Posted in Moments of grace

Memorials in a pandemic world

I am just now beginning to catch up with some funerals and memorial services. When the pandemic hit, much of life came to a standstill. Death, however, was not deterred. No visits to the hospital, nursing home or hospice house. No visits with the dying. Limited contact with the bereaved. We were not open for worship. No funerals. No memorials. No committals.

As we cautiously reopened our church building for worship, cemeteries allowed a few to gather and families carefully began to travel, I made overdue plans for memorial and funeral services. But it’s different. It’s one thing to gather in the week following a death. It’s another to put it off three or more months. It’s one thing to mourn in person. It’s another to grieve online. Here are some of my experiences and observations from recent events.

Henry’s memorial was the first after we reopened out sanctuary for worship. The attenders were few as many were still cautious about being in a moderate-sized gathering. Watchers, however, were many. Our streaming capabilities were primitive but effective. We had viewers from all over the world. Family and friends from South Africa, London, Jamaica, Hawaii and New York all extended their condolences as we sang and prayed and remembered. We had over 100 comments during the service and many more who watched later. We never would have reached that many in the pre-pandemic world. What a blessing!

Don’s memorial came a whole three months after his death. His arrangements were challenging because we had to coordinate with a national cemetery sixty miles to the south. Once we set a date, some who had planned on coming changed their minds. Others who were reluctant to come decided to attend. We had to rethink some of the music at the last minute, due to illness. But by the grace of God, everything went much better than we expected.

Janey’s memorial is still on hold. We have set and cancelled dates several times. Some do not want to travel and would love a conference-call style service. Others do not want a virtual gathering, preferring to be there in person. I do not know when or how we will get this figured out.

And we have no idea about how to plan for C.’s memorial. Travel restrictions complicate that planning. it’s so hard for the family. They feel like they need to do something. But they also feel like there’s nothing they can do!

I do know that for myself, the mood of a memorial service three or four months after a death is quite different. Yes, there is sadness, tears and grief. But in some ways the memories are move vivid, the obituaries are longer and the shared stories are more detailed. The numbness of that first week of grief has passed, many emotions have been processed and the atmosphere is lighter a few months out. Rather than having to remind folks that life goes on, it’s obvious. Life has indeed gone on.

Three or four months down the road though, it’s starting to feel like old news. We may not all be at the acceptance stage of grief, but many are well on the way. And just when you’re getting close, you have to dig up memories and emotions once again for the memorial service. Some just don’t want to do that.

And of course, the whole worship experience is different. Masks are prevalent. Distancing is practiced. Hugs are few and far between. When all have left, the room is quickly disinfected. The choreography of gathering has changed, and we are all still learning the steps.

But we are gathering. And that is a tremendous blessing. The memories that make us either cry or laugh are so much better when we can share them with others. The smell of the flowers, the collage of pictures and the sound of familiar songs and readings are so much sweeter in the presence of those we love. I doubt that will ever change.

Posted in dreams, Stories

Expensive chocolate!

As my friend and I chatted over the last of our coffee, I absent-mindedly peeled open one of the foil wrapped chocolates the waiter had left on our table and popped it in my mouth. “Wow, that’s delicious!” I said. “Want yours?” He shook his head, so I went ahead and enjoyed the second one.

The breeze gently rustled the umbrella over our poolside table. Our waiter took our plates and left the check. I picked it up, quickly glanced at it, but then took another, longer look. Seventy dollars? That can’t be right. Oatmeal, omelette, side of bacon and a couple of cups of coffee. There must be some mistake. When our waiter passed by I asked, “Are you sure this is right?” He took a quick look and pointed out that the chocolates were $25 each! Really? They were good, but not that good! I thought they were free, just like the little Andes mints at Olive Garden.

When I took the check up to the register to pay, I mentioned that the price of those chocolates was a bit steep. The manager pointed to a little sign by the register in very tiny print, “Chocolates, $25 each.” Fine. I handed him my card. He slid it through the machine, handed it back to me, and then said, “Uh-oh. I’ll have to slide that again.”

“Not so fast,” I said. I pulled out my phone and opened up my bank app. “No way I’m going to pay for this meal twice!” I want to see if that charge was on my account before I let him try again.

And then I woke up. Yes, it was another of my recent, vivid, unusual dreams. I think taking melatonin to help me sleep also revs up my mind’s dream factory. But I’m always going to check twice before I eat some chocolates!

Posted in Moments of grace

The security of a tent

Behold Zion, the city of our appointed feasts!
    Your eyes will see Jerusalem,
    an untroubled habitation, an immovable tent,
whose stakes will never be plucked up,
    nor will any of its cords be broken. (Isaiah 33:20)

I’ve always liked the idea of crawling into a tent for the night. It feels snug. Secure. Even in a rainstorm. Isaiah’s prophecy made me think of some of my tent experiences.

While working at Bell Labs in West Long Branch, NJ, a few colleagues and myself decided to do an overnight century ride through a hilly central part of the state. My friend Ted mapped out a loop that included a place where we could camp at around the fifty mile point of the one hundred mile trip. We each brought a small personal tent and sleeping bag, some cooking gear and freeze-dried food and set out with everything tied to our Blackburn rear wheel racks. Nothing fancy, just what we needed for the night. It was cool to crawl into the two-foot high tent and zip up for the night, then roll it all up and head back home in the morning.

I went along to chaperone two trips to the Florida Keys with my son and daughter when they were in middle school. Their science teacher Mrs. T. led a trip every other year for seventh and eighth graders in a program for gifted learners. The campground was on Marathon Key, just before the seven mile bridge. Each time we took a bigger tent that was pretty comfortable for two people. Another chaperon brought his boy scout troop’s camping trailer, and we set up our own little mess in the center of our little tent community for the week. The most exciting part of the first trip was a tremendous thunderstorm that tore through the campground the morning we were scheduled to leave. We were pretty secure in our tent, but I remember unzipping a few inches and peeking out to see other tents, some still occupied, being blown across the clearing. It was actually pretty funny watching people stumble out into the storm. Thankfully the storm lasted less than half-an-hour, and we were able to pack up all our soaking wet stuff and head home.

I got my first taste of Disney World in the summer of 1994 when our family spent a week doing all the parks. We traveled in my in-laws RV and camped at Fort Wilderness for the week. The RV wasn’t quite big enough to sleep all of us, so my son and I slept in a tent. We had a great time, even though torrential rain showers came through every afternoon. One night the rain waited until dark, and the downpour pummeled our tent. We pretty much stayed dry. The RV, however, leaked! Life can be ironic.

I know we did a tent camping trip to Cape Cod sometime during my first few years in Connecticut. We either had one or two little ones with us. What I remember are the sights and sounds of Provincetown, not unlike the unique folks and lifestyle one experiences in the Florida Keys. The tent, cookstove and lantern were wedding gifts that we still stored in the attic thirty-six years later.

I count our popup camper outings as tent-camping experiences as well. We had a twelve-foot that we pulled with a Chevy Astro van. When cranked up and pulled out, we had plenty of sleeping room for our family of five. We took short trips to the Keys, Savannah, GA and Orlando, FL. Then we took our big trip to Maine, stopping in North Carolina, the Pocono mountains in Pennsylvania, somewhere in the eastern Connecticut hills and finally in Old Orchard Beach and Bar Harbor, Maine. That was a fun trip, even if it seems like we were always setting up or breaking down camp in the rain. Being up off the ground is definitely a more comfortable experience. Coming home we stayed at my parents’ house in Philadelphia and then a hotel somewhere in Virginia rather than campgrounds.

It’s been eighteen years since that trip. We sold the popup soon after. Now we’re getting back into it, sort of. We just bought a hybrid travel camper. It looks like a travel trailer, but the ends fold down to magically create screened-in canvas sleeping areas. It the best of both worlds since it feels like a tent, but also has a kitchen, dining and bathroom inside. I’ve got much to learn about pulling and parking something this big, but a few short initial trips will give me practice before we head out for something longer.

The bible often mentions tents. The tabernacle was basically a big tent. The Hebrew people celebrated the Festival of Booths by living in tents. Jael became a hero when she killed the enemy general Sisera who fell asleep in her tent. Psalm 91 promises no disaster will come near your tent. The apostle Paul worked as a tent maker. Our bodies are referred to as the “tents” we occupy in this life. A better tent awaits at the resurrection. The Word became flesh and “tented” among us.

I’ll be thinking about all that when I once again crawl into my “tent” for the night.

Posted in Stories

“I need you to open the safe.”

I thought I had the place to myself.

I usually do. I get up early on purpose, because I want to have the room to myself. I want to practice my sermon in an empty sanctuary before I deliver it to a living, breathing congregation. I need to hear my voice. I need to listen to the stories. I have to know what it sounds like before worshipers gather to sing, pray and receive my message.

I’ve got my routine. Unlock the doors, turn on a few lights, fire up the sound system, and fill up my water glass. I could do it in my sleep.

Five minutes into my rehearsal, I saw him. Back row, left side, on the aisle. Who in the world would be here this early? The musicians aren’t even here yet. I didn’t stop. I continued making points, adding illustrations and pointing out applications.

As I finished, I turned off the timer and walked back to meet this predawn arrival. Before I could say, “Hi,” he said, “I need you to open the safe.”

If was still a little sleepy before, I was wide awake now. “Well,” I said, “First of all, we don’t have any money here. Second, I don’t even know the combination.”

As you can imaging, my answer was not well received. He growled, “Well then, you better call someone who does!” I didn’t see a weapon. Maybe he had one in his pocket. I was still about ten feet away. No one else would arrive for at least half an hour. What were my options? Run? I can run. I would leave this guy in the dust. Give him my wallet? Sorry, no cash in there either. Stall? Sometimes the local deputies meet in our parking lot. When I glanced out the window, though, I didn’t see any cars. Call someone from the congregation who knew the combination and use a code word so they would call for help? I don’t think we have a code word.

Startled, I woke up. First the buzzing then the soft thudding my my phone alarm was going off. I reached over and turned it off. 4:30 am. My heart was racing. But it was a dream.

For the next several weeks, I carefully scanned the parking lot before I got out of my car in the predawn hours of a Sunday morning. I kept all the doors locked while I prepared for morning worship. I thanked God for the deputies conversing under the portico. I was also grateful for those long days of summer, when the sun arrives before I do.

Why were my dreams filled with such images in the middle of the night? I’ve never had a problem, never been threatened, never even thought about the possibility of being in danger. I’ve probably been watching too much police and detective TV, where such things happen daily in the lives of innocent people.

Anyway, if you were going to rob a church, wouldn’t you do it after the offering?

Posted in Devotions, prayer

Why would you pray for bad things to happen to someone?

Have you every prayed that God would do something terrible to someone? I haven’t. Not ever. I didn’t think you were supposed to do that. But a few months ago, I was reading Psalm 109 and the author is asking God to do unthinkable things to folks who have lied, accused and attacked him:

  • Kill him, so his wife is a widow and his his kids to wander around begging for food!
  • Curse his ancestors and don’t let there be any future generations!
  • Let the banks and even strangers help themselves to everything he owns!
  • Make sure no one remembers that he even existed!

It’s one thing to pray and ask God to protect you from your enemies or make them go away. It’s another to petition Him to not only end his life, but make his family miserable, too!

Other prayer requests in the psalms call for horrible things to happen to bad people:

  • “Break the arm of the evildoer” (Psalm 10:15)
  • “Break the teeth in their mouth!” (Psalm 58:6)
  • “Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime” (Psalm 58:8)
  • “Terrify them with your hurricane!” (Psalm 83:15)
  • “Let burning coals fall upon them! Let them be cast into fire.” (Psalm 140:10)

I don’t remember ever learning about this in classes on prayer. Nor do I teach anyone to do that. But these imprecations pour from the hearts of those who brought their petitions or sang songs to the Lord. That is why they are referred to as “imprecatory psalms,” which call for misfortune to happen to an enemy.

I don’t think these psalms show up very often in the propers of the day. Yet they are still very much a part of the inspired Word of God. They are also songs, lyrics that express the emotions and yearnings of God’s people. The authors are laying open their hearts in difficult times, turning to the one who declares, “Vengeance is mine” (Deuteronomy 32:35).

These kinds of psalms reveal our very human, very sinful nature. Sometimes we don’t feel like loving our neighbor, much less our enemy. We cry out for justice. We may not cry out to God, but we expect it from the governing authorities. So much is wrong in this world and we want a fix.

The “fix” isn’t always punishment, though. Sometimes the fix is mercy. Or forgiveness. Or kindness. Or sacrifice. Or redemption. When Jesus came, he brought with him some other options that aren’t as violent. He will take care of our enemies one day. Maybe not today, but one day. Just remember that the real enemy isn’t flesh and blood. The real enemy is spiritual. And He’s already won that victory.

Posted in Moments of grace

Forever? Or just a moment?

It feels like this is going to go on forever.

I know it hasn’t been that long. It just feels like it. This is July. It was back in March when we first became concerned in our community. Churches stopped gathering for worship, restaurants closed, doctors cancelled appointment, nursing homes and hospitals restricted visitors, toilet paper flew off supermarket shelves and we started wearing masks.

It’s been four months. We’re worshiping at church, but at a distance. A few can go to restaurants. I’ve caught up on doctor appointments. There’s plenty of toilet paper but hardly any hand soap at the store. More people are wearing masks. And the news is still mostly about Covid-19. It feels like it’s been four years. I feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. I wake up every morning to the same news. More people are sick, more people are dying, more people are wearing masks, and more people are angry about wearing masks.

Is there an end in sight? Yesterday I read that most of the research to find a cure or produce a vaccine has yielded little if any results. Those who like to make predictions estimate it will take five to ten years to get past this. If we do at all. It already feels like we’ve been doing it that long.

During a phone conversation today, though, I realized it’s almost been a year since my dad died. A whole year? Already? Those eleven months have flown by. Time is time. It passes at a constant rate. So why is my perception of time so different when applied to different chapters of my life. Why does time sometimes seem so long, like the line to get on the roller coaster, and other times short, like the ride itself? Why do the first hundred miles of a long trip pass quickly, while the last 100 seems to take forever?

Plenty of people have asked that question. How many have come up with an answer? None that I know of. I do know that time passes because I measure it. I watch the clock, I have a schedule, I have events on my calendar and appointments to keep.

Sometimes on my day off, I take off my watch. I don’t worry about the time. And when I do that, time doesn’t bother me, either. On those days I’m never late, I’m never rushed, it’s OK if I have to wait for something or someone. I find that fascinating. It’s like I can step away from time when I need to. I should probably do that more often.

Posted in Moments of grace

Lessons on focus from little ones

Photo by Joe Smith on Unsplash

I got invited to a virtual tea party the other day. I joined my grandchildren in Texas for a few moments as I had a cup of coffee and they ate homemade cookies and drank some tea with plenty of milk and sugar. As I watched them enjoy their afternoon snack, I was impressed by how focused they were on the task at hand. 100% of their attention was focused on eating freshly baked snicker-doodles. I sipped my coffee, chatted with my daughter-in-law, took note of a message that popped up on my phone and tried to snap a few screen shots of our long distance time together. For the little ones, though, it was as if nothing else existed except those cookies.

I am jealous of their youthful ability to focus. I think I’ll enlist them to be my productivity coaches! My world is filled with distractions as I try to get things done. I’m often trying to do too many things at one time. I eat while watching TV, clean while listening to music, talk on the phone while watching the dog. Even though preschoolers can have a short attention span, I took away these lessons on focus from that occasion.

Just have one thing in front of you. They had nothing in front of them except two cookies on a paper towel and a cup of tea. No crayons, books or toys. Just the snack. And they enjoyed every bite. It wasn’t till after they were done that we chatted.

Set a time. The tea party was scheduled for 4:30 pm, so that’s what we did. Block out the time. Put your task on the calendar.

Have a goal. Know what you need to get accomplished. Eat two cookies. Drink one cup of tea. For me it might be writing a certain number of words or making a certain number of phone calls or making a lesson plan.

When you’re done, you’re done. When the cookies are gone, it’s time to play. Or color. Or build legos. Finish one task, then move on to the next.

Be in the moment. They savored every bite and sip. They had just one thing to do: enjoy the snack!

I don’t know how many articles and books I’ve read about focus and productivity. I’ve learned a lot from many sources. But lately, I’ve learned even more from the little people in my life!

Posted in Devotions

You probably don’t know what God is up to

As a parish pastor, the majority of my conversations contain some reference to God. Lately, the majority also include information, comments and opinions about the Covid-19 pandemic. And many of the folks I talk with want to know if there’s a connection between the two.

Some interpret the millions of positive tests as a sign of the end, since biblical images of the end times includes pestilence. Some view the virus as punitive, God’s judgment on an ungodly world. Still others see it is a call to repentance, urging unfaithful people to turn back to God.

I’m extremely cautious about trying to connect the dots between current events and the actions of God. I remember a few guys in the Old Testament who tried to figure out what God was up to. Job and his friends thought they had all the answers. Boy were they wrong!

At the beginning of the book of Job, God grants Satan permission to test Job’s faith. Satan thinks Job is only faithful because he is blessed. Take away the good stuff, and Job will fold. He’ll curse God to HIs face. God says, “OK. Give it your best shot.” Job suffers the loss of his house, all his livestock and his house. In response, Job went to church. He worshiped God.

Satan raises the stakes. If you take away Job’s health, Job will curse God to His face. God says, “He’s all yours. Just don’t kill him.” Job breaks out in sores all over his body. He is miserable. Yet he still doesn’t say one bad thing about God.

Three friends come to sit with Job, and for the first week, no one says much. But then they all begin to offer explanations as to why Job is suffering as he is. Their theories don’t sound that bad.

Job must have done something to deserve this. God must be disciplining Job. Get your act together and God will once again bless you.

That theory makes sense to me. If you get caught speeding, you get a ticket. Pay the fine, go to traffic school, drive more carefully in the future. Case closed.

Job’s not buying their diagnosis. His big question is, “What did I do wrong?” He follows up by asking, “What did I do to deserve this?” He my not be perfect, but did Job really deserve so much misery? And finally he wonders, “If I’m that bad, why doesn’t God save himself a lot of trouble and just let me die?”

Job’s words make sense, too. At the very beginning of this book, wasn’t God just boasting about what a good guy Job was? Surely there must be others that needed discipline a lot more than someone like Job. Job makes a good point when he points out many despicable people that aren’t being disciplined. It just doesn’t add up.

In the end, they are all wrong. They have no idea what they are talking about. Every attempt to explain God and how things work is misinformed. They are oblivious to what is happening in the spiritual realm.

I am very aware that I am not aware of everything God is up to. For me to speculate about God’s judgment on some and not others is far above my pay grade. My best guesses about the end would be ridiculous. All I know for sure is what God has told me in His Word. I know I deserve to punished for my sins. I know I’m not punished because Jesus was crucified for my sins. I know I’m going to die one day. I know I’ll be resurrected one day.

Those truths get me through good days and bad days, health and illnesses, hurricanes and beach days, unexpected bills and unexpected blessings. What is God up to on days like that? Who knows?

Posted in Moments of grace

The value of “I forgive you.”

Photo by geralt on pixabay.com

A few months ago I swallowed my pride and apologized to someone because I had hurt their feelings. I said “I am sorry,” and they replied, “I accept your apology.” I was relieved to hear that and we were able to move on.

Thinking back to that moment, though, I believe there is a difference between saying, “I accept your apology,” and “I forgive you.” Accepting my apology simply receives my admission of guilt but gives nothing in return. But when someone says, “I forgive you,” they have given me a priceless gift.

Forgiveness is costly. God’s forgiveness costs the life of Jesus on the cross. After our confession, the words of absolution, “I forgive you all your sins,” are His precious gift to us. “Apology accepted” would leave me wondering how God felt about all this. Forgiveness, on the other hand, leaves no doubt. We’re good!

In a similar way, when I say, “Thank you,” I mostly hear the reply, “No problem.” When I get a “You’re welcome,” I do a double take. “No problem” simply receives your gratitude as if it were no big deal. I simple “You’re welcome” raises the value of your appreciation.

Maybe it’s not a big deal. But since that moment, I have consciously and deliberately said, “I forgive you” and “You’re welcome.” In a time when I am more likely to hear impatient, angry and abusive words, I want people to know I value and appreciate them.