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What I’m Learning in COVID-19 Captivity

I Woke up this morning to the cold realization it was week two of the church in exile.

The feeling is so strange that it qualifies as as an out-of-body experience. My entire remembered life I have gone to church on Sunday with precious, very precious few exceptions. I have never missed a Sunday of preaching because I was sick. Even on vacation I go to church.

But here we are.

I thought it would help me this morning if I went ahead and acted as if I was going. I trimmed my beard a bit, cleaned up, and put on a white buttoned down instead of a t-shirt, and a nice wrist-watch rather than the Timex I’ve been wearing on quarantine.

These thoughts bring me to what I’d like to share with you this morning, and that is namely what I am learning during the COVID Captivity of 2020. I don’t know how historians or sociologists will label this time period when they study it, but I do think a lot is going to change about how most of us live. I’m not certain we will ever be ‘normal’ again. That might be good because maybe what we called ‘normal’ was actually quite abnormal. These changes will flow from what we learned, and most of all what we learned about ourselves.

The first thing I have learned is from the malaise I woke to this morning. I have learned I really, really, really love church. I miss gathering with the people of God more than anything else about this. The church is in exile, pushed underground (necessarily so, but still underground so to speak), meeting in clandestine family units huddled around television screens and smart phones desperately trying to connect in some way with the body of Christ. I miss the hugging, the handshaking, the close talking, the hand-holding, the patting on the back, and the warmth of community. I miss it and I have learned that I am significantly less human without it. Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, and that is a very high holy day for us with ritual and Holy Communion. My soul longs to gather with the festal procession of my brothers and sisters, and I eagerly desire to eat that meal with them. I miss it, and the thought of missing it disturbs me.

I will never take Sunday morning for granted again.

Another thing I have learned is how much my family and their presence means to me. I can’t imagine going through this without Mrs. Greenbean and the sprouts. The youngest sprout was sent home from college and the oldest is still working through Zoom and digital presence, but she is able to be at the house quite a bit. Our family has always been close-knit, but now more than ever. Because those binds that tie are so tightly wound around the four us, we are not breaking in this. We are growing stronger.

I’ve learned how much I depend upon presence, touch, and personal interaction in pastoral ministry.

I’ve also learned what I can live without. I can live without the false gods of this world — sports, musicians, Hollywood movies, shopping, workplace esteem, and so many other 21st century deities which have been stripped of their power like the gods of Egypt before Moses and his staff. I don’t need these things to be happy and whole. I miss my church, but I don’t really miss watching the NCAA basketball tournament as much as I thought I would. I miss eating in a restaurant with family and friends but I don’t really miss the movie theater that much.

The flip side of what I’ve learned I can live without is what I can’t live without. I can’t really live without the grocery store being open and the truck drivers delivering goods. I can’t live without the clerks, stockers, and diesel mechanics who are literally keeping America fed and our coffee pots happy when everyone else is on lockdown. When this is all over we as a society need to radically rethink the pay scale disparity of athletes and grocery store workers. Who are really worth the big bucks? And while I’m on it, it doesn’t apply to me as my children are grown, but many of you are realizing the value of your child’s teacher, school, and daycare. Again, remember that when this is over.

I’ve learned doctors and nurses are heroes.

On the darker side of Greenbean, I have learned to be suspicious of people who don’t take this seriously. This may sound judgmental, and I apologize to a degree if it is, but whether it is someone in the media, politics, or a cranky neighbor, anyone who doesn’t take the advice of professionals, experts, and scientists is a fool who should not be trusted with anything or any decision making process. If you fail on this, in my opinion, you’re disqualified from making decisions in the future on anything. Put another way, I’ve learned to see people’s reactions to COVID-19 as a filter on their values.

Having gone dark for a paragraph, though, let’s brighten it up. I have learned that the Lord is still crafting, molding, and shaping me. He is good, and he is still blessing, even in the midst of societal upheaval. I give thanks that I am healthy, and I give thanks for those who are ministering to the sick. I give thanks I have plenty to eat and I was able to buy toilet paper. My family makes me smile and we played Scattergories and Mexican Train and watched old DVDs. Our church staff is amazing and they are working so hard to keep as much ministry going as possible. The needs of the world, Italy, Spain, China, Iran, and New York City drive me to my knees in intercessory prayer, and that is a good thing. I recognize our interwoven existence, and that each one of us depends upon the toil and wellbeing of everyone else. Remember that famous phrase, “No man is an island” — it was written by John Donne during the plague, and at a time when he himself thought he was dying from it.

Ultimately, I have learned that I am still learning. The Lord is still teaching. And life continues under his shepherding hand. All of these bring forth praise from my lips.

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Decide What To Do With The Time

This famous quote from Tolkien has been rattling around in my brain for the better part of a week. It squeezed out of my mouth in Sunday’s sermon, perhaps the last sermon for a while as we all hunker down for COVID-19 contingencies. It is one of the better sentiments on crisis one can internalize.

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 1, Chapter 2

First an observation completely applicable to my thoughts. In the novel, this line comes very early as Gandalf is letting Frodo in on the history and darkness of the ring. The line helps set us up as the reader for the peril that is to come, and for Gandalf’s philosophy in how to handle it. By contrast, in the movie version, this conversation is moved deeper into the film, in the Mines of Moria.

I love the movies but one complaint I have is Hobbits should all be fatter

This matters a bit. The movie has these words when the trouble of the times is fully on them, after the Council of Elrond, after Weathertop, and after they are trapped inside the dark mine. We know the story will get darker yet, but from Frodo’s perspective, in the movie, he probably thinks it is already as horrible as it can get. Getting these words in the middle of it is one thing.

But Tolkien wrote them at the beginning. When Frodo is still in The Shire, around his fire, with clean clothes and a full belly. In the novel, Frodo’s words are about trying to avoid difficult times altogether, in which Gandalf basically says, ‘Hard times can’t be avoided’ In the movie, Frodo’s words are about ‘I wish I wasn’t in this horrible time.’ to which Gandalf essentially says, “we all do.”

The highlighted page from my copy of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

Why am I thinking so much about this exchange? Because we are in the beginning of some very difficult times. Gandalf is telling us we can’t do a thing about the fact we live in these times, and pining away for the past–even if that past was only two months ago–doesn’t help. We have to choose, decide, how we’re going to react and behave right now. And to answer that, there are three options.

  1. We can live in denial. “There is no threat,” or “It is all hyped up and overreaction,” or perhaps, “I’m young so it will not bother me.”
  2. We can panic and live in fear. These are the emotions which are producing bare grocery store shelves and people talking about the end of the world.
  3. We can choose to be true to our calling in Christ and fulfill the great commandment.

As you might imagine, I encourage you to reject denial, misinformation, conspiracy theories, and all sorts of bad ideas. I also think we need to not feed the panic and fear. So how do we fulfilling our caring in Christ? How do we rise above it and decide the noble, highest use of the time we’ve been given?

It starts with perspective. The Lord put you on the planet to love people, which means to be a helper. You can help the entire world by practicing social distancing, follow the recommendations of health officials, and staying home.

But that is not the only help. I encourage you all to be proactive. Reach out to your neighbors and friends and make certain they are okay. You probably have vulnerable people near you — older people, those with chronic immune illnesses, COPD, and other respiratory issues — and these people shouldn’t be anywhere near a grocery store or in the population right now. So you can help. Make sure they know you’re available to go to the store for them, deliver meds from the pharmacy, or just to call and say hi.

It also helps everyone when you stay calm. Calmness comes from remembering two things. One, this is not the first crisis we’ve had. We are being asked to stay home and watch Netflix, our grandparents were asked to leave home and fight the Nazis. See the difference? The second thing it helps to remember is none of this was a surprise to God. He knew it was coming, and he has prepared you–indeed if I may — he has chosen you for this time. This is your time to shine; so do it. And do it well.

It will also help if you smile. Say encouraging words. Be playful. Give thanks. Worship the Lord. Love.

It is when times are tough that our true character emerges and our actual core values take center stage. I believe we are a noble people, and I believe the Lord is working right now to show us how to live better and behave better by loving each other.

But these aren’t my only thoughts. Time is subject here from Tolkien’s novel. Literally, not figuratively, literally many of us have been given time. Time at home. Make the most of it. Play games with your family. Work on a project you’ve been putting off. Paint the deck. Increase your exercise routine. How about read a book — I happen to know some great books by this Greening guy . . .

Get creative. Paint a picture. Write a poem.

Clean the house. Mop the floors. Call your mom/dad/brother and talk.

Read the Old Testament. Read the New Testament. Study the words of Jesus. Pray more. Pray different.

You and I can’t get out of the time we live in nor can we change it. What we can do, is our time well. This, right now, is the time we’ve been given. What are you going to do with yours?

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James 5:7-10 Advent Three: A Meditation

The third week of Advent brings us to what might be the perfect Advent text. James 5:7-10 is a strong exhortation to get our act together because, “The Lord is coming.”  The first line in the Latin Bible even has the very word: patients igniter estate craters issue ad adventum Domini. 

Let’s continue in, English.


Be patient, therefore, brothers and sisters*, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and late rains.

My father was a farmer. He loved to watch things grow. However, patience is not a word that anyone would apply to him, and I think to most farmers. Farmers always are impatient. They can’t wait to break the dirt in the spring. They can’t wait to get the seed in the ground. The can’t wait for it sprout. They can’t wait for it to blossom. They can’t wait until the crop is ripe. They can’t wait until the harvest. They can’t wait until it is sold or stored away. And finally, they rarely can wait until they eat it. This is why you see farmers and growers of all types eating their tomatoes/peaches/grapes right off the vine.

Farmers are not patient by nature. They are also never happy with the weather. James points to the early and late rains in the growing season. Farmers always complain about rain. There is either not enough or there is too much or it comes at the wrong times.

Did James know any farmers?

I wager he did, and that might very well be the point. We wait like farmers do: patiently impatient knowing there is nothing we can do except anticipate the day when the crops are gathered and our work is done. Until then, we keep at it.

You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.

The word here, establish, is usually a pretty good word, but may I suggest ‘strengthen’ or ‘firm up’ as a better rendering here. Just as a farmer strengthens her crop by tending it, protecting it, making certain it has good soil, so too should we strengthen our heart. This is not a passive, “let’s hope we have strong hearts” but is an encouragement to make active steps to strengthen our hearts.

Going back to my father, he used to put fertilizer in the soil to strengthen it. Virgin soil didn’t need this, but when you’ve been farming the same land over time, it needs help. Growing things saps the energy and vitality from the dirt.

Just as life drains the love out of our hearts. Hurts, pains, betrayals, lies, and disappointments weaken our hearts. But Jesus is coming, so we must take steps to strengthen our hearts. We strengthen our heart by exercising faith, practicing discipline, and feeding on the word of God.

Do not grumble against one another, brothers and sisters*, so that you may not be judged, behold the Judge is standing at the door.

By my count this the third time in a row James has warned us that Jesus is coming. This time it is as our Judge. What is he judging? Specifically here, how we speak about our church family and other Christ-followers. Grumbling is not a good idea.

What I like here is the sense of the judge at the door, but what he is doing is not coming in. Instead, he is standing there, eavesdropping. He is standing at the door listening to what is happening inside. Can you see in your mind the possible scenario James has built? The Lord Jesus, our judge, is standing outside the door listening to how we are talking about one another.

What does Jesus hear you saying about your brothers and sisters in Christ? He is there, standing at the door listening, and any minute he may walk in, he may come in (adventum in Latin, parousia in Greek (vv 7 & 8) and catch you red-handed spewing slander, gossip, and hatred toward your brother or sister in Christ. How embarrassing.

As an example of suffering and patience, brothers and sisters*, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

The lectionary reading ends here; but James will go on to talk about Job. I wouldn’t think naturally about Job as a prophet, but that is the kind of suffering James has in mind. Job suffered in his body through ailment and disease. Job suffered through grief at the loss of his children. Job suffered economically as all his wealth was stripped away. Job suffered relationally as his wife was at odds with him. Job suffered socially from the accusations of wrongdoing by his ‘friends’. Job suffered spiritually because he never understood why God would do this to him.

To be human is to suffer. I have come to believe this is what defines us. James teaches us that Jesus is coming, and as we wait, we must wait in the context of our suffering the way the old timers did. What does this mean? It means we make Job’s confession about the coming of the Lord; a confession that ends, strangely enough, with an appeal to a weakening heart, which no doubt needs to be strengthened by faith in the midst of adversity.

Oh that my words were written! Oh that they were inscribed in a book! Oh that with an iron pen and lead they were engraved in the rock forever! For I know that my redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me!”

Job 19:23-28
*I have annotated the ESV text with ‘brothers and sisters’ where it says ‘brothers’ because the Greek word here, adelphoi, is gender inclusive and is a better reading of the textual meaning rather than the exclusive term ‘brothers’. There are three instances here in this text of that usage.

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Psalm 72:1-8 Advent Two: A Meditation

The readings for the second week of advent (Year A, 2019) have a theme of the rule of the future Davidic king bringing peace and harmony to the world: Romans 15 speaks to the scope of this reign as over the Jews and Gentiles, Matthew 3 is the summary of John the Baptist’s preaching in preparation for the coming of this Davidic King, Isaiah 11 is more specific about the stump of Jesse which will arise and bring the new age.

The Psalm reading intrigues me. Psalm 72:1-8 is a series of petitions to the Lord, prayers, regarding the rule of an earthly Hebrew king for certain, but with an eye on the eventual one who would fulfill the hope of the ages as the eternal king. My instinct tells me Psalm 72 was probably read at the installation of kings, or composed for the installation of a specific king. One notes, however, the backhanded nature of these petitions: praying for the king to do the right sorts of things indicates perhaps the King, or his predecessor, had failed to live up to the obligations and expectations of a righteous leader.


Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to the royal son! May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice.

There is a lot of poetics in the opening lines. First the careful reader will notice justice and righteousness are first asked to be given to the king, then these same attributes are asked for the people through the work of the king. Did you notice the change in order? In verse 1 we have justice then righteousness and in verse 2 we have righteousness and then justice.

I wonder if there isn’t some kind of parallelism here with the judging. There certainly is in verse 1 where “king” aligns with “royal son” forming a chiasm with “righteousness” and “justice” as roughly synonymous. If this works In verse two as well, then there is no chiasm but “your people” would then be synonymous with “your poor” as the same basic group of people. Poor people are God’s people. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

On an interpretative level, these two verses are a plea for the leadership to be fair to all people and not just the wealthy who can bribe and buy justice. It makes a person think about the fact, not opinion, but fact, how much you can afford to pay a lawyer goes a long way in determining wether you go to jail or not in this country. We have to be careful that we don’t take this plea be able punishing the right or even complaining that the wealth get justice. This is not about envy; it is about asking for the poor to get a fair shake in justice.

Let the mountains bear prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness!

The third verse shifts subjects momentarily from the king to mountains. The request is that the mountains will prosper and provide economic provision for the people. Putting this in context with the surround text, our eyes can focus on what the person praying is really concerned for. It is not the wellbeing of the king or the wellbeing of the mountains. Rather, the concern for the prayer is the wellbeing of the people. He is praying that both the king and the mountains be good to the people.

This verse reminds us it is not improper to pray for prosperity and for blessings. As this year ends and a new one is on the horizon, it is proper and biblical to ask the Lord to let ‘the mountains’ or ‘the factory’ or ‘the stock market’ or ‘the sales numbers’ bear prosperity for you and your family. Always keep in mind, however, we are blessed that we may be a blessing.

May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the children of the needy, and crush the oppressor!

The subject goes back to the king, but we can still see who it is the petition is for — the poor people and their children. This is a prayer and is not necessarily what God is speaking, but is speech to God. In this speech we see the concern is with the oppressed and the needy. I wonder if people of faith too often make their prayers aimed at protecting the privileged and the powerful rather than the poor and the children of the poor.

There is a vitriol here as well. The prayer asks those who hurt the children and the needy be crushed. Not punished, but crushed. Before you move on, let that language settle in on your soul.

May they fear you while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, through all generations! May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth! In his days may the righteous flourish, and peace abound, till the moon be no more.

It is a little confusing the way this starts — “may they fear you” — but this is not a valid reading. Likely the text should read “May he live” –thus asking the Lord for the king to live a long life in the idiom of ‘as long as the sun endures.’

The poetics continue as the work of the king is described as a blessed rain that falls on freshly cut grass watering the earth. If we put these together, we have an appeal for the king to be as faithful and stable as nature that allows for the a life filled with shalom. Can you smell the grass? Can you feel the warm rain on your skin? See the moon glowing in the night sky? See the sun’s last rays on a winter’s evening as the fire burns in the hearth? These are the feelings the pray invokes as it asks for good governance that creates the atmosphere of wellbeing for everyone.

May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth!

Amen–May this kind of dominion rule from sea to shining sea and up and down all the mighty rivers.


This Hebrew prayer inspired me to put my own words to the same thoughts — which I think is a powerful way to understand the Psalms — ancient prayers to inform our daily prayers. I crafted it as a national prayer, but keep in mind the best hermeneutic of this would likely be a prayer crafted around the Kingdom of God rather than national entities. I chose national entities to keep it in the political context of the original writing; to help us, and by us I mean me, understand what the original implications might have been:

Help our government to value justice, O God, and our leaders to be righteousness.

May our judges be filled with righteousness, and may the poor find justice in every aspect of life.

May all of the economic engines of our nation be prosperous, let them be fair and just so that no one is left behind and no one is exploited, manipulated, or used.

May the President and those in charge of executing the laws have compassion on those who are needy, regardless of where they come from or what language they speak or who they pray to. Give him a vision and passion to be a protector of children.

May our nation, for as long as she is just and righteous, stand as long as the sun sits at the center of our solar system and the moon waxes and wanes above our heads; may our values of freedom and liberty be like refreshing rain showers upon a world that is thirsty for hope.

May we accept your dominion over us, Lord Jesus Christ, from the Harbors of the East Coast to the beautiful shorelines of the West Coast, from the bountiful Valley of Texas to the expansive Great Lakes of the Midwest. May we experience your shalom forever and ever. Amen.