Our New Normal

I suspect that you already know that many things are changing.

Most of us, at least in America, have lived our entire lives believing that the right combination of science and good medical care can protect us from viral and bacterial infections. Many of us have not regularly washed or disinfected our hands, and many of us haven’t worn a mask that covers both our nose and mouth at any other point in our lives. We have greeted people by shaking hands and hugging them. We have gathered in tightly packed spaces with few concerns about safety. Those who attend worship have been encouraged to sing loudly and to praise the Lord with joyful hearts and then kneel beside each other to receive Bread and Wine during Holy Communion. We have been encouraged to believe that gun violence only affects other people. We have believed that racism was addressed during the Civil Rights protests in the past and that it is no longer a part of American culture. We have, also, trusted in the fact that our Democratic Republic, itself, will survive the test of time.

The Bible is filled with stories about a God who carries people through times like these.

God delivered people from slavery during the Exodus and provided manna (which means: What is this stuff?) in the Wilderness. God carried the remnant of Israel through the difficult years after the Assyrian invasion and carried the remnant of Judah through a time when the place where people worshiped God was destroyed and when faithful people were dragged into captivity in Babylon. The Bible speaks about God as a God who provides streams in the desert and it speaks about Jesus as the source of “Living Water” that never fails. The Bible bears witness to a God who remains stable, secure, rock-solid and true no matter what you face in life as an individual or even as an American citizen in 2021. Jesus even promises to raise you up strong, healthy and recreated after life and death have done their worst.

We are tempted to look backwards and to idealize a past that never really existed when we face times of change.

We want to relive the days before the pandemic and want our “new normal” to be the same as our “old normal.” We want to go out in public spaces without wearing masks. We want to shake hands and hug each other. We do not want to even think about protecting ourselves from something that we can’t see anymore. We want the Church to be what it was 50 years ago. We want people to stop talking about racism and poverty and violence in America. We want to know again that, even though America isn’t perfect, America will prevail as a nation. Change is inevitable. We don’t like it. We want the familiar.

What would you say if I told you that the “old normal” is never coming back and that you need to open your hands, release what’s familiar, and trust God to give you something new and exciting?

Perhaps, during these times when people are intensely focused upon personal freedom and rugged individuality, God is challenging you to think more deeply about community and what it means to care about others? Perhaps, God is challenging you to listen more carefully to the voices of those who are lifting up the issues of racism, poverty and violence in America, and to be a part of positive change? Perhaps, God is challenging you to think about the fact that, in the midst of a global pandemic, we can’t effectively address the challenge of variants and viral spread by focusing only upon what’s happening in the United States? Maybe God wants you to more readily embrace change at your church, so that your church can move into a stronger and healthier future during a time when the rest of the world is moving on? Maybe God is challenging America and Americans to think about what it truly means to be a nation that boldly proclaims that it is a place of liberty and justice for all?

Faith is the bridge between where I am and the place where God is taking me; and, trusting in that fact, I find the courage to live boldly and faithfully. God journeys with me in uncertain times and Jesus has promised to walk beside me. Faith reminds me that God is moving me toward something better than what I have right now – even as I face times of change and uncertainty that I would like to avoid at all costs. I hope you can say that, too.

May God bless you and those that you love in the coming week. May you have a renewed sense of God’s presence in these changing times. And may the Holy Spirit fill your heart with faith and embolden you as we continue to journey, together, from where we are right now to where God wants us to be.

Independence Day

Americans will celebrate independence and freedom this weekend. America’s Founders dreamed of a nation where people would have a voice in their government, and they created a Democratic Republic where government officials are elected by the people and serve for a specific term. Many folks try to trace the roots of American freedom all the way back to the day when King John “Lackland” signed the Magna Charta in 1215 AD, but the comparison between the Magna Charta and the American Declaration of Independence is a bit of a stretch. America was founded upon representative government, and the earliest dreams for American life were build upon the idea that we all have the right to life, to liberty and to the pursuit of happiness.

The Bible speaks about freedom, independence, and liberty in several places. Jesus tells us that the truth will set us free (John 8:32). Jesus also says, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36) reminding us that He came into the world to set us free from the power of sin and death that we cannot escape in any other way. And lastly, in his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul talks about our personal freedom, as Christians, in a different way (I Corinthians 8:1-13) as he speaks about whether Christians can eat food that has been sacrificed to idols.

Corinth was a very unusual place in the time of St. Paul. Corinth was a major city where people came from all around the known world to sell their products. Corinth was, also, a place that was religiously diverse. There were hundreds of temples in Corinth, so that people who wanted to worship their god could easily do so. St. Paul even talked about the fact that the Greeks had build an altar to an unknown God (Acts 17:23) because they wanted to make sure that all of the bases were covered. And this created a big problem. Christians who wanted to eat meat did not know if the meat had been carved from an animal that had been sacrificed to another god hours earlier. Early Christians struggled because they were trying to figure out what it means to be free in Christ while they also tried to be careful to avoid eating meat that had been offered to other gods.

St. Paul’s response to this dilemma was an interesting one. He reminded the Corinthians that he had been set free by Jesus, and that he could celebrate his independence by eating meat without worrying about where the meat originated. Imagine St. Paul simply eating a hamburger on July 4th without worrying about its source. Christians do that all the time even though people from other religious traditions would never do that, right?

Then St. Paul throws in a twist. He reminds the Corinthians that he is free in Christ to eat his July 4th hamburger; however, because he sees that doing that is causing other people around him to feel uncomfortable, he says, “I’m not going to do it.” In fact, St. Paul writes: “Take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block for the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols?” (I Corinthians 8:9-10) What St. Paul is saying is: “I have freedom and independence, but I need to be sensitive to others when I am exercising my personal rights and liberty.” St. Paul reminds us that personal freedom and liberty are wonderful things; however, as we live in community with other people, we need to live in ways that are considerate and respectful of others. This is, also, an important part of good citizenship.

And so, as we celebrate our independence, liberty, and freedom on July 4th, let’s also remember that we live in a diverse nation and that living well with each other is always built upon the foundation of respect and care for others. We have been set free from tyrannical government, but our nation is still built upon creating community with each other and caring for each other. We are free in Christ, and we live in a nation where we have many rights and personal freedoms to celebrate, but our Founders also realized that our nation can only be strong and healthy when we continue to respect and to care for each other.

Winning – After the Election

“The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So, it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” (1 Corinthians 12:12-13)

The church in Corinth was traveling through a difficult time when Saint Paul wrote these words. Some people believed that their spiritual gifts were better than spiritual gifts that God had given to other people. Saint Paul was under personal attack because everyone remembered the things that he had done before he became a Christian. Deep divisions had crept into the Church. Christians were busy suing each other. Sexual immorality was common, and some people believed that they were free to do things that other Christians did not think they should be doing. It was a real mess!

I find myself writing this message to you about two weeks before we elect the President of the United States and many members of Congress. It has been a hard election cycle. People in our nation are deeply divided, and many relationships have been pushed to the breaking point. I, sometimes, feel very overwhelmed when I listen to the news and hear about our continued struggles with the coronavirus. I miss having the chance to see people in worship and the opportunity to visit with them in their homes. And many people in our nation are asking about what is going to happen next. Are there going to be protests and violent clashes, no matter who is elected? What is November 4th going to be like? What are we going to do to mend the fabric of our society? What role will the Church play?

A handful of my ancestors came to America with John Winthrop in 1630. A small fleet of wooden ships filled with Puritans sailed to America and established the Massachusetts Bay Colony about ten years after the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth. I often think about what it must have been like to listen to John Winthrop remind people that they had come to America to establish a new society that would shine, like a “City on a Hill,” and provide a beacon of hope for the rest of the world. I often think about the fact that, just a little bit more than sixty years after the Winthrop Fleet arrived, Puritans were hanging people who had been accused of witchcraft in Salem.

America has never been a perfect place. What many people today call the “American Experiment” has been a journey filled with ups and downs. People in America fought two wars together (and sometimes against each other) to gain national independence. Family members fought against each other and even killed each other during a bloody Civil War. Americans stood beside each other and found their way through the Great Depression. Some of us remember violent clashes that erupted during the Vietnam War, the murder of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., race riots that marked the early 1970’s, and the impeachment of President Richard Nixon. And who can forget the horror of 9/11? The “American Experiment” is built upon the hopes and dream of many people, but the “American Experiment” has not always been easy.

We are people who live in a diverse nation that is filled with many ideas and beliefs. We do not always agree with each, but we have always worked together as a nation to find a path forward. We live in a society where many people have stopped trusting each other and where many people no longer trust the institutions that have made our nation great; and yet, surveys still indicate that nearly half of all Americans trust the Church and look to it for guidance and direction. This is a time when we need to stand together and to live into John Winthrop’s vision. This is a time when we need to shine as the “City on a Hill” that John Winthrop said would shine as a beacon of hope in the world. We are one. God has made us one. Jesus continues to work in our world to draw people together into one body called the Church. In the Pledge of Allegiance, we call ourselves a nation that is indivisible, and that is filled with liberty and justice for all people. These are fundamentals. Humanity has prospered and our nation has thrived in times when we have drawn close to each other and when we have worked together with hearts and minds that are committed to a common purpose and a common good.

I do not know what the next few weeks and months are going to bring. But I do know that we can move into a bright future, as individuals and as a nation, when we stand together and emphasize the things that unite us and make us one. Jesus once told us that a house that is divided against itself cannot stand, and those words are as true, today, as they have even been. The last 250 years have shown us that the great “American Experiment” can work when we are committed to working together and to finding the things in life that continue to bind us together in a world where other things are trying to tear us apart. And that is what I want you to think about no matter what happens on November 3rd, and in the days and months that follow this year’s Election.

We need to be looking for the threads that bind us together as Christians and as citizens. We need to remember that maintaining relationships with other people is, often, far more important than being right. We need to listen to each other. We need to care about each other. We need to remember, as Saint Paul once wrote, that we are one body – not only as Christ’s Church, but also as a nation.

May God bless you and may God bless our land in the coming weeks and months.