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A Prayer For The First Day of School 2021

Dear Lord, the buses are running and the backpacks are filled, lunches are made and pencils are sharpened. In many ways it feels normal, and so I make the normal prayers.

I pray for children to learn, about words, worlds, bugs, and books but also learn about themselves and to grow as people. May kindergarteners make messes and laugh, and fifth graders run too fast and hard, and eight graders finds a way to not be awkward when their body shouts awkwardness, and may eleventh graders dream of changing the world.

Let these children make friends — good friends. Allow them to discover what their own passions are and what the right avenue of expression is. Let them make mistakes, then be gently corrected by a firm, but kind hand.

I pray for parents. Some are sending their children off for the first time, and some for the last time. Being a parent is the hardest work in the world, Lord, and I ask that you give these parents a special dispensation of grace.

We also pray for teachers — bless them for their heroic work. Let it be a fulfillment for them of their own true vocation. We ask that bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodians, and administration personnel all have years which are meaningful and significant, and that you will let their work be a blessing and not a frustration.

Our schools do so much more than teach, Lord, and as we have put this burden on that system, we ask that you help us to make it work. Allow the school to make certain every child has plenty of food to eat. If there are children who are being hurt or abused, allow justice to prevail. If a child needs special help with development or mental health, then let it be discovered and assessed in a helpful way.

So, Lord, these are the normal prayers. But we do not live in normal times. We live in COVID. This is our third year with this disease. I thank you for last year, that our school did a phenomenal job, but this year brings new fears, new variants, new rules. Protect our children and teachers, and Father I ask that soon a vaccine for children will emerge to take this pressure off, and to help us safeguard our most precious resource — the future.

There are other things we worry about, Father, and we bring these before you as well. Protect our children from bullets and evil people. Protect them from bad ideas, from the wolves who sneak in among the sheep and exploit trust and pervert innocence. Protect them from the poison that is seeping through our culture, poisons like division, politics, hate, and lies.

O Lord, we believe that you have given us children as a gift. We want to treat them that way, as a wonderful gift that confirms your blessing and that also teaches us about how we relate to you, as children who are always learning. Show each of us our part to play as parents, grandparents, neighbors, and friends.

May 2021, with all its challenges, be the greatest school year ever for our children and those who love them.

In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Pastoral Ministries And COVID-19

One of the aspects of pastoral ministries I take very seriously is the hospital visit. I know a lot of pastors do not do those any more, but I still think it is important. For most of my twenty five years of ministry, this has two phases. One phase is someone in a room, and in that room and it is just as you would expect, like a regular hospital visit. The biggest challenges in these situation are 1) getting them to turn the television down 2) finding a place to sit 3) not interfering with the medical folks coming and going. It is always important to remember, pastorally, you are on their turf when in the hospital and you must accommodate whatever they have going on.

The second phase of this, is what I think is the most important, and that is pre-op. I have never had any problem walking to the front desk, saying I am so-and so’s pastor, then calling down to get clearance from the patient, and then they walk me down — usually to the last stop before the patient goes in. It is in this setting that I read a little scripture, talk about eternal things, anoint them with oil, and then pray with them for a successful surgery, wisdom for the doctor, a speedy recovery, and no long term problems. The greatest challenges to this was 1) arriving at just the right time, 2) not staying too long, and 3) finding your way back out when finished because those places are a maze.

COVID-19 changed all of that.

I remember the visit I was trying to make the very day they changed the policies at one of our local hospitals and was denied access. I did leave behind a little “prayer bear” from one of our ministries that I take to patients in the hospital.

One of our little prayer bears

For over a year now, hospital visits have been prohibited across the board. In this in between time I have prayed on the phone with a lot of people and visited them in their yard the night before, all masked up and often wearing gloves. Sometimes people prefer to come by my study at church — it feels a little more official, I think for some folks.

Now, though, some hospitals are opening up, our local hospital is, for the Phase One kind of visit. I’ve been able to see people in their rooms the last three or four weeks and that is very nice. It feels almost normal.

The Phrase Two type, though, still seems out-of-reach. I was reminded of this yesterday when we called a hospital to find out if I would be able to do that and was told “You can pray in the lobby before the patient checks in.”

What I am wondering is, as a spiritual guide, if the hospitals will ever open this back up to us as a possibility. I feel like there is a good chance they will not, which is unfortunate. It deprives people of faith of a holistic approach to their well-being.

What I am working through is how this change will combine and steamroll with the rapidly increasing trend toward sending people home the same day of their procedure. More and more surgeries are ‘day surgeries’ or perhaps ‘overnight’ surgeries. The window of opportunity for seeing someone in the hospital has been shrinking steadily. When I first started pastoring in the mid-90s, if a woman had a hysterectomy she was often in the hospital fo a week. Now she is home that afternoon. Back surgeries were usually long stays, but now they schedule them at 6AM and have the patients out the for by four.

I am not complaining about this from a medical perspective — although we all know these rushed times are the result of insurance and not healthcare — but instead my concern is how do you do meaningful hospital ministry in these accelerated programs when COVID-19 protocols are in play? The answer will probably involve some kind of hybrid approach that involves the night before the surgery prayer in home, Sunday at church prayer, video-calling people in the hospital, and the incredibly rare opportunities to hold someones hadn’t, touch their forehead, and pray with them.

What I refuse to do is surrender the playing field, so to speak, and walk away from the sick, the hurting, and the afflicted. As things change, we who give pastoral care will have to work hard to stick our nosey little face in and ask the questions like, “If your surgery doesn’t work out the way we are hopeful it will, are you ready for eternity? Have you told the people you love all the things you need to tell them? What is your biggest fear going into this? How is your relationship with Jesus?” What is more, those we minister too will have to help us, because we’re navigating waters that are fresh and new to us and are contrary to both our training and our temperament.

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A Year of STUPID COVID

That is what we call it in the office here at church. Stupid COVID.

Today (March 11) seems to be the day we as a nation are marking the one year awareness of C-19. As a caveat, I would like to say I distinctly remember being aware of it by late January and all through February. I think what we are remembering is when people recognized how serious it was with the cancellation of NBA games and the public announcement that Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson tested positive for COVID-19.

I know when I took it seriously — it was March 4 when Sony MGM announced they were postponing the release of No Time To Die, the newest James Bond film and probably Daniel Craig’s last turn as 007. I remember my thought process very clearly — studios are designed to make money, and if they see the risk of releasing it in April then this must be quite the problem. The second real stand-up moment for me was March 13 when the NCAA announced it was cancelling the annual basketball tournament. March Madness is a huge money maker for these colleges. Cancelling it was serious. The best way to judge what people really think and feel is to follow the money. These two cancellations were demonstrable that people were afraid enough to throw money away.

At present, a year down the line, I am very optimistic about the future. It seems like the vaccines are working. Case numbers are down. People are rolling up their sleeves. I am very hopeful that by May or June we can be back to something like normal.

Since everyone else is dong it, let me make some observations about the past year.

  1. I am very impressed with the vast majority of Americans in general, people in my community in specific, and our church in the extreme. Most of us have gone above and beyond to help others, to take precautions, and to support the decisions that needed to be made.
  2. At the same time, the number of people who flippantly put other people’s health in jeopardy and show no concern for their neighbor disgusts me. COVID-19 has showed us who people really are and what they value.
  3. The pandemic has already changed us and how we interact. I’m pretty sure for the rest of my life when I fly or am in a crowded space, I will put on a mask. I know it has changed government and our expectations of it. It has also changed church. I don’t know if we will ever be completely comfortable in a potluck or really crowded classrooms ever again.
  4. Let me speak about that government business for a second. For a variety of reasons, the pandemic demonstrated we were not ready for it. It was humbling for our nation, which is okay. Pride is a sin, and recognizing weaknesses is an important part of growth. My fear is there will be an overreaction in the other direction which will be too much reliance upon government to solve every personal issue. Wisdom will find that sweet spot of competency and preparedness.
  5. Still on the government bit — I fully support the COVID relief bill which just passed through Congress. However, we need to start thinking right now of how we are going to pay for it. My recommendation is we tax hard and fast the tech industry, particularly digital communications. These were the platforms that made a killing during COVID-19 because we all had to use their products. While restaurants and airlines and cruise ships and cinemas and concerts were closed Amazon was making mad bank. We should tax them specifically for recovery. After that, something like a 1% added income tax for everyone until the national debt is paid. That’s my big idea.
  6. The most valuable workers in our nation are medical workers, grocery store workers, truck drivers, childcare/education workers, and of course police officers. When the pandemic hit, these were the people we needed the most to keep us fed, supplied, and safe. How many parents now realize the work their school does for their children? All of us, I bet. I would like for our pay structures to reflect this. I’m not against athletes, entertainers, and CEO’s making as much money as they can negotiate for, but I am against the pathetic salary structure of people we so desperately need. We will have the money to do this, because pent up demand is going to set the worldwide economy on soaring heights. Soaring.
  7. Our church faired very well through this and I adamantly believe our church is the greatest church in the world. We took a super-cautious approach from the beginning. Nevertheless, I will freely admit it has been the hardest year of ministry I have ever experienced. It has taken a toll on my soul. Some of it is the amount of work we had to do to reinvent almost everything we did in order to maintain ministry, but most of it is the very negative, hateful, and personal attacks people have made. The number of people who have hurt me is very small, but the cuts are deep because they are relational.
  8. As to church in general, I think the church in American, at least, coming out of this will be smaller, poorer, but stronger. Some people who got out of the habit or who have filled the gap with other things, will never come back. Some folks who are angry at cautious protocols will stop giving. That’s okay, but the Lord is always using the ebb and flow of life to separate the wheat and the chaff.
  9. I am thankful for Zoom and Facebook Live because it has helped us stay in touch and connected. However, we have learned in the pandemic that remote learning and digital classrooms are a poor substitute for in-person instruction. This is true of schools and churches where learning is key. My perception is these technologies will be helpful in the business world because transformation and learning is not the goal, but information exchanges.
  10. Many people who learned to work from home will never return full-time to an office environment. Many people who used to travel for work will see their travel diminished as they’ve learned to do it from home via conference call. This will change the workplace and our culture, particularly parenting. What we have to do is remember that until the modern world, this was normal. Everyone worked from home before the Industrial Revolution.
  11. We are not out of this yet. In Texas, 202 people died yesterday from COVID-19 and 1,477 in the United States. We need to keep vigilance until we have the necessary 70-80% of the population vaccinated. That means masks, distance, hand sanitizer, and caution until at least mid-April. The weather here is getting better, so we are moving our worship services outside again in two weeks. Why? Because it is safer. Ignore the politicians and instead remember the words of Jesus and love your neighbor. Don’t be selfish and don’t give into the fatigue. Now is the time to stay vigilant. Don’t be afraid, but exercise love and self-control.

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Advent 2020: 2 Thessalonians 3:6-18

During the season of Advent, I am translating from Greek to English the weekday epistle readings out of the Daily Lectionary of the Book of Common Prayer.

Saturday, 12 December 2020 2 Thessalonians 3:6-18


The Text

6. And we command you, brothers and sisters, in the name of the Lord Jesus Messiah, avoid any brother or sister walking without discipline and not in accordance with the traditions you received from us.

7. For you yourselves know how necessary it is to imitate us, because we were not undisciplined among you. 

8. We ate no one’s free bread. Instead, we worked in labor and toil night and day to not be a burden to you.

9. Not that we do not have the right, but we gifted you an example in how to imitate us. 

10. Indeed, when we were with you, we commanded this to you; if anyone doesn’t want to work, neither shall he eat.

11. We hear about some among you who walk around idly working at nothing and bothering those who are working. 

12. To those doing these things, we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Messiah that they work quietly and eat their own bread.

13. Brothers and sisters, do not grow tired of doing what is right. 

14. If anyone does not obey our word in this letter, you must take note not to associate with him so that he may be ashamed.

15. You must not consider him an enemy but as a brother. 

16. Now may the Lord of peace give you his peace through all time and in all places. The Lord be with you.

17. This greeting is in my hand – Paul – it is the signature in every letter I write.

18. The grace of our Lord Jesus Messiah be with all of you.  


Commentary

The Thessalonian correspondences end with a shocking turn. Way back in the beginning of 1 Thessalonians (1:3), Paul commended their hard work ethos. It was one of the attributes he was thankful for and that helped the Thessalonians become so famous. But now, things have changed. Reading the text it becomes clear that A) Some people are not working. Paul calls this ‘undisciplined’ behavior. B) These people are begging for food (and money) from others who are working. C) The people who are not working are disturbing the labor of others. D) This behavior is contrary to what Paul taught and demonstrated when he was with them and it has made him angry they are using his words to justify their laziness. To show this frustration, verse 8 has two words that both mean work and taken together kind of mean something like “we worked our tails off” I modern vernacular. I used ‘labor’ and ‘toil’, but you get the drift.

The question for Bible students is, “What happened at Thessalonica?” The answer seems to be theological in nature. It appears that people had come to the conclusion that since Jesus was returning very soon then there was no sense or need at all to work and prepare for the future. It is the, “If I knew I was going to die next month, I’m going to quit my job and spend as much money as fast as I can” kind of thing. This is the plot to more than one book or movie.

Paul calls them out on this and tells them, in no uncertain terms, to knock it off. One of my favorite lines in all the Bible is found in verse 10: “If anyone does not want to work, neither shall he eat.” Within the community of faith there is zero tolerance for freeloaders. This is a different from helping the poor or needy. We are not talking about that situation or benevolent needs. What we are talking about are brothers and sisters who can work, should work, but instead choose not to and rely instead on others hard work.

I see two very practical applications here. The first is the obvious economic incentive that teaches us labor and work is good. Work is not bad, and we were made for meaningful productivity. The second, though, is a little more nuanced to get at. Dare I even say, it takes a little work. Just as a person who is lazy and uses theology to justify it is wrong, so too is it an abrogation of our commitments to not take work and care for things because we think the end is near. I’d like to point out the general feeling among most Christians in the 1970s and 80s was that Jesus would soon return and therefore, things like saving money for the future, environmental care, and debt spending were ignored. What did it matter if Jesus was coming soon?

Well, Jesus didn’t come.

To be sure, he will someday, but the result was ill prepared people, a decimated environment, and debt as a way of life.

Oh, you want another example? How about this one: Since God will take care of me and protect me (a theological excuse) it doesn’t matte whether I wear a face covering to protect others from COVID-19. After all, I don’t have a spirit of fear (theological excuse). Meanwhile, people are dying and hospitals are full. You see the connection here? A person’s lazy theological excuse which justifies their inaction has caused a great deal of labor and strife (even death) for someone else. This is the opposite of loving your neighbor as yourself.


Questions For Application

  1. Can you think of someone who has used theological justifications to not do something difficult?
  2. Would you work if your livelihood (food on the table paying bills) didn’t depend on it? If yes, what kind of work would yo want to do?
  3. Paul writes, ‘Do not grow tired of doing what is right.’ This pandemic has worn me down and worn me out — I find myself weary. If you are like me, what we do to maintain our spiritual stamina?