Coronavirus Diaries: Phone a Friend

“Is that your final answer?”

Two weeks ago, ABC unleashed the first episode in an eight-episode miniseries of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire with Jimmy Kimmel replacing Regis Philbin as the host of the show. Celebrities Eric Stonestreet, Will Forte, Nikki Glaser, Jane Fonda, Anthony Anderson, Dr. Phil, Anderson Cooper, Ike Barinholtz, Catherine O’Hara, Will Arnett, and Andy Cohen play for the chance to win a million dollars for a charity of their choice. (One twist: this time they’re able to bring a buddy along for the first ten questions!) Each of the contestants answers a series of multiple-choice questions, advancing in financial value as they answer correctly.

My favorite part of the show continues to be the lifelines they’re issued: 50/50, which cuts out two of the four answers, leaving one incorrect answer and the correct answer; “Ask the Host,” which replaces asking the audience for their optimum answer; and “Phone a Friend,” which allows the contestant to call one friend and ask them their answer to the question.

Somehow, phoning a friend has never quite meant the same thing as it does right now.

Right now, we need our friends; we need to stay connected to each other. While so many things are working the way they should, thanks to the advances made in technology since the last pandemic, I find myself most concerned by the potential for us to lose sight of each other as this drags on. Seriously, how many people wrestling with their own introverted nature, their own anxiety, their own concerns and to-do list are sinking farther and farther into a world that only they occupy?

Every week or so, I call, text, or message my parishioners. (Throughout the week, they’re receiving emails with devotions like this one, and we’re weekly doing worship online.) But sometimes, you need to make contact one-on-one. I hope that they’re reaching out to each other, to their family members and friends, and to their neighbors individually, connecting. Friends, we need each other, in community, #bettertogether. And yet, it’s amazing to me the number of people who let on that they’ve not spoken to anyone since the last time we chatted! None of us were meant for isolation — the Scriptures tell us so.

Hebrews 10:24-25 “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

Romans 12:4-5 “For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.”

And then there are the words of Jesus, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them,” from Matthew 18:20. Given that Jesus said God the Father was sending the Holy Spirit to be with us, and Paul wrote so prolifically about the Spirit being in us, we know God is with us even when we’re by ourselves. Our being together, in person or through technology, draws us into the Spirit deeper, through community, as we recognize that God is bringing us into the body of Christ, for each other, and for the worship of God.

Friends, don’t try to answer the questions all alone. Don’t fight through the insomnia or the anxiety or the isolation or the long afternoons alone. Phone a friend, make the connection. If not for your sake, for theirs.

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Coronavirus Diaries: Sung Theology

A month ago, I asked on Facebook, “If you could only have music or books for the rest of your life, which would you choose?” Of course, discussion broke out — and I watched as arguments for one or the other surged ahead of the other. My initial response was books, thinking of the way that writers like J.R.R. Tolkien, Geoff Johns, William Goldman, C.S. Lewis, Mark Waid, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Stephen King, Steven Spielberg, Max Lucado, Lee Child, Christopher Nolan – writers of novels, comics, movies – have impacted my life and formed me, let alone those people who wrote down the stories of the Old and New Testaments. But then, preparing for the worship services of Holy Week, my heart broke editing in the organ music hitting the notes of “Up From the Grave He Arose” and “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” And I don’t even prefer organ music! But the songs, without the words, moved my heart and made me realize just how much I missed the gathering of church, the commune of the saints, the joining together in mission, the breaking of bread.

As one of my colleagues loves to say, “We Methodists have a sung theology.” Consider hymns that Charles and/or John Wesley, founders of the Methodist movement, had a hand in writing:

“A Charge to Keep I Have”
“And Can It Be That I Should Gain?”
“Christ the Lord is Risen Today”
“Come, Sinners to the Gospel Feast”
“Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus”
“Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”
“O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing”
“Hark the Herald Angels Sing”

Frankly, those are some good ones stretching from the birth of Christ to Jesus’ suffering and death, and ultimately, our faith as we live out what Jesus taught and God has ordered. (I’ll assume by now that one or more of these songs is rattling around your cranium!) But just for the sake of a personal study here, consider the lyrics of “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.”

“Lives again our glorious King, Alleluia!
Where, O death, is now thy sting? Alleluia!
Once He died our souls to save, Alleluia!
Where thy victory, O grave? Alleluia!”

“Soar we now where Christ hath led, Alleluia!
Foll’wing our exalted Head, Alleluia!
Made like Him, like Him we rise, Alleluia!
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!”

“King of glory, Soul of bliss, Alleluia!
Everlasting life is this, Alleluia!
Thee to know, Thy pow’r to prove, Alleluia!
Thus to sing, and thus to love, Alleluia!”

In half of a song, the Wesleys have covered that Jesus died, rose, and conquered death; that we have been freed from our sins; that we have the capability to go and do what Jesus did as we are made in God’s image and freed to be like him by his death and resurrection; that God has placed all of what we see and even what we don’t see under Jesus’ feet. One might not know and memorize chapters and chapters of Scripture, but thanks to a tune, the Wesleys have provided us the means to know (and memorize) core elements of our faith.

Beyond knowing it or memorizing it though, there is also this: by melody and more, music has the means to lift our spirits, carry us to places we can’t currently get to (take me to church!), and remind us that there is hope in the midst of impenetrable darkness. Music becomes the prayers we need, even when we don’t know the words to say.

Sung theology, indeed.

Romans 8:26-27 (NIV) “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.”

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Coronavirus Diaries: After God’s Own Heart

Every night, for as long as I can remember, I’ve checked on my sleeping children right before I head to bed for the evening. One reads as long as he can until his eyes fail him; the other nestles into a new position every night, stockpiling stuffed animals and pillows at differents spots on his bed to create a different sleeping position each night. But the prayer I lift over both of them is the same, night in and night out, for both boys. 

“God, I pray that he grow up to be a man after God’s own heart.” 

The phrase comes from I Samuel 13:14 (and recounted by Paul in Acts 13): “But now your kingdom will not endure; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him ruler of his people, because you have not kept the Lord’s command.” It’s a condemnation of Saul by the prophet Samuel and the blessing of the shepherd boy David. 

For those keeping score, that’s David who is the least and last of the line of Jesse elevated by Samuel’s blessing like discovering the servant boy is actually King Arthur, the only one who can draw the sword from the stone; 

That’s David who slays Goliath with a rock from the brook and a slingshot, against the mighty warrior from the warmongering nation of Philistia outfitted with the best armor and strongest weapons known to man; 

That’s David who escaped the treacherous, murderous assassination plots of King Saul; 

That’s David who played music that moved kings and God;

That’s David who raised up the only remaining heir of his best friend from destitution to royalty, even though doing so would mean he had a family line who owed him death;

That’s David, whose son Solomon built the Temple that God had longed for humanity to build. 

Pretty sweet, right? 

But there’s a flipside here, too. 

That’s David who slept with a man’s wife, then had him killed to hide up the affair; that’s David who treated the Ark of the Covenant like a lucky rabbit’s foot; that’s David who banished one wife for her disdain, even after she’d been traded around as a tool for power.

Suddenly, God’s own heart isn’t about the great stuff David did but the way that God worked through David, as David himself recognized his faults and cried out to God for forgiveness. David is a man after God’s own heart not because he was good (or great) but because David knew he couldn’t make it on his own, without God. 

“Have mercy on me, O God,

    according to your unfailing love;

according to your great compassion

    blot out my transgressions.

Wash away all my iniquity

    and cleanse me from my sin.” (Psalm 51:1-2, NIV)

I pray today that you would let God use this time to examine your heart, to right the wrongs of your inclinations, and to clean out the corners that have been left dusty for too long. May we be people after God’s own heart. 

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Coronavirus Diaries: Are You an Overachiever?

William Christopher Swinney was a decent football player, and he proved to be a serviceable coach as an assistant at the University of Alabama. He ultimately found himself out of football for two years, and it wasn’t until his old position coach at Alabama offered him a chance to coach again in 2003 that the legend of Dabo Swinney really began. When the head coach – and the same man who’d recruited him in college and again back into coaching – resigned, Swinney became the head coach six games into the 2008 season. The underperforming Clemson Tigers began to turn things around, culminating in two National Championships in 2016 and 2018.

Some people would say that Swinney overachieved, that he made something out of nothing. Swinney has always been clear that what he was solidifying for Clemson football wasn’t Xs and Os but culture, morale, and … belief. He was clear that who he was mattered as a person and a believer in Jesus Christ, and that he could share that with his players. But as he told author Jon Gordon, Swinney doesn’t consider himself an overachiever – he considers himself an overbeliever.

That’s classic Swinney, to those who’ve followed him, or listened to his post-game interviews. But it’s also a solid challenge to the rest of us. What do we put our “stock” in? What’s our expectation of what success and failure look like? I have a friend who quotes Mother Teresa all of the time: “We’re not called to be successful, but we’re called to be faithful.” Are we taking what we’ve been given and working ourselves into a sweat with it, or are we believing in faith that God will do more with our efforts than we could ever do on our own? Are we measuring ourselves by who we are or what we produce?

Jesus spoke to these things quite a bit, but in one particular parable, he focused on the smallest particle his audience would’ve known: a mustard seed. In Matthew 13, Jesus tells the parable of the mustard seed: “He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.’” Later, in Matthew 17:20-21, Jesus adds, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

Friends, what we do in times like these won’t ultimately be remembered for reflecting our great creativity, our endless resolve, our ridiculous talents. What will be remembered when all of this fades is that smallest of incremental ideas, immeasurable by the world’s standards because it takes up no actual space, held in the grain the size of a mustard seed.

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Coronavirus Diaries: You Just Never Know

Do you remember your first concert? I do. It was The Temptations and The Four Tops. While that’s not the concert that’s been on my mind lately, it’s still memorable. Seriously, I grew up in a Motown household, not a rock’n’roll one, so that impacted the kinds of music I’ve gravitated toward. But I digress… I want to talk about the time I went to see PFR (Pray for Rain) and how I saw something completely unexpected instead.

The concert was in Grove Avenue Baptist Church, a church that locally has a reputation for providing its services via television each Sunday and putting on pageants that people travel from all over to come see. But on one fall night in 1995, the church was set up for a concert by PFR, a band I’d never heard of but which college students I knew were super excited about. I don’t ever remember buying a ticket, but I agreed to go and off we went to see PFR – a band that would fade from the national consciousness within years, if not months, of that concert.

We arrived early, settled in, and heard an up-and-coming band who was getting paid pennies on the dollar compared to PFR settle into their set, playing songs that resonated through the building, including one that would actually merit airtime on mainstream radio and climb to No. 37 on Billboard’s Hot 100. After Grove Avenue, they’d open for acts like Sting and Matchbox 20, extending their stage life for another twenty years.

The band was Jars of Clay, and their crossover hit was “Flood.”

“Rain rain on my face
It hasn’t stopped
Raining for days
My world is a flood
Slowly I become
One with the mud.”

“But if I can’t swim after 40 days
And my mind is crushed
By the crashing waves
Lift me up so high
That I cannot fall
Lift me up
Lift me up when I’m falling
Lift me up I’m weak and I’m dying
Lift me up I need you to hold me
Lift me up and keep me from drowning again.”

The song still comes back to me all these years later – a reminder that no matter what we feel stuck in or by, that God comes through like God has so many more times. It’s a song, a poem, a prayer, and a powerful cry to God as the only source of our strength.

It’s also a reminder that what you go expecting isn’t always what you get. Maybe Forrest Gump’s mother was right.

2 Corinthians 4:7 “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”

Rev. Jacob Sahms

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Coronavirus Diaries: Scars Remain.

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a lot out of us. Some people have had their lives stripped away; others have been immobilized by the disease, or the threat of the disease. I realize that even those who survive don’t return to normal unscathed and without scars. I know that, and these times are teaching our children that, too. Just like Jesus rose from the dead, we will, too. Emerging from our homes after the quarantine will feel like a victory, a mini-resurrection of sorts. But Jesus’ appearance to the disciples in John 20, including our skeptical buddy Thomas, included the holes from the nails which had held him to the cross. Jesus rose again, but not without scars.

John 20:24-27 says, “Now Thomas (also known as Didymus[a]), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord!’”
But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.’
A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.’

The scars proved what had happened.

The scars proved what he had survived.

The scars proved the love which had driven him to the cross, and which had raised him from the dead.

The scars proved that he died. But the scars also proved that he’d been raised from the dead.

Our scars, and Jesus’ scars, unite us together in the suffering, and remind us that Jesus was fully human out of God’s abundant love for us.

The lyrics of I am They’s song, “Scars,” says this perfectly:
“Waking up to a new sunrise
Looking back from the other side
I can see now with open eyes
Darkest water and deepest pain
I wouldn’t trade it for anything
Cause my brokenness brought me to You
And these wounds are a story You’ll use

“So I’m thankful for the scars
‘Cause without them I wouldn’t know Your heart
And I know they’ll always tell of who You are
So forever I am thankful for the scars.”

You have scars. I have scars. We know what Jesus’ scars did.

What will our scars prove?

Rev. Jacob Sahms

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Coronavirus Diaries: Angel Investor

Four hundred dollars.

Depending upon where you’re sitting today, four hundred dollars may not seem like a lot – or it may be groceries for several weeks or half a month’s rent. All of that seems relative. Twenty years ago, four hundred dollars was what stood between me and finishing seminary a semester early, instead of engaging in class for another six months.

Enrolled in a week-long summer class on spiritual growth, I received a message that I needed to report to the financial aid office early one morning. There, I was told that my financial aid was short by four hundred dollars and without that payment by the end of the day, they would be forced to dismiss me from the class. I was devastated, as I walked over to the classroom building. I had no more funds to pull from, having drained the savings I’d acquired through working for the small town’s water and sewer branch (drained! Get it?) and four hundred dollars could have well been a million dollars.
I sat through the class’ first half in a fog. At the lunch break, the instructor asked us to stand and go around a prayer circle to share any needs that were on our hearts. When it was my turn to speak, I just said, “If I don’t get $400 to the business office by five today, I can’t finish the class.”

We went to lunch break, and I forced myself to eat. When I returned to my seat, I found a college ruled single sheet of paper folded up there.

Inside the paper were twenty $20 bills.

And a note that read, “God loves you.”

It’s been nearly twenty years now and I still don’t know who left that money. But that person (or persons, because I really have no idea) reminded me that day that I wasn’t alone, that I was heard by God and my community, that even in the midst of other people’s struggles that they saw my struggle and were moved to help me. They really were an angel investor in my life, someone who saw what I could be and what I could do, and paid so that I could do those things.

Don’t we all have moments sometimes where we could be that for someone else? Sometimes, even anonymously, sometimes directly, we’re put in a position where we can help someone else be who they’re supposed to be. Maybe it’s because we remember when we were invested in by someone else, or maybe it’s because we realize that God’s been investing in us all along.

Galatians 6:2, NIV: “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

P.S. If you don’t see someone in your life who you can help and feel called to help someone today, message me and we’ll find a way to meet someone’s need.

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