Number Our Days
Well, technically we didn’t lose it, at least not in the sense of misplacing it. For many in our world, 2020 was their final year of life and a good many worldwide died of COVID-19. If you are still in the land of the living and can read this essay, then, you didn’t lose 2020, although the year might not have unfolded as you expected. Last January, who would have imagined how the year would progress? 2020 was a year of loss for nearly everyone. As we put it behind us, we remember what we have lost, but we also need to reflect on what we have gained. The title of the blog is “So Teach Us to Number Our Days,” Psalm 90:12. If there was ever a time to “number our days,” surely now is that time. Today’s meditation will be divided into two sections— reminders of what we lost and reflections on what we gained. Hopefully, these thoughts will help to prepare us for what lies ahead in 2021.
First, 2020 was definitely a year of profound loss. Starting with the global COVID-19 pandemic that began in February in the United States, the cost in human life has been nothing short of tragic. Sure, some people would have died anyway. In 2016 for example, there were just under 2,750,000 deaths in the United States. A chart from the CDC lists the ten leading causes of death, with heart disease listed first at 165.5 deaths per 100,000 people. According to the Center for Disease Control’s most recent figures, of the 340,000+ US deaths attributed to COVID, 94% had at least one comorbidity listed on the death certificate. The reality is that we will never know why some people died, but clearly, COVID contributed to many deaths, at least in part. We lost family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, fellow-citizens. There is no way of knowing whether or not these people might have died from something else (a car accident, a stray bullet, a house fire, or some other “random tragic event”). But COVID took its toll on human life. Whether or not COVID was manmade, it is clearly a part of the curse. Sin left its marks on humanity. Death and disease are surely among the effects of the curse.
We also lost much more than life through COVID. Most of those who passed lost the comfort of family, families lost the presence of loved ones, funerals were either suspended or had limited attendance. The grief of death caused many to lose the joy of life. Everyday existence was impacted. People lost jobs; businesses closed, many permanently; weddings were postponed or limited. Travel plans were disrupted. My son and his family arrived home from Africa just ahead of the pandemic and lost nearly all of their planned travels to reconnect with supporters and raise additional support. Christians lost closeness with churches. Even for churches with online meetings, much was missing—fellowship, encouragement, presence. Thanksgiving and Christmas were downsized or celebrated in atypical ways. Businesses that didn’t close lost income, forcing employees to seek other ways of meeting personal expenses. Children lost their educational normalcy. Sports programs were cancelled or reduced. Parents had to assume the educational leadership over their children, having their own lives and careers disrupted. The list could be expanded. . . . There may even have been an increase in suicide rates stemming from the stress that the pandemic produced and more suicides may follow in its aftermath. 2020 was a year of profound loss. Many readers know about our own personal losses. This has been a very hard year.
So, why reflect on what we have lost at all? Why rehearse the pain? While we mourn the losses of 2020, and we may for years to come, we need to turn our hearts toward God and consider what we gained. This fading year was not simply about our losses. There has been much that we should have gained through all this calamity. Remember, what is happening in us is more important than what is happening to us! As we stand on the threshold of a new year, shouldn’t we ponder what we have gained, whether we appreciate it or not?
Among the primary things we should have gained is a new appreciation for life, realizing just how fragile it really is. At any time, our life could be extinguished, and it would be gone. James 4:14 declares that life is like a vapour—here and then absent, oh so quickly. It is interesting that James does not liken life to a sunset . . . slowly fading and gradually setting. For many, life seems to end this way. James uses a powerful simile to describe what really occurs—life is “like a vapour”—your breath on a cold winter’s morning or the steam from a tea kettle, here and then gone. Oh Lord, “teach us to number our days . . .” May believers learn to more fully trust in you. COVID is an unseen foe from which we really cannot defend ourselves—not with masks or social distancing or PPEs or even vaccines. All of these things may help, but you, oh Lord, are ultimately sovereign over all our days. Help us to trust in you.
Further, it should be remembered anew that all have an appointment which will not be missed, no matter how hard some may try. It is an appointment with death to meet the Creator. It is a divine appointment. “It is appointed” unto humans to die and after this the judgment (Hebrews 9:27). Several things are evident in this text. First, this is an appointment made for us, over which we have little control. This is not fatalism. Fatalism isn’t a part of our world. God is the one who made the world; He is the one who sustains it. This is His world. Everything in His world works according to His divine direction (Eph 1:11). Since He made the world and all things that are a part of it, He appoints what happens in His world. Death is certain and applies to the living—all humans have this appointment. Also learned from this text is that death is not the end of things—death is followed by judgment—after this (death), there is judgment. There is both hope and warning in this text. For the believer, what happens to us in this world pales when compared with what awaits us in the next world. The believer enters into their rest in the presence of the Lord. All COVID can do is kill us. Don’t be foolish but neither be fearful. Eternal rest awaits. For the non-believer, there is warning. To die unprepared is to die without hope and without God. Once death comes, things are set. No change is possible. Decisions made in life are finalized at death. There can be no post-mortem salvation. You cannot buy auto insurance after you’ve had your accident, expecting the insurance to pay for the accident. So we, the living, yet have time to prepare. “So teach us to number our days . . .” Our days are limited. We need to live our lives as if we are on borrowed time, for we truly are. Often when I begin my personal prayer, I thank God for “another day of grace.” May I truly be thankful for another day, a day of grace, divine grace, a day to live and serve the Saviour! Oh Lord, thank you for 2020! Thank you for allowing me and my family to come through this most difficult year. Because you have granted me grace, there must be yet more for me to do for you. May I be faithful to pursue your will . . . to the end. Deo volente!
Living in a Facebook world is to live in a world with hundreds of “friends,” many more relationships than people can manage. Rather than thinking of them as friends, it would be better to consider them acquaintances, business associates, clients, relatives, schoolmates, or whatever they really are. They certainly aren’t friends in the biblical sense of the term, though doubtless among the number of connections, some may be true friends. I know when I look at my list, I see names I don’t recognize, nor can I recall how we are connected or when we connected on FB. I have argued that a friend in the biblical sense of the term, is one who will stand with us in the hour of our need. A friend is not afraid to give us a kidney or take a bullet for us. There will be some tangible expression of the depth of the friendship that will eventually manifest itself. Jesus declared (John 15:13) that one who gives his life for a friend manifests the greatest kind of love. We could understand this in the literal sense—to give up one’s life through death to save another or in the metaphoric sense—to give one’s life completely in service for another. Either way, both are expressions of true friendship and great love.
So, is the opposite also true? If one is unwilling to expend themselves for another, either literally or metaphorically, is this a marker of a false friend? Well, it is clearly shows the lack of depth in the relationship. I would do most anything for my wife, but less for someone else’s wife. It’s just the way it is. As a Christian, my commitment to my wife should be deeper than my commitment to any other earthly person. This commitment is to be expected in marriage. The caveat here is that Jesus warned us against loving something more than Him (Matt 10:37).
However, a person who will not carry your torch (see my essay last week), who will not give you a kidney if they could and you needed one, really isn’t your friend. This doesn’t mean you cannot have a relationship with this person if you choose, but don’t expect much in the relationship because not much is offered. You may enjoy a cup of coffee or watching a football game with them, but in the crucible of testing, the person will be like Job’s friends . . . he or she will sit back and watch you suffer without doing much to help. The “friend” may even add to the testing by criticizing you for real or imagined error on your part. You do not need more criticism. You need help in the crisis. Alas, no real help will come.
So, how do you cultivate true friends? What should you do to foster a true friend among your relationships? How do you choose someone to be a friend to? How do you maintain friendships across the miles and time? These are interesting questions that I am not sure can be answered in a simple essay. But let’s try to think through some of these issues.
How do you choose a person with whom to cultivate a true friendship? First, is this something that can actually be done in an early connection? You make acquaintances, develop associations, learn of interests, goals, aspirations, opinions, fears, and personal details as you develop relationships. Potential friends begin to emerge as you spend time together. Over time, and in the good providence of God, He brings people into your lives with whom you will have a deep and abiding relationship. Something will click. Not mystically or magically. When I met my wife in the 9th grade, I did not “fall head over heels in love with her.” She certainly didn’t “fall head over heels in love with me” either. We were not really impressed with each other when we first met. Over the next seven years, we grew to become friends and eventually married.
There are some people with whom you can never develop a true friendship. I was asked recently about my acquaintance with a certain academic. I replied that I hardly knew him. I had had a number of opportunities to be in his presence. I heard him speak on numerous occasions and had meals with others that included this fellow. The more I was around him, the less I felt like we would be friends. In every conversation of which we were both a part, he was the focal point of the discussion. Some in the group had known him a long time, but he seldom asked his conversation partners about their journeys. He loved to regale his auditors about his personal stories, his exploits, his life, but seldom was the conversation redirected toward others. It was weird. Who wants to sit around and talk about themselves most of the time? This chap seemed to do this very thing. I don’t think it would be possible to develop a true friendship with him because he did not seem interested in others, only in himself. If we are not careful, we can all be a bit self-centered. You hear your acquaintance tell a fish story; you jump into the conversation with a story about a bigger fish. If you want to be a true friend, you have to listen and learn; you need to seek meaningful conversations. These take hard work in the early stages and through the course of the friendship. You cannot be the center of attention in every conversation. Moreover, some conversations may be unpleasant. Prov. 27:6 reminds us that the wounds of a friend are faithful, while the enemy is profuse with kisses (ESV). Sometimes a friend needs to speak truth into another friend’s life. Are you willing to hear such words or give such words if necessary? With a true friend, you can give and receive these words knowing that their purpose is biblical.
If you seek to be a true friend to others, potential true friends will begin to manifest themselves as you discover common sensibilities. The more you have in common, the greater the potential there will be for true friendship. Therefore, seeking like-minded individuals may be a place to start but it will take work to cultivate and maintain a true friendship. Want true friends? Be a true friend (Prov. 18:24).
As far as picking friends, you should always choose your friends carefully. A young woman or man probably should not date a person they wouldn’t wish to marry. Isn’t dating the way you decide the one you might consider marrying? Perhaps, but a young adult doesn’t merely select a prospect out of a photo array without knowing something of the individual in advance. Especially in college, the dating game should be played with the realization that dating is for keeps. You may be dating your future BFF (best friend forever), so choose wisely. One of the things that drew me to my wife was her commitment to Christ. She wanted to serve Him with all her heart. I felt that she was going the same way in life as I was. Would God have us travel life’s road together? After forty years of ministry, we rejoice that this was definitely God’s will for our lives! But it took us nine years to figure this out!
Friendships emerge over the course of time and life. Your journey intersects another person’s life, and you find yourself making common cause with them in ways that draw the two of you together. Some of my best friends today are men that I went to college with more than forty years ago. We were roommates, worked out together in the gym, took classes together, went on ministry trips together, and went into ministry about the same time. We also shared difficulties together, facing similar hardships or obstacles. The trials brought us closer for conversation and prayer. We wept together and rejoiced together over the years. The longer you associate with someone, the more likely that the two of you will find joy and fellowship together. I use the term fellowship here, which is the Greek word κοινωνία. It means “holding things in common.” Php 1:5 Paul commends the Philippians for their participation in the Gospel (ESV). Kοινωνία is more than going to a ballgame with a group of people. Fellowship may or may not occur at a ballgame but simply having Christians go as a group to an event doesn’t constitute fellowship. Kοινωνία occurs when there is purposeful effort made to edify or build up one another. This does not mean that for a ballgame to be fellowship, it must be accompanied by a Bible study, but there does need to be spiritual purpose in the activity. True friendship for a Christian must include κοινωνία. James 2:23 marks Abraham as a friend of God because he had κοινωνία with God. David expresses the same κοινωνία with God in Psalm 34. True friendship includes κοινωνία—with God and with others. God gives us people with whom we can have κοινωνία.
Need a friend? Joseph M. Scriven, in 1855, was living in Ontario, Canada. He wrote a poem to his mother who was ill in Ireland to encourage her. The poem, “Pray Without Ceasing,” was later set to music and became “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” What a blessing to know that Jesus is our true friend, no matter how earthly relationships unfold.
It should come as no surprise that to last week’s essay, several friends responded positively on Facebook. Today I continue to explore the biblical idea of friend and my reasons for writing about this topic.
When I first became an evangelical, I did so in the Southern Baptist world. I was baptized in an SBC church in Marietta, Georgia about 1972. It was my first exposure to Christianity remotely biblical, although this earliest touch was less evangelical than I would eventually become acquainted with. In the providence of God, in December 1973, I met a pastor from Indiana who had start a youth camp. He asked me to come as a camp counselor. He was the uncle of a fellow youth group member and an independent Baptist, although I had no idea what that was. He needed help and I wanted to go. I think he also viewed me as a “project.” His motto for the camp—“it is easier to build boys and girls than to repair men and women.” Coming from a broken home, I needed all the help I could get.
I found myself in a new world, the world of churches identified with the Sword of the Lord then under the editorship of John R Rice. The pastor had been saved following military service in Korea. He was a printer by trade and came to Christ in his thirties. Sensing a call to ministry, he attended Indiana Baptist College, founded in 1955 by Ford Porter. After graduation, he took a church out of which he eventually planned to start a home for boys and girls in crisis but started the camp instead, today Hoosier Hills Baptist Camp. He was a follower of men like Lee Roberson of Tennessee Temple, so that summer (1974), we attended the Sword of the Lord conference, held at the Convention Center in Indianapolis. I heard for the first-time men like Jack Hyles, Lee Roberson, Tom Malone, John Rawlings, Jerry Falwell, Curtis Hudson and others. I still have the New Scofield Bible that these Christian “giants” signed. What else would I do? As a seventeen-year-old new to “old-time Gospel preaching”, I watched others line up after the services to secure the signature of the preacher of the hour. I figured it was the thing to do.
What does all this have to do with friendship? It was from a preacher of note in this world that I heard a statement on friendship that has stuck with me—“I will be a friend to my friends!” The slogan may seem redundant and it didn’t affect me much when I first heard it but as I grew in the Lord and began to study for the ministry, I discovered that not all friends were equal. There were friends and there were friends. As a Bible college student, I met many like-minded men and women with whom I could converse about a wide variety of subjects. Over time, there were a few with whom I became closely associated and we went deeper in our relationship. We prayed together and talked about the future in ways that suggested we were headed in the same direction, not necessarily to the same location but the same general direction in giving our lives to the Lord. We encouraged each other in our Christian walk, challenged each other’s foolish ideas, and supported each other in our ministry pursuits.
In 1978, I graduated and stayed on to do grad work. By then, my circle of friends became both larger and smaller. I knew more people, but the number of people that would become life-long friends would be relatively small. (At least until the incursion of Facebook, et al. I just discovered MeWe!) We went our separate ways and seldom if ever saw each other in the years that followed. Some of these men sadly abandoned the faith. One guy that I thought of as particularly spiritual and who seemed to have a heart for missions has abandoned Christianity and become an atheist or similar. I discovered this through Facebook. But with other men, over the years, I have stayed in touch and we have served the Lord together when opportunities arose. To have a handful of friends with more than forty years of history is a rich blessing. Today, a former student emailed about keeping up with friends parted “by life circumstances,” geographically. How do you keep up? Do you keep up? By my reckoning, the friends that I have that are the closest to me as friends, are men I have known the longest and we are far removed from one another, even in different countries. But we remain “close” via email, text, social media, and by cell phone with the myriad of global calling options at little cost. No one has time to keep up at this level with hundreds of “friends.” So, you have to decide who the real friends are and invest time in maintaining those friendships and deepening them.
Therefore, what kind of friend would we actually be? With different people, the answer will be different. Unfortunately, one never really knows the measure of a friend until adversity arises, unless plans are laid to be a true friend with someone. You make acquaintances, but it takes time to cultivate a friendship. In Prov. 17:17 Solomon said “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.” I take brother here not in a biological sense but as a “comrade,” or “close friend.” You never really appreciate this friend until he walks with you through the fire. A true friend will take a bullet for you if need be.
This reminds me of two other statements that were made to me long ago. After a particularly difficult work association ended, I called upon an acquaintance for help, but because of his connection to the former group, he was reluctant to assist me. What would they think if he did? It wasn’t a question if I was worthy of being helped. He was concerned about his reputation with others if he helped me. When I pressed him, his response was “You expect a lot out of your friends.” He was saying at the time, there are friends and there a friends. “It is too risky for me to help you at this time.” I am happy to say that this relationship has deepened over the years. But the reality is that sometimes a friend needs a level of support that most are unwilling or unable to provide. This is when true friends stand out.
I remember another statement made about the same time by a different acquaintance. “I will never carry another man’s torch.” This is an interesting statement. Never? Really? You cannot think of any occasion where you would help a friend by picking up his torch and helping him? The metaphor suggests help holding a light, keeping it aloft. In Exodus 17, as Moses stood before the Amalekites with his arms raised, he grew weary, so Aaron and Hur came to his aid, holding his arms aloft. This helped secure the victory for Israel. There was no torch in this incident. But Moses required assistance. There are some things that a man or woman cannot do alone. We all need friends to help “carry our torches” or hold up our arms!
This statement was also made long ago. I hope my acquaintance would say things differently today. If no one ever carried another man’s torch, we’d never have any Medal of Honor recipients. The Medal of Honor is our country’s highest military award, given to individuals who selflessly do significant acts of heroics that save the lives of fellow soldiers. The Medal of Honor has even been awarded to a conscientious objector—someone who for reasons of personal conviction—would not carry a weapon in combat. Desmond Doss (1919–2006) received this recognition for saving between fifty and one hundred men during the battle of Okinawa in World War II. The movie Hacksaw Ridge was made about his life.
While this is a secular story, it should remind us of the best friend that we have—Jesus Christ. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Jesus spoke and modeled this to the world. He did for us what we could not do for ourselves. He carried our torch. He went to the cross to pay a debt he did not owe for a sinner who did not deserve his favor. He did this for me. What a model of friendship to imitate! To be a true friend is to be like Jesus. I recognize that not every acquaintance will become a true friend. Not everyone will carry our torch when we need it. Many won’t and some will walk away when help is needed. The price of helping is often high. God never leaves nor forsakes us (Joshua 1:5). Thank God for those who carry our torch. Do you have people in your life for whom you would carry a torch? If you don’t I wonder if you realize what you are missing? Jesus was friend to publicans and sinners. He died for them. Thank God he carried our sins to the cross!
How many “friends” do you have on Facebook? It’s not an uncommon question in this social media driven world. Currently, Facebook limits the number of “friends” you can connect with to only five thousand! Only five thousand? What am I going to do about the rest of my friends? Well, I don’t actually have five thousand friends. Or even eight hundred and seventy-five which is the number of connections I currently have on Facebook. I remember when Facebook began back in 2004 as a Harvard student connection. In sixteen years, it has become the largest social media site in the universe, well, in the world anyway.
Started by Mark Zuckerberg and his Harvard roommates, it soon expanded beyond Harvard to other Ivy League schools. By 2006, anyone over the age of thirteen with a valid email address could join. Now with over 2.7 billion users worldwide, it limits “friends” to five thousand. But no one actually has five thousand “friends” though they may have that many connections! Someone might have five thousand followers, or five thousand contacts, or five thousand acquaintances, or five thousand supporters, or she can garner a list of five thousand like-minded individuals, but five thousand friends? I knew a man when I was in college who had a campus job sitting at a desk in a particular building as the information guy. He was there to make sure someone could respond to situations that might arise on short notice. This dear fellow worked hard at knowing people’s names—everyone with whom he came into contact! As you passed him in the hall, he would greet you with a warm smile by your name! Who doesn’t like to hear their name remembered by others? But were we friends? That depends on what you mean by friends.
For my part, I tend to think of myself of having relatively few friends with many acquaintances around the world. During the last two decades, I have taught classes in nine different countries, involving literally hundreds of students, a small percentage of whom I am friends with on Facebook. I am friends with people all over the world! We occasionally greet each other online, follow each other’s lives from a distance, send birthday salutations to one another, rejoice with or pray for each other in times of happiness or sorrow. We follow each other’s journeys through life including marriages, births, jobs, illnesses and finally deaths. We maintain contact at a minimal level through the medium of Facebook, but we are hardly what would qualify as friends; we are more like acquaintances. Like ships passing in the night, in life’s journey, we have associated briefly, and we moved on. Facebook allows us to stay connected but not really. I don’t have a Christmas gift list with their names on it. Nor am I on their gift lists. We remember each other with fondness, and if we were in closer proximity, we might actually become friends in the genuine sense of the term, but really, we are acquaintances, brothers and sisters in Christ perhaps, but acquaintances on the road of life. We remember each other’s names and faces but little flows between us now to mark our friendship more than an occasional “Like.”
What is a friend in the biblical sense of the term? The Greek word that is often translated in our English Bibles as friend is φίλος, a word signifying a “close association” and was used as a term of affection. Jesus was a friend of publicans and sinners (Mt 11:19, Luke 7:34) but he wasn’t their “drinking buddy.” He kept company with them on occasion to show them the love of God. In fact, he was a friend to them in the fullest sense of the word. He wasn’t their friend for what they could do for him, but he was their friend for what he could do for them. Friend is an action word. When Jesus friended someone, they had a real friend.
James called Abraham a friend of God (James 2:23). This is an interesting statement. What could Abraham do for God but love him and serve him? Again, the term is φίλος suggesting devotion and commitment. Abraham’s relationship wasn’t a surface relationship. There was depth and commitment. It was also pretty one sided. Abraham was the major recipient while God was the major contributor in the relationship. Still James calls attention to this relationship as friendship. So too Moses, with whom God spoke face to face as a man would speak to a friend (Ex. 33:11). I want to be a friend of God if I am nothing else!
English often requires us to have a qualifying adjective to explain the kind of friend we have or are. Those who are near and dear to us might be intimate friends. With them, we share our inner thoughts, our aspirations, our burdens, our sins and struggles. We see this modelled in the relationship of Jonathan, son of Saul, and David, the shepherd-turned-giant-killer (1 Sam 18:1-3). They became such close friends that Jonathan sided with David against his own father when he realized that David was the special object of divine blessing. So great was David’s friendship with Jonathan that even after Jonathan’s death, David was looking for ways to demonstrate his friendship with Jonathan through Jonathan’s son, Mephiboseth, for whom David provided in his hour of need. This is also the kind of friend we have in the Lord Jesus, whom we identify as the friend that sticks closer to us than a brother (Prov. 18:24).
At minimum, every married person ought to have this sort of relationship with his or her spouse. We should delight to be in their presence more than anyone else. Occasionally, the Lord brings another person into our lives with whom we can develop a deep friendship, but these are really rare. They take time to cultivate. These sorts of friendships emerge out of a lifetime of shared experiences. Sometimes a shared trial becomes the occasion for establishing a true friend. This kind of a friend would give you one of their kidneys if your life depended on it. They would stand up for you, defend you, support and comfort you in times of sorrow or distress because that’s what true friends do. Prov. 17:17, “A friend loves at all times and a brother is born for adversity.” There seems to be few limitations on the actions of a friend.
What kind of friend am I? I cannot be a friend to all I meet, though I can treat people well. I cannot maintain the kind of intimate relationships that friendship involves without a serious investment of time. Some people don’t want friends for that reason. It takes too much time. It requires too much investment. It involves too much personal sacrifice. It requires too much transparency. You have to be honest with a friend. Perhaps this helps to explain our affection for the world of Facebook. We can have thousands of friends and make little or no effort to cultivate them as friends. Biblical friendship, the kind that Abraham had with God or David with Jonathan, requires much more. Prov. 18:24 reminds us “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” Jesus is the kind of friend we need. This is the kind of friend I want to be. I may not have many friends, but I thank God for the few I do have. They are gifts from God! We will explore more about what the Bible says about friends next time. Stay tuned.
Some of you may notice that it has been nearly a month since I have written anything on my blog. A couple of things contributed to the hiatus. The election preoccupied everyone’s mind in early November, then my whole family was exposed to and came down with COVID. As many of you know, we care for a disabled 30-year-old man. He has several Personal Care attendants to help with his needs, but they all were knocked out due to COVID. Starting November 5th, we began to see the PCAs not come into work. Consequently, Rebecca and I have had the total care duties for Joshua now for nearly three weeks, the first two weeks, as we nursed our own COVID-infected selves! Thankfully Rebecca and I could tag team Joshua’s care and between the two of us, Joshua’s needs were met. Neither regular PCA is back to work yet, although we hope one will return on Friday. The other PCA had some COVID-related issues and will be seeking employment elsewhere under doctor’s orders. So, we also have begun the process of finding another regular PCA. This process can take a week or longer to find someone and then by the time they go through the vetting process (job application, background check, training, etc.), it can be a month or more until a new PCA is working. Thankfully we found a guy who looks like he might work out, so we are hoping by early December we will have a new PCA working, and by the same time, the other regular PCA will be back at work.
For our part, COVID was mild. Rebecca lost her taste and there were slight fevers, although I don’t think I had even a low-grade fever. In the end, we all tested positive. The biggest issue seemed to be the fatigue. I could sleep 10-12 hours per night and still need a long nap later in the day. I found myself in bed every afternoon for two to three hours! Whoever said sleep is overrated hasn’t spent enough time doing it!
In the midst of my COVID, I delivered a paper on “Baptist Emancipationists and Abolitionists: The American Story” for the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. The meeting was to be held in Providence, RI this year, but like everything else these days, the in-person meetings were switched to online ones. I wrote the paper in late September and early October, reading and uploading it for the online meeting. Then our session of four papers met for an hour of interaction (15 minutes per paper), last Monday night. There were a good number of participants and some positive interaction.
The paper will likely form the introduction to a chapter for a book I am working towards on Baptists and slavery. I have read thousands of pages of the history. The literature on slavery is enormous, but the Baptist story is in fragments here and there. What is needed is a comprehensive, start to finish narrative to trace the sad, unfortunate history of my denomination and chattel slavery. Going forward, I will be writing some blog essays on my thinking and discoveries. Stay tuned. For what it’s worth, the paper I read was meant to show that while many Baptists enthusiastically endorsed chattel slavery, others saw it as an evil practice and worked to overthrow it, some to great personal harm. The story needs to be told in full.
As we approach Thanksgiving tomorrow, and in the light of the recent events in our family, I am filled with gratitude to God for his abundant goodness to us during these days. Normally, we would have a big Thanksgiving dinner today, the day before Thanksgiving, to celebrate with friends and neighbors, but due to COVID restrictions, we cancelled that plan. We always looked forward to our Thanksgiving dinner a day early. We have no family in town with whom to celebrate, so we invited others to join us. Tomorrow is also my 64th birthday. Every so often, Thanksgiving and my birthday coincide. We are cooking a prime rib roast with some lobster tails for just the three of us. A small quiet family dinner in the midst of a global pandemic! Strange days. Still I am thankful that COVID really didn’t affect us too badly, all things considered. It came and went with just some mild annoyances. By the grace of God, we weathered the storm. God is meeting and has met our needs in ways well beyond our expectation. Some friends stepped in to bring food. Many thanks!
I am also thankful for family. My oldest son and his family were home this summer with our grandkids for an interesting COVID-impacted furlough and are now back in Zambia thriving! We are thankful for the place the Lord has called them to and the work which they are doing in that great part of the world. Our grandkids are healthy as are Ben and Amy, so there is much to be thankful for. My daughter Joanna and her husband Bryan are doing well in Charleston. We are hoping they can come up to Minneapolis for a few days over Christmas. Joshua continues to work toward his PhD and with his non-profit and for-profit businesses. Things are looking good on all fronts! Rebecca is busy helping Joshua with these activities and managing the household. She is a rich blessing and I am so grateful for 40 plus years of marriage. I am continuing my research and studying slavery.
In the midst of COVID, and on top of everything else, our hot water tank went out. We ended up going for about 10 days with little hot water (the bottom element burned out thanks to our MN hard water). Because we were COVID positive, we couldn’t get anyone into our home to look at the problem, nor could I deal with it myself until we were declared “out of quarantine” by health officials. Yesterday, the parts finally arrived and were installed, and we are back in hot water again! Who would have thought we be happy to be “in hot water!” But after nearly two weeks without much, we are grateful for its return!
So, as we celebrate another Thanksgiving tomorrow, we have so much to be thankful for. I end this essay with a wonderful Psalm to remind us all of our God’s blessings.
Psalm 103 (ESV)
1 Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name!
2 Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits,
3 who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases,
4 who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
5 who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
6 The Lord works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed.
7 He made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the people of Israel.
8 The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
9 He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever.
10 He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.
11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
12 as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
13 As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.
14 For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.
15 As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field;
16 for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.
17 But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children,
18 to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments.
19 The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all.
20 Bless the Lord, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his word, obeying the voice of his word!
21 Bless the Lord, all his hosts, his ministers, who do his will!
22 Bless the Lord, all his works, in all places of his do.
May the Lord help us all to be truly thankful for his abundant grace!
I don’t know about you, but I will be glad when the events of November 2 are in the rearview mirror. Whatever way this goes, we will have chaos unless God intervenes. Since I am not a prophet, I won’t predict what will happen in the next few days. But I know one thing. God knows. The Scripture says that He works everything (EVERYTHING, E V E R Y T H I N G) after the counsel of his own will (Eph. 1:11). Because this is true, I am not going to recommend that we all sing the Bobby McFerrin’s 1988 hit “Don’t worry, Be happy,” but there are a host of fine hymns we could sing . . . “Great is Thy Faithfulness” or maybe “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise.”
I generally resist commenting on politics for a variety of reasons. My first ministry was in Canada where I was a guest in the country for about a dozen years until my wife and I naturalized, becoming dual citizens—well actually citizens of three countries—the United States, Canada and the New Jerusalem. Before we naturalized, I took a passing interest in Canadian politics as I was living there. In the early 1980s, First, we lived in Manitoba where I had occasion to meet our member of Parliament, Jake Epp. I also met the leader of the Reformed Party of Canada, Preston Manning, in the late 1980s while living in High Level, Alberta. Both men were professing Christians. Rebecca and I became Canadian citizens in 1992 while living in Windsor, Ontario, after which time we could vote. I had members in my Windsor church who favored the Progressive Conservatives and some who favored the Liberals. There may have even been those who leaned toward the New Democratic Party (NDP). We certainly had visitors from time to time from across the political spectrum.
Though I could vote and did vote in Canada, I never felt it appropriate to involve myself in Canadian political discourse. I was an ambassador for the King of kings and I did not wish to detract from His mission—the salvation of souls. To discuss politics would have meant alienating one group or another and all Canadians needed the gospel. I have kept up that practice since returning to the United States in late 1999. Most of our time in Canada was spent BC and BI. Before cable and before the internet. So, we didn’t get a lot of detailed American news. When we lived in Windsor through the 1990s, we lived close enough to Detroit to pick up American TV, but we weren’t big TV watchers. We purchased our first real TV when we bought a house in Windsor with some of the furniture, including an old console. But we just didn’t follow American politics that closely.
On our return to the US, I was reminded of how political American Christianity was. Thanks in no small part to the Moral Majority of the 1980s, Pat Robertson of the 700 Club, and James Dobson of Focus on the Family, American evangelicals became a powerful political movement that eventually saw Mike Huckabee, former Southern Baptist minister, run for president in 2008. They have become increasingly more politicized in the past two decades. Now we are on the cusp of another election and the media—mass and social—is consumed with the political process. One cannot look at Facebook without being inundated with ads and friends promoting one party or another.
A few days ago, I violated a personal Facebook rule—never discuss politics on FB. I broke that rule last week when I posted a link to a thoughtful (IMO) comment regarding voting. It took a position not typical of current evangelicalism. My purpose was simply to post an essay that was worth pondering. But it began to attract adverse attention and refutation, detracting from my original purpose, so I took it down. I decided instead to write an essay on pastors and the political process. While I am not currently a pastor, it’s the world I have run in for forty years. So, I want to talk “politics” in the only way I think as pastor should.
I recognize that individual believers have the rights of citizenship which, as Americans and Canadians, include entering into the arena of political discourse. Most of the world has no such liberty. Christians in China, the world’s most populous country, and Russia can say little-to-nothing about politics as well as believers throughout the Muslim world. Since pastors are citizens, many argue that we can and should enter into the arena of political conversation. But even if we can say something, should we? Can pastors go so far as candidate endorsement? At this point in our election, our choices are only bad if character is the issue. But then we are not choosing Sunday school teachers. Neither the thought of four more years of arrogance or four years of utter socialism appeal to me. Nevertheless, as Doris Day used to sing que sera, sera.
Now hold on, I am not a fatalist. But I believe that our election is a part of the settled will of God from eternity past. Does this mean that Christians should throw up their hands, should let go and let God? Should do nothing because God is going to do what God is going to do, without your help or mine? Certainly not. Christians in general and pastors especially have an important role to play this week especially. Christians need to inform themselves of the issues and vote according to their sanctified consciences. Christians should exercise their God given rights and vote. But they should inform themselves and vote for or against what matters most. But what about pastors? Of course, as citizens, pastors should do the same thing. But should we do more?
Let me give you my opinion here based on some historical data. Baptist pastors of the past, the far past, were not heavily involved in the political process. They may have spoken to issues of religious liberty or separation of church and state. They spoke out against the tyranny of slavery and encouraged the government to eradicate that evil practice. But stumping for candidates? Hardly. Running for office themselves? Who? Pastors sought to bring God’s Word to bear on the national scene, not enflame the rhetoric. Were important issues at stake? Absolutely. What saith the Lord?
In 1803, British Baptist pastor Andrew Fuller addressed “Christian Patriotism” from his Kettering pulpit. During that year, the English feared an invasion by the French forces led by Napoleon Bonaparte. Fuller called on Christians to do their part to “seek the peace of the city,” Jer 29:7. He declared
“Such, I am ashamed to say, is that with which some have advocated the cause of negro slavery. It is necessary, forsooth, to the wealth of this country! No; if my country cannot prosper but at the expense of justice, humanity, and the happiness of mankind, let it be unprosperous! But this is not the case. Righteousness will be found to exalt a nation, and so to be true wisdom. The prosperity which we are directed to seek in behalf of our country involves no ill to any one, except to those who shall attempt its overthrow.”
So, following Fuller’s example, what should pastors do today, this week, as we prepare to see God’s will revealed next week? First, we can beseech God for mercy. One thing I find missing from much of the Christian discourse on the political situation in which we find ourselves is any real call for the church to pray. If God is sovereign and in control, shouldn’t we beg Him to do what only He can do? Who knows if God will be gracious? Would to God we see the kind of movement toward prayer that was witnessed in the Fulton Street Prayer Meeting of 1857. Is it too late to ask God to be merciful? Second, we can recognize that God is alive and well and will do what will ultimately bring him glory. The world will not end next Tuesday no matter who is elected. For my part, the end of the world is at least 1007 years away! But it certainly will not end next week. Third, pray for the best but prepare for the worst. Things may get worse before they get better. Our Chinese brothers and sisters haven’t had the kind of freedom we current enjoy ever. Our turn for oppression may come. Are we preparing our people for that day? In a little over a week, we will have a president. Will it be a new one? God only knows. It will be the president that God from eternity past has chosen for America at this time. By all means vote and encourage others to do so. God uses means to accomplish his will. But know that if the election does not turn out the way you wish, then align your will to God’s and trust Him for the future. He is still sovereign. This is my Father’s world!