COVID-19, Faith

Attending to spiritual needs during the pandemic

I haven’t been to church since the first of March. That Sunday, Hoosiers were just starting to get sick from the coronavirus. We sent messages to all of our members discouraging them from hugging and even shaking hands. We didn’t pass the communion plates but rather asked people to come to the front to take the emblems, which elders handed them while wearing disposable gloves.

West Park Christian Church

The following week the state shut down, and so did we.

You may recall that we hired a pastor early in 2019 but by autumn it was clear we weren’t a mutual fit and he moved on. The elders, including me, had been sharing preaching duties with several guest preachers. Just before we shut down one of those guest preachers expressed interest in preaching for us every week until we found our new permanent pastor. We took him up on it.

We tried to offer worship and connection for our members. Our interim preacher recorded his weekly sermons on video and sent them to me for posting on Facebook. They went live every Sunday morning at 9 am. It wasn’t the same as worshiping in person, but many of our members appreciated the effort very much. We also began to have Zoom gatherings for our members, but they were poorly attended. Many of our members couldn’t make the technology work.

The city and state began to reopen in May. Curiously, they allowed churches to congregate well before they allowed any other large gatherings. We elders were not of one mind about how to proceed. A couple elders wanted to resume Sunday services right away so we could be in Christian community and take care of each other’s spiritual needs. I was staunch: reopening was irresponsible. To resume in-person services could result in our members becoming sick — and, given that many of our members are in high-risk categories, possibly even dying. The elders favoring reopening reasoned that our members should decide to opt in or out based on their own conscience and willingness to tolerate risk. There were good and valid points on both sides, but these difficult discussions were hard on the eldership.

We stayed closed for several weeks, reopening the first Sunday in July. But I and one other elder have not attended. We remain unwilling to place our families at risk.

Additionally, serious family stress has taken my attention almost fully away from West Park Christian Church. Except for the elders’ meetings over Zoom every couple weeks, I have neither time nor energy for the eldership.

Being an elder is not meant to be primarily an administrative role. Elders are meant to be involved with the congregation as shepherds. That was challenging enough for me before the pandemic because I live 30 minutes away from West Park, which is really a neighborhood church. It is impossible now.

I don’t know why it’s not been clear to me before, but it’s clear to me now: West Park’s elders really need to live in or near the neighborhood. Maybe the situation at West Park has evolved to this and I’m just now catching on. I don’t live in the neighborhood. I don’t believe I’m called to live in the neighborhood. I don’t want to live in the neighborhood.

Since lockdown Margaret and I have been watching the online services of North Point Church in Georgia together every Sunday morning. We both love the teaching of their pastor, Andy Stanley. He brings such a fresh perspective, always well reasoned from the Bible. We’ve benefited greatly from his sermons during these months.

But we both know we want to be in community with Christians again. We miss it greatly. But it’s not clear to us that we will return to West Park. We feel like our lives are leading us in a new direction, yet to be determined.

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Faith

A brief history of Christmas

While my church continues to search for a pastor, those of us in leadership are having to do all sorts of things a pastor normally does. It falls to me to bring the message during our Christmas Eve service tomorrow evening, which boggles my mind. I’ve been working on that message during my normal blogging time for more than a week now. I may try to cut down that message into a blog post for Christmas Day; wish me luck that I’ll find time. Meanwhile, the blog must go on, so I’m rerunning this Christmas post from December 23, 2015.


The Bible tells the story of Jesus’s birth twice: once in Matthew, once in Luke. But in neither telling, nor anywhere else in the New Testament, are we told to celebrate the event.

It is our choice to do this. God does not command it.

What's the Reason for the Season?

The closest the New Testament comes to telling us to celebrate anything is in Luke 22, when Jesus takes the last supper. After sharing the bread and wine with his disciples, he said, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

The Greek from which this is translated carries a connotation of repetition: keep doing this. Most churches interpret this to mean that we should do it, too.

I belong to a church that does it weekly. Some churches do it monthly or quarterly. I know of one that observes it annually. It has many names: the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, the Lord’s Evening Meal, and communion.

Meanwhile, it might surprise you to know that several Christian groups don’t celebrate Christmas. The United Church of God doesn’t. Neither do Jehovah’s Witnesses or Seventh-Day Adventists. And neither do some Churches of Christ, which is where I became a Christian. There are probably others. These churches believe that God doesn’t authorize this celebration, and that we should celebrate and worship him only as he authorizes through his scripture.

I used to agree with them. But over time I’ve come to see that their view on authority is too restrictive. Imagine your five-year-old child drawing you a picture, perhaps one of your family, and giving it to you with a smile — and you rejecting it, because you didn’t authorize it. How unloving. I believe God welcomes and smiles upon our good devotions to him, even when he has not explicitly called for them.

However, those churches correctly contend that December 25th was chosen to celebrate Christ’s birth because nonbelievers already celebrated various pagan winter festivals at about that time. It’s not like anybody knew Jesus’s exact birth date, and they felt sure it would be easier to convert nonbelievers if the church had a celebration then, too.

Some modern churches that don’t celebrate Christmas say they won’t honor a celebration based on something that isn’t true, or something with roots in pagan celebrations. I respect their choice, but believe that those origins are so obscure and remote today that they no longer matter. We have infused this season of celebration with new, valuable meaning.

But that meaning has been strong only relatively recently. Christians didn’t celebrate Christmas at all for the first few hundred years of the church. When they did start celebrating Christmas, it wasn’t yet the central celebration is has become today. At certain times in history, religious leaders even forbade celebrating Christmas to avoid excessive revelry.

In truth, the traditions Christians follow in celebrating Christmas are only a couple centuries old, and have become widespread only in the last hundred years or so, especially since the great prosperity that followed World War II.

And so it galls me when I hear Christians speak of there being a war on Christmas, or insist upon greetings of Merry Christmas, or otherwise decry a perceived weakening of Christmas as a central national religious holiday. Christmas is a devotion and celebration of our own creation. We should celebrate it if we want — but we should not force it on anyone who doesn’t want it.

Show people love instead, the kind God gives you despite your sin.

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Essay, Faith

The sacrifice of thanksgiving

First published 23 November 2013. I’m not by nature a happy person. That doesn’t mean I’m an unhappy person. I just don’t go around all day thinking sunshine, rainbows, and unicorns. I see the good and the bad.

I’m also a bit of a type-A personality. I have a considerable internal drive to make things better and to fix what is broken. I spend a lot of my time frustrated because I just can’t fix it all. Sometimes the problems are beyond my abilities, and frequently I lack the resources I need.

So you see where my focus is: more on the bad than the good. I’m aware of the good but I feel the bad.

The other day in some words in a psalm caused me to stop dead. From Psalm 50, verses 14-15 and 23:

Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving,
and perform your vows to the Most High,
and call upon me in the day of trouble;
I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.

The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me.

sacrifice of thanksgiving? I know all of these words individually, of course, but strung together in that order I struggled to understand them.

So I asked, because this came up during a Bible study. The leader said, “One way to look at it is that you’re giving up ingratitude. But thanksgiving itself really is a sacrifice.”

It left me more puzzled than satisfied.

But as I studied it and thought about it, I came to see that just because something is always wrong, and some things are very wrong, it is a sacrifice to set it aside for awhile and be grateful for what is good and right.

This helped me realize that I had lost touch with something important. 15 years ago, my life fell apart. And as I put my life back together, the bad days and bad things dwarfed the good. I had to search hard for the good. They were usually very small things, and they were always very few in number. But I looked for them, because finding something good in every bad day was the knot at the end of the rope to which I clung.

My living room in the morning
One small thing for which I am frequently surprisingly grateful: the morning sun streaming through my front windows. I love how the warm light plays against the wall.

Thanks to a lot of hard work over the past several years, there’s way more good than bad now. But I’m still that guy who wants to fix and improve things – and often that’s all I can think of.

It’s hard to sacrifice it and offer up thanksgiving to God.

Perhaps that’s why it’s a sacrifice. When things are truly going poorly, when the biggest thing I have to be thankful for is mighty small, it can really hurt to thank God for it. And for some reason, at least for me, when more is right than is wrong it’s easy to focus on the wrong. It is still surprisingly hard to thank God for what is good.

And a sacrifice – you should feel it. Otherwise it’s not a sacrifice.

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Essay, Faith

Forgiveness isn’t reconciliation

First published July 17, 2013. It makes me crazy when I hear it said (especially by preachers or others teaching the Christian faith) that when you forgive someone, you must reconcile, returning the relationship to where it was before. It’s not true.

Hibbs Ford Bridge

In my last post I wrote about why and how to forgive – to suffer the loss and bear the pain, to no longer hold anything against the person who harmed you, and to give up your desire to get even. You forgive so you can be at peace.

Reconciliation is a separate step. Where forgiveness is about letting go of the past, reconciliation is about committing to a future – and sometimes it is best for a relationship not to have a future.

Even among people who haven’t harmed us, there are some who are a fit for us and some who aren’t. We routinely choose our intimates, friends, and associates based on any number of factors – shared values, common interests, demonstrations of care and concern for our well-being, and simple appeal. We don’t have to be tight with every person we encounter. We can’t be; there are simply too many people!

God can be tight with everyone; he is perfect and infinite, after all. God’s ideal is forgiveness and reconciliation, and that’s what he offered us at the cross. Jesus’s death gives us both forgiveness from and reconciliation with God, if we accept it as a gift from him. We get to be in relationship with him again, and he will not retaliate against us for our sins. I think God feels deep, deep sadness over every one of us who won’t accept his gift of reconciliation. It is much how we would feel if one of our children thumbed his nose at us and never came home again.

Canadian River Bridge

God wants us to live in peace with everyone, but I don’t think he means for us to keep opening ourselves up to harm. When Jesus preached at the mount, he said something that is frequently misapplied to justify reconciliation with someone who will harm us again and again.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”

That’s Matthew 5:38-42, NIV. Jesus was exaggerating a little to make a point; his whole sermon was filled with such hyperbole. Seriously, do you think he means for us to find to a mugger in a blind alley and say, “Here’s my wallet and my phone, and have a nice day?” Jesus himself was struck in the face in John 18:22; he demonstrates his point in John 18:23 where he doesn’t present the other side of his face to his aggressor. He doesn’t hit back or argue, either; he remains peaceable. Jesus is only trying to tell us to let God have vindication and mete out justice.

1880 bridge

I think God wants us to love ourselves enough to choose people who treat us well and build us up.

So when someone harms you, ask yourself:

  • How much did you value the relationship? Highly, moderately, lightly, or not at all? You probably value highly the relationship with a parent, a child, or your best friend of 30 years. You probably place much lower value on the relationship with a distant acquaintance.
  • How much damage was done? Extreme, moderate, or light? For example, someone deliberately burning your house down is far worse than someone casually saying something offensive to you.
  • What does what the other person did say about their character? Was what they did way out of character for them, a one-time deal that is inherently unlikely to be repeated? Or was it consistent with who they are? It’s pretty simple: keep people with good character and shed people with bad character.
  • How well did the other person make amends? Fully, partially or imperfectly, or not at all? When someone harms you or lets you down, trust is damaged. Trust needs to be restored before reconciliation can be complete. Making amends is the first step in restoring trust. Trust builds over time as the other person continues to behave well.
Steel truss bridge, Mill Creek

The answers to these questions help you decide whether to reconcile fully, to end the relationship, or to redefine the relationship.

Let’s look at redefining the relationship for a minute, because it’s not an obvious outcome. It’s when you change the rules of the relationship to protect yourself.

In college, a buddy used to lend me his car sometimes. Once I brought it back with a slightly dented fender. I apologized all over myself. He told me it was all right, and that the little dent didn’t make his old beater look any worse. But he also said that he’d like it if I didn’t ask to borrow his car anymore. He was just as friendly to me after that, but there was this one limit to our relationship. Perhaps in time I could have rebuilt that trust and he might have let me borrow his car again, but college ended for us before that day came.

I once knew a woman with an alcoholic husband. She finally told him that while she loved him and didn’t want to leave him, she couldn’t tolerate his drinking anymore. She told him that when he came home drunk she would kick him out, change the locks, and cancel his debit card, for increasingly longer periods each time. When she let him come back home, she would treat him with love and respect. He eventually got into AA and got sober, but only after being kicked out like this a handful of times, the last time spending many months unwelcome at home.

US 36 Wabash River bridge

Still, there are just going to be times when it’s right to call it quits permanently. Many years ago someone who was supposed to love me hurt me instead, repeatedly, in breathtaking ways. It took me several years to forgive and heal from the abuse, and to be at peace again. There have been no amends made, not even an acknowledgement of what happened. I sometimes encounter that person. I am polite, but I keep interactions short and move on. I think it unwise to let that person be close to me in any way.

I’m thinking again about the college roommate who stiffed me for the $400 phone bill, whose story I told in my last post. He called me trying to apologize. He tried to rebuild my trust by sending me money every couple months towards the debt. Yet I spurned him until the debt was repaid in full. My heart was in the wrong place.

Thankfully, my friend forgave me for that.

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Essay, Faith

The mechanics of forgiveness

First published July 15, 2013. $400 bought my resentment and scorn.

Roadside flowers 2010

When I was in college, one of my roommates had a girlfriend who still lived in his hometown. He missed her a lot, and spent a couple hours on the phone with her every night. One day he abruptly quit school and moved back home to be with her.

The next phone bill was for $400. (Remember when we paid by the minute for long distance?) He’d left me no way to contact him, so there I was, left to pay this enormous bill. Oh my goodness was I ever angry.

After a couple months, he called and wanted to talk with me. With a huff, I said I wouldn’t take the call. He called a couple more times but I still wouldn’t have anything to do with him. But then he sent me a check for $50. Another small check followed, and later another, and then another, and after about six months he’d paid me back in full. And then I was able to let go of my anger. I forgave him, and I was willing to be his friend again.

And I had it all wrong. All wrong.

Roadside flowers

For those of us who follow God, it’s clear that God wants us to forgive and be reconciled when others fail us. Jesus even made it part of the model prayer: forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. The whole point of Jesus going to the cross was so that God could forgive us and be reconciled to us. Forgiveness and reconciliation are simply core to the Christian life. Yet the Bible is maddeningly silent on why (other than because God said so) and, especially, how we should do that.

To fill in some of those gaps, I’m going to have to invoke the Nazis. Please bear with me.

When I lived in Terre Haute, a woman named Eva Kor was frequently in the news because she built a holocaust museum there. Terre Haute might seem like the last place you’d expect to find such a museum. But that’s where Eva ended up after she was liberated from the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Eva had a twin sister, Miriam. When Eva’s family arrived at Auschwitz, the girls were separated from their family, whom they never saw again. They certainly all died in the gas chambers. Meanwhile, Eva was injected with something – bacteria, a virus, something deadly – and was left to die. This was the practice of Dr. Josef Mengele, who gathered twins in the camps to experiment on them. He would inject one twin and wait for death, then quickly kill the other and autopsy both bodies to compare them.

Hello, Spring!

Unexpectedly, Eva survived her injection. At about the same time, the camp was liberated and Eva and Miriam were freed. But can’t you imagine how Eva must have felt? Her anger, resentment, and emotional pain had to be off the charts.

Yet in time she chose to forgive. In 1993, Eva flew to Germany to meet with one of the doctors who worked at Auschwitz. They went together to the camp, which still stands as a memorial to the slaughter. And there, in front of reporters and cameras, she said it: “In my own name, I forgive all Nazis.”

You would not believe how angry this made many of the other concentration-camp survivors. Their pain and anger was just too deep for them to let go. But Eva Kor is certain that she did the right thing. She will tell you that her forgiveness does not mean she has forgotten what happened. She just chooses not to hold it against the Nazis anymore, so that she can be at peace.

Peace – this is why we should forgive. Holding on to anger, resentment, and bitterness harms us. Like a loving parent, God does not want to see us harmed. And when we harbor those feelings, it can lead us to treat others poorly, or to retaliate against the one who harmed us. God doesn’t want to see us harm any of his other children, either. Even if you don’t follow God, peace is an incredibly compelling reason to forgive.

First color

To forgive means simply to let go of resentment, to no longer hold something against someone. It means that you accept what happened to you. It doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. It doesn’t mean that you agree with what happened or think it is right. It also doesn’t mean that you automatically have to restore the relationship with the person who harmed you. It means only that you take the hit, suffer the loss, bear the pain, and give up your right to get even. The pain will eventually subside, and you will be left with peace.

Sometimes it takes a very long time for the pain to subside. Consider Eva Kor, who announced her forgiveness almost 50 years after the fact. I haven’t had anything as monstrous happen to me as happened to Eva, but I’ve learned a few things about how to forgive, and here they are.

  1. Don’t wait for someone who has hurt you apologize or to make it right. They might never. Sure, it’s easier to forgive then, but if you wait for that, you will carry your pain until you do.
  2. Pour out your heart to God. Let him know the pain you feel. Ask him to heal you, to ease your pain. If you don’t believe in God, pour your heart out to a trusted friend.
  3. But try not to keep turning it over in your mind, because it can become a self-defeating bad habit. When you find yourself ruminating, distract yourself. Go to a movie, get out of town, call a friend – fill your mind with something else.
  4. Keep asking God to bless that person, to watch over and protect that person, and to lift that person up. Remember Matthew 5:43-45: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Again, if you don’t follow God, then decide within yourself to always wish that person well.)
  5. Cultivate compassion for the person who harmed you. Try to understand why they may have behaved that way – what happened to them that made them behave so badly toward you? We all have a backstory that explains who we are and how we behave. This isn’t meant to excuse their behavior. It’s just meant to soften your heart.
  6. Some days you’ll wake up willing to forgive but as the day goes on your anger and pain will be more intense than ever. This is just how it goes sometimes. Forgiveness can be a day-by-day thing. When this happens, just get up tomorrow and decide to forgive anew.

Can you see how forgiveness is a process? The bigger the hurt, the bigger the loss that must be grieved, and that takes time and attention.

What do you do to forgive that I haven’t listed? Please share in the comments. And in my next post, I’ll talk about reconciliation – why it’s a separate step from forgiveness, and when it may not be a good idea, even though it’s God’s ideal.

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Essay, Faith, Personal

Unrightable

First published Dec. 18, 2008. A friend has wanted to talk lately about the hard work of forgiveness, so I’ve been thinking about what I’ve learned about it over the past few years.

No More Sake
Photo credit: Matt Reinbold

Not long enough ago I hurt someone pretty badly and was hurt back as badly in return. We had cast down the china teacup of our relationship and it shattered. The best repair we could manage leaked through its glued seams. It wouldn’t hold and we came apart for good.

That experience taught me a lesson that seemed paradoxical at the time but is now so obvious that it’s elementary: Getting over being hurt means accepting the pain. It doesn’t go away as long as you deny it. It doesn’t go away as long as you ruminate on it, where it builds resentment. Acceptance is the only way through; acceptance accomplishes most of the healing. As I worked at simply letting myself hurt – and it hurt a lot – the pain diminished and disappeared, and I came to no longer hold anything against that person.

Because I’m given to foolish fantasies of a harmonious world, I also learned a second, more difficult lesson. I always thought that when I forgave, it was to be as though the wrong never happened and that I should be reconciled to the one who hurt me. God says that when he forgives, he remembers our sins no more. He gives second, fifth, ninety-fourth, and seventy-times-seventh chances. But while God loves reconciliation, he also does not want me to keep putting myself in harm’s way. Two people can simply not be good for each other. Maybe one or both have a nature that’s toxic to the other. Maybe the number or severity of past hurts make it too hard to rebuild trust. Maybe their needs conflict in too many ways. So sometimes the best way I can care for myself is to let the other person go. I’m sure that a few people are best off having let me go, too.

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