Coronavirus Diaries: Porch Pictures

In different places around the United States, professional photographers have walked up and down their neighborhood street, taking family portraits of people sitting on their porches. Practicing social distancing, they’ve taken snapshots of the households that exist today in our siloed self-quarantining, reminders of the togetherness in the midst of isolation. Someday, those pictures will serve as a visual memento to whatever period of time the history books will call the lost spring of 2020. It’s ironic, seeing these families on their porches, because that’s just not how Americans in general act today.

Flashback a month, or however many days you count backward to find the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown, and mentally walk your neighborhood. How many people were sitting on porches, rocking in chairs, drinking sweet tea in the cool of the evening? How many neighbors looked up to wave, while they were weeding, mowing the lawn, or shooting baskets on the driveway hoop?

I’m betting my neighborhood isn’t too different from yours, and the answer that came to mind was “not many.”

I’m sure that a scientist could explain the way that air conditioning is changing the climate, something about CO2 and chemicals and such. But air conditioning certainly changed how much time people spent outside, relaxing and exchanging stories with their neighbors, as the opportunity to go inside and cool off became enticing. And then the coronavirus happened.

Maybe it’s because we were all hunter-gatherers at some point; maybe it’s because we were nomadic tribes before we were societies and cities. But there’s some innate pull to be outside that tugs at all of our hearts, and the forced nature of being stuck inside draws us back… outside.

What if we’re not SUPPOSED to be outside? In nature, pollen or not. Trading jokes and observations with the middle-aged neighbor pushing their kid in the stroller around the culdesac at night who needs to be reminded the child will get older and sleep through the night, or the younger neighbor walking their dog who lives by themselves and now works from home and craves just the simple acknowledgment that they exist in real life, or the elderly neighbor whose walk to the mailbox to get their junk mail is the sole outing they have to get them out of their house every day and realizes that saying “hello” on the way is their lifeline to a society that’s left them behind. Or maybe it’s just because YOU need to be outside so you can contemplate the beauty of the birds singing, or the stars glowing, or the gentle reminder of a rainbow after the rain.

We’re not alone, and we were never meant to be.

Hebrews 13:2 “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Coronavirus Diaries: Regrets Accepted

Today was supposed to be Tax Day until COVID-19 showed up. I imagine that no one is mourning that. The truth is that by now, you’ve probably missed out on something you care about: a birthday party, a recital, a church service, a trip. You are probably going to miss something else before this is all said and done.

You will miss the opportunity to see friends.

You will miss the opportunity to be embraced.

You will miss your old routines.

You will miss the security of old things that no longer feel expected or obvious.

Missing these things leads to grief. Some of you have seen the “missing” turn into a “longing” and the longing turn into sadness or grief. I want you to hear that the sadness is okay. The sadness is natural and part of the process.

The poet David AKA King of Israel wrote several Psalms that are sad – and hopeful.

“I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping. My eye wastes away because of grief; it grows weak because of all my foes. Depart from me, all you workers of evil, for the LORD has heard the sound of my weeping. The LORD has heard my plea; the LORD accepts my prayer” (Psalm 6:6-9).

“I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the LORD” (Psalm 40:1-3).

“Be gracious to me, O God, for man tramples on me; all day long an attacker oppresses me; my enemies trample on me all day long, for many attack me proudly. When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can flesh do to me?” (Psalm 56:1-4).

People of faith – including the man after God’s own heart – experience fear, anxiety, sadness, pain, doubt, and disappointment! It’s not that we don’t or won’t, but how we respond. As a friend of mine likes to say, “Be gentle with yourself.”

When you get sad, be gentle with yourself.

When you get frustrated with your fellow quarantiners, be gentle with yourself (and them).

When you get fearful because of the news or other lines of impact, be gentle with yourself and pray.

When you get anxious, be gentle with yourself and read some Scripture or share with a friend.

When you get angry that this is taking too long, be gentle with yourself and take a walk.

It’s not going to last forever, friends, and in the meantime, we can grow closer to God.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Coronavirus Diaries: The Last Ditch Effort

There was a village in the outskirts of a major city. The timing, the location, the season, the language – none of those really matter. What does matter is that the village had not seen rain for days, for weeks, even for months.

The village was predominantly agricultural in nature, and the lack of rain had long ago caused the open market of the village to close down. People were without means to support their families, but nothing new was being planted, no crops were being reaped.

Even the animals of the village were slowly dwindling. The children and the elderly were slowly wasting away, even while the healthy and the middle aged began to suffer from malnourishment and dehydration.

As the supplies dwindled away, the leaders of the village gathered in the home of the village elder and beseeched him for guidance on a way forward.

A week later, the village elder summoned the villagers together and announced that the following day, they would meet together and beseech the Creator to send rain. This was the village’s last chance, as families were scraping together the last scraps of rotten food and remnants. The village elder said that they would call out to the Creator. They would fall on their faces in the dust, tear their clothing as was the custom, and cry out with one desperate voice to the Creator that the rain might fall.

The villagers turned and shook their heads, grumbling to each other. This was the advice the village elder had discerned after all of this, after a week of reflection? To call out to an unseen Creator and assume the Creator was listening, and even cared? Trudging back to their homes, they found themselves painfully aware that everything else had been tried, so why not pray?

That night, each family gathered around their meager table and ate what they considered to be their last meal. No one slept well that night, but as the morning began, the villagers crept out into the middle of the square.

Everyone was accounted for, as they began to cry out, to pray, except one small boy from the poorest family. The shadows from the clouds in the sky darkened the town square, and as they did, a murmur that spread through the crowd, lying on the ground in the midst of the dust. The missing boy had come around an alley corner, bearing something none of them could quite make out, in the shadows.

As the drops of rain began to fall, and then turned into pelting drops that splashed down on the upturned faces of the villagers, and drenched their clothing.

Except for the little boy. He’d brought an umbrella.

[The original idea is not mine, but was adopted from a snippet of a story of unknown origin: “Once all villagers decided to pray for rain.
On the day of prayer all the people gathered,
but only one boy came with an umbrella.”]

I Thessalonians 5:16-18 “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Coronavirus Diaries: 19 Summers

A few years ago, Michelle Cox developed ideas around the idea that parents have just eighteen summers between their child’s first breath and when they leave the house as an adult. That seems like a lot of time until you realize how quickly the Earth orbits around the sun, and all of those sweet old ladies stopping you in Target to tell you to cherish the days as your two year old falls down on the floor, crying and screaming, as you try to buy diapers and milk — all of a sudden those “enjoy the moment” comments don’t seem so crazy when the kids are almost as tall as you are. 

So eighteen summers to solidify a relationship that breaks your heart and knits it back together nearly every day seems like a split-second sometimes, right? Those summer vacations you work hard to earn for, both financially and time-wise, that sometimes seem slogged by rain or work calls or an unfortunately timed illness or a cranky in-law, they are snapshots you want to hold onto even if the frame is a little off. 

The folks who complain about the end of the school year – because they’ll be “stuck” with their kids – or cheer the beginning of the next year – because they’ll finally be unstuck — they haven’t considered the ramifications of the eighteenth summer expiring. It’s sad, as we try to pump the breaks on them growing up (in a bad way) while begging them to grow up (in a good way). 

And then… coronavirus or COVID-19… and suddenly, what if there are nineteen summers?

Now, hold on, I know there’s still work to be done and homework to be watched over and chores, shopping, yardwork, etc. But what if how we defined a nineteenth summer opened us up to realizing that we could make amazing memories – seriously, who is EVER going to forget this spring – and realized that we could actually spend the time doing things we never thought we’d get to do?

Spend time reading a favorite book, together. …

Break open the stash of old family movies, and share stories about who’s who that they’ve never met. …

Experience more walks around the block or the park, listening to the things that make them tick and sharing the things you care about. …

Watching the movies you loved as a kid or a young adult with them, and asking them what they think….

Baking in the kitchen, drawing on the porch, building on the deck…

Teaching them about what we think about God and deep metaphysical questions and asking them what they think and what questions they have…

What if we saw this crazy “shutdown” as an opportunity to extend the shelf-life of their childhood, and built relationships that were strengthened for now and later? 

“Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6)

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Coronavirus Diaries: The Back Table

Does your ministry have a back table? Does your team or circle of friends? If you don’t, you might consider getting one. 

To explain the purpose of the back table, let me take you in the “Way Back” machine to the early 2000s. Back when we were young, cool (?), and full of energy, my wife Joanne and I worked as a school teacher and a youth minister respectively, and I volunteered as the campus minister for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at our alma mater, the University of Richmond. For five years, I volunteered as a guide to the leaders, a regular speaker to the large group worship, and a support to teams and coaches who were interested. On Sunday nights, we would often leave the church we attended where I was the youth minister at seven p.m. and drive over to the college, staying there until eleven or twelve at night. We enjoyed our time getting to know students who came, and enjoyed watching them grow as leaders, students, and people of faith. 

Many of the student-athletes who came were leaders of their teams, and encouraged others to come. But there were walkons, third stringers, and even fans. As the FCA chapter grew, it came to encompass people of all races, genders, and backgrounds — there was even a Jewish student who came because he said he liked the music and no one told him he couldn’t be there! FCA was one of a kind back then. But there’s one aspect that I think of periodically that’s not about the music, the speakers, the outreach, or the students I remember by name. Yes, it’s the back table. 

When you walked into FCA each night, into a concert hall that we had to set up with chairs, band equipment, and refreshments each week because we were more traveling carnival than fixed establishment, there was always a table with nametags and Sharpies, handouts and refreshments, index cards for prayer and the like. People would gather at the table to sign up for things, grab a snack, and fill out their nametag, and then disperse to sit in groups with friends throughout the room of a hundred or so. Not everyone would disperse though. 

There were always a few students, usually only one or two at a time, who stayed at the back table. Maybe it was because the table was at the back, or butted up to the wall behind it, but something consistently, week after week drew students to the table. Some of them were drawn to it for a few weeks, or for a month; some stayed for a whole year. And my wife, Joanne, was the one who received the people who came there. She was the one who provided them a safe place, a gentle landing spot, a kind word or two. She was the not-quite-old-enough mother hen to students only a few years younger, the reminder that even at the back table, you were not alone. 

Several of the “back tablers” moved on to leadership roles, at the front of large group, or leading small groups. Some of them became the people who rallied the group into mission, or invited more and more shy, anxious students in. The back table was a ministry of its own, unnamed and quietly. With a smile, a nametag, and the gentle reminder that not every ministry has to be crazy, and loud, and in your face. That’s just not my wife’s wife — nor the way of the back table. 

Who needs you to quietly walk alongside them, or to gently reach out from six feet away? Everyone doesn’t need the same thing, but some people need the back table. 

But let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. (I Peter 3:8)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment