Wells of Salvation

I finally hugged my first non-family person this week. It came at the end of a surprise breakfast with my District Superintendent and his lovely wife. She is an incredible woman of faith and we sometimes tease him that he “married up.” He doesn’t mind this because he agrees.

We were discussing how life would feel now that we are all fully-vaccinated, and I mentioned that I think I have become “touch averse.” For over a year I restrained myself from hugging, shaking hands, touching a shoulder in a gesture of comfort, visiting the sick in a hospital and holding a hand, comforting the grieving with a gentle pat on the arm…the virus stole all of this from us and as a pastor who easily uses touch to convey concern and love, IT HAS BEEN HARD. All of you “huggers” feel this pain with me, I am sure!

This sweet woman listened with great empathy to my confession and then said, “You know, when you are with someone in a pastoral setting, you are clearly being the love to Jesus to them in that moment. And with that comes the power and protection of the Holy Spirit in everything you say to them and everything you do.” When breakfast was over, I hugged her. Happily.

This is exactly what I needed to hear as I make my way up from the dark hole of touch aversion back to the sunlight of normal behavior. She offered me a sip from the well of Christ’s salvation and I didn’t even know how parched I was. I will trust and not be afraid.

Isaiah 12 (New International Version)

Surely God is my salvation;
    I will trust and not be afraid.
The Lord, the Lord himself, is my strength and my defense;
    he has become my salvation.”
With joy you will draw water
    from the wells of salvation.

My concern has not just myself, but also for those around me. My congregation is a delicate population for the most part, and as an international airline pilot’s wife, I have not wanted to give or receive any illnesses during this time. But the Lord has done a glorious thing, and the county where I live has received state-wide commendation for our vaccine implementation. And in all things, the Lord himself is my strength and my defense.

In that day you will say:

“Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name;
    make known among the nations what he has done,
    and proclaim that his name is exalted.
Sing to the Lord, for he has done glorious things;
    let this be known to all the world.
Shout aloud and sing for joy, people of Zion,
    for great is the Holy One of Israel among you.”

The time is almost upon us to return to those wells of salvation where we will hug each other and draw water together with joy. Soon it really will be over and we will sing once again to the Lord and let the world know what he has done. So as we approach the end of this terrible marathon we’ve all been running, let us safely press on toward the goal of living as those who are saved by the Lord.

We really are one day closer to the end of this thing! Thanks be to God.

Reflections of Joy by Debby Fox

Desolate Roads

Of all of the eerie things this pandemic has brought, the images of desolate roads rank high at the top for me. There are still a lot of cars here on the Outer Banks, as apparently everyone has to go to Lowe’s every. single. day. But the stay-at-home order has definitely reduced traffic. Several times early on a Sunday morning I have waited at a red light to turn onto the bypass and not a single car has gone through the intersection. That never happens. But have you seen pictures of London, New York, or Las Vegas? City centers like those are truly desolate. The scenes of empty roads are disturbing.

One of my favorite post-apocalyptic movies is “Omega Man.” It is the story of a vaccine scientist named Dr. Robert Neville, who is the last human survivor of a germ-war pandemic that has wiped out humanity. There are other survivors, no longer human, who have turned into violent anti-technology and anti-science mutant-predators. They hunt Neville at night using primitive weapons. Neville eventually finds a small group of two adults and a few children who somehow have a natural immunity. But in the beginning of the movie, he has lived in his generator-powered apartment for three years without seeing a single human being.

The opening scenes are absolutely haunting. Filmed in 1971, the director took shots of Los Angeles’ empty business district from a helicopter early on a Sunday morning, inserted still shots where people had been erased from the film, and cut to empty back-lot scenes to create a shocking vision of a post-apocalyptic city.

The image of a desolate road caught my attention in today’s reading. I have come to realize after decades of bible study that it is often in these overlooked details that the story takes on life. Take a look:

Acts 8 (The Message)

26-28 Later God’s angel spoke to Philip: “At noon today I want you to walk over to that desolate road that goes from Jerusalem down to Gaza.” He got up and went. He met an Ethiopian eunuch coming down the road. The eunuch had been on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and was returning to Ethiopia, where he was minister in charge of all the finances of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. He was riding in a chariot and reading the prophet Isaiah.

Thus the scene is set. A member of the queen’s court, a busy man indeed, has been to the buzzing city of Jerusalem on a pilgrimage. He has been looking for something. He was wealthy enough to be riding in a chariot. He is a man versed in the Hebrew writings, and is reading Isaiah. This wealthy, educated, privileged man is traveling back from the Temple to his palace along a desolate road, and THAT is where he finds what he had been looking for.

29-30 The Spirit told Philip, “Climb into the chariot.” Running up alongside, Philip heard the eunuch reading Isaiah and asked, “Do you understand what you’re reading?”

31-33 He answered, “How can I without some help?” and invited Philip into the chariot with him.

I love the weird friendliness of this exchange. Was it normal to invite some random guy running beside your chariot to jump in and chat? Or do you suppose the Holy Spirit had something to do with it? Surely Philip had been led there by the Holy Spirit, but we get the sense that the eunuch was also being led in this exchange.

The passage he was reading was this:

As a sheep led to slaughter,
    and quiet as a lamb being sheared,
He was silent, saying nothing.
    He was mocked and put down, never got a fair trial.
But who now can count his kin
    since he’s been taken from the earth?

34-35 The eunuch said, “Tell me, who is the prophet talking about: himself or some other?” Philip grabbed his chance. Using this passage as his text, he preached Jesus to him.

And so on this desolate road, we see a beautiful example of something Methodists call “prevenient grace.” Prevenient grace is the grace that goes before us, wooing us to God before we are aware of our need for him, or have any idea how to find him. Prevenient grace led Philip to the desolate road. Prevenient grace opened the eunuch’s mind and heart to receive him there. And as soon as the moment was right, Philip preached Jesus to him.

Such beauty can be born from desolation! And oh, how we needed to hear that this morning as we look down the empty road. Are you finding Jesus on this desolate road we are traveling?

Jesus is already on this road, having come before us. If we can begin to think of this pandemic as a journey to a pilgrimage rather than a terror to endure, how much better our hearts will be in the end! Because this WILL end.

And guess what? We are one day closer. So go and preach Jesus to someone.

Desolate Road by Kathy Schumacher

Coming Out of It

We are in soft shell crab season on the Outer Banks. Here on Colington, the shedders are being watched day and night, and crab harvesters are working under the hanging bulbs to capture these delicacies the minute they are ready. The dilemma is that the restaurants aren’t ready. So while the harvest is happening on its own timeline, there is not the usual demand. Friends of these hardworking folks are trying to help them sell their soft shells to locals to cook at home, and the community is responding. But this is just one small sadness in the midst of all that is sad about the economic impact the pandemic is having on our beautiful island.

What will you do first when we come out of this? Eventually we can go back to hugging, eating at a favorite restaurant with our friends, taking the kids to a real playground, getting on a plane…until then, this time of isolation and quarantine certainly feels like being in exile. If the pandemic ends in time, I would rush out and eat a fried soft shell crab sandwich at the Salt Box Cafe.

Today’s scripture invites us back to the time when Israel lived in exile. They had been overrun and carried away into Babylon, where they couldn’t live life as usual and were forced to adapt to a completely different culture. Jeremiah dreamed of the time when their exile would be over and they would return to a normal life:

Jeremiah 36 (Contemporary English Version)

At that time, declares the Lord,
    I will be the God of all the families of Israel,
        and they will be my people.

The Lord proclaims:
The people who survived the sword
    found grace in the wilderness.
As Israel searched for a place of rest,
    the Lord appeared to them from a distance:
I have loved you with a love that lasts forever.
    And so with unfailing love,
        I have drawn you to myself.

This picture of God appearing to Israel from a distance as they are returning from the wilderness is profound. We are immediately reminded of the story of the Prodigal Son, where the father was waiting at the edge of the field every day for his wayward son to return. God indeed has gone before us, and waits there to welcome us back to normal life when our exile is over. And notice the phrase “found grace in the wilderness.” Have you found grace in your pandemic wilderness? Can you list some “silver linings?”

Again, I will build you up,
    and you will be rebuilt, virgin Israel.
Again, you will play your tambourines
    and dance with joy.
Again, you will plant vineyards
    on the hills of Samaria;
    farmers will plant and then enjoy the harvests.

The hope in these verses make me tingle. God will build us up again. We will dance for joy again. We will plant vineyards and farmlands and harvest them again. We will have life as normal again. Gosh, I can’t wait for Again to begin. How about you?

The time will come when
    the watchmen shout from
        the highlands of Ephraim:
“Get ready! We’re going up to Zion
    to the Lord our God!”

Hold on to these words. There will be a time when this virus is completely gone from this earth. Get ready! And in the meantime, look for grace in the wilderness.

Grace in the Wilderness by Michelle Robertson

Post-Pandemic Plans

My husband just made a reservation at a favorite restaurant in Disney World for September. It is a reservation that in normal times is impossible to get, especially for a popular time in the evening, but it’s ours now. The thing I love the most about this is that we are starting to think in concrete terms about life AP….After Pandemic.

It is good to do this. Our patient watching-and-waiting is energized when we allow ourselves to think about life getting back to normal. We may still be staying at home in September, but it sure feels good to look ahead and dream.

This morning’s reading is just like that. Isaiah, the renowned Old Testament prophet, was also in a watching-and-waiting place. It was during the time when Israel was divided into a Northern Kingdom (Israel) and a Southern Kingdom (Judah). Isaiah watched as the Northern Kingdom was overrun by the Assyrians, and the Israelites were captured and taken to places far away. Judah is hanging on for now, and in the midst of this, Isaiah writes this beautiful vision of a post-diaspora celebration where all the people of the world will come to feast in Jerusalem:

Isaiah 25 (The Message)

But here on this mountain, God-of-the-Angel-Armies
    will throw a feast for all the people of the world,
A feast of the finest foods, a feast with vintage wines,
    a feast of seven courses, a feast lavish with gourmet desserts.
And here on this mountain, God will banish
    the pall of doom hanging over all peoples,

The shadow of doom darkening all nations.
    Yes, he’ll banish death forever.
And God will wipe the tears from every face.
    He’ll remove every sign of disgrace
From his people, wherever they are.
    Yes! God says so!

9-10 Also at that time, people will say,
    “Look at what’s happened! This is our God!
We waited for him and he showed up and saved us!
    This God, the one we waited for!
Let’s celebrate, sing the joys of his salvation.
    God’s hand rests on this mountain!”

Oh, how this resonates today! We long for God to come and remove the shadow of doom, the PALL of doom, from our world today. We long to be able to gather together, to lay down our masks and gloves, and to feast on the finest foods and vintage wines.

The time is coming. God will wipe the tears from every face. He will remove every sign of this pandemic from his people, wherever they are. God’s hand rests on his creation, and he will show up and save us, in his time.

What are your post-pandemic dreams? What is the first thing you want to do when the restrictions are lifted and the danger has passed? What do you miss the most? Dream and plan, friends! It is good for your soul.

But for now, we wait.

And as we wait, remember this: we are one day closer to the end of this thing. Thanks be to God.

Watching and Waiting. Photo by Michelle Robertson