A New Chapter

Matthew 28:17 (NRSV) 
And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted.

Do you doubt?

To read these closing words of Matthew, one cannot help but see doubt as an unwanted perspective of a Christian; but, I beg to differ. I want to doubt, and I doubt about a lot of things. I am a scientist; I am a theologian. I’ve spent years of my life preparing for both roles; as a scientist I was encouraged to doubt. Peter Abelard wrote, “The beginning of wisdom is found in doubting; by doubting we come to the question, and by seeking we may come upon the truth.” To illustrate I  offer this example: Edward Jenner is considered the founder of vaccinology (the study of vaccines). Until the late 1700’s the only way to defend anyone from smallpox virus was to smear cowpox infected serum upon an open cut on their body. It worked, sometimes. Edward doubted that this was the best way. In 1798, Jenner inoculated a 13 year old boy, and the boy recovered from smallpox. The smallpox virus had been devastating humanity for at least 12,000 years. It was responsible for the demise of the Aztecs and Incas. When Jenner injected under the skin of the young boy pus from a smallpox victim’s sore, the young boy lived. With this fact, the doubt that had moved to question, then moved to truth: there is a better way to treat smallpox. Now, I return to the scripture passage. I feel Matthew’s doubters were not all lost. Doubt is not the end of faith, but can be the start of a deeper relationship with Christ. Do you doubt? I hope so. Let your doubt lead you into your next chapter of faith.    

“Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is one element of faith.” Paul Tillich, 20th century Christian theologian

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Cheerily, Cheer Up

Psalm 104:33 (NRSV) 
“I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God while I have being.”

Are you singing?

This morning there was an American Robin near my bedroom window singing as the sun came up. The call of a Robin sounds like, “cheerily, cheer up, cheer up, cheerily, cheer up.”[1] The call is a happy sound of spring. The call is the same no matter the weather here in southwestern Pennsylvania. I certainly don’t know the feelings within this orange-breasted bird, but I know the bird’s call sounds like singing praise to the creator of the day. The simplicity of the bird’s song may not be far from the intention of the psalmist, “I will sing praises to my God.” The psalmist chooses to sing praise to God. I can imagine there are a variety of reasons the psalmist may not feel like singing: poverty, ill-health, invading nations; yet, the psalmist sings. I know tomorrow morning the American Robin will be outside my window singing, no matter the weather. Are you singing? In this pandemic uncertainty abounds. The human condition is to have days when we understandably don’t sing. That said, we can choose to sing despite our surroundings and conditions. The psalmist chose an attitude of thankfulness. Studies have shown that being grateful can make us happy, “gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness.”[2] And if we’re happy, we’re singing. The Robin’s cheerful song may be good advice for those times when we seem to have days filled with issues, choose to “cheerily, cheer up.” 

“I am convinced after more than 50 years in the field of motivation that anyone who wants to learn to look at life and/or their circumstances in a positive light can do so.” Zig Ziglar, American author, salesman, and motivational speaker

[1] https://academy.allaboutbirds.org/topic/american-robin/

[2] https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/giving-thanks-can-make-you-happier

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Put on the Mask

1 Peter 5:6-7 (ESV) 
“Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.”

Are we being humbled?

It is amazing that a virus one thousandth the width of a human eyelash can humble humanity. We are at a loss to overcome our viral nemesis, SARS-CoV-2. The greatest scientific minds have yet to offer a viable response to the deadly novel coronavirus. We are under the control of a virus that is not alive but very much in power. The virus has silently subjugated corporations, financial markets, governments, institutions, and communities. A reality is returning, a hard pill to swallow: we are powerless. When a non-living “chemistry set”[1] can evade our immune defenses, infect us, and permanently damage our lives, we are truly powerless. All of the boasting and bluffing we. There is one word scientist us to describe populations lacking any defenses against a virus: naive.[2] Behind our boasting and bluffing of natural immunity and durability we are afraid. Why put on such a show if we are not afraid? And we remain afraid until we realize there is a higher power. Today’s passage acknowledges that God is the higher power, but God will not destroy the coronavirus. God is the mighty hand that will lift us up over our situations, no matter the source of our anxieties. God will carry the burden of our anxieties. What does that look like? There seems to be a universal temptation to ignore official COVID-19 guidelines to wear masks and maintain social distancing. Just today, I have seen people without masks standing almost face-to-face in public spaces. Humbling ourselves under the mighty hand of God looks like wearing masks and keeping six feet apart. We need not show off as if we are fearless and strong, because we are not. Here is the reality. We are fearful human beings, worshipping a fearless God. Let God have our fears. Are we being humbled? Yes. We are humbled when we admit our fearfulness and put on our masks.

“What else does anxiety about tomorrow bring you but sorrow upon sorrow?” Thomas à Kempis, 15th century A.D. German-Dutch Christian

[1] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/are-viruses-alive-2004/


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Keep Groping

Acts 17:26-27 (NRSV) 
“From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him.”

Am I groping for God?

“How do I work? I grope,” said Albert Einstein. A brilliant scientist admitting he worked by groping. Not a recognized scientific rendering of Good Experimental Practices (GEP), but an admission to a necessary practice when one does not know what lies ahead. Much like any of us have done when the power to our house goes out in the night and we’re forced to find our smartphone, we grope for it in the dark. Today, the brilliant scientist working on a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 are realizing they are groping for an answer. This novel coronavirus causes a variety of symptoms that seem unrelated but may be clues to the weaknesses of the virus: blood clotting; kidney damage; brain inflammation; lung damage; skin rashes; intestinal disfunction. One more bit of scientific background: it is thought that both our genetics, immunity, exposure (dose), severity of exposure,  dictate these variations.[1] What does this have to do with our passage? The way we search for answers in science can be like the way we search for God … groping. This means we feel our way in the darkness to find God. Many of us cannot see any evidence of God in our lives, but we’ve come to that point in life when we desperately need God. Perhaps, it could come when if we were to contract SARS-CoV-2, with no certain path forward. The good news is that, unlike a coronavirus, God works to be found. As we grope for God, God is coming closer to be found, “for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which is lost.[2] If you are seeking God, keep groping, for God is seeking you, too.

“Too often we spend all our time seeking God for answers to our problems when what we should be doing is just seeking God.” Anonymous

[1] https://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2017/04/07/why-do-viruses-cause-different-symptoms-in-different-people/#5d9fd5d32213

[2] Luke 19:10

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Carry On

Acts 7:59 (ESV) 
“And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.””

Who will intercede for me?

Stephen was helpless before the High Priest and council of Jews. The council had heard enough out of Stephen and it was time to stone him to death. Historians have learned that this “stoning” may have been achieved by setting Stephen at the base of a stonewall and pushing it over to crush him. In one fell swoop Stephen would be silenced. His voice can still be heard in scripture, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit … do not hold this sin against them.” Stephen was calling upon his intercessor, Jesus Christ, to receive his spirit, and forgive the council. Receive me; forgive them. I’ve got a feeling Stephen’s call for such intercession gave the Jews just the rush of hatred likely needed to shove the stone wall upon Stephen. Stephen wanted Jesus to intercede for him. Who will intercede for you? During these days of “stay at home” orders, the need for intercessors abound. We can feel as though we’ve been given a death sentence to be forced to withdraw from our jobs and social network. A few may rather receive a “stoning” than live alone ad infinitum[1]. An intercessor may go between any of us and the government to seek our relief. Employers have played such a role. Through Christ each of us can intercede for another. Prayer is a powerful way to intercede for another before God. You may ask yourself, Who will intercede for me? The answer: the one who prays for you. We Christians have to carry on intercession.

“Jesus Christ carries on intercession for us in heaven; the Holy Ghost carries on intercession in us on earth; and we the saints have to carry on intercession for all men.” Oswald Chambers

[1] A Latin phrase meaning “to infinity” or “forevermore.” 

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John 10:7b (ESV) 
[Jesus said]”Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep.”

Have you come to the door?

I moved to a new church at the end of March 2020, just as the United States was literally shutting doors in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The church to which I was called had closed its doors to in-person worship just two weeks earlier, with hope the closing would be temporary. The church doors are still closed as I write. These times have offered me opportunities to write and roam. At night I will take a walk through the neighborhood in which I have found temporary shelter. I’ll walk for several miles passing by many closed doors. Through the windows of homes I can see people moving about, lamps aglow, and sometimes hear the sounds of homelife. Once in a while I see an open front door with little between me and the life inside but the glass pane of the storm door. Living alone in a new city at these times is challenging. When I see such an open door I’m stirred to enter. I wonder if anyone relates this way to Jesus’ words, “I am the door.” I think about the condition of the persecuted and rejected people gathered around Jesus that day. Some must have longed to step through any door to leave behind the darkness. They didn’t know where Jesus’ door led to, but they believed it was going to be better than where they were. These days most doors are closed to encourage “social distancing.” Jesus the Door is open and waiting to let you enter and gain a new life. Have you come to the door? Step through. Jesus has opened the way for you. 

“Often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one that has been opened for us.” Helen Keller

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The Perfect Unity

Acts 2:38 (ESV) 
And Peter said to [the crowd], “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

Have you been baptized?

In the day of Peter’s pronouncement baptism was not taken lightly. To openly declare oneself a believer in and a follower of Jesus as the Christ, and a vast multitude did so on that day, set up oneself for the wrath of the Temple and the ridicule of friends and neighbors. That said, baptism marks the beginning of an entirely new life, then and now. The newly baptized enter into a new life of unity with fellow Christians, physically being a part of the Christian community. But, look at us now! We have been forced to live apart from each other, our churches are closed in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. As time goes by, it seems that this is our lot to live apart for as long as it takes to get through this pandemic. What might this be doing to the Christian church? Some pastor’s, like me, are becoming adept at leading online worship, perhaps, much to our undoing. Out of necessity, broadcasting over the Internet encourages our congregations to join us on Sunday morning in their pajamas! For real! I get notes affirming the appeal of this new relaxed approach to church. You see what may be happening? We Christians may be slowly coming to pieces and embracing it as an entirely new and comfortable life. In the face of tragedy, where early Christians huddled together for safety from persecution, in contrast, we are fleeing each other to survive a pandemic. And we need to in these days. The sacrament of baptism may lose its significance in church. Have you been baptized? A question I have asked numbers of people wanting to be a part of the church. But now, they may ask, Why? To sit alone at home? My answer: By baptism we belong to Christ; therefore, we belong to each other, the perfect unity. It is this unity that will help us get through this tragedy, too.      

“Baptism is the initial step of a faithful heart.” Max Lucado

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Have Faith

1 Peter 1:6 (ESV) 
In this [salvation] you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials.

How can we rejoice even in suffering?

“Today (April 15th) there are more known cases of COVID-19 in the United States than any other country.”[1] To this day there are at least 606,800 patients infected with the virus and 25,922 patients with the virus have died,” reports The Cut.com, a New York City online magazine. A lot of people have reason to be suffering. When Peter writes his first letter he writes of people rejoicing though some of his readers have been suffering. It is hard to imagine anyone could be rejoicing while surrounded by infections and death, subjected to shelter-in-place and stay-at-home. A reader really must dig deep in this passage to get Peter’s point. Peter expects Christians to rejoice no matter the situation. The reason for rejoicing is that we have salvation, and it is the promise of our future. Jamieson-Fausset-Brown commentary (1871) helps us. J-F-B offers, “The realized joy of the coming salvation makes the present grief seem like a thing of he past.” The commentary went on to recognize that we are grieved at the first realization of an affliction (COVID-19), but by the anticipation of salvation we rejoice. It is our faith that brings about rejoicing. Imagine the day a successful vaccine is announced. Consider the rejoicing. Some of the people celebrating may be sick and grieving, but the belief that a vaccine is coming will make all the difference in the world. The vaccine will be their salvation, and their grief over the infection will be a thing of the past. This is what Christian salvation can do to all our grief. How can we rejoice even in suffering? Because we have faith.

“They say a person needs just three things to be truly happy in this world: someone to love, something to do, and something to hope for.” ― Tom Bodett

[1] https://www.thecut.com/article/what-does-shelter-in-place-mean.html

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Brightly Shining

Colossians 3:4 (ESV) 
“When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”

How will you appear?

Today’s verse was to be read before many this coming Easter Sunday, but we’re not gathering these days the way we’re used to. Knowing this to be one of the important Easter passages, I felt like sharing it with a bit of explanation. The way it is written, with “you also will appear,” we can’t help but think that we’re yet to appear with Christ.  That is before we consider the act of Baptism. Through our Baptism we are “set free from sin, marked as Christ’s own, sealed by the Holy Spirit, welcomed to the Lord’s Supper, made a member of the Church, and set apart for a life of service.”[1] What this says in my words, through Baptism we appear with Christ. What does that look like? L. William Countryman, retired Episcopal priest, wrote of our current life as Christ’s own, “we have only a dim, though growing, notion of who we are.” This tells me that as followers of Jesus Christ we are in the act of appearing with Christ. We are no longer waiting. We are being transformed in the resurrection of Christ. I offer this explanation because these days we may really need it. The loneliness of “social distancing” in response to COVID-19 disease is real and challenging. If you’re feeling lonely, I want you to know you have company, divine company, holy company, glorious company. Yes, at this time your light may be dim, but of that little light of yours, you can “let it shine.” You and I are Christ’s own. The day is coming when Christ will brightly shine all over the earth. How will you appear? Brightly shining, too!

“Your life as a Christian should make nonbelievers question their disbelief in God.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer

[1] PC(USA) Book of Order 2019/2021: W-4,0201, “Reaffirmation of the Baptismal Covenant”

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Higher and Higher

Philippians 2:7-8 (NRSV) 
“Being found in human form, [Jesus] humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death upon the cross.”

“Health Care Workers Around The World Are Dying To Save Us From COVID-19,” was the title of a recent HuffPost article.[1] In some countries the number of health care workers infected with the novel coronavirus represents well over 10% of all infections. One such nurse in the U.K. said, “I’m risking my life and the life of my family. I’m going to work, because I love helping people.” That said, health care workers across the world also face limited resources to protect them from the novel coronavirus, and yet they go to work every day until they no longer have the strength and/or die. This seems to me to be a powerful illustration of Jesus’ ministry on earth, at work every day until he died. Jesus did this because he loved us. That is an undeniable reason any one of us humbles ourselves to anyone. We could not truly humble ourselves unless we love. Anything less can be seen as insincere. It was a sincere act of love by Jesus to humble himself for our salvation. It is a sincere act of love by health care workers around the world to humble themselves for our survival. Collectively, they set a challenging example for us all. In a USA culture of pride in country, enabling some outrageous acts of conceit, we prepare for Easter through the season of Lent. During this season we Christians are reminded to resist the culture and exhibit our own humility toward our family, friends, and neighbors. What does it look like? Such humility can be seen in keeping a social distance, obeying the lockdown, obeying orders to self-quarantine. Have you humbled yourself? I’m reminded of the opening words of a popular praise song, “Humble thyself in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up, higher and higher.”[2]

“A great man is always willing to be little.” Ralph Waldo Emerson  

[1] https://www.huffpost.com/entry/health-care-workers-world-covid-19_n_5e7b343dc5b620022ab3c832

[2] https://wordtoworship.com/song/9018

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