Thinking Out Loud

December 25, 2020

Christmas Like No Other

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 12:15 pm

In Canada, the provinces of Ontario and Quebec account for 61½% of the Canadian population and as I type this, we’re moving into a (minimum) 30 day lockdown. Echoes of March/April.

We have a better idea what this involves now and hopefully can do the mental and emotional prep and have loaded up jigsaw puzzles and movies.

And it’s Christmas. For us, the first Christmas without physically seeing either of our adult sons. This year’s family picture will be a Zoom screen capture. I’m in a state similar to mourning, but of course, absent any type of precautions, families could be warning something far greater if we don’t get this virus under control.

Various online writers and pastors have sought for parallels between the situation faced by Joseph and Mary at the time of Christ’s birth. It was certainly bittersweet. I tried to capture that earlier this week at C201, and what follows is the text of that devotional. (Click the header to read it there.)

To all, a wish for you to find the merry this Christmas.

The Birth of Jesus is a Study in Contrasts

At different eras in the Christian Church there have been different emphases in preaching. In the last several years, this has been evidenced in the Christmas narrative.

Emphasis #1 – No place to stay

With our current awareness of social justice issues, homelessness is a problem in our world — even in some quite affluent countries — to which the church must respond. So we often hear emphasis on Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem with no place to stay but a barn.

Without considering the (literally) hundreds of views on this, I currently lean to the idea that the night lodging for the animals may have been more of an annex to the house; in other words, not even an out-building. The phrase (Luke 2:7) “for there was no room for them in the inn” is not unique to the KJV, but the CJB has “there was no space for them in the living-quarters;” the NIV states, “there was no guest room available for them;” while you have to love the ambiguity of the NLV, “There was no room for them in the place where people stay for the night.” Young’s Literal Translation reads, “there was not for them a place in the guest-chamber.” But other respected versions such as NET and NASB stay with “the inn.”

I also reject the idea that they arrived in Bethlehem without any contact persons; not knowing anyone. If this was Joseph’s ancestral home, (“because he belonged to the house and line of David” 2:7) then he had relatives there, even if they were distant relatives. Remember this occurred in a society where tribe, family, clan, etc. mattered.

But we do tend to seize on the plight of Mary and Joseph, and in no small measure this is completely appropriate, as Jesus was born in an unexpected place (due to “Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken…” 2:1) and in less than ideal circumstances (the not-inn, not-guest-room; and the scandal of Mary’s pregnancy.)

Emphasis #2 – Exile to Egypt

This is the preaching emphasis that Jesus was a refugee. We know that they left abruptly for Egypt (Matthew 2:13) and that in at least one, and probably two dreams Joseph is counseled that it is safe to make an adjusted return to Israel (2: 19-23); but we know absolutely nothing about their time in Egypt, though novelists like to speculate on this time.

With countries like Germany and Canada opening their doors wide to Middle East refugees in the last decade, it’s easy to see why this can be a highlighted subject in contemporary preaching.

Not Emphasized – Honor and Fabulous Gifts!

The story isn’t all bleak. Any contemporary emphasis on one element of the story is going to cause lesser emphasis on another, but Jesus, to use a game show phrase, does receive “cash and fabulous prizes” when the kings/wise men/astrologers come to visit. They recognize that something special is taking place; they come to pay homage; and they don’t arrive empty-handed. Matthew’s Gospel tells us,

Matt.2.1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem… …10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

So we see that they bow down and worship him.

I’m sure that thinking of Gabriel’s announcement,

He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” Luke 1:32-33

Joseph and Mary looked at each other and said, ‘Ah…That’s more like it;’ when in fact the exile is just around the next bend.

Gabriel’s words and the honor of the kings/wise men/astrologers is indicative of a long-time eternal destiny; a time to come when Revelation 11:15 states.

The seventh angel sounded his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, which said: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever.”

This text is familiar to us at this time of year as part of the lyrics to “Hallelujah” from Handel’s Messiah, but as climactic as that song is at the end of Part II, it is with these words from Revelation 5:12 that the oratorio ends;

In a loud voice they were saying: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!”

This should be the ultimate emphasis of our preaching in our churches and our sharing of the Christmas narrative individually to those with whom we come in contact.

September 28, 2020

Lost Embraces: A Lament


by Capt. Sheldon R. Bungay

originally published as The Phenomenology of Embrace; used by permission

I see the images flicker across my news feed and my heart yearns for justice,
yet another unnecessary black death, another riot, another shooting,
another political party fueling the fire and building a platform founded on a lack of truth.

I see the vitriol, the hate, and hear the cries of the oppressed,
I see the disease, the hunger, the lonely, and the dirty faces.
I see the mother who named her child, “Jihad” so that he will never forget.
I also see the sign that reads “stay six feet apart,”
and I cannot help but feel:
If I had the ability to wrap the whole world in a vast global embrace,
I would.

Alas, I cannot.

There is much that I miss from the time before now,
Near the top of that list is the simple embrace.

Why?

Because a hug is more than a form of greeting, or a nice gesture,
It is a drama that unfolds in four acts that has the power to convey much about the relationship between the participants and walks a fine line between love and oppression depending on the intentions of the one who initiates the contact.

Act One: Opening the Arms

This act is an opening of one’s self to another that says “come, be part of who I am.”

Found within these open arms are both a twinge of pain because we feel incomplete without the other, and a welcome sign that suggests I have created space within me for you!

Like a door left open that requires no knock, you are invited in.

Act Two: Waiting

What humility and risk! What courage it takes to extend your open arms to another without guarantee of acceptance or a reciprocated act. The other cannot be coerced or manipulated to respond if the embrace is to have full positive effect;
We have no confirmation that this is what the other desires, or longs for,
and so we…. Wait.

Act Three: Closing the Arms

There it is — goal achieved!

Isn’t it wonderful to think that a hug is only possible when what is being offered is fully reciprocated?
Do you ever think about the beauty of that moment when you are offering yet also receiving?
A true embrace cannot be one-sided, it only works when what is being given is also taken.
And it just feels right.

Act Four: Opening the Arms Again

Notice that an embrace is only love when it is released, if one does not let go the embrace turns to oppression and things get uncomfortable fast.
In a weird twist, an embrace can only be appreciated for what it is when we let go,
only to begin the longing process all over again.
And so, I open my arms to you, and know not if I will be
misunderstood,
despised,
appreciated,
or reciprocated.
But “embrace is grace, and grace is gamble, always.”

Anyone need a hug?


Based on Miroslav Volf’s concept “The Drama of Embrace”
Embrace is Grace Quote – Lewis B. Smedes.

Capt. Sheldon Bungay is a Salvation Army Officer currently serving in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada as Divisional Youth Secretary. Husband, Father of two, student, persistent question-asker and listener.

Graphic: File image, credited to James Sword

August 21, 2020

After 5½ Months Away from Church, Will They Return?

Filed under: Christianity, Church, current events — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:43 am

With most of the media focus on high profile churches which have been defying local and state laws on assembly, we can forget the many congregations which have been faithfully obeying the authorities and meeting through YouTube or Zoom.

With so much time away from their home church, Skye Jethani wondered if people had returned now that restrictions had eased and did a Twitter poll with 1,741 results; with most respones from the U.S. but some from other parts of the world. Here’s what they told him:

Many also added comments. Here’s a sample:

  • It was great to be in-person. But it was not normal.
  • we won’t be comfortable with in-person services for awhile anyway. And I never felt like I could get on board with virtual church.
  • I’m currently hired by a church to make their service videos, I’ve become somewhat burnt out by it. Having said that, the reason I’m burnt out is because the video follows more or less exactly the same as the service and disregards all the amazing possibilities media offers.
  • it feels like we’re herded to our seats and out the building like cattle.
  • I think we all have to just come to the realization that the old “normal” is gone forever and we have to just appreciate and be thankful for whatever semblance of normalcy we have right now
  • Our family uses @bibleproject Church at Home instead of streaming our service. The mandatory quarantine gave us the opportunity to step away from serving at the coffee bar every Sunday and reconsider church. My teenagers prefer the deeper discussion over 4 part sermon series.
  • Went to a live service for the first time in about 5 months. To be honest, I spent a lot of time wondering why most people weren’t wearing masks and how it showed a lack of concern for others there.
  • During this season our house church gathers and participates together online, we don’t “watch online” ;) – This moment seems a perfect opportunity to shift from church being a spectator sport into an actual conversation of a community.
  • Sometimes watch church online while multitasking. Used to be regular attender. Miss the in person fellowship. Huge loss in worshiping God.
  • In- person. But no where near back to normal. We ended up leaving our church and finding a new church body.
  • I’ve mostly tuned out the digital Sunday stuff and just listen to the sermon on podcast, but our missional community has continued to Zoom every week.
  • I selected that I’ve tuned out. In reality I attend when I am scheduled to run the sound board and stay home and stream services from other churches when I’m not.
  • In person with masks, limited to 30% of building capacity. I’m grateful that I was able to be there all along though – when gatherings in my province were limited to 5, I was one of those 5 who still got to go to each service to help with music etc for the livestream

And then there was this one:

  • Wish I could go, but too many people at my church aren’t taking it seriously. 1/3 singing without masks. Some showing up sick. Some even showing up with pending COVID tests. Trying to determine what faithful involvement can look like.

What about you? Comment here, or click the link if you have a Twitter account and comment with everyone else.

Churches will need to identify that 20.2% and reach out to learn if they’ve relocated or encourage them to return as things stabilize.

Photo: ABC News

April 30, 2020

Singing Your Way Through Pandemic Anxiety

Filed under: Christianity, music — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 2:04 pm

Live To Tell – Enough (Living with Anxiety During a Pandemic)

Our friends Martin and Nancy released this two days ago, and I want to see it get more exposure. Nancy wrote the song, and Martin did the arrangement.

Nancy explains in the video notes:

This song came out of a sleepless night earlier this month when I guess I really started to freak out about the pandemic. Admittedly, I was watching too much news but when a good friend died and a proper funeral couldn’t be observed, it really hit home. From a social perspective, how challenging it is to grieve from a distance.

The lyrics you’ll hear reflect my disquieting and intimate thoughts and are very specifically written for now. The use of the term “peaceful waters” is an homage to John Prine who died from complications of COVID-19 a couple of days prior to me being inspired to write this song.

“There’s no gold in the silence, just a quiet form of violence.”

In this song, I am laying claim to my generalized anxiety disorder, the tension between how I experience my world as it is now and how I imagine it could be – and how I am coping.

Tucked inside the larger narrative is a love song to Martin. I pray that we all have such a good companion to help us get through this.

God bless you. Stay safe, stay home as much as possible, and thanks for listening.

March 20, 2020

The Rhythm of Life is Being Disrupted

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:59 am

So many authors — Mark Buchanan, Rebekah Lyons, Ruth Haley Barton, etc. — have written about the spiritual rhythm of life that I hesitate to enter into this topic but to say that sacred or secular, our rhythms have been greatly disturbed.

The Weekly Rhythm

I’m finding myself most affected by the absence of weekend worship. Like so many of us, there was no service this past week and there won’t be one in a few days. I didn’t realize the degree to which anchoring my week around, and focusing my week on the weekly gathering would impact me so greatly. The online alternatives — some of which I have been lending email input toward — aren’t quite the same.

The Daily Rhythm

Because I work from home already — commuting some days and staying home on others — I didn’t think I would be as greatly affected by the massive slowdown we are experiencing in our business and the reduced hours we are now following. For others of you, the switch in work/life balance (or school/life balance) is most unsettling. Or perhaps it’s the lack of a “buffer zone” between the two.

The ‘Re-Creation’ Rhythm

For others of you, sports plays a vital part of life, whether you’re watching it, or heading out to the gym several times each week. You’re missing the camaraderie of watching the game at the local sports-themed restaurant, or about to miss the Saturday pickup football game with the guys in the park. Those sports, fresh-air, or exercise activities with others provide a much need reset which energizes the days which follow.

We Can Pray

Join me in praying that “the new normal” doesn’t last all that long, and pray for the mental health of people who need those balances in their lives more than others. Think of other ways you can use this time to grow in grace and the knowledge of God.


Devotional readings at Christianity 201:

March 10, 2020

Churches Respond to Coronavirus

Filed under: Christianity, Church, current events — Tags: , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:59 am

With things moving quickly, I said to my wife this morning that who is to say, looking at it from a Tuesday perspective, that we will have a service this weekend?

The following (and today’s images) are all from a Twitter news sub-feed indicating what churches are doing, accessed at 9:00 AM EST today:

  • ‘No hugs, no handshakes’ seems to be the #1 rule in these times
  • Prevalence of hand sanitizer stations, or in one church, people receiving a pump of sanitizer from the priest before receiving communion
  • At many Catholic churches, the Holy Water has been temporarily removed
  • At other churches, no wine for Communion/Eucharist
  • At some, the priests are dispensing the wafers with a ladle
  • At Orthodox churches, parishioners are asked to honor the icons by bowing, not kissing them
  • Many churches are already streaming services online
  • People encouraged to stay at home if they’re not feeling 100%
  • Denominations and parachurch organizations are cancelling larger conferences and seminars
  • At a synagogue, the hamantaschen (triangular filled cookie; festival of Purim tie-in) are individually wrapped instead of being on a tray
  • Some LDS churches have purchased high-speed thermometers
  • Area around the Kaaba in the Grand Mosque in Mecca shut down for sterilization

While these address the more practical concern, there is also the issue of fear, worry, anxiety, etc., and the subsequent depression this situation can bring on. The ability of the capital ‘C’ Church to meet these needs will certainly be tested over the coming weeks. 

Addressing this climate of concern, while at the same time remaining transparent about urgency taking measures to not spread germs is a two-pronged challenge. 

Then there is the question if some of the things we do on a regular basis, such as the shaking of hands, the sharing of the cup at the Lord’s Table, etc., should be reexamined long after the current outbreak has passed.

March 9, 2020

Spurgeon on Coronavirus

Filed under: Christianity, current events — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 10:45 am

I had something scheduled to go this morning which I decided to hold back, and at just the right time, a friend sent a link to this article from The Spurgeon Center, Spurgeon and the Cholera Outbreak of 1854. It’s rather timely.

The Broad Street Cholera Outbreak of 1854 occurred in August and September of that year, and its effects would continue to be felt in the weeks and months following. The neighborhood where Spurgeon’s church met was not quarantined, so they were able to continue meeting throughout those months. Interestingly, no record of the sermons Spurgeon preached during those days remain. Perhaps the outbreak forced the congregation to adjust some of their previous practices, including the transcription of sermons. Additionally, Spurgeon was likely too busy in those days to edit sermons for publication.

However, we know that the congregation continued meeting during those days because the church’s minute books contain records of congregational meetings carried on throughout the fall of 1854. In those books, amid all the pastoral challenges of the outbreak, Spurgeon and his deacons continued to receive new members, pursue inactive members, observe the Lord’s Supper, and practice all the other normal activities of a church. Not only that, but in retrospect, it was particularly during this time, when news of death raged all around the city, that Spurgeon found Londoners most receptive to the gospel.

The article lists five things that were evident in Spurgeon’s ministry at this time. I encourage you to take 5 minutes to click the link above.

For those who want to expand on the history lesson, there are a number of videos on YouTube relating to the epidemic, including the animated lessons on Extra Credits.

May 3, 2009

Swine Flew

Filed under: Christianity, Faith — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:59 pm

swine-flew1

Listened today at 4:00 PM to a radio interview on CBC with Dr. Donald Low which sounded a bit of  a more optimistic note on the H1N1 or “Swine” flu.    Hopefully by this time next week, we’ll be a little more relaxed on the forecast for this particular health concern.

This carton by Jeff Larson reminded me of the various “broadsheets,” a kind of “instant tract” that was put out in the ’70s and ’80s by Jews for Jesus.   They would make an immediate connection with something taking place in the world of news, politics, sports or entertainment and publish an 8.5 x 11 sheet — I think they’re called an A4 in the UK — folded in thirds with some kind of scriptural application on the back panel.   Within minutes of getting them back from the printer, JFJ missionaries would be on the streets of New York and other major cities handing them out.

This is similar to the passage in Acts where Paul latches on to the statue he passed on the way into the city which is dedicated “to an unknown God;” and builds his whole sermon around that.   If he were doing standup, he’d start with, “A funny thing happened on the way into town today; I passed a statue that said, ‘To an unknown God.'”    It’s about being current and relating to your audience.

Now it’s time for me to be current:

If you got here from a WordPress or Google tag for “swine flu,” you’re not here by accident.   Events like this in the news can be scary, but they’re just a reminder that this life — and this world, for that matter — is merely temporary.   Instead of panic searching online for the latest updates, why not put your hope and trust in something — some One, actually — more secure;  Jesus Christ.  Then,  the next time someone says “the sky is falling;” you can be assured of where you’re going beyond this life, even if the sky really is falling.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.