Who Do You Trust?

Back in January, the nation’s unemployment rate was under four percent; a report from my financial advisor indicated that my IRA would continue to grow at a nice clip in the next twelve months; and I was looking forward to an interesting year of politics around the upcoming presidential election in November. I even bought a one year subscription to a national newspaper so I could read about the candidates in more depth.

Today there are about thirty million people out of work in the United States, my IRA has shrunk by twenty-five percent, and the incumbent president and his likely opponent are self-destructing in full view of the voters they hope to attract in the Fall.

A tiny microscopic life form, a virus that lived in a bat in China, infected humans there and quickly spread to every corner of the earth. It killed people in every nation, stopped the economies cold, decimated stock markets and turned the human population into frightened rabbits cowering in isolation in their homes. And we could not stop it.

The United States, with all its enormous wealth, abundant resources, and intelligent, educated people, was brought to its knees. Everything we relied on failed. Finger-pointing did not produce a single mask, ventilator, treatment or vaccine. Where can we turn? Who should we trust?

Back in the fifties the polio epidemic was killing and crippling kids. There was a girl that lived around the corner from me who wore leg braces and walked with crutches. Her name was Judy. Polio took away her ability to walk and play and she was bitter about it. I’m grateful to this day for Dr. Jonas Salk who invented the vaccine that removed the threat of this disease from my own children born many years later. Mumps, measles and chicken pox were all part of growing up for me and my friends in that decade. My kids received vaccinations that prevented these diseases from affecting their childhood. Thank God!

Some say we should “trust science”, while others say “trust your leaders”. Or just trust yourself. Really? When we trust science to the extent that we believe it holds all the answers, that it will always be right, we are deluding ourselves. After all, just a few decades ago the scientists were telling us that the world was getting colder, that we were all in danger of freezing if something wasn’t done. Now they say that unless we take swift action, the world will get too hot. Politicians once told us that prosperity for all was just around the corner, that a war on poverty would wipe out economic hardship for all the poor. Capitalists promise unlimited growth, a reward for hard work and risk-taking.. Socialists promise to take care of every citizen’s every need. How’s any of that working out for you today?

A woman called us this week. She lives just down the road. We belong to the same church. She wanted to know if we were OK. She sighed when she said she missed worship, and that she and her husband can’t view the online recording of the weekly service. She wondered if it would be alright if we got together for coffee. She said, “I think God is testing us.”

I agree. Every once in a while, especially when the people get “fat and happy”, trusting the wonders of science or the wisdom of government, or the strength of the economy, or their own judgement, God says, “Stop it!!” ” I made all this and I made you too. But you won’t worship me, you won’t thank me, you keep acting as if you are in charge. You’re not; I AM”.

This virus is a terrifying reminder that we are not sovereign, that we don’t have all the answers and that God will not tolerate a people who ignore, defy and trivialize Him.

Listen, I’m a Christian, a sinner saved by grace. Thanks to Jesus, I have a life that is safe in Him. Now, I may still get sick and die from COVID-19, or I might spend the rest of my life in poverty and want, but my future is secure in Christ. While I do enjoy the blessings that science has provided; while I love the freedom and prosperity I’ve experienced in this country, made possible by the form of government we have and responsible statesmen who have led us in the past, my trust is in none of these.

No, I trust my Creator, unchanging, unshakeable, loving, gracious. and merciful. I say, along with the whole church, “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” Psalms 124:8 (ESV)

Who do you trust?

Who Is That Masked Man?

IMG_0069My wife, the quilter, has been churning out face masks for family and friends, turning scraps of fabric into colorful protective devices. The one she made for me is suitably manly, sort of a muted blue-gray pattern. I wore it for the first time last week when I went to pick up an online order from our usual grocery store. The woman who brought our stuff to the car was one of the regular baggers; she was also wearing a mask. I greeted her by name, thanked her and told her to “be safe.” 

That’s the new phrase, “Be safe.” I say it to everyone I meet, everyone I talk with on the phone. “Be safe.” It feels stupid to say it because what else are they going to do? They’re masked and gloved and standing six feet from me. Or tucked safely in their living room while speaking on the phone. Of course what I really mean is, “Please don’t get sick.” Please don’t catch this awful virus. Please don’t die. Please, God.

Yesterday I ventured out to a different grocery store, because, you know, some store shelves are empty. Of course we all know about toilet paper. “Psst buddy, they got some over at Pick & Save.” Everyone was searching for those elusive rolls. A few weeks later it was eggs. You’re staring at the empty cooler where eggs are supposed to be, and some guy behind you says, “They’ve got lots of eggs at Festival” so off you go.

Well, yesterday it was long grain rice. Regular store was out of it, so I took the grocery list to a different store. Right off the bat, I could see that it’d be a long search since I didn’t know the layout. Masked people wandering around me, but it was easy to spot the regulars. Their carts were full, and they were moving resolutely down the aisles. Newbies like me, had their heads up, scanning the aisle signs, brows furrowed in puzzlement. Said to one guy, “You finding it yet?” “Nah.” “Me neither.”

In another aisle, a man was stocking shelves, down on his knees. He looked up as I approached and nodded. I smiled back. After a few more steps, I realized, “I’m wearing a mask!” So I went back to him and said, “ I forgot about the mask, and that you couldn’t see me smile. So Hi! And be safe!” He smiled; no mask.

I finished my search, found the rice and a few other items and headed to the checkout. There was a big plexiglass shield between me and the cashier. As the bagger was finishing up, I inserted my card, got the receipt and turned to go. “Thank you” I said, “and be safe.” What I really wanted to do was hug them, They were risking their safety so I could get a bag of long grain rice.

Before the virus, we all had other things on our mind. Preoccupied with the petty details of life, heads down staring at our smart phones. Now, I just long to make eye contact with another human being, to say “Hi!” and relate in that passing moment. I attend worship on TV screen, but I long to shake hands, hug people and look into their eyes and see how they are doing. Hopefully, when this is over, we will have learned to appreciate one another, friends and strangers alike. Until then, be safe.

Bird Seed or Bat Flu?

Forget toilet paper, I should have stocked up on bird seed when COVID-19 first came on the scene. There are three seed feeders hanging on a triple hanger pole just outside the kitchen window. We imagesit at our kitchen table and watch the birds pick at their favorite blend, while the squirrels and chipmunks gleefully chomp whatever falls to the ground.

The first year we had this setup, we bought a bird book and checked off all the varieties that came to dine here, putting a paper clip on the page when we spied one kind or another. Soon, there was a clip on nearly every other page; the only birds we did not see were eagles, hawks, turkey buzzards and a few other exotic species. We quickly gave up trying to remember the names, settling for, “little speckled ones” or “big noisy black ones” when we couldn’t clearly distinguish a cardinal, a blue jay or a goldfinch.

As Spring came rushing on (except for the days it was snowing, this is Wisconsin after all) my seed supplies were dwindling. Trying to keep the feeders full, I began to let them get nearly empty before adding any more seeds. We started getting “looks” from the birds. The blue jays, for instance, will actually perch on the top of the pole ,and, facing our window, they call out as if to say, “We know you’re in there! Where’s the food?”. The other birds seem to flutter and nod in agreement. The half dozen doves that regularly decimate the food supply have been gathering suspiciously, muttering among themselves, as if plotting something.

Worse yet, the head chipmunk stands on the back step, just by the door, threatening to march right in if something isn’t done soon. The squirrels look ready to back him up. It’s gotten so bad that I feel guilty while munching my ham sandwich. I’d close the blinds, but I’d still hear them out there. I’ve been seriously thinking about eating in the living room.

So today, I have to make a decision. Should I go to Farm & Fleet to buy more bird seed? Risk getting the deadly bat virus for the sake of my feathery and furry dependents? Do I disobey the governor’s “Safe at Home” orders; is feeding these critters “essential”?

There’s a lot of noise and activity outside the kitchen window right now. I’m afraid of what they might be up to out there. That’s it! I can’t take it any longer. Good bye dear wife, I’m heading out….

Silent Saturday

This morning, during my usual walk, things were really quiet. Even the birds were muted in their chirping. Traffic was light on the road and few people were out. And I began to ruminate about that long-ago Saturday, the day after the crucifixion, the day before the resurrection. When I returned home, I quickly looked through the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Not a word about Saturday.

They have a great deal to say about Friday. The early morning betrayal of Jesus in a dark garden where torches were necessary to guide the way. The trials before the high priest and Pilate. The beating and mocking and gambling for the tunic. The cross, the nails, the two thieves. The last cry of an innocent man, “It is finished!” The men who came and prepared the corpse, the new tomb, the big stone. Then, silence.

The soldiers probably went home, washed their hands and had supper and wine. The crowd dispersed; the spectacle over. Those who were Jews went home to observe the sabbath. The priests, and sadducees and pharisees went home, glad to have avoided defiling themselves by letting Pilate do their dirty work. Jesus? Problem solved.

The disciples went into hiding; confused, brokenhearted, afraid. Blank stares, some weeping, maybe a little bit of anger. What do we do now? And maybe some hope? Look, didn’t He say He’d come back? Yes, but His corpse is in a sealed up tomb.

Christians have liturgies and worship services for Maunday Thursday, Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday. But what are we supposed to do on the un-titled day, Saturday?

Maybe since scripture is silent that’s what we are to do. Pause for a day. Reflect on the cosmic events of Friday. Take a breath. Wait. Do what God says, 

Be still, and know that I am God.

I will be exalted among the nations,

I will be exalted in the earth!”

Psalms 46:10 (ESV)

On Cleaning Golf Clubs

IMG_0063Yesterday I called a friend up in Michigan. He and his wife moved away last year and began practicing “Social Isolation” before “Social Isolation” was cool. Since they moved into a cabin in the middle of nowhere, without cable or even an antenna, I was the one who had to tell him that the Masters Tournament had been postponed until September. Come on, the Masters without azaleas & magnolias?

When I told him that I had just cleaned my golf clubs, we began to lament the closing of golf courses under COVID-19 social distancing orders. What nonsense! With my erratic shots, I’m rarely within shouting distance of my foursome except for tees and greens. Even then, while they are on the green in regulation, I’m usually two shots out from the green-side sand trap. They are impatiently waiting to attempt their birdie putts, I’m hoping to avoid a triple bogey.

Right now, you’re probably wondering why I play the game. Well it begins with cleaning the clubs on a warm Spring day. Get a bucket of warm soapy water, a scrub brush, and a rag, and plunge the clubs into the suds. Remove the driver, scrub out the grooves on the face, wipe the whole thing down, especially the grips, dry it and put it back in the bag. Same with the three wood and so on. Get some fresh golf balls, mark them and throw them into the pocket. Maybe get a fresh golf towel to hang on the bag.

All the while thinking about that one really good shot you made with the seven wood, or the sand shot that rolled onto the green and into the cup last Fall. Or that time when your buddy made a hole-in-one. Then there’s my golfing buddies. One of the Monday morning regulars (actually he’s the instigator) is about six inches taller than I am, and routinely drives the ball fifty or more yards farther than me. We josh a little on the tees, but mostly it’s a silent walk to the next shot, then conversation resumes on the green. Everywhere you look there are green grass fairways, green trees, still and shimmering ponds. And we are all equals out there.

Because we are not competing with each other, we are challenged by the course and a thing called “par.” For me, “par” is like a high, unscalable mountain whose peak I seldom reach; on a particular hole, maybe, but for a complete round, never. But my buddies are scrambling too, they’re after the same thing “par.” That’s what makes the game fun. It’s a lifelong challenge to make, or beat par. And every time you do, whether on one hole or for the entire round, it’s worth a fist bump. And every time you creep closer to that goal, you celebrate.

This pandemic will end; that’s why I cleaned my clubs this week. Right now, God is making the grass to grow and the trees to bud and He is refilling the ponds. Soon I’ll re-join my buddies and we’ll walk the fairways together. Except of course, when I’m in the weeds, looking for my ball.

Return of the Ducks

Every year about this time, a pair of Mallard ducks drops into our neighborhood looking for a nesting place. It’s interesting to watch them walk (yes walk) around from yard to yard, talking with each other as they go. Yesterday, they stopped below our bird feeders for lunch. The drake kept watch while the hen pecked at the ground; then she stepped back while he munched on the safflower seeds. They never eat at the same time, one always keeps watch while the other eats.

We look on from the kitchen window, hoping they’ll pick our yard for their home this year. They’ve done so in the past, once under the birch tree in the front yard, nestled in the creeping phlox. and once in the back yard under the maple, sheltered in the pachysandra. A few years ago the nest out front had twelve eggs, eleven of which hatched. We watched from the living room window as the hen led her new-born brood out of the nest to who-knows-where.

Spring is an encouraging season, especially this year. First the crocus emerged under the living room window. Then, the birds came to the feeders, each type in its own time, doves, finches, blue jays, chickadees and more. Daily refillings are now part of my routine. Robins are claiming their favorite nesting sites.The grass is greening up, the maple and lilac are showing signs of budding. All this free entertainment, all these annual signs of life, all proof that the God of life, the Master Creator, is still in charge.

A virus like the sci-fi sounding COVID-19 can make us feel as if everything is out of  control. People are dying, the stores are closed, my granddaughter’s bridal shower got cancelled and we’re stuck in the house. But everything is not out of control. The ducks prove it. There is a God who is sovereign over every square inch of the universe, ensuring that life goes on. If anything, this virus is an antidote for arrogance; our idea that we are in charge. It’s a hard way to learn that lesson, but we do need to be reminded over and over that we are flawed and finite creatures.

People are dying, I know. But people are always dying. I’m going to die, and given my age that’s likely to be sooner than later. But I can lift my eyes to heaven and think about the God who holds me and the world in His hands. And I can look out the kitchen window at the carefree critters frolicking in the yard and see evidence that this good God cares for His creatures.

So it’ll take the ducks a few more days to settle on their temporary home. The hen will build the nest, the drake will guard it and her. Together, they’ll tend the nest until the inevitable day when the eggs hatch, and the hen will lead the brood to their new life. I hope they will choose our yard.

“Virtual” is not Reality

Dressed in our “hanging around the house clothes” my wife and I sat in front of the television in our recliners, feet slightly elevated. It was time for the church service. There on the TV was Pastor Veenstra, our pastor, standing in his library as he spoke to the invisible congregation in front of him. He gave a few words of encouragement, read some scripture, and lamented the fact that we were not together. The scene quickly shifted to the front of the empty sanctuary. A few musicians joined the pastor in familiar songs and hymns. All the pieces were there; Invocation, Salutation, Confession & Pardon, Scripture read and proclaimed, Congregational Prayer and Benediction. We sang along with the music, bowed our heads for the prayers and recited the Apostle’s Creed.

Afterward, my wife and I had to make our own coffee, and we had only each other to talk with. Admittedly, the coffee was better than that served during fellowship hour, but the conversation lacked diversity.

In the old days, the Israelites would walk up the hill to the Temple in Jerusalem, singing their “Songs of Ascent”, one of which says, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘let us go to the house of the Lord!’”(Psalm 122) It was important for them to worship God together; to hear the Word of the Lord proclaimed together, to pray together.

There is something significant going on when we enter the sanctuary together. We are the church, but we meet in God’s house. There is something about seeing each other’s faces, shaking hands, giving hugs, rejoicing with those who rejoice, and commiserating with with those who mourn. It’s about time for the “snowbirds” to return from Florida and Arizona. I want to hug them and say “Glad you’re back!”

We are the redeemed, full of gratitude toward a merciful God, eager to hear Him speak to us in scripture as exposited for us by Pastor Veenstra. And sometimes we celebrate the sacrament of The Lord’s Supper together, passing the bread and cup, smiling; grateful.

I’m grateful to our pastor, the musicians and the technicians who made possible our virtual, homebound service on Sunday. But virtual is not the same as reality; it never will be. Merciful God, please bring this crisis to an end, soon please, so that we your people may once again gather in your house to worship you, the Living God.

Of Plumbing and Life

Saturday morning a friend called to get some advice on repairing a leaky pipe in his basement. Leaping at the chance to escape “social isolation”, (surely this was an “essential” activity) I grabbed my pipe soldering kit and dashed over to his house. The leak was tiny, just a once per hour drip from an old soldered joint on a one inch copper water line located high up between the rafters in his workshop.

We used to be partners in a handyman business, doing small remodels and repairs, many of which required some plumbing. No doubt our combined experience would be equal to the task before us now. So the options were:

  1. Re-solder the joint in place. Fast and cheap. I didn’t think it would work.
  2. Cut out all the bad stuff and replace it with new-fangled slip-on parts. Slower, and definitely not cheap.
  3. Unsolder the joint, pull it apart, clean & re-solder. He didn’t think there was enough play in the pipes to get the joint apart.

So, we chatted for a while, talked about families & grandkids & empty shelves in the grocery stores. How were we going to do church on Sunday? Live-stream interactive for him; online pre-recorded video for me. His wife brought me some cookies and a small hand made pillow for my wife to finish and keep. Talked about the leak some more. 

I found leak repair tape online at Home Depot for $6.88. Said it couldn’t hurt to try this first to save all the draining of pipes. He started cleaning the joint and I ran off to Home Depot. What better place for a man to be than in a store with pipes and wires and boards and tools? After a little searching, I found the tape, but could not locate the one inch copper elbow he wanted “just in case”. Outstanding! Now I got to visit Menards; a dream two-fer. More guy stuff and they were already selling shrubs for Spring planting. Found the copper elbow, but the checkout lanes were all full. Stood in line, (they had Xs on the floor, six feet apart, so you knew where to stand). The guy in front of me had a laundry tub, a boatload of drain fittings and four lengths of drain pipe. Others had paint, boards, shelving; projects to occupy the mind and body.

By the time I got back to my friend’s basement, he was trying to re-solder the joint. I watched, gave a little advice, but the solder wouldn’t flow. Maybe a bigger torch would help, so I got out one of mine, adjusted the flame and gave it a go. The solder flowed! Afterward, I inspected the joint and shot my buddy a doubtful look. “Go ahead, turn on the water,” The once per hour drip was now a once per minute drip. I knew it wouldn’t work.

It was time for lunch so I left. What a great morning! We had two hours of conversation and problem solving; two old guys trying to figure out plumbing and life together. As I left, he said he didn’t know when all this would end. I said I didn’t know either, but we both knew the One who does know.

He called me later to say that he’d used some liquid metal to fix the joint and it was now dry as a bone. God is good.

A Sack of Potatoes

A while back in an item titled, Sunny Day Dilemma, I wrote,“If you and I would stop once in a while, and consider how ridiculously well-provided for we are here in the USA; if we’d just count the blessings we take for granted; we’d take a knee before God and continuously offer humble thanks.”

How things change! We went grocery shopping the other day, and the sight of empty shelves was shocking. Come on, this is America! We expect abundance; we demand choices! Funny how fear creates new norms. No eggs. No flour. No carrots. No potatoes. No onions. Rationed toilet paper.

Well, we bought what we needed, but I was aware of this little dark voice in the back of my head, “Maybe I should get two of those; maybe we should stock up on some of that.” The fear and anxiety are more contagious than the new virus we dread. I ignored the voice and we bought what we needed, though not everything on the shopping list.

The next day, I was near a different grocery store, so I went in seeking carrots, onions and potatoes. Delighted, I saw a few bags of carrots and plopped one into my basket. Plucked up a bag of mandarin oranges. Then I spied ONE bag of russet potatoes. Just as I grabbed it, a woman with a shopping cart approached the now empty bin. I said, “Are you looking for potatoes?” She nodded. “Here take these. We still have some at home” I said, and handed her the bag.

When the disciples asked Him “Teach us to pray”, Jesus taught them this prayer:

Luke 11:2-4 (ESV) “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation.”

“Daily bread.” Not two weeks supply in case the store runs out. Not a months supply in the freezer. Not six months of canned stuff in a bunker. Just bread, every day. In my now 77 years on earth, not one day has God failed to feed me something. I’ve been broke, unemployed, sick, lost. Never once did God leave me unfed. Even better, God never left me without hope:

Revelation 1:17-18 (ESV) “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.”

As my Pastor said this morning, God knows the end.

We still have more than we need in this country. This crisis will pass. As for me and my house, we’ll take it one day, and one loaf, at a time. SDG

Sunny Day Dilemma

I read a post by a friend of mine the other day saying “It’s a beautiful day but I can’t decide; motorcycle ride or boat ride?” Kevin’s recreational dilemma earned him a boatload (sorry) of smart-aleck responses, including mine which simply said “First-world problem.” Not that I faulted him for thinking about how to spend his day off. I probably would have chosen a round of golf.

It got me to thinking about life in the USA. I hear complaints such as,“I can’t believe the price they’re asking for organic arugula.” “My cell phone battery died!” “Did you see the price of gas went up five cents today?” “Can you believe this heat? And our air conditioner is acting up.” “Starbuck’s was soooo crowded today.”

Every morning I get out of bed, pause for a quick stop in the bathroom then drink a cup of cold water to begin the re-hydration process. I fill the coffee machine and turn it on. Then I walk to the living room, open the drapes and do a few stretches while watching the neighbors walk by with their dogs. Back to the coffee machine where I brew a single cup of very good, strong coffee and then to my recliner. I switch on the reading light, grab my devotional book and scripture lesson for the day, pray for the Holy Spirit to guide me and then read, then pray. By the time I’m through, my wife is up, so I dress and join her for breakfast.IMG_0085

Each day, as I’m doing these things, I think about the millions of people around the globe whose day begins very differently from my day. They may live in a straw-covered hut or a tin-roofed shack. There’s no bed. There’s no plumbing. There’s no electricity. Water has to be fetched. There’s no coffee and there might not be any breakfast either. There’s no living room to go to because there is only one room. No drapes. No leashed pets walking by with pet owners to follow them with plastic baggies for the poop. In Mexico, in India, in parts of Africa or South America, this is how the day starts.

Now, I don’t feel guilty about this (you want me to, don’t you?) No, what I feel is gratitude. Not just some vague “I feel so blessed.” kind of gratitude, but a deep, soul deep, gratitude to my God and Father who placed me in this wonderful country. I don’t deserve this; but it is what my God has chosen for my lot.

If you and I would stop once in a while, and consider how ridiculously well-provided for we are here in the USA; if we’d just count the blessings (clean water!) we take for granted; we’d take a knee before God and continuously offer humble thanks.

By USA standards, I’m not wealthy. Living on that dreaded “fixed income” that old people like to complain about (because not enough of you are buying my book!) Yet I enjoy a standard of living that most of the rest of the world envies.

So after coffee and scripture, my prayer includes sincere thanks to God for His bounty, a resolve to use it wisely and to share it when I can. Then it’s time to get dressed. I wonder what they’re getting for that organic arugula today?