The gifts are still under the tree. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day have come and gone, and the gifts are still under the tree. No torn wrappings on the floor. No dirty dishes still in the sink. No family members still discussing their gifts. A Grinch stole Christmas, and his name was Covid-19. Six days before Christmas, my wife tested positive for the corona virus. A brief hospital stay, and a quarantine, dictated no Christmas visitors in the home and no Christmas trips outside the home. All is not lost. We will gather sometime in January and celebrate with gifts and food and laughter and love. No doubt, we will also discuss the Grinch that stole our traditional Christmas, but failed to steal our spirits. Like the Apostle Paul, “We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed (2 Corinthians 4:9). But what about Christmas Day? While everyone around us celebrated, my wife and I, maintaining our doctor instructed quarantine distancing, said with Lou Lou Who in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” “I don’t need anything more for Christmas than this right here. My family.”
My Christmas sermon was ready to be preached. Then I was exposed to COVID, and placed on a fourteen day quarantine. On Saturday evening, I was advised not to preach the following morning – too late for the church to set up the technology for me to deliver the sermon via media. The unpreached sermon was entitled, “What Christmas Meant to a Couple of Senior Adults” from Luke 2:25-38. It is the accounts of Simeon and Anna meeting the Christ-child. Without sharing the entire sermon, here are my final five things that the experiences of Simeon and Anna mean to us. If possible, read Luke 2:25-38 for a better understanding of these five applications. (1) God still uses unknown people. Neither Simeon nor Anna are mentioned anywhere else in the Bible and we know very little about them. (2) Jesus attracted the attention of some that day, but not all. Doubtless crowds were in the Temple, but only two recognized the presence of Jesus. (3) With God, timing is everything. Neither Simeon, nor Anna just happened to be in the Temple when Jesus arrived. They were there by God’s design and on God’s time. (4) One never grows too old to have a fresh encounter with God. (5) No matter one’s age, the message of Jesus is to be shared, acknowledged by both Simeon and Anna. So, whatever your age, what does this Christmas mean to you? Merry COVID Christmas.
I have a long-time friend and colleague who recently tested positive for COVID and pneumonia. He is currently hospitalized in the ICU area of a major hospital. When I talked with him, he shared with me that he told his Dr. that hundreds of people were praying for him. Then he asked the Dr. if he knew this Jesus, to whom people were praying? It reminded me of a day several years ago, when my wife was about to undergo a very complicated, and serious surgery. I explained to the Surgeon that as a Seminary professor, I had hundreds, perhaps thousands of former students – ministers and missionaries – praying for him from all over the world. There followed several interesting conversations. Last week I purchased gift cards to give to special people this Christmas. When the cashier gave me the cards, I realized they were “Happy Birthday” cards rather than “Merry Christmas” cards. I called it to her attention and she offered to make a correction. My response was simply never mind, since on Christmas, we celebrate Jesus’ birthday. A brief, but significant conversation followed. This is what we do. We look for every opportunity to bear witness, as we are instructed in 1 Peter 3:15, “Always be ready to give a defense . . . for the hope that is in you.”
Times have changed. People are staying home from church services in record numbers – and blaming the COVID virus. History has shown when we are forced by circumstances to change, we eventually get comfortable with the change, and even prefer the new methods to the old. John Cage, an American composer, artist, and philosopher, confessed, “I can’t understand why people are frightened by new ideas. I’m frightened of old ones.” Most churches I know have recovered approximately half of their pre-pandemic attendance, while experiencing positive numbers of online viewers. The fear is that folks have become so comfortable worshipping at home, in their pajamas, seated in their recliner, sipping their coffee that they will not choose to return to personal worship attendance. If that happens, churches will need new ideas. Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote, “Wise men put their trust in ideas and not in circumstances.” What will the post-pandemic church look like? Most will need to learn how to do online worship with greater excellence. We may need to train telephone and media counselors to deal with online responses during the worship service and especially during the response time. Some facilities may need to be reconfigured. More emphasis on home groups could be needed. A study of effective media ministry ideas could be time well spent. I once taught a Seminary course entitled, “The Use of Media in Evangelism,” but it was an elective course and few students saw the need to register for it. Seminaries and Bible Colleges may need to reinvent that course or one similar to it, perhaps make it a requirement. The future could be very different from the past. We’ll need to pray our way through it. Which reminds me that according to my research for America’s National Prayer Committee, approximately 95% of Seminaries and Bible Colleges do not have a separate course on prayer in their curriculum. It’s time to add such. Only then will we be able to understand Paul’s wish for young Timothy, “May the Lord give you understanding in all things” (2 Timothy 2:7).
In the late 1960s, I commuted to Seminary with an interesting group of want-a-be-ministers. Our carpool consisted of two soon-to-be Senior Pastors, one military Chaplain who would become a denominational servant, one President of an international ministry organization, and one future seminary professor. Four mornings a week, we met at six o’clock, pilled in to one car, and fell back to sleep, while one of us drove the eighty-five miles to Fort Worth for our eight o’clock classes. Around two o’clock in the afternoon, the same guys pilled in to the same car for our return trip, complete with a new wealth of theological information in our brains, which promptly became subject for discussion and disagreement. In fact, I am almost certain that the Southern Baptist Convention controversy/resurgence began in this carpool somewhere between Fort Worth and Waco, Texas, in 1966 or 1967. Strangely enough, with all our disagreements, some of which could have become vicious had the journey lasted another ten miles or so, we remained friends through the years. What a shame that disagreements like ours would later cause multiple strained relationships and destroyed friendships throughout our denomination. Thanks to members of that carpool, we taught each other how to disagree without being disagreeable, how to fight without fracturing our fellowship, how to argue without alienating each other. Our theme verse, had we had one, could have been Psalm 133:1 from the King James Bible, since the other few translations available back then would have been considered far too liberal for our use. “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! (Psalm 133:1, KJV).
It’s unclear if on that first Thanksgiving, the colonists and Native Americans ate turkey at their feast. More likely, they indulged in other interesting foods like lobster, and seal. What is certain is that a tradition developed that called for the U.S. President to declare Thanksgiving as a holiday anew each year, until Thomas Jefferson refused. He strongly believed in the separation of church and state. Thanksgiving involved prayer, and in his opinion, making it a holiday would violate the 1st Amendment. Fortunately, we no longer need a presidential announcement for Americans to observe Thanksgiving this year. It might well get lost in politics and pandemics. Hopefully, we will remember to pray a prayer of blessing, for even in these difficult times, we need to bless the Lord – for family, for food, for friends, for health, for memories. Thanks, and Thanksgiving go together. William Bradford, the first Governor of the Plymouth Colony, wrote of those first pilgrims, “Being thus arrived in a good harbor and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of heaven who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean.” In the midst of yet another “furious” time, a COVID Thanksgiving, let us remember the words of the Psalmist, “Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless His holy name! Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits” (Psalm 103:1-2).
Several years ago, I granted permission to e-Thoughts, a weekly online devotional ministry, to use any of my Monday Morning Manna that they wanted to use. I was honored again last week as they posted one entitled, “Thankfulness Times Three,” in which I described a Thanksgiving tradition of mine of selecting three persons each year to thank for their contribution and blessing on my life over the past year. Early on, I might have thought I would run out of persons to thank after a few years, but that thought quickly disappeared, as God continually brought new people, and a few long-time friends, into my life with blessings. I closed that manna by quoting 1 Chronicles 16:34, “Oh, give thanks to the Lord, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever,” and encouraging my readers not only to thank the Lord, but to join me in thanking three people who had blessed their life in the past year. I also quoted Robert Luis Stevenson in that long-ago Manna, “The man who forgets to be thankful has fallen asleep in life.” Come to think of it, that’s a good challenge for this year. How about it? Don’t forget to be thankful. Would you join me in thanking three friends this thanksgiving?
We sang a song yesterday in the worship service that I had completely forgotten. It was a song from my youth, written in 1931 by B.B. McKinney, and based on Psalm 100:2, “Serve the Lord with gladness.” As we sang, I found myself wondering if there was any other way to serve the Lord. Could one serve the Lord with sadness? With anger? With indifference? With fear? I suppose so, but why would one want to do that? The kind of gladness that comes from serving the Lord, is greater than any earthly gladness. Greater than the gladness that comes from watching a child open a present. Greater than the gladness that comes from winning a medal or a championship. Greater than the gladness that comes from performing a perfect recital. It’s greater than fist pump gladness, high five gladness, hug-your-Mama gladness. If we serve the Lord correctly, all other emotions move toward gladness. Henri Nouwen said, “We need to remind each other that the cup of sorrow is also the cup of joy, that precisely what causes us sadness can become the fertile ground for gladness.” Can not the quote be just as meaningful when the word “sadness” is substituted with words like “anger, indifference, fear, etc.? Join me this week serving the Lord with gladness.
I used to wonder why my father went home for lunch every day. The food was good, but not that much better than anywhere else he could have gone for a meal. He went home to take an after-lunch nap. When we moved to the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, one of my culture shocks was that many business places were closed in the early afternoon – siesta time. In his book, “Don’t Miss it if You Can” Jess Moody wrote, “People should sleep during the mid- afternoon. Absolutely nothing of any value has happened then.” That comment might need to be fact-checked, but it’s a good point. American lawyer, educator and politician, Barbara Jordan, once said, “Think what a better world it would be if we all, the whole world, had cookies and milk about three o’clock every afternoon and then lay down on our blankets for a nap.” Great idea. According to “The Message” afternoon naps are even biblical. As the writer of Proverbs shares advice with a good friend, he says, “You’ll take afternoon naps without a worry” Proverbs 3:21-26 (The Message). So, on most days, when my schedule allows, I take a nap. In fact, I’m headed there right now. Think about it. Perhaps you need to go and do likewise.
This is Pastor Appreciation Month. I will take my Pastor to lunch this week. It is a small, but meaningful gift. We will talk as we eat – about the church, about sports, about theology, about families, about common friends (and a few uncommon friends). Mostly, I will come away from the time together with more specific ways to pray for him. It is the best gift I can offer to him during this pastor appreciation month. After Jesus ascended back to heaven, He gave spiritual gifts to the church. One of those gifts was the gift of pastor. Ephesians 4:11 states, “He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers.” My Pastor is a gift from God to my family, my church and my community. The best gift I can offer to him during this appreciation month, is “effective, fervent prayer” (James 5:16). Max Lucado wrote, “Prayer pushes us through life’s slumps, propels us over the humps, and pulls us out of the dumps.” As my Pastor and I have our table talk, I become aware of the specifics of his humps, slumps, and dumps, and I pray for him. How do you pray for your Pastor? This is a good time to intensify and clarify your gift of pastoral prayer support, but hurry – appreciation month is almost over.