Thursday, April 30, 2020

Weekday Devotion With Pastor Chris

In 1838, Bass Reeves was born into slavery in Crawford County, Arkansas.  He and his family were owned by a state legislator named William Steele Reeves.  When Reeves moved to Paris, Texas, eight years later, Bass was part of that move.  And when the Civil War broke out fifteen years after that, Bass was sent along to serve Reeves’ son, Colonel George Reeves, as part of the Confederate Army.

     At some point during the war, Bass escaped to Indian Territory; a region ruled by five Native American tribes in what today is Oklahoma.  He learned the customs and language of at least two of the tribes in the years that followed, but after the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery was passed in 1865, Bass Reeves returned to Arkansas, where he married and began to raise a family.

     About ten years later, U.S. Marshal James Fagan heard about Reeve’s background and recruited him to be one of 200 deputy marshals brought in to calm a growing crisis in the Territory.  Countless outlaws had taken refuge there and were creating all kinds of chaos.  Bass Reeves, at  6 feet 2 inches, and with his knowledge of the terrain and language along with his shooting skills (acquired during the Civil War) was a natural choice.  He became the first black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi.

     Over the course of his career, Reeves earned a formidable reputation. He was fiercely dedicated to his position, and demonstrated extraordinary integrity throughout his years of service.  There was no way to shake him off, no way to bribe or compromise him.  At times he would disguise himself or create a backstory in order to get close enough to make an arrest.  Ultimately, he is said to have arrested more than 3,000 people and killed another 14 in duels, and all this without sustaining a single gun wound (although at different points both his hat and belt were hit).

     Reeves was removed from his position in 1907, when Oklahoma gained statehood. Under state law, an African-American was not allowed to serve as a deputy marshal.  He died three years later.  However, many of the fugitives that he had arrested were sent to the Detroit House of Corrections, and it is biographer Art T. Burton’s thesis that it was Reeves with his strong moral compass and countless adventures who served as the basis for the Lone Ranger; introduced to the world by a Detroit radio station in January of 1933.

     There is a heroic quality to Reeves’ story.  Others might have been embittered by the experience of slavery.  Who would have blamed them?  But somehow Reeves was able to rise above that.  He became a man of great personal integrity, committed to what was right and best even to the point of arresting his own son who had murdered his wife.  He made a difference in this world, and a difference in the lives of those who knew him.  Today, there is a wonderful statue of Bass Reeves in Fort Smith, Arkansas.

     It is tempting, sometimes, to throw up our hands in defeat.  There are days when it would be easy to feel stuck or defeated; held back by circumstance or by our past.  But the God we worship is One to whom all things are possible: the same God who brought the slaves out of Egypt; the same God who led them across the Red Sea; the same God who provided through forty years in the wilderness; and the same God who came to us in Jesus Christ.  Bass Reeves was able to break free from slavery and become a great hero of the West.  Who knows what we might accomplish as we place our lives in the hands of this loving and all-powerful God?

“I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.  Look to him, and be radiant, so your faces shall never be ashamed.  This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord, and was saved from every trouble.  The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them.” (Psalm 34:4-7)

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Weekday Devotion WithPastor Chris

I have the great good fortune to be married to a wonderful preacher.  This past Sunday, Bonnie spoke of a trip we made last summer to the United Kingdom, and our encounter there with the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum.

     The Stone is 3’ 8” high, 2’ 5.8” wide, and some 11” thick.  It is a fragment of a larger stone that is believed to have been about 6½ ' tall.  It weighs approximately 1,680 pounds, and it bears three inscriptions: one in Ancient Egyptian using hieroglyphs (used for religious and monumental purposes); the second in the Demotic script (used for business and literature); and the third in Greek (used by Egypt’s administrators following Alexander the Great’s conquest one hundred and thirty five years before).  All three are versions of the same decree which was issued in Memphis, Egypt in 196 BCE. 

     It is thought that the stone was originally displayed in an Egyptian temple until the 4th century CE when the temple was destroyed.  Later, it was used as building material to construct a fortress wall for the Ottoman Empire near the village of Rosetta.  There it remained, stuck in that wall, until 1799, when Napoleon’s army was looking for building materials of its own.  One of Napoleon’s officers, a French engineer named Pierre-Francois Bouchard, noticed an irregular slab of stone sticking out of one of the old walls.  Seeing the three scripts inscribed upon it, he immediately realized the stone’s historic value and reported it to Napoleon himself.

     The Rosetta Stone offered the first Ancient Egyptian multi-lingual text recovered in modern times, and it aroused widespread public interest with its potential to decipher hieroglyphic script.  No one had ever been able to translate hieroglyphs before.  Lithographic copies and plaster casts of the stone immediately began circulating among European museums and scholars.

     When the British defeated the French in Egypt in 1801, they took possession of the stone.  Even though it hadn’t been deciphered, it was considered important enough that it was specifically written into the Treaty of Alexandria.  The first full translation of the Greek text appeared in 1803.  Nineteen years later, Jean-Francois Champollion announced the transliteration of the Egyptian scripts.
     Once deciphered, the stone proved the key to the translation of other ancient hieroglyphs.  Similar Egyptian multi-lingual inscriptions have been discovered in the years since, but it was the Rosetta Stone that first provided the key to our modern understanding of ancient Egyptian literature and civilization.  As a result, the term Rosetta Stone has come to be used of any essential clue in a new field of knowledge.

     What Bonnie went on to suggest, and the reason why I chose this for our devotion this morning, is that Jesus is a kind of Rosetta Stone for both Scripture and life.  He is the lens through which we encounter Scripture, and even more, through him we gain a new perspective, a new understanding, of what this life of ours is all about.  Jesus offers us that interpretive key which helps us unlock its meaning and purpose.  It is when we study him – what he said and how he lived – that all the other pieces of this life start falling into place.

“Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:9-11)

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Weekday Devotion With Pastor Chris

 When Bonnie and I were living in Connecticut, we used to live near the “Boston Post Road” which ran right through the middle of town.  Until Interstate 95 was built, it was the primary route from New York City to Boston and dated back to the early nineteenth century.  Long-time residents used to talk about how the road would be packed on Saturdays when Yale was playing Princeton or Harvard.  Today, the “Boston Post Road” is better known as Route 1.
     I always thought the “Post Road” got its name from being the primary route for the postal service between two great cities and everything in between.  As it turns out, that was only partially right.  It wasn’t the postal service that lent its name to the post road, but the other way around.
     The word “post” is derived from the Latin postis which referred to an upright timber (a post) to which notices could be attached.  Medieval couriers were “riders of the posts”; mounting fresh horses at each post on their route and then riding on.  In time, the posts became post houses where fresh horses were kept, and then post roads became those roads along which post houses could be found. 
     As the mail system evolved, it was only natural that those carrying it would use the post roads, and eventually the word “post” began to be used first of the carriers (“posthaste” was the means by which a courier was informed the message was urgent, as in “haste, post, haste”), and then of the mail itself.  “Postal” and “postage” are variations of the original word, and “to post” gradually evolved from carrying the mail in this way to placing a piece of mail into the system. 
     Have you ever heard of a “post chaise”?  If you’ve read Jane Austen, Henry Fielding, or William Thackeray you have probably come across a reference to one.  In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries a post chaise was a kind of carriage that was smaller and lighter than a stagecoach.  It was designed to carry just two or three passengers, and unlike other carriages of the time, the driver would actually ride not on the carriage itself, but out in front on one of a pair of horses.  You can see where this is going.  A “post chaise” traveled on post roads to maximize the speed and distance covered by changing horses every ten or fifteen miles at a post house.  At the time, this was the “Concorde jet” of distance traveling. 
     At one level, the distance between us and God is so great as to be immeasurable.  The “Tower of Babel” was the first effort to reach the heavens, and we all know how that turned out.  We can’t reach God; the chasm between us is simply too great.  But God has reached us, creating a bridge across that great chasm in the gift of His Son.  Because of Jesus, we don’t have to post a letter and wait.  Because of him, we don’t have to post at all. 
     Through Jesus, God is right here, with us always, and we can approach the Creator of all that is with the same confidence, and in the same spirit as children approaching their loving parent.

“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” (1 John 3:1)

Monday, April 27, 2020

Weekday Devotion With Pastor Chris

     On April 14, 1865, only one man was assigned to guard Abraham Lincoln as he made his way to Ford’s Theater.  His name was John Frederick Parker, a police officer who had been appointed to the Presidential detail in spite of having been brought before the police board numerous times for infractions ranging from sleeping on duty, to conduct unbecoming an officer to being drunk on duty.  He was three hours late that night relieving another member of the detail, and after arriving at the theater he soon left his post in the passageway outside of Lincoln’s box so that he could watch the show from the gallery.
     At intermission, Parker left the theater and went next door for some drinks.  To this day we don’t know if he returned to the gallery for the second half of the show or if he stayed in the saloon.  All we know for sure is that when John Wilkes Booth showed up around 10 p.m., Parker’s chair was empty.
     After the assassination Parker was charged with failing to protect the president, but the complaint was dismissed a month later. Incredibly, he was kept on the White House security detail.  One of the staff later shared an exchange between Mrs. Lincoln and Parker when he showed up for work; “So you are on guard tonight,” Mrs. Lincoln yelled, “on guard in the White House after helping to murder the President.”
     “I could never stoop to murder,” Parker replied, “much less to the murder of so good and great a man as the President. I did wrong, I admit, and have bitterly repented. I did not believe any one would try to kill so good a man in such a public place, and the belief made me careless.” Mrs. Lincoln said she would always consider him guilty and ordered him from the room.  It took three more years before John Frederick Parker was finally fired.  He was caught sleeping on duty yet again.

      Jesus tells us that we should forgive not just seven times, but seventy-seven (Mt. 18:22).  It is one of the hardest commands in all of Scripture, but it is also one of the most important.  Anger and bitterness are a poison, and we make a terrible mistake when we keep taking it, thinking that by doing so we hurting the other person. 
     But here’s the thing: we can forgive but still hold someone accountable.  Given his numerous offenses, Parker never should have been kept on the police force.  He certainly shouldn’t have been assigned the Presidential detail.  And after the President was assassinated, it is simply inconceivable that he was still allowed to enter the White House let alone remain a guard.  That’s not forgiveness.  That’s folly.
     Forgiveness doesn’t mean pretending the offense never happened.  What it does mean is seeking that which is loving and best.  If Parker had been held accountable early on, it might have spared the President’s life.  It certainly would have spared Parker the horror of having failed an extraordinary President and a wonderful human being.
     We can all understand Mrs. Lincoln’s reaction in her encounter with Parker.  But we can also see, from this safe distance, how carrying that kind of anger would hurt her in the long run.  How could she forgive someone who had wrought such devastation?  That’s the issue.  It is exactly how we feel sometimes.  And it is precisely then that we cry out to God to do in us what is so clearly beyond our capacity to do for ourselves. 

“Then Peter went up to him and said, 'Lord, how often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me? As often as seven times?' Jesus answered, 'Not seven, I tell you, but seventy-seven times.’” (Matthew 18:21-22, NJB)

Friday, April 24, 2020

Weekday Devotion With Pastor Chris

Old radios used to have a dial that you would turn to move the needle across the various frequencies.  There was an art to it.  If you knew your favorite station was around a specific point, you would move the needle to the approximate location and then make slight adjustments back and forth until you had the strongest signal.  Fancy radios even had two dials:  one for the broad movement across the frequencies, and then another to fine tune the radio to that precise point where the signal was clearest.

     People today will sometimes talk about band-width as in “I don’t have the band-width for that.”  It is a reference to where we are strongest and operating out of our gifts.  It can refer to our level of energy, or to what we know and are comfortable with, or it can refer to a specific talent.  I can honestly say that with our need now to record and upload videos, or to live-stream our services on the internet I am absolutely outside my bandwidth.  I’m so grateful that we have some people on staff who understand it all and can help guide us through it.

     But getting back to the radio, I’ve always felt that there was a parallel in our walk with God.  When Jesus says, “Abide in me as I abide in you,” I know he is talking about a vine, but for me it is a bit like those radio frequencies.  So I’m mixing the metaphor.  In my mind abiding in Jesus means doing everything I can to open my life to those life-giving, fruit-bearing forces that flow from him.  I want to hit the precise frequency where there is no static, no interference; that space where Jesus’ presence, power and guidance can freely flow into my life.

     How do we do that?  It is all about staying connected. When we sin, we move off center.  When we repent, we make our way back.   The value of such spiritual disciplines as prayer, study, generosity, worship and service is that they can help us stay centered.  They help keep us in that space where Christ’s Spirit is moving in us and through us and shaping our lives according to God’s good purposes.

     We are not talking, then, about earning God’s favor by hitting the right frequency.  God already favors us, and nothing we do or don’t do is going to change that.  What we are talking about, rather, is the very quality of our lives.  If we want the best and richest kind of life – the life that bears much fruit – there is just one place to turn: Jesus.  Find that right frequency, stay on it, and so abide in that space where Christ is present through our obedience and our love.

“If you keep my commandments you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” (John 15:10)

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Weekday Devotion With Pastor Chris

I suspect that Horatius (Horace to his friends) Bonar is not a familiar name to most of you, but in his time he was a well-known, well-respected pastor, author and hymnodist.  He wrote some 140 hymns, three of which can still be found in our Presbyterian hymnal today.

     Bonar came from a long line of ministers who served a total of 364 years in the Church of Scotland.  I wonder if that might be some kind of record for any family.  Born in 1808, he grew up in Edinburgh, and graduated from Edinburgh University. He was ordained in the Church of Scotland, but during what is referred to as “the disruption,” he joined the Free Church of Scotland in 1843, and became its Moderator forty years later.  He died in 1888.

     Bonar and his wife knew some great sadness over the course of their life together.  They lost five young children in succession, and towards the end of their lives saw one of their four surviving children widowed, and was forced to move back in with them along with her five small children.  Bonar’s faith, however, never wavered.  He continued to write and offer God his best up to the end of his life.

     It is not one of Bonar’s hymns that I want to share with you this morning, but one of his prayers.  I came across it in my own devotions.  The language is a bit archaic, but I hope you can get past that and see the great heart reflected here.  Even more, I hope you can make this prayer your own.

Oh, turn me, mold me, mellow me for use!
Pervade my being with Thy vital force,    
That this else inexpressive life of mine
May become eloquent and full of power,
Impregnated with life and strength divine…
I cannot raise the dead, nor from this soil
Pluck precious dust, nor bid the sleepers wake,
Nor still the storm, nor bend the lightning back,
Nor muffle up the thunder,
Nor bind the Evil One, nor bid the chain
Fall from creation’s long-enfettered limbs;
But I can live a life that tells on other lives, and makes
This world less full of evil and of pain –
A life, which like a pebble dropped at sea,
Sends its wide circles to a hundred shores.
Let such be mine!  Creator of true life!
Thyself the life Thou givest, give Thyself,
That Thou mayst dwell in me, and I in Thee.

"Abide in me as I abide in you.  Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.  I am the vine, you are the branches.  Those  who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing." (John 15:4-5)

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Weekday Devotion With Pastor Chris

Every year the United Kingdom’s Royal Humane Society awards the Stanhope Medal for the most courageous and heroic rescue of the previous year.  The award was created in 1873, and named after Chandos Scudamore Stanhope, an officer in the Royal Navy who had died of smallpox while stationed in Malta at just 48 years old.  Twenty years before he had become a national hero for rescuing a drowning seaman.  When he died, his friends raised a large sum of money to perpetuate his memory by honoring similar rescues each year.

     The very first recipient of the Stanhope Medal was a man named Matthew Webb.  Born in 1860, he learned to swim in the River Severn, and at twelve joined the training ship HMS Conway for two years before shifting to the merchant navy.  While serving as second mate on a Cunard Line ship traveling from New York to Liverpool, he attempted to save a man who had fallen overboard by diving into the sea in the middle of the Atlantic.  Sadly, the man was never found, but Webb’s efforts made him a hero of the British press and he was awarded the very first Stanhope Medal.  As it turns out, it wasn’t his first rescue attempt.  Ten years before he had saved his twelve year old brother who had been drowning in the Severn.

     Today, Matthew Webb is remembered not for saving his brother or for earning the first Stanhope Medal.  He is remembered, rather, as the first person to ever swim across the English Channel.  On August 24, 1875, smeared in porpoise oil and accompanied by three escort boats, he dove off the Admiralty Pier in Dover.  Twenty-one hours and forty minutes later he arrived on the other side of the Channel, near Calais.   It is estimated that his zig-zag course (shaped by the currents he had to face) covered nearly 40 miles.  The feat brought him both national and international fame.

     In the years that followed, Webb wrote a book, merchandised his name, and participated in various swimming matches and stunts.  His final stunt some eight years later, however, did not go well.  Attempting to swim through the whirlpool rapids just below Niagara Falls, he drowned.  He was subsequently buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Niagara Falls, New York.

     Today, if you visit Webb’s birthplace of Dawley, Telford, you will find a memorial to him on High Street with the inscription: “Nothing great is easy.”

     I agree with the sentiment.  I’m not so sure, however, about risking one’s life for the sake of fame and fortune, especially when it means leaving behind a wife and two young children as Webb did.  Real greatness, to my mind, isn’t something you seek.  It is something conferred (if conferred at all), while you are going after something altogether different – the by-product and not the goal; the result of faithfulness, or duty, or the pursuit of one’s passion.  Jesus wasn’t seeking greatness when he offered his life upon the cross.  He offered his life, rather, because he loved the Father, and loved all of us.  Yet surely there is no greater person who ever walked this earth. 

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.  It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28)

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Weekday Devotion With Pastor Chris

Scissors have got to be one of the all-time great inventions: simple; efficient; and irreplaceable when they are the one thing you really need.  The earliest version was designed and used by the Egyptians around 1500 B.C.E.  Theirs was a single piece of metal fashioned into two blades controlled by a strip between them that served as a kind of spring, keeping the blades apart until they were squeezed.
     The next evolution came from Rome.  By 100 C.E., they were using a device similar to what we have today: pivoted, cross-blade scissors.  Like the Egyptians, they tended to use bronze but they also used iron on occasion.  And that was pretty much it for the next sixteen hundred years: hand-made scissors using bronze or iron.  It wasn’t until 1761 that we see the next major step forward.  That's when English manufacturer Robert Hinchliffe adapted the design so scissors could be mass-produced.  He was also the first to begin making them out of steel.
     The blades on a pair of scissors are asymmetrical – they overlap.  That’s a good thing because our hands are asymmetrical, as well.  Our thumbs push out from the palm, and the fingers pull inward.  If you watch what happens when you make a fist, you’ll see what I mean.  There is a lateral component to the motion.  In practice, that means there is such a thing as right-handed and left-handed scissors.  With either one, the thumb blade will always be closer to the user’s body so that when the handles are squeezed, the two blades will be pushed together.  Try to use right-handed scissors in the left hand (or vice versa), however, and you will get the exact opposite motion – the blades will be pushed apart, and you will generally end up bending the paper instead of cutting it. 

     Who was the first to make molded handles so that you instantly knew which hand to use and which handle was for your thumb?  I don’t know, but I’ve always associated it with Fiskars and their orange handles. Whoever came up with it, it was one of the last, great advances in scissor design.  Along with that, though, there has also been an increasing specialization.  Today you can find scissors for hedge-trimming, pruning, cutting branches, cutting hair, cutting bolts, cutting bandages and all of them right beside surgical scissors, thinning shears, nail scissors, metal snips, button-hole scissors, dress-maker shears, pinking shears, carpet scissors, and cigar cutters.  And that’s just a partial list.
     Who would have thought that something so simple could get so complicated?  Well just take a look at the fingers that actually operate them, and you will see something even more remarkable.  Their constituent elements alone are impressive: bones, muscle, tendons, fat, nerves, blood vessels, ligament, cartilage, skin, nail, cuticle… and those are just the layman’s terms.  Even more astonishing is that all these parts are then packed together in a relatively small digit, and combined in a way that allows for feeling, movement, control and self-repair.  Our fingers are an absolute miracle of design.  What they do routinely year after year, decade after decade boggles the mind.
     You think scissors are impressive (I do)? Just take a look at what God has done.

“For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.  I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.  Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.”  (Psalm 139:13-14). 

Monday, April 20, 2020

Weekday Devotion With Pastor Chris

When the Black Death showed up in Wittenberg in 1527, most of the residents who had the means chose to leave the city.  Martin Luther, however, and his pregnant wife Katharina chose to stay in order to care for the sick.  Luther wrote, “We must respect the word of Christ, ‘I was sick and you did not visit me.’ According to this passage we are bound to each other in such a way that no one may forsake the other in his distress but is obliged to assist and help him as he himself would like to be helped.”

Two hundred years before, when the plague first showed up, both rich and poor were affected.  At times, the dead outnumbered the living and there weren’t enough survivors left to bury the corpses.  People barred themselves in houses or fled to the countryside.  Very few risked visiting or caring for the sick, but many parish priests, nuns and monks did precisely that; many of them falling ill and eventually dying as a result.

     This is what Christians have always done.  In the third century, when the Plague of Cyprian was claiming as many as 5,000 deaths a day in Rome alone, Christians showed extraordinary care and compassion for those who suffered.  Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria at the time, wrote, “Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains.”

     This is what Christians do.  We care.  It is what Jesus did.  Even in the midst of this quarantine we are not helpless.  Members of our congregation have been bringing food to the people of Sharpsburg, making masks and distributing them in places like Longwood and Presbyterian Care, and making extra-commitment gifts to support those in need.  We can pick up a phone and call someone who is alone.  We can drop off a meal on the front porch of a neighbor.  We can write a note of appreciation, encouragement or support.  We can wear masks ourselves (even if it is just a bandanna) to protect those we encounter from anything we, ourselves, might be carrying.

     In his book, The Rise of Christianity, sociologist Rodney Stark suggests that the plagues “search us.  They discover in us either the way of the flesh (self-preservation) or the way of the Spirit (self-giving sacrifice). The third-century plague found in the church a Spirit-filled people, willing to walk the way of their Master.”  So may this pandemic find the same in us.

"And the King will answer and say to them, 'Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers or sisters of mine, even the least of them, you did it to me.” (Mt 25:40)

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Weekday Devotion With Pastor Chris

Michael Angel Bastiaans grew up in Bali.  He was the fourth of six children, and when his family fell on hard times, he went door to door with his mother, helping her sell bed-sheets.  Like many from Bali, Bastiaans assumed he would go into the hospitality industry, but then he received a scholarship to study teaching.  It changed the course of his life.

     After graduating from teachers’ college, he was sent to teach for two years on a remote island in Indonesia named Siberut.  The wooden schoolhouse where he taught was built on stilts, and every day it shook with small earthquakes.  Power outages were commonplace and could last for days.  Sometimes food was in short supply.  But the hardships didn’t bother him.  He would crack jokes while fetching water and join in the singing during blackouts.  He taught his students how to play basketball even though they had no court.

     Known to his students as “Pak Mike” (Mr. Mike), he never had much money of his own.  But he was the kind of teacher, the kind of man, who would give his lunch to a student who had no breakfast; the kind of man who would help friends pay their way home during a family emergency.

     His dream was to change education in Indonesia.  He wanted to make a difference, and in his own way he did.  Not on the large scale of improving an entire educational system, but he made a difference in the lives of those he touched.  As his fiancĂ© put it, “He taught me to smile brighter, to love more fiercely, to dare to be vulnerable, to forgive freely, and above all, to let down my guard and live more genuinely.”

     Michael Angel Bastiaans died on April 4 after falling ill in mid-March.  He was one of the more than 129,000 people world-wide who have died from the coronavirus.  He was just 31 years old.  His obituary (from which this piece is drawn) appeared in the New York Times as part of a series on those who have died in the pandemic.  The numbers are staggering and difficult to grasp.  Meet someone like Bastiaans, however, and the toll becomes more personal.  These aren’t just numbers.  These are parents and friends, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters like Michael Angel Bastiaans who are being taken from us.

     What’s the measure of a life well-lived?  That’s the question that Charles’ Dickens’ was addressing in his tale of Ebenezer Scrooge.  It is really the question that every great novelist wrestles with at some level.  A well-lived life is about more than longevity.  It is about more than being “successful.”  We know it when we see it though, and we know that Michael Angel Bastiaans' life, as brief as it was, was full, and rich and good.  Like Jesus, he only lived into his early thirties, but like Jesus, the years he did have were filled with generosity, compassion and love.

“No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” (1 Jn. 4:12)

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Weekday Devotion With Pastor Chris

Pulitzer Prize winning poet Mary Oliver is one of my favorites.  She is a wonderful observer of the natural world, and writes in a way that is both accessible and thought provoking.  Consider the following, titled "The Bleeding Heart":

I know a bleeding-heart plant that has thrived
for sixty years if not more, and has never
missed a spring without rising and spreading
itself into a glossy bush, with many small red
hearts dangling.  Don't you think that deserves
a little thought?  The woman who planted it
has been gone for a long time, and everyone
who saw it in that time has also died or moved
away and so, like so many stories, this one can't
get finished properly.  Most things that are
important, have you noticed, lack a certain
neatness.  More delicious, anyway, is to
remember my grandmother's pleasure when
the dissolve of winter was over and the green
knobs appeared and began to rise, and to cre-
ate their many hearts.  One would say she was
a simple woman, made happy by simple
things.  I think this was true.  And more than
once, in my long life, I have wished to be her.

     A plant that has outlived the woman who planted it.  The passing of time, and those who have moved through our lives along the way.  The memory of a beloved grandmother, and the delight she found in watching her plant blossom year after year.  Most of all, the capacity to find joy in the simple things... 

     There is an invitation here to pause amid our rush through time and take note of the little things, the simple blessings that are all around us.  And they are all around us; even in this pandemic, even amid the fears, discomforts and uncertainties of this season: the people God has brought into our lives; the tastes and textures of a well-prepared meal; a beautiful piece of music on our car radio; the white petals of a flowering dogwood.  So often we tend to get caught up in the big things like where we are heading or what it is that we are trying to do.  More often than not, however, the blessings are in the small ones, the ones we take for granted, the ones we pass on our way to something else.  We only begin to find them when we learn to pause long enough, like Oliver's grandmother, to actually notice. "Don't you think that deserves a little thought?"

"Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these." (Mt. 6:28-29) 


Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Weekday Devotion With Pastor Chris

When I was very young, my grandmother inherited a cabin on Mt. Desert Island from a close friend she had met at college.  It was a summer cabin with a huge stone fireplace, and stood on a cliff looking out over Frenchman Bay.  The sunsets were spectacular.  My bed was right next to a window overlooking the bay, and one of my favorite memories was waking to the sound of a lobster boat passing just beneath the window.
     I don’t remember the first time I had lobster, but it was a favorite of our family through the years when we would get together in Maine or Cape Cod.  I always understood that this was a special treat and I can still picture the whole family gathering around the great table at my parents’ home in Osterville; plates heaped with lobster, corn on the cob, French bread and salad.  Those were great times filled with laughter, barking dogs, and three generations of Taylors.
     With lobster such a prized treat, I was very surprised to discover that that wasn’t always the case.  There was a time when they were so abundant that residents in the Massachusetts Bay Colony would find them washed up on the beach in two-foot-high piles.  They were the poor person’s protein, and Native Americans used them not only for food, but also to fertilize their crops and bait their fishing hooks.
     With lobsters being available in such abundance, the price remained very cheap and they were routinely fed to prisoners, apprentices, slaves and children during the colonial era and beyond. What I remember most vividly was discovering that servants would actually stipulate in their contracts that they could only be served lobster a certain number of times per week.  How could anybody get sick of lobster?

     The key, as it turned out, was in the preparation.  For centuries lobsters were cooked dead, and then overcooked at that.  It wasn’t until the 1880's that chefs realized lobsters tasted much better if they were boiled live and then cooked for less time.  That’s when lobster started showing up in fancy restaurants in places like Boston and New York City and the prices began to rise.
     Thirty or forty years ago, two and three pound lobsters were commonplace.  The last time I was in New England, I noticed that now a pound-and-a-quarter or a pound-and-a-half lobsters have become the norm.  When I saw the extraordinary number of lobster pots that fill the waters of Maine, I understood why.  American lobsters, once considered the food of the impoverished, have become a cherished delicacy, and demand is exceeding the supply.
     Getting the preparation right made all the difference.  I think the same can be said of almost anything: a well-written book; a great painting; a carefully constructed home.  When someone gets it “right,” it delights our senses and can nurture our soul.
     How do we get life right?  Jesus shows us the way, and my own experience has borne that out.  Again and again I’ve found that when I’m faithful and obedient, that life comes together in a way that is pleasing and right.  It is then that you and I begin to find deep and abiding peace.    

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight.  In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.  Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.  It will be a healing for your flesh and a refreshment for your body.” (Proverbs 3:5-8)

Monday, April 13, 2020

Weekday Devotion With Pastor Chris

Who invented the paper clip?  Ask anyone from Norway and they will probably tell you it was Johan Vaaler. Vaaler was a Norwegian inventor with degrees in electronics, science, and mathematics, and in 1901 he was granted patents for a paper clip in both Germany and the United States.

     About twenty years after Vaaler’s patents, an engineer with the Norwegian national patent agency was in Germany to register Norwegian patents.  He came across Vaaler’s patent, and later, in a report of the first fifty years of the patent agency, he mentioned that Vaaler had invented the common paper clip.  Word gradually spread.

     During the Second World War, wearing pins or badges bearing national symbols or the initials of the exiled King was banned in Norway by the German occupiers.  In their place, Norwegians began to wear paper clips in their lapels as a symbol of their resistance.  They were meant to denote unity (“bound together”), but with the story of their origin the paper clips also served as a symbol of national pride.  Eventually, the paper clips themselves were also forbidden, but by that time the paper clip and national identity had been inseparably linked.  In 1989, a giant clip (23 feet high) was erected in front of a commercial college near Oslo in honor of Vaaler, and ten years later, in 1999, a postage stamp was issued featuring a paper clip.
     It is a wonderful story.  There is only one problem: it isn’t quite true.  Yes, Vaaler received patents in 1901, but what that engineer looking through the German archives failed to realize was that Vaaler’s design was not the same as the double oval-shaped standard that everyone thinks of as a “paper clip” today.  That clip was actually designed and mass-produced by Gem Manufacturing Ltd. of England towards the end of the nineteenth century.  In fact, while the clip itself was never patented, one William Middlebrook of Waterbury, Connecticut, did patent a machine for making paperclips of the Gem design in 1899 – two years before Vaaler’s invention.  That giant paperclip outside of Oslo and the one featured on the postage stamp?  Yup, they are both Gem clips, and not Vaaler’s.  Oh well.

     Still, I like the idea of people wearing paper clips in their lapels as a sign of unity during a national crisis.  Maybe we could do something similar as we struggle with the Coronavirus?  But the truth is we Christians have always had our own signs of unity.  First, there is the cross; the symbol of Jesus’ saving death.  And then there is “communion” itself – a word whose very meaning speaks of our connection with Christ and with each other.  With the bread and cup (visible signs of Jesus’ presence) we are joined with Christians through all of time around God’s great family table.  We are reminded that we are indeed members of Jesus’ mystical body, and heirs through hope of his everlasting Kingdom.  Paper clips might be good for a season, but in Jesus you and I are bound for all eternity.

For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” (Rom. 12:4-5)


Friday, April 10, 2020

Weekday Devotion With Pastor Chris

  On Good Friday we remember Jesus’ movement to the cross.  One of the most meaningful hymns for this day was written some three hundred years ago.  “When I survey the wondrous cross” has been called the finest hymn in the English language.  It was written by Isaac Watts and can serve as a helpful guide as we recall Christ’s sacrifice.

     Watts was the hymn-writer who revolutionized congregational praise in the churches of England and Scotland.  Up until he came along, it had been limited to metrical psalms ever since the Reformation.  The results were often less than uplifting.  Returning from chapel one Sunday morning Isaac (about twenty years old at the time) complained about the terrible quality of the metrical psalms that they had used in worship that day.  His father exclaimed, “Then give us something better, young man!”  Watts proceeded to do just that.  Before the day was over he had written a hymn that was used in worship the following Sunday, and so began a career that would ultimately produce somewhere between 650 and 750 hymns.

     Watts believed there was a place in worship for hymns that were more than just biblical paraphrases.  He pushed for hymns that gave free expression to some of the great truths of our faith in poetic form.  His efforts gave birth to the English hymn as we know it today.  Among his best known works are “O God, our help in ages past,” “Jesus shall reign where’er the sun” and “When I survey the wondrous cross.”
When I survey the wondrous cross,
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
     In this hymn we are called to do more than offer a brief glance in the direction of the cross.  The invitation is to stop and contemplate its meaning.  Here is the very Son of God, the Prince of glory, dying for our sakes, taking the burden of our sins upon himself; “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole” (Isa. 53:5).  How could we be other than humbled in the face of such a sacrifice?
See, from his head, his hands, his feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down;
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

     Watts got it exactly right: it is boundless love and surpassing sorrow that came together on the cross.  It is sorrow and compassion that fills God’s heart as he considers our great need, and it was love that drove Jesus to the cross; “God shows his love us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
Were the whole realm of nature mind,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
     No gift could possibly repay God for what God.  The most we can do, the best we can do, is to offer God the gift of ourselves – love in response to that far greater love that God has shown us.  This Good Friday consider the cross.

“May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”  (Gal. 6:14)

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Weekday Devotion With Pastor Chris

     My sabbatical five years ago was one of the great highlights of my life.  With a grant from the Lily Foundation and help from some friends I was able fulfill a life-long dream; a cruise on a sailboat of our own.  Our adventure began in the British Virgin Islands where we were joined by our kids and one of their spouses.  That all by itself would have been an extraordinary gift, but that was just the beginning.  Afterwards, Bonnie and I picked up our new-to-us boat and began a cruise that would take us from the Outer Banks of North Carolina all the way up to Nova Scotia, and then back down to the Chesapeake Bay.

     Any great adventure, of course, is going to have its setbacks and surprises.  Ours was no exception.  The most significant came as we were making our way south back down from Nova Scotia and Maine.  We had just come through the Cape Cod Canal and were stopping at Onset to refuel.  As we approached the dock I put the engine into reverse to slow us down, and then found to my horror that it wouldn’t come back out.  We were stuck in reverse.  The dock-hands who had lined up to receive our lines watched as we started backing away.

     Well this was awkward.  I yelled out what had happened, but my immediate focus was on not hitting anything as we began backing through the crowded anchorage.  I would like to tell you that I was calm, collected, and thoroughly professional.  But no, that wasn’t me.  I was anxious and confused, unsure about how best to handle this situation.

     Thankfully, one of the guys on the dock jumped into a tender and came motoring out.  I turned off the engine, and we began to drift.  I assumed he would come up alongside but that’s not what he did at all.  He brought his bow into our stern and tossed us a couple of lines telling us to take one up mid-ship and to secure the other at the stern.  Then (if I remember correctly) he gave us a third line to attach to yet another cleat.  I couldn’t figure out what he was doing.  It made no sense.  But we did as instructed and what we soon realized was that from that position and with those lines, he had complete control of our thirty five foot, six ton sail boat.  He proceeded to expertly guide us to the dock.  I was impressed.

     The good news was that we were safely docked in a good marina.  The bad news was that our transmission was shot and it was going to take a week to replace it.

     Like that dock-hand in his tender, God doesn’t always move in the ways that we would expect.  What God asks of us can often take us by surprise: “what, you mean we are supposed to forgive those who have injured us and pray for those who have made our lives miserable?”  But like that dock-hand, God always gets it exactly right.  What a blessing it is, amid whatever crisis we might encounter, to find God coming up beside us and offering that help which will see us through.

“Our soul waits for the Lord; he is our help and shield.  Our heart is glad in him, because we trust in his holy name.  Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us, even as we hope in you.” (Psalm 33:20-22)

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Weekday Devotion With Pastor Chris

Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1755.  It included roughly 40,000 entries, and three times that number of illustrative quotations, filling 2,300 double-column pages in two massive folio volumes.  A folio was twelve by eighteen inches – the kind of book of which one person commented “portable, if your horse be not too weak.”

     Previous dictionaries had essentially been word lists.  Johnson’s, however, “had a great writer’s love of the flavor of words, awareness of nuance, and consciousness of the way a language changes as a living thing.”  He strove to show the various ways a word had been used, and included examples from earlier writers that would illustrate their usage in specific contexts – a practice the Oxford English Dictionary would later emulate.

     In creating the dictionary, Johnson would buy or borrow standard works by English authors, read through them and underline the words he wanted to use.  He would then turn the books over to his six paid assistants who would take them and copy out on individual slips of paper the sentences in which the underlined word appeared.  After the slips were alphabetized they would go back to Johnson who would then choose the examples he wanted for each definition. 

In his wonderful book, The Club, (from which the earlier quotation was drawn) author Leo Damrosch offers a sense of what emerged.  Johnson took the word “bedpresser” for example, and defined it as “a heavy, lazy fellow.”  Then he offered an illustration drawn from Shakespeare: Prince Hal’s insult to Falstaff, “This sanguine coward, this bedpresser, this horse-back-breaker, this huge hill of flesh.”
     When is the last time you heard someone called a “bedpresser”?  Yet it is so immediately evocative that once you’ve heard the word and understood its meaning it’s difficult to forget.  And with that one illustration we catch a glimpse of Johnson’s extraordinary talent.

     Johnson knew the power of words.  They can nurture our spirit, delight the mind, inform our intellect and both comfort and encourage our hearts.  They are a primary means by which we communicate our hopes and dreams, and reveal to one another something of that self which lies beneath the surface. 

     In much the same way, God’s self comes to us in the gift of his Word – the words of Scripture and that One Word which is God’s Son.  Words matter, and no word matters more than that One which has come to us in Jesus.  In the midst of this crisis, may our words bring to those around us the light of his love, his presence and his grace.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (Jn. 1:1-5)