

Let us also pray and work for the coming of God's Beloved Community. Each new crisis has brought us a sample of it--wars that brought people together to win over tyranny, natural disasters that mustered the best in us to give aid, the aftermath of acts of terrorism that gelled a nation (at least for a season), and great human accomplishments like the moon landing or the American Civil Rights Act of 1964 that signaled to us all how we CAN be better, as a people. Please, Dear Lord, help the lessons sink in without another pandemic! With God's help, may 2021 be the year when the Beloved Community begins to sink its roots deep into our hearts and across Planet Earth. And may it be a year of healing for all.

I don't think I've ever looked so forward to a NEW Year...a HAPPY NEW Year. And may it be for all of us, without conditions, other than the human one we all must bear. And for those of us who call upon his name, may Jesus be our "central figure of the human race" once again. Shalom, Yinz! 

Friday, December 11, 2020

New Light

I am not dead. I realize that the last time I updated this blog was back in September. Not a good track record for someone who had the goal of doing weekly updates in 2020, but then a few things have happened this year. A few things...

I did something I've never done before back in October (and no, I didn't eat broccoli on a stick, or anything)--I took a week's vacation. In 36 years of ministry, I have taken time off in the "lazy days" of Summer, at some point, and the past few years, have taken most of the month of August off. This year, though, with the kind permission and coverage of my pastoral colleagues, I took a week in October, and Dara and I stayed in the keeper's house of the Cove Point Light near Lusby, Maryland. Dara likes lighthouses, and I have to admit, they hold a certain fascination for me as well, so when I found one that you could stay at, I got online and booked  it. I'm always trying to find something out of the ordinary that will "wow" Dara, as she "wows" me, just for who she is. A few years ago, I booked us into a few nights at a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house near Cleveland, over her July 4 birthday. The Cove Point stay was another attempt to thrill her, and it worked pretty well.

Cove Point Light is a working lighthouse on a peninsula overlooking the Chesapeake Bay. It is the oldest lighthouse in Maryland. A local historical preservation non-profit has restored the keeper's house, put in some modern conveniences, and rents it out. We went in October for three reasons: we're not "sun" people, so the moderate weather of October is about perfect for us; it was half the booking price from the Summer prime season (still expensive, but I didn't have to sell a kidney to afford it); and if you want to book it during the Summer season, you probably can't get in until 2023--it's that popular. (Having told some St. Paul's folk about it, a couple have tried to book it even in the OFF season, only to find that it has become VERY popular, and unavailable for at least a couple of years.)

In the off season, they give you a code for the huge electronic gate that secludes the peninsula, and you really have the place to yourself. There is a private "walking beach" (no swimming because of huge riptides), a great screened-in porch, which we made great use of, and a wonderful kitchen for preparing meals--quite handy, given COVID restrictions on what would have otherwise been some enticing local restaurants. (We DID order takeout our last night there from a local "soul food" restaurant run by a couple of African American sisters, and WOW, was that food INCREDIBLE!) Just sitting on that porch (or on the beach) reading and watching Chesapeake Bay boat traffic was wonderfully therapeutic.

This introduction to my central point in this reflection may be the longest one you will ever read. Here's what I really wanted to share, as we are in the throes of Advent...

Above is a photo I took of two lights, both very, very old. The kerosene lantern still works, and provides a subtle light in a dark room. The oldest lighthouse in Maryland still beams its guidance out into the bay, behind it. Both are faithful lights that chase out enough darkness that people like Abraham Lincoln could get his education by a kerosene lantern similar to this one, and small crab boats and giant sea-going tankers could be safely guided into the Chesapeake. They may be old, but light is light! No matter the form, fuel, or luster, it drives out darkness.

In this Advent season, we look forward to the coming of the Light of the World--Jesus, the Christ of God. Jesus is both an old and a NEW light. Ancient, in human time is the story of Christ's birth, along with the Gospel's promise that Christ would be "the light of humanity," and that the darkness he would drive out would NOT overcome this light. The NEW light of Christ is that which shines fresh and new each Advent and Christmas season when we open our hearts to the Good News once again, and allow the timeless message to drive out our personal "darkness." Advent is also a time we pray for and "expect" God's Realm to break into our world, as it fights the darkness that seems always to be trying to "overcome" it. This year,  it is COVID-19 and a divided nation, both of which bring a pall of fear. Is there anything more "dark" than fear, especially when that fear seems to be gaining in intensity, rather than abating? 

Friends, like the light of these ancient lights above, the eternal light of Jesus Christ can still drive out the darkness from the "room" of our personal lives, and that same beacon can provide guidance and direction to our future, guarding us from the threatening rocks and the crashing waves. 

May the newness of Christ's presence keep you safe and well, as we approach the end of a tumultuous year, and may that strong beacon of the "Spirit of Jesus" help you navigate the unsure waters of the coming new year. 

And just in case I "go quiet" again, due to the continuing challenges of being a pastor during a pandemic, we pray you will have a Merry Christmas, even in the shifting tides, a Happy New Year, and find time for a blessed respite from the storms of life. Peace on Earth, goodwill toward Yinz!

What's Next?

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