Coronavirus Diaries: The Little Things

U.S. Navy pilot Charles Plumb flew seventy-four successful missions in his jet over Vietnam, but on his seventy-fifth he was shot down by a surface-to-air missile. After parachuting into enemy territory, he was imprisoned for six years in a concentration camp. Years later, he and his wife were approached by a stranger in a restaurant.

“You’re Plumb! You flew jet fighters in Vietnam from the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk. You were shot down!” exclaimed the man.

“How in the world did you know that?” asked Plumb.

“I packed your parachute,” the man replied.

Plumb says in his talks, “I kept wondering what he might have looked like in a Navy uniform: a white hat, a bib in the back and bell-bottom trousers. I wonder how many times I might have seen him and not even said ‘Good morning, how are you?’ or anything, because, you see, I was a fighter pilot, and he was just a sailor.”

For days, the man whose name Plumb never caught would’ve spent hours inside the windowless rooms of the ship Plumb flew his jet from, a Naval seaman working conscientiously to do a boring, thankless, repetitive job, folding up the parachute just right, never knowing the person who might one day use it. And never knowing how much of a difference his moments of concentration would have on another person’s life. Seriously, how many pilots would ever have to know if the parachute would even work, let alone the guy whose sole job it was to pack it.

Suddenly, for Plumb, the little things mattered. And for one shining moment in a restaurant stateside, a Naval guy and an Air Force guy realized that a super little thing mattered. Whoa.

I’ve been wondering about the little things lately. What little things could we do to help someone else out? What little thing could I do to keep the virus from spreading to one more person? What could we do to be people of faith who would help someone else see how much the God of the universe loved them?

In John 6, one little boy shows up to a meeting of a lot of hungry people. His mom had packed his lunch of five loaves and two fish (he was a growing boy) and he offered it up to Jesus when Jesus was looking for a way to feed everyone there – five thousand people. And Jesus takes that offering, prays over it, and BOOM, the crowd gets fed. That miracle is one of the most celebrated of Jesus’ early career – but if a mom doesn’t pack a lunch, if a kid doesn’t offer it up, what does Jesus make the feast out of?

What are your five loaves and two fish? What’s your parachute to pack today, small but so important?

Is it a wave? A smile? Leaving an excess roll of toilet paper on a neighbor’s porch? Walking the mail in from the mail box for an elderly neighbor? Raking leaves for a sick shut-in? A grocery run for a high-risk friend? Simply NOT doing something you want to as a way to limit the range of exposure for someone else?

I don’t know what little thing you could do today. But I bet if you figure it out, it could make all the difference.

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Coronavirus Diaries: Two Brothers

In the Disney magic-infused Onward, two brothers find themselves setting out on a journey of mythical proportions to resurrect their father for a single day. Ian has magical gifts but can’t quite fathom ever mastering them, while his older brother is a true believer who yearns to be able to perform feats of courage and magic and is sadly inadequate at doing so. Together, they set out to figure out how to complete their quest, bickering, joking, struggling, and teaming up along the way. (Onward is currently available digitally and coming soon to Disney+ – free advertisement!)

My brain transported me back to another mystical moment as I watched: the moment when YHWH God appears before Moses in Exodus 3 as a burning bush. He tells Moses to go from that place and stand before Pharaoh (who Moses is related to by adoption) and demand that the Israelite people be freed from slavery so that they can worship God and rid themselves of oppression. Moses is standing before a burning bush (which isn’t consumed but keeps burning), spoken to by said bush, and encouraged to do something heroic … and he panics.

You can almost hear his voice crack, his teeth chatter, his knees knock against each other as he asks, “Who am I that anyone should listen to me?” YHWH’s answer is fantastic: “I’ll be with you.” It’s not about Moses – it’s about what God is going to do, how God is going to show up THROUGH Moses.

For the next chapter and a half, Moses argues that he can’t be the one. He literally says, “Please send someone else.” God finally says that Moses’ brother Aaron can go, too, that Aaron has the gifts that Moses lacks – or at least complements that parts of Moses that need supported and strengthened. One had the courage and strength; one had the skills and the heart. Neither one could be the other, but together, they could be …awesome.

As the father to two boys, I want that for them. I want them to be boldly confident yet needing of each other. I want them to encourage each other in the face of big picture challenges, hardships, tribulations, whatever – and in celebrations, victories, and surprising moments of overcoming. I know they’ll need each other, as brothers, and I tell them that all the time!

The truth is that we all need people like that. People who see us for who we are, love us anyway, and challenge us to be better. In moments like these crazy days we live in, we need them even more. Who are your “brothers”, your “sisters”, your people of faith who grow your faith and push you to epic journeys of courage and grace?

Be that person to someone else today. We need each other.

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Coronavirus Diaries: Barn Burning

My family tried unsuccessfully to head outside in the dark and see the International Space Station. Other folks on my social media feed had caught sight of the station as it orbits, but unfortunately, our family was unsuccessful on three different tries. The skies were too overcast, too cloudy, in our area – plus the spotlights on several houses in our culdesac made it impossible to see if the glimmers in the sky were something spacial or merely our eyes being flash-blinded!

Isn’t that how life goes sometimes? There’s something else we should be seeing, but can’t. Something we’re looking for but can’t quite find. In the parables of Jesus, it’s compared to lost sheep or lost coins, a sense that something is not in order – but that when it’s found, celebration ensues.

Seventeenth-century Japanese poet and samurai Mizuta Masahide once wrote, “Barn’s burnt down. Now I can see the moon.” Now, I can’t say for certain what he meant because I don’t read Japanese but I think I get the gist. Sometimes, there are things in front of us – in this narrative, a barn – that is so big that it blocks out the natural beauty or subject we should be attentive to in that moment. If barns were the places where the grain was stored – the future security or fortune of a business or person – then the loss of the fortune actually results in the individual now seeing what they should’ve been pursuing all along.

Whoa.

The world – America, certainly – has had its expected trajectory ripped out of its grasp. Suddenly, terrifyingly, unexpectedly. (I’m not arguing that this is all a good thing.) But what if we have been blinded to what we should have seen all along, and now, the blinders have been removed, like a blind person whose sight is restored. What if the schedule we hold to, the financial pursuits, the lust for power and bigger opportunities, what if all of these things were “barns” blocking us from “the moon”? What if we’re not supposed to be growing in awareness for how blessed we really are, with the beauty of natural creation and the community of those around us who we’ve taken for granted?

What is it that God is asking you to see about your “old” life from ten days ago, to let it burn, so that you can see the new, better life that God has in mind for you?

What if we don’t come out of this … better?

“This third I will put into the fire;
I will refine them like silver
and test them like gold.
They will call on my name
and I will answer them;
I will say, ‘They are my people,’
and they will say, ‘The Lord is our God.’” (Zechariah 13:9)

Rev. Jacob Sahms

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Coronavirus Diaries: No Superheroes

Fifteen years ago, Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne battled a megalomaniac Ra’s al Ghul who wanted to rule the world and exterminate the population of Gotham City because of their raging evil. But of course, Wayne is also Batman – and he’ll stop at nothing to protect Gotham, even its more villainous citizens.

The events of the last few weeks are like something out of a movie. Sometimes, it’s a horror movie (World War Z, I am Legend); sometimes, it’s out of a superhero film like Batman Begins where the average citizen’s only hope is someone riding in at the last possible second to save the day.

Friends, this isn’t a movie, and the Avengers aren’t going to fly in with the X-men on the Quinjet to rescue us. This is a pandemic of ridiculous proportions which too many societies have been slow to respond to, and this is the situation we’re actually in. But … we still need some heroes, some role models, to show up BIG.

(Guess what? The people we normally slide into the hero spots – the athletes and the movie stars and the politicians – they’ve all been reduced to sideline sitting. All the while the real every day heroes – the teachers, the first responders, the military, the healthcare providers – they keep doing what they’re doing as a service to everyone else! While I’m at it – how about a shout-out to your trash guy or girl? Without them, the world would look a lot like Wall.-E’s world.)

As I watch the news, or better yet, read my social media feeds, I see quite a few folks who have been ramped up into a full fledge panic, panic driven by their own fears (which may be justified), what they’re reading on the Internet (which may be right … or wrong), and what the people they look to for leadership are saying about the coronavirus. These folks are leading, too, but what are they leading each other to exactly?

What would happen instead if we recognized, as a society, churched or not, that we have the chance to model for our children what it looks like to be courageous. Courage isn’t knowing who we are or what will happen to us in the midst of our fear, but battling through the things that cause our fear anyway! It’s that kind of courage – calm under fire – that will model for our children how they should respond when they face all manner of hardships over their lives. It’ll inform how they respond to death, to financial loss, to changes in their schedules, to upheaval in their work lives. It will show them (and maybe tell them) what it means to be a faithful person no matter what.

Yes, we need the ideals of superheroes like Captain America, Superman, Wonder Woman, and others, to challenge our imaginations and inspire us. But we need to be heroic, each in his or her own way, in the face of what we have put in front of us. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo says to Gandalf, “I wish it need not have happened in my time.” Gandalf’s reply is so deep and wise, so emblematic of the White Wizard: “So do I, 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.”

Someone is watching you, taking mental notes about how to respond to the uneven challenges all around them. It’s not right or fair or fun, but who you are right now matters in the example you set.

2 Timothy 4:2 “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage–with great patience and careful instruction.”

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Coronavirus Diaries: STOP

Have you ever rolled a stop sign? Or heard someone say that stop signs with the white border around them are “just suggestions”? Somehow, when we drive, we can become so focused on where we need to get to that we forget the rules of how we get there. [For the record, this can get you a ticket – or even arrested. Just saying.] It can be like that in our lives, too.

In the world of farming, it’s suggested that a field be allowed to “lay fallow,” that is, that nothing will be planted in that field for a season. Some farmers even propose the field be allowed to soak up nutrients for a year periodically, because an excessive crop can be grown in the same field the following year. Imagine that – stopping, resting, being still lead to something more abundant later!

That’s something we’re not very good at, especially in America. We live in a society that is constantly pushing for more – more stuff, more work, more time … to get stuff and do work. And yet, that Biblical influence in our lives reminds us of things that God has said, like, “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth” (Psalm 46:10) or prophetic reminders like Isaiah 40:31, “But they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.”

So here’s our big chance. In the middle of a global pandemic, in the middle of something that none of us saw coming and realistically none of us want, we can choose to come to a full stop, a time of laying fallow, a reminder to take Sabbath and breathe.

What we do during this stoppage time matters – how we guard our hearts against the messages of despair and pessimism, how we focus on prayer in conversation (talking and listening), how we spend our time with the people we’re quarantined with. But it is also going to matter how we spend the time afterward. Because the fallow time is for a purpose.

In Exodus, it says, “during the seventh year let the land lie unplowed and unused. Then the poor among your people may get food from it, and the wild animals may eat what is left”; in Hosea 10:12 it read, “Sow righteousness for yourselves, reap the fruit of unfailing love, and break up your unplowed ground; for it is time to seek the Lord, until he comes and showers his righteousness on you.” The ground isn’t left fallow for no reason; it’s not just to give it a break, but to prepare it for what comes next, for what it’s purpose was in the first place.

Friends, we are at a time where we can use this fallowing, where we can re-center our hearts aimed at God. We can focus on what God is saying to us in the stillness as we listen, to see the people in our lives who need us in the quiet moments, and then come bursting forth when the quarantine ends to sow the righteousness that God has been working in the world since the beginning of time.

In the words of the prophet Samuel, “Stand still and see the mighty work God is about to do.”

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The Coronavirus Diaries: The Manna Moments

Not every reflection that’s come to mind has been happy go lucky. Some of them flat out … stink.

Have you ever smelled – or tasted – something that has gotten spoiled, kept post-date? Parents have, for sure, experiencing that moment when the three-day-old yogurt is discovered, opened, in their child’s lunchbox on Monday morning as they go to pack Monday’s school lunch. It stinks! But it’s more than that, because it permeates whatever the container is, or even the container’s container.

The Israelites of the Old Testament knew that smell, at least some of them did, because they kept manna overnight when Moses specifically told them not to do it. They were so concerned about a thousand tomorrows that they stopped trusting God for their today.

In the days after Moses led the people out of Egypt, after the Creator of the Universe and the God of the Israelites freed the Israelites from decades of slavery to the cruel Egyptians, the Israelites complained to God that they would have been better off left in Egypt because they had plenty of food there. This isn’t just revisionist history, this is “revisionist memory,” and we’re all guilty of it: when we figure that our present trouble is actually worse than what God has already seen us through.

But God’s response to the Israelite issue is grace-filled, generous, and awe-inspiring. God says, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions. On the sixth day they are to prepare what they bring in, and that is to be twice as much as they gather on the other days.”

Get that for a minute: God promises to bring the people just what they need each day, via manna from heaven (a bread-like substance) in the morning and quail in the evening. God promises their DAILY BREAD in the Old Testament, years before Jesus would teach his disciples what is commonly known now as the Lord’s Prayer. It requires trust, right?

And because humans are human, we get this — after Moses passes on the message not to keep it overnight — “they kept part of it until morning, but it was full of maggots and began to smell.” That’s pretty quickly perishable, isn’t it?

The truth is that there were Israelites who “got it” and only took what they needed, but when the other Israelites kept too much, the maggots got in the camp. So, the sickness- that awful smell – would’ve been in the camp, even for the people who only took what they needed.

What’s happening all around us is pretty quickly turning into a case of rotten manna at times, even while in other places generosity is actually rising up. Grocery stores and others can’t seem to keep toilet paper in stock, or sometimes necessities like milk, while other places are even opening up their stores to the needy and at-risk at different times so they can get enough.

So, I’m wondering, do you smell that? Do you see the maggots? Our society has this opportunity to move from the smell, and the maggots, to the generosity that will change what happens NOW and what happens AFTER. We have the opportunity to be grace-filled toward the people who don’t have enough, or who have an ill-prepared mindset for however long this current “shutdown” lasts. We have the opportunity to recognize that those who have two coats should give one to those who have none – an idea that seems to be endorsed at Christmas but doesn’t always get put on blast throughout the rest of the year. We have the opportunity to turn a rotten situation into the “sweet scent rising to God, which is recognized by those on the way of salvation—an aroma redolent with life” (2 Corinthians 2:15, The Message).

Let’s take what we need for today, and recognize that our inability to corporately worship can still become acts of worship today. “Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you” (James 1:27, NLT). Who can you serve today by only taking what you need, and sacrificing the false security of a thousand tomorrows?

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Coronavirus Diaries: The Great Whiffle Ball Miracle

A little over a decade ago, I was directed to attend Licensing School, a necessary step toward serving a church in the United Methodist Church. Having survived a seminary degree and several additional courses that the Virginia Conference tacked on to my post-seminary studies, I was frustrated by the need to spend ten days away from my family, which included a newly-minted year-old son. I found myself back in a dormitory-style living situation for the first time in seven years and surrounded by people I had never met before. My attitude was … less than superb. 

During the day, the would-be licensed pastors spent a work day absorbing lectures about different aspects of what it would mean to be the leader of a local church. To be honest, licensing school covered subjects, like how to officiate a wedding or a funeral, that seminary never did, and was potentially more helpful in a week and a half than whole semesters in grad school had been. But I was still grinding against the structure, and the separation from my family. And then, it happened. 

I’m not sure exactly what started it. Maybe it was because I always have sports equipment rolling around in the trunk. Maybe someone else mentioned it. But a few of us realized that behind the dorms at night, there was an area that the floodlights illuminated in a grassy area. There was enough space, maybe not for a full football or soccer field, but a wide enough space for a mini-baseball field – or a whiffle ball field. 

By word of mouth, news circulated from dinner time until we were released for the day. A few of us took frisbees and plates to make bases, and I grabbed the whiffle ball bat and balls from the trunk. Soon, fifteen to twenty people had gathered for the first ever licensing school whiffleball game. Men and women, young and old, the crowd was diverse – and a group of strangers began the gradual move toward relationship, toward finding friends. By the third night, the crowd was in the forties (we had spectators, too!) and groups were making plans for other outings – to the putt-putt course, to play pool, to go to a film, and the licensing school leaders were asking us to make announcements about what each night’s options for post-course work activities were. (A friend calls it “The Great Whiffle Ball Miracle”.)

I was reminded of this when I saw the ESPN story that Trevor Bauer is organizing a sandlot whiffle ball game with a few friends to raise money for MLB workers who are out of work during the coronavirus. Bauer is still practicing social distancing – but he’s also taking a frustrating situation and making it better, while also helping a bunch of other people, too. 

I wonder what it would look like if we approached our present situations with a different spin. What would happen if we saw floodlights and open space as a chance for something more? What could we do with what we “have in the trunk” that would change our attitude, our situation, or someone else’s right now? 

Maybe it’s not time for whiffle ball – but who knows what opportunities are waiting just outside of our line of sight?

I John 4:17-18 (The Message)

God is love. When we take up permanent residence in a life of love, we live in God and God lives in us. This way, love has the run of the house, becomes at home and mature in us, so that we’re free of worry on Judgment Day—our standing in the world is identical with Christ’s. There is no room in love for fear. Well-formed love banishes fear. Since fear is crippling, a fearful life—fear of death, fear of judgment—is one not yet fully formed in love.

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