And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
Some people resemble a little black raincloud – they never miss a chance to fuss at something. For some Christians, this is a special talent: we are never happier than when we are miserable. And for some odd reason, Christmas tends to draw out our inner Scrooge and turn him loose on the world.
Sadly, getting way too uptight about things has become a favorite Christian pastime, a part of the ethos of piety. I say “sadly” because I don’t believe God intended this for His people. True, in many ways we are like just Lot, vexing our righteous souls. But that doesn’t make “vexing” a fruit of the Spirit. I don’t think God is more pleased with sour-faced self-righteousness.
Do the stores stock their shelves for Christmas long before Thanksgiving? I’m not sure why I should be bothered by this. For at least 2 months out of every year, the world acknowledges that something important happened on a cold winter night in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. Calling it a “Winter Festival” doesn’t change that fact. When the world turns “Merry Christmas” to “Happy Holidays” they only expose their illiteracy. “Holiday” is a variation of “Holy Day,” and holiness is hardly a secular value.
I wrote this article about three years ago but never published it. I find it interesting that our Dear Leaders attempted to comfort us during the coronavirus shutdown by promoting the idea of being “alone together.” Of course, we were already “alone together” without the imposed isolation of the shutdown. We have been “alone together” in our virtual world of technology and social networking. That is the subject of this little essay.
Many consider Robert Frost to be America’s foremost poet. Though few could recite the lines to his famous poem “The Road Less Taken,” we have adopted the phrase as a popular expression of our desire to be maverick.Continue reading “Alone Together”→
Depending on who you talk to, my family and I have exposed ourselves as “socially irresponsible.” We have contracted COVID-19, the dreaded coronavirus. I’ll admit it: we weren’t wearing our masks in the car. We shared air with people – people not in our immediate family. We accepted handshakes from people, even when no recent use of hand-sanitizer was in evidence. As a result, we have been banished from society for a period not to exceed six months, given that we follow all protocols to allow for successful reentry into society. People in our circle of contacts must now face hard realities and reexamine their interactions with our family. They must determine whether they should invite space-suited medical professionals under white canopies to jam a q-tip up their nose and swab vigorously for 15 seconds.
While our family does penance for this egregious lapse of sound judgment and social consciousness, some assure us that the stigma of having contracted the coronavirus will not be too severe. Besides the fact that some refuse to attend our church right now, lest we infect them in our absence, they say that the primary fault for this breach falls to President Trump, Vice President Pence, and the fact that we live in a red state that “opened too early.” The shut-down was both prudent and necessary to crushing the curve and stopping the coronavirus, and if we had only stayed the course, we could right now be eating our furniture and scavenging our yards for mealworms like the people in New York. Employment? Who needs that? It would be better to starve to death than to contract COVID-19.
Let this be a lesson to all of you, lest you too contract this vile virus: social distance. Wear a mask. Stay home from church. Work from home. Unless you work on a road crew. Or a fast-food restaurant. Then, make sure you wear gloves when you take my money and pass my food and take the next guy’s money and pass his food.
And so, from the basement of my shelter-in-place safe-space, let me offer a few observations, only slightly less facetious than this introduction.
First, it is human nature to look for a scapegoat. My family and I traveled out of state the week before the onset of symptoms from the coronavirus. We flew to Baltimore, then two of my kids flew on to Indianapolis while three of us drove up to Pennsylvania. Our friends in Pennsylvania have solemnly assured us that our secret is safe with them. They promise not to tell anyone in PA that we have this disease. They don’t want people who don’t have the virus to know that we do, because those people might blame us when they get it. Never fear: if someone gets the coronavirus before you get it, they gave it to you.
Of course, we figure that we picked up the coronavirus either in the airport or on the airplane or in one of the nearly 100 different yard sales we visited in Pennsylvania (yard-selling being PA’s official team sport). But you can be assured that if anyone we know gets this disease between now and Christmas, it came from us. That goes for all the states we visited, including but not limited to Maryland, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Utah, and Wyoming. And maybe Nevada. It would be dangerous and irresponsible for people to visit our church at this time since we infected our entire church, and it is now only a matter of time before we all catch it. We trust that those who have been joining our services via live stream are taking appropriate precautions. Be sure you take your phone out of the case before applying the hand sanitizer.
Second, it is great entertainment to see people skid into a complete 180 on the significance of COVID-19 once they know someone who has it. During the months when our church limited attendance to 10 people, we were treated to a regular barrage of rants against the shut-down. When we asked everyone to wear masks, people greeted me at the door with mask factoids: the CDC says masks are unhealthy for healthy people; the WHO says masks are unhealthy for healthy people; Dr. Fauci says masks are essentially non-essential. This virus is silly, a scamdemic, ridiculous, pointless, absurd, just a little virus, you can’t stop it. Then, Pastor Mallinak contracted the virus, and lo-and-behold, we need to shut down immediately, we shouldn’t be bringing anyone to church, we shouldn’t be having church, we should all be wearing masks, we shouldn’t even look each other in the eye. Okay, I made that last one up.
Nobody should change their view of COVID-19 because Pastor Mallinak contracted it. We shouldn’t be saying, “Wow, this must be serious if he caught it.” I mean, yeah, I do have the special pastor force-shield that would, under normal circumstances, prevent my contracting the garden-variety diseases that afflict the common man. Unfortunately, I left it home with my mask when I hopped on that airplane.
Seriously folks, if you thought the disease was nothing before you knew someone who had it, don’t let little-ole-me change your mind. As in most cases of the coronavirus since the beginning of your life in those ultra-dangerous days when your mother dropped you off at the church nursery, unnecessarily exposing your feebly beating heart to a whole myriad of life-threatening respiratory diseases, COVID-19 is no fun. It has a high misery-factor. You won’t be lying in bed, thinking about how fun it is to be sick as you scroll through Facebook. It acts a lot like the A-strain flu. Which many, many people have had and passed around to others with whom they don’t share an address.
Third, we are so glad that our nation decided to “crush the curve” on this one. That way, we could catch the virus in the summer when things are back to “normal” instead of in the spring when things are shut down already. Because you know of course that the goal all along has been to “stop” the coronavirus in its tracks. The best way to fight a virus, as we all know, is to shut down the world around it so that it will only pass to one person at a time. The virus will magically run out of people to infect if we all live in isolation from each other, as you well know. Follow the data. If we just stay home until they develop a vaccine in a year and a half, we can avoid infecting people. And there won’t be any new virus in a year and a half. Besides, the government prints the money. Unemployment pays.
I recognize that the coronavirus affects different people in different ways, and some are especially vulnerable to this disease, especially while attending church. I certainly wouldn’t want someone to be careless about the lives of those around them. Please don’t stop by my house and ask me to cough on you. Please do your part to avoid this disease. I don’t want to see it spread through my church or anyone else’s church. And apparently, churches are far more contagious than protest riots or work environments.
At the same time, I hope I can encourage my friends and loved ones to keep things in perspective. More than once, I have had someone tell me that I am the first person they knew who contracted this virus. Please don’t let the fact that my family has it change your mind about this disease. It isn’t the end of the world, nor does it change a few basic facts about viruses – mainly that they will work themselves around at will, and we really can’t stop a virus. None of us are likely to die from it. If you happen to catch it, you will miss some work, you will be uncomfortable for a few days (maybe longer), and you won’t want anyone else to get it. Do your Christian duty – love your neighbor enough to be careful around them. Stay home if you are in one of those “high risk” categories. Look for people you can help, encourage, or share the good news of Christ with. Keep your spirits high. Stay in the Word. Be full of joy and gratitude. Trust the Lord. All will be well. God hasn’t lost control of anything.
The LORD hath done great things for us; whereof we are glad. (Psalm 126:3)
This past Sunday marked the end of a rollercoaster week for us, and I would like to take a few moments to praise the Lord for His goodness to us.
Like every other pastor in America, I have spent many sleepless nights over the past two months. We have been navigating uncharted waters, and it has seemed to me that every week has required a fresh decision about what we should be doing.
Before I tell our story, let me just say how much I respect my fellow pastors. I have known that God has filled His pulpits with men of conviction and quality, but this crisis has made it even more clear to me that we have some truly outstanding pastors around our county. Many decisions have had to be made, and the opinions and positions that have been taken seem to cover every extreme of the compass. Yet, in discussions with dozens of pastors, I have observed one certain truth – that every one of them has acted on what they believed to be right and have sought to bring God the honor that He deserves. I count myself blessed to serve as a contemporary with these men.
Our church decided early on that we should follow the health guidelines that were issued by our state. Though our Governor has been great in the fact that he has not used a heavy hand to control us, yet we believed that we should exercise caution in this thing. We added services in order to accommodate our people and give them the opportunity to be part of a service every week, and the majority of the church has had to suffer through online services for nearly two months now.
I’m not trying to add to all the angst I see on the Internet. I get it that everyone is frustrated. We really aren’t used to these sorts of disruptions to our lives, and judging by all the whining and complaining and outrage I have witnessed, we really aren’t in shape for it. So, you might see this as some form of virtue-signaling or pious something-or-other, but I want to risk alienating a few friends so I can use my gift of slaps for those who need one right now.
First, I have seen the first amendment posted on Facebook a lot lately. I am happy that you love the first amendment. I love it too. But if you think all the travel bans and stay in location orders and gathering restrictions violate the first amendment, let me remind you that we have a court system for that very reason, to protect our constitutional rights.
But before you rush out to hire an attorney and fight this in court, let me save you a little money. States rushed to declare a “state of emergency” before this pandemic really even got going because, by law, emergency powers give the states the ability to put all kinds of restrictions in place – unconstitutional limits included. Most states have laws in place that provide them with this power. I don’t like it, and you shouldn’t like it. But that is the reality of this situation. Before you hire a lawyer and take it to court, understand that our courts would most likely uphold the emergency powers that our states have claimed. In other words, these laws probably will withstand a constitutional challenge.
If you don’t like the power that a “state of emergency” gives your Governor or local authorities, I would recommend that you do something to change the law. Over the years, I have heard many excuses Christians make for not being involved in politics. You are too busy, politics isn’t a place for Christians, and so on. I understand if you don’t like to be involved. But, this sort of thing is the result of Christians withdrawing from the public arena and then demonstrating their ignorance of these things when they happen.
My suggestion? Sometime after this is over, you might consider contacting your legislator (I hope you at least know his or her name) and let them know what you would like to see done in the future. I believe there ought to be more restraint. You might be interested to know that some states have moved to protect second amendment rights in a time of emergency. Why not try to ensure that first amendment rights receive equal protection? Consider writing some letters or helping craft some legislation that addresses your frustrations. As Americans, we really do have a great system, but it only works if we get involved.
Now, let me turn to something a little more spiritual, for the sake of those who think me too pious. I get it that everyone is frustrated, irritated, perhaps even outraged. Some are worried, some afraid. But I would love to see a more Scriptural response to this. Much of the angst and outrage I have seen on Facebook has come from my Christian friends. But Christians, God did not leave us without instruction when times like these come along. Let me remind you, God calls for two things from his people: consider yourself and turn to the Lord.
Yes, in times of calamity, the first thing God wants from His people is repentance. I shouldn’t need to give Scripture references for this one, because the Bible reminds us of this repeatedly.
…if I send pestilence among my people; If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.
Consider yourself, Christian. Have you grown cold towards the Lord or the things of God? Have you grown worldly in your outlook? Are your loyalties divided? What has your attitude been in this calamity? Have you been thankful? Joyful? Full of peace and hope and encouragement? Consider your ways.
Then, turn to the Lord. There are about five ways that I would urge you to do this – no doubt there could be more – but these make a good starting point.
Turn to the Lord in worship. Turn your heart, your focus, your adoration back to God. Humble yourself before Him. Be amazed by Him. Could I point something out to you? Not more than two months ago, our President stood before a joint session of Congress in the presence of the American people and proclaimed that our economy was the greatest in history. How’s that looking now? What happened? Regardless of who you might blame for our troubles, hasn’t God shown Himself to be mighty?
We have no assurance that our economy will recover from this. We certainly hope it will, but we cannot be sure. In a matter of a couple of weeks, God brought it all to a screeching halt. Isn’t God awesome? I do not use that word frivolously either. “Awesome” is the best word to describe the magnificence of Almighty God.
Turn to the Lord in thanksgiving. The Bible teaches us,
In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.
I haven’t seen much in the way of thanksgiving on Facebook. I have seen much in the form of whining, complaining, and outrage. But Christian, let me ask you: what are you thankful for in this inconvenience? What are you grateful for amid this coronavirus? It would be a sad thing if, in any situation, we could find nothing to thank God for. It is His will that you give thanks in everything, and this coronapanic is part of that everything.
Turn to the Lord in rejoicing. The joy of the Lord is your strength, believer. Can you rejoice in hard times? I struggle to hear you praise God in good times if you can’t praise Him in the bad. Rejoice evermore. Rejoice in the Lord alway!
Turn to the Lord in giving. Let your joy in your affliction overflow into generosity. Be sure to maintain your support for local church missions, your local church, those who lose their jobs in this crisis, and those who struggle and suffer at this time. This is what the Apostle Paul referred to when he said,
Moreover, brethren, we do you to wit of the grace of God bestowed on the churches of Macedonia; How that in a great trial of affliction the abundance of their joy and their deep poverty abounded unto the riches of their liberality (2 Corinthians 8:1-2).
Turn to the Lord in prayer. Pray for your elected leaders during this time. Times like these call for special prayer for our elected leaders.
I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; (I Timothy 2:1-3)
Pray for your pastor. Pray for your fellow Christians, your fellow church members. Pray for your unsaved friends. Pray fervently. Pray without ceasing.
The coronavirus has made it difficult for us to lead that quiet and peaceable life in all godliness. For the first time in my life, our government has branded church services as non-essential, restricting the size of our meetings. In many places, liquor stores and abortion clinics remain open, while churches cannot gather. This is not a good thing. But this explains why we must pray at all times for our rulers and those who are in authority. I won’t ask for a show of hands (or a thumbs up) of how many have been praying for our elected leaders. I will only remind you that this is a Christian duty.
In times like these, we must return to those things that God has called us to do. Judging by what I have seen and heard recently, on Facebook and other places, we are not in the right mind for sharing the good news with the lost. Admittedly, Facebook might not be the best gauge of these things. Still, I would remind everyone that the things we post in this medium are the things that the world sees about us. And they reveal what is going on in our hearts. I hope that everyone will let their joy abound in this time, and their light shine. And may many who are lost and desperate for hope find grace and help in this time.
Martin Rinkart knew a thing or two about thanksgiving. He was just 31 years old when he became pastor of the Lutheran Church in his hometown of Eilenburg, Saxony. A year later, one of Europe’s deadliest wars broke out. During the years from 1618 to 1648, more than 8 million people died in what historians refer to as the Thirty Years’ War. For more than a decade, Eilenburg avoided direct involvement in the war, but by 1631, the war moved to the city. Sometime in 1636, according to historians, Martin Rinkart penned the words to the thanksgiving hymn Nun Danket Alle Gott – “Now Thank We All Our God.” The next year brought the greatest devastation of the war to the city. Thousands fled the war, and Eilenburg became a place of refuge. But in 1637, overcrowded conditions and the devastation of war brought famine and plague to the city. During that one year alone, 8,000 souls were lost.
At the beginning of 1637, four pastors served the city of Eilenburg. Soon after the plague struck, one of those pastors abandoned his post and fled to safer regions. As the death toll mounted, Pastor Rinkart and the remaining two pastors conducted sometimes as many as 40-50 funerals in a day. Then the two other pastors died. Pastor Rinkart, sound in body but no doubt suffering in spirit, was left alone to deal with the dead and dying. Over the course of that year, Martin Rinkart conducted more than 4,000 funerals. Then, his own wife died. By the end of the year, with no suitable burial ground remaining, the city of Eilenburg was forced to dig trenches to bury the dead.
Despite his grief, in the face of such extreme suffering and starvation, Martin Rinkart remained steadfast. He organized efforts to feed the hungry, opened his own home to provide refuge for those in need, gave away his own wealth and all the provision not needed by his own hungry family, and faithfully served Christ and His people.
The story is told that towards the end of the Thirty Years’ War, the Swedish army surrounded Eilenburg and demanded a huge ransom in exchange for an end to the siege. The tribute required much more money than the devastated city could ever possibly afford. Some have said that Martin Rinkart led a delegation to the Swedish general to plead for mercy. When the Swedes refused, Rinkart turned to the delegation and said, “Come, my children, we can find no hearing, no mercy with men; let us take refuge with God.” Then, falling to his knees, Martin Rinkart pleaded with God for his people. Seeing his passion, the Swedish general relented, reducing the tribute to an affordable amount.
Out of the depth of such extreme suffering came a song that continues to be a classic thanksgiving hymn nearly 4 centuries later. “Now Thank We All our God” stands as a lasting testimony to the triumph of joy and the faith of the believer in the face of hard trials.
The Apostle Paul said of the Macedonian believers that
…in a great trial of affliction the abundance of their joy and their deep poverty abounded unto the riches of their liberality. (2 Corinthians 8:2)
True Christian joy can only be a work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the believer. There can be no other explanation for it. We do not say that extreme sorrow or suffering is necessary for fullness of joy. Where the Holy Spirit indwells the human heart, joy will be evidently present. Great trials of affliction do not produce joy. They are not necessary for joy. But they do cause our joy to shine. They make our joy evident.
How else can we explain the way joy lifts us up and causes us to triumph in the face of great trial and affliction? How else can we understand the way joy overflows out of the cup of our sorrows, so that it seems the deeper the sorrow, the greater the joy. When weeping endures for a night, joy comes in the morning. Joy outlasts our sorrows. When pain and sorrow weighs us down, joy outweighs our afflictions and lifts us above them. Joy is a display of the power of God in the life of the believer to give him happiness when happiness is the last thing anyone would expect.
If we can only be thankful on warm, sunny days with favorable winds at our backs, then we need to learn the lesson of thanksgiving.
By him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name. (Hebrews 13:15)
Now Thank We All Our God
Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done, in Whom this world rejoices;
Who from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.
Oh, may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us;
And keep us in His grace, and guide us when perplexed;
And guard us through all ills in this world, till the next!
All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given,
The Son, and Him Who reigns with Them in highest Heaven—
The one eternal God, Whom earth and Heav’n adore;
For thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.