Do You Need An Anchor?

Anchors are essential when howling storms threaten to tear us away from sanity and hope. The trying circumstances brought about by the unseen nemesis known as COVID-19 demand that we plunge beneath the thin veneer of pop spiritual culture and drink deeply from stalwarts of the Ancient Church. Between now and Easter, I hope to shed light from forgotten beacons from our collective Church past. If they are familiar to you, rejoice and drink again from our common fountain. If they are new, welcome to a world of eternal benefit buried beneath layers of dust and disuse.

Read and relish the timeliness of The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians written by Clement of Rome late in the first century:

“But not to dwell upon ancient examples, let us come to the most recent spiritual heroes. Let us take the noble examples furnished in our own generation. Through envy and jealousy, the greatest and most righteous pillars [of the Church] have been persecuted and put to death. Let us set before our eyes the illustrious apostles. Peter, through unrighteous envy, endured not one or two, but numerous labours and when he had at length suffered martyrdom, departed to the place of glory due to him. Owing to envy, Paul also obtained the reward of patient endurance, after being seven times thrown into captivity, compelled to flee, and stoned. After preaching both in the east and west, he gained the illustrious reputation due to his faith, having taught righteousness to the whole world, and come to the extreme limit of the west, and suffered martyrdom under the prefects. Thus was he removed from the world, and went into the holy place, having proved himself a striking example of patience. To these men who spent their lives in the practice of holiness, there is to be added a great multitude of the elect, who, having through envy endured many indignities and tortures, furnished us with a most excellent example. . . . These things, beloved, we write unto you, not merely to admonish you of your duty, but also to remind ourselves. For we are struggling on the same arena, and the same conflict is assigned to both of us. Wherefore let us give up vain and fruitless cares, and approach to the glorious and venerable rule of our holy calling. Let us attend to what is good, pleasing, and acceptable in the sight of Him who formed us. Let us look stedfastly to the blood of Christ, and see how precious that blood is to God, which, having been shed for our salvation, has set the grace of repentance before the whole world. Let us turn to every age that has passed, and learn that, from generation to generation, the Lord has granted a place of repentance to all such as would be converted unto Him.”

Scratched onto parchment two thousand years ago, Clement’s admonition is as relevant as this morning’s headlines. “Let us turn to every age that has passed, and learn that, from generation to generation, the Lord has granted a place of repentance to all such as would be converted unto Him.” Turn aside from today’s stress and frustration, forge a quiet place, and turn your heart toward Christ in contrition and expectation. He will meet you, take you by the heart, and walk with you into his holy sanctuary of rest.

How To Live With the Coronavirus

How will you live with the COVID-19 pandemic? Whether we want to admit it or not, each of us will answer this question for ourselves. This is not the time to bury our heads in the sand and pretend we can evade the ripple effects of a pandemic. It is, however, a grand opportunity to flesh out what it means to live as Christ.

According to Francis Collins, Director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health:

“If you look at the rates of new cases that are being diagnosed, we’re on an exponential curve. That curve, some would say, places us only about eight days behind Italy. If that’s true, we have only a very short period of time before this becomes an obvious national crisis with many people presenting with serious illness and hospitals quickly becoming very stressed with the ability to handle all of these sick people, especially older people who are at higher risk and who may need not just a hospital bed but even a ventilator.”

Collins goes on to speak about moral and ethical issues such as the importance of selflessness in the midst of a pandemic. “I think we as a nation have to get into a place of not just thinking about ourselves, but thinking about everybody else around us, and particularly the most vulnerable people—those who are older and those people with chronic diseases.” (From an article in “The Atlantic”)

Eventually, the virus will subside and life will piecemeal return to normal. The question of the hour is what our memory on the other side of this will remind concerning our behavior during the pandemic. Will I reflect in regret that I acted selfishly, hoarding and hating? Or, will I think back on moments of grace in which ministry transpired in the name of kindness and generosity? Will my predominate memory be one of paralysis and self-importance, or will it be of compassionate care of the elderly, family solidarity, contentment with our daily bread, and divine dependence rather than stoic self-reliance. This crisis will eventually pass and offer ample time to consider whether or not we were among those who acted out the Golden Rule (St. Matthew 7:12) and implemented the Great Commandment (St. Matthew 22:35-40).

My life matters in measure of how much other lives matter to me. As Thomas Merton wrote, “No man is an island.” Frederick Buechner touched on this as well, “The life I touch for good or ill will touch another life, and in turn another, until who knows where the trembling stops or in what far place my touch will be felt.” I am to respond to the coronavirus in the same way that in ordinary circumstance I show my faith in Christ to be vital and perpetually transforming. In other words, live today like your actions count for eternity—because they will.

Distraction

“Once you become aware that the main business that you are here for is to know God, most of life’s problems fall into place of their own accord.” ~J. I. Packer

What could provide more solace of soul, or so I thought, than attending Ash Wednesday service at our community’s Anglican Church? My anticipated retreat into introspection began as expected with priests advancing ceremoniously up the center aisle on their way to the altar. I stood with the other communicants in relative silence, and took my seat as the Deacon instructed. It was at that moment that the sacred space was shattered by the cries of a small child, followed by similar cacophony in stereo from across the sanctuary. I mentally allowed the initial vocal flurry to pass nonplussed thinking the worst was behind me, and returned my attention to the serious matter at hand—namely, sinful transgression and its remedy in the Cross. As I listened intently to the reading from the Old Testament, a whirring sound kicked in ahead of me and to my left. I sat on the third pew from the front, and seated just in front of me was a man far more senior than me. I had not noticed it before, but the man was connected by plastic tubing to a breathing apparatus that emitted an artificial cadence of exhaling and inhaling. I struggled to regain mental and emotional composure so that I could follow the New Testament reading, but as if on cue, the children raised their voices again from behind. I almost laughed out loud when sirens sounded off just outside the church as the minister ceremoniously began reading the Gospel selection. At the selfsame moment that Jesus spoke to us from Matthew’s Gospel, small children screamed, a man gasped for mechanical breath, and sirens blared en route to someone’s emergency. My impulse was to bolt and escape to the serenity of my Jeep, but I forced myself to remain. I leaned toward the rector and by God’s grace was able to hear from the Lord despite the seeming chaos that surrounded. From the center of the storm I sensed an important truth—The Christ-life is much less about retreat than it is learning to lean toward Him and detect His voice despite all distraction to the contrary.

Ash Wednesday is Full of Joy

“Ash Wednesday is full of joy… The sources of all sorrow is the illusion that of ourselves we are anything but dust.” ~Thomas Merton

Forgiveness breeds hope. We met Andy in the least likely of places. My wife and I hiked carefully down the saturated earthen slope to view The Basin where water cascades into a granite bowl and whirlpools around its walls. American naturalist Henry David Thoreau stood on the same spot on his first trip to the White Mountains in September of 1839, and later wrote in his Journal: “This pothole is perhaps the most remarkable curiosity of its kind in New England.” Samuel Eastman in his White Mountain Guide called this spot, “One of the beautiful haunts of Nature, a luxurious and delicious bath fit for the ablutions of a goddess.” High praise indeed for a boiling pot of frigid liquid. Standing on the rim of this natural marvel was a young woman with long dark hair and even longer quilted down coat. She turned to look at us through round black spectacles, greeted us, then asked without blinking if we would use her phone to shoot a video while she spread ashes over The Basin. Andy explained that her mother had died the year before and that she was traveling literally across the globe to sprinkle her mother’s remains in meaningful places. I accepted her phone and awesome responsibility, asked how to manipulate the video controls, and proceeded to miss the shot as she sprinkled her mother over the swirling water. I was crushed, having failed to capture this once-in-a-lifetime moment. I confessed as such to Andy and waited for tears to fall in response, but she simply smiled and said, “Don’t worry. Let’s try again.” More of her mother remained in a ziplock plastic bag, and fortunately I got it right the second time.

Grace is not escape; it is engagement at the highest level of risk, and forgiveness is the remedy for everything. This is why the chief of sinners was also the most prolific evangelist and church planter the world has ever known. Fortunately for me and you, we are forgiven, not only for past failures, but for all future blunders we’ve yet to commit, what Piper calls “Future Grace.” The only possible way to avoid hypocrisy and self-loathing is to step ever deeper inside the labyrinth of forgiveness. We were never intended to wander looking sadly behind, lost in a world of anonymous bridges. Forgiveness begins with believing in Jesus Christ; it flourishes as we forgive ourselves.

After Andy walked away with her mother in her pocket, I watched a leaf surrender today to the cold and pirouette into the whirlpool. I oddly felt sorry for the Sugar Maples, dropping what they worked so hard to nurture and retain, but I watched as other leaves followed suit. Forgiveness means the final curtain never has to fall; this moment is not the final word for those who live by Grace.

The Bell and The Cross

It may surprise you what theology may be encountered in a fast food joint. More to the point, who would have thought that Taco Bell could become a classroom on the Cross? Some background is in order. Label me “simple” or simply “cheap,” but I freely admit that I am a Taco Bell connoisseur. I first frequented the Bell for financial reasons as a struggling college professor—where else could I eat my fill for well under $5, or feed my family for under $10? I continue through the years out of preference for the flavor as well as deference to the budget-friendly prices. These days, I have introduced my grandkids to the dollar menu, and my oldest grandson knows he can talk me into a Taco Bell run most any time of day or night, which explains why one of my favorite stocking stuffers from my wife this Christmas was a three-pack of Taco Bell gift cards—she knows me so well.

I ordered my usual lunch selections just yesterday, filled my cup with diet soda, but was forced to sit in what is not my usual table because another gentleman had beaten me to it. While waiting for my name to be called to collect my bean burrito and chalupa supreme, I glanced over at the man at my customary table. He appeared roughly my age, bore a day or two’s growth of whiskers, and was dressed in dungarees, sweatshirt, and a low profile ball cap. I saw my reflection in the window and couldn’t help thinking how much we resembled one another. He neatly arranged his food in front of him, much like I am accustomed to doing, but he disrupted the similarities by doing the unexpected—he crossed himself before bowing his head, and sat in silence for a minute or so before raising his head and unwrapping what looked to me to be a quesarito. A simple gesture and unobtrusive prayer, but it set me to thinking, and I spent the remainder of my lunch (and the balance of my day for that matter), reflecting on the practical and eternal centrality of the cross of Christ.

“The fact that a cross became the Christian symbol, and that Christians stubbornly refused, in spite of the ridicule, to discard it in favor of something less offensive, can have only one explanation. It means that the centrality of the cross originated in the mind of Jesus himself. It was out of loyalty to him that his followers clung so doggedly to this sign.” (John Stott, The Cross of Christ, p. 31)

The cross of Christ is the center of all faith in God for good reason. I may not cross myself before meals or when entering a church building, but in a very real sense, every created thing is a sign that points back to the cross. All things are either hidden behind the cross, or exposed by the cross. I cling to the rough and weather beaten cross of Jesus, because it is my only hope for this life and the life to come.

“Life is wasted if we do not grasp the glory of the cross, cherish it for the treasure that it is, and cleave to it as the highest price of every pleasure and the deepest comfort in every pain. What was once foolishness to us—a crucified God—must become our wisdom and our power and our only boast in this world.” (John Piper, Don’t Waste Your Life)

It is a Wonderful Life

Channel surfing is not something I’m adept at, largely because I rarely find myself searching for a way to occupy my time. On one of those unusual late-night occasions, I learned that television during the holidays is not rich in viewing choices, unless, perhaps, you need a new set of Ginsu steak knives or a vacuum cleaner that cleans floors and bakes bread all at the same time. I finally found and tuned-in to the old black-and-white classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed still look great onscreen together, but a word of warning is in order. Regardless of where you begin viewing, be careful to watch all the way to the end. If you stop before the film is over you will likely feel compelled to join George Bailey on the bridge above Bedford Falls, preparing to hurl yourself into the icy river below. I have watched the movie untold times, but my emotions still lurch at the cruel hand dealt Bailey before Clarence becomes his angelic aide-de-camp. Is Frank Capra’s production a classic because we identify with George Bailey’s unfolding tragedy, or because we all long for our own happy ending?

I learned a long time ago that it is far easier to rail against something than to enact positive change. Intellectual laziness lends itself to conveniently dismantle another’s argument rather than tackle the rigors of defending one’s own. The same can be said of introspection. I have no difficulty whatsoever in identifying and bemoaning the evil within—there is plenty of it to go around (unequivocally, there lies nothing good in me, and the bad inevitably oozes out like toxic slime that taints everything I touch). The truth is that when I look hard enough I readily detect a rancid note to much of my past. I have failed in everything I have attempted, the reality of which can be paralyzing. I come clean about self-disappointment without too much trouble, but what is far more difficult is to honestly confess what is good in me for the purpose of building on that positive foundation.

I do not understand why, but there is an odd sadistic pleasure in dwelling on guilt.

“Of the seven deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back—in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you” (Fredrick Buechner, Originally published in “Wishful Thinking” and later in “Beyond Words”).

Less immediately satisfying, but long term significance lies in developing the good in me rather than retreating in remorse. Call it constructive enhancement versus destructive guilt; choose advance over retreat, renewal rather than remorse. During my years in academia I encountered a revolutionary approach to self-awareness whose roots are discernible in Scripture. In “Now, Discover Your Strengths,” author Marcus Buckingham seeks to persuade us to develop our strengths rather than expending all our effort on propping up weak walls and breaches in our fortress. His argument is convincing. The idea is to capitalize on the good in order to make it great, rather than placating the bad in order to make it more palatable. What if we were to apply this to a New Year? Instead of resolving to strengthen areas of weakness, what if we choose to expend our best effort in exploiting areas of strength? What if everything prior to this moment—the good, bad and ugly—has prepared me for such a time as this? In Christ, we have all we need for this moment and this life to be full of wonder and purpose.

Mystery

“Forever is composed of nows.” ~ Emily Dickinson

Ecstasy occasionally slips up on me. This is one of those moments. Shadows tinted by dawn leave the impression of frost spread across the room. Five minutes before it was black as pitch and five minutes later the magic will disappear. Competing winds outside whitewashed farm walls force stricken rust and sienna Red Oak leaves into spirals against their will, rising and falling with northern currents heralding impending change, but silence inside descends and expands until filling all available space. Aroma of wood ash from the fireplace somehow smacks of stale tobacco laced with vanilla, guaranteeing an olfactory memory. I may embrace the magic, or allow it to slip away never to return—the choice is mine. Life is sacred, but solitude is an impatient gift.

Courage to embrace the moment is rare. Most rush away mentally headlong in multiple directions, hellbent on thinking of anything and everything save here and now. We are all either running away from something or running toward someone; some of us are doing both at the selfsame time. Quiet and contemplation are an invitation to holiness, but otherworldly fortitude is required to stay the mental and spiritual course through conflict, chaos, boredom, and routine. Much of life is endured in the shadow of cliche’. Brother Lawrence lived out the secret while washing dishes in a monastery. Frank Laubach experimented with “practicing the presence” as a missionary in the Philippines. Henri Nouwen gleaned it from an anonymous Russian pilgrim: “Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me a sinner.” Buechner captures the essential conflict: “The temptation is always to reduce life to size. A bowl of cherries. A rat race. Amino acids. Even to call it a mystery smacks of reductionism. It is the mystery… After lecturing learnedly on miracles, a great theologian was asked to give a specific example of one. ‘There is only one miracle,’ he answered. ‘It is life.’”

Contentment demands discipline. Train yourself to embrace mystery and you will marvel at the glory in the ordinary. Open your heart and see for yourself that Heaven is not so distant after all.