I love my kids dearly. I want only the best for them. I also want them to sleep a little later in the morning. While some of our friends lament that their young kids wake them up at 8 AM, I am ecstatic if ours make it to 7. For a variety of reasons, sleep has been an effort in our household lately, and I have been awake (or at least out of bed) with my dear children before the sun rises most mornings. In their defense, the sun does sleep pretty late this time of year, but in my defense, it is a rare day in this house for the people who live here to sleep late.

About two weeks ago, we were up before the sun again. The kids and I were sitting at the kitchen table eating breakfast. Right now our ongoing game of let’s-trade-seats-at-the-table-with-each-other has me sitting so that I can see out the window while I eat (thanks, Meg, for taking the one with your back to the outside). As the kids and I sat eating our cereal and discussing their favorite Christmas shows, a faint glow started to peek up over the eastern horizon. We continued with our toast and juice, and the dim glow grew steadily brighter, bursting out in pink and purple and blue. Soon the whole eastern sky was filled with colorful light, dancing on the trees and houses in the horizon and leaping over the thin, wispy clouds floating through the air. Not content with the limits of the eastern sky, the color spilled over, flooding part of the southern sky and tickling the edges of the sky to the north. The sunrise was truly amazing that morning, and watching the whole thing filled me with a great deal of hope. The dark night yielded to the beautiful light of a new day.

I often find myself quietly singing in response to the world around me, and watching the sunrise that morning inspired an Advent-appropriate choice:

The King shall come when morning dawns,

And light triumphant breaks;

When beauty gilds the eastern hills,

And life to joy awakes.

The triumphant break-through of sunlight gilding the eastern sky after a dark night should fill us with joy. The fact that we live in a world where we can count on this every single day – that there is a God who wants this for us every single day – should fill us with tremendous hope. This hope that the light will scatter the darkness is what Advent is all about. Christmas, then, is the sunrise of a new day.

2020 has had its share of dark days. Many people have been sickened with COVID, and far too many have died. For those of us who have extra risk factors like my weakened immune system still recovering from leukemia treatment, doing the right thing to stay healthy has involved its share of dark nights and days. We’ve stayed away from our family and friends (the kids are fluent in video calls and “air huggies” by now). We’ve stayed home (I haven’t driven this little since I got my driver’s permit almost 20 years ago). We’ve ridden the emotional roller coaster of highs and lows (thank goodness the shortage of tissues was less severe than the shortage of toilet paper). There has been darkness. Yet, there has also been hope. There is real hope that the pandemic will not last forever. The sun will rise again. A new day will come.

The world waits in darkness every night. Sometimes the night is very long (such as the nights when I’m awake comforting a toddler who just had a nightmare at 1AM and up again at 3 soothing a preschooler scared of the howling wind). Other times the night passes more quickly (those rare nights where we all sleep through the night). In any case, we wait in darkness a while hoping for the new day, and eventually the dawn comes. The sun climbs up over the horizon, and the light returns. Sometimes that sunrise is a memorable, fantastic light show that dazzles all who can see it. Other times it’s just the return of illumination to the landscape through gray clouds. Regardless, the hope we have in the new day is well-placed.

The COVID night is not over, but the glow of a new day is creeping over the horizon. We already have what we need to wait in the dark – wearing our masks and keeping our social distance – and the light of the new day heralded by a highly effective vaccine is emerging.

Boats and a Helicopter

I have heard a surprisingly large number of people dismiss the vaccine as a hoax or a form of they’re-out-to-get-me-conspiracy-theory-doomsday-device or even a true evil in the world. As I have reflected on these assessments, I am reminded of a modern-day parable that I first heard as a kid.

There was a woman who made the bold decision to rely entirely on prayer for everything. God would give her whatever she needed, so long as she asked. Her faith was unshakable and would stand up to any test.

One night, she awoke to find her house flooding. The nearby river was swelling from the heavy rain, and her house was quickly going underwater. She managed to climb out her bedroom window to the roof, barely staying above the rising flood waters. On the roof and still faithful, she prayed to God to save her from the flood. A few minutes later, a neighbor in a row boat paddled close to her house and asked her to get in the boat with him. She politely told the neighbor no. She did not need a rowboat. She had prayed, and God would save her from the flood. Puzzled, the neighbor paddled away to help someone else.

Alone again in the dark, she prayed to God to save her from the flood. A minute later, she saw lights approaching. It was a motor boat with two firefighters inside, and they came near her house. Seeing her on the roof, the firefighters steered their boat close and asked her to get into the boat. They would help her climb down the steep roof to avoid slipping into the rushing flood waters. She told them to save someone else; God would save her from the flood. The firefighters were reluctant to leave her, but at her repeated insisting and refusal to get into the boat, they finally departed to look for others.

Alone another time with the flood water continuing to rise, the woman prayed confidently to God, asking her to save him from the flood waters. Within seconds of finishing the prayer, the sounds of a helicopter could be heard. It was a rescue helicopter, operated by the national guard, who were out attempting to save people from the flood. The crew saw the woman on the roof and hovered over her, dropping a rescue line and sending down a trained crewman to pull her from the roof, which by now was nearly covered in floodwater. The woman outright refused to be rescued by the helicopter crew, insisting adamantly that God would save her from the flood waters and that she was trusting in Him alone. The crew should rescue someone else, she insisted. God would rescue her. In spite of the water now touching her ankles and the pleading of the helicopter crew to grab the line, the woman would not budge from the roof. She flatly refused, continuing to insist that God alone would save her from the flood. The crew received a call of another person stuck on a nearby roof and finally relented to the woman’s demands, leaving her alone.

Soon after the helicopter left, the woman was swept into the flood waters, where she drowned. She found herself standing in front of God in Heaven. She looked at God and said, “God, I made the firm commitment to rely only on you. I prayed to you in my time of great need just now in that flood. Where were you on the roof down there? Why didn’t you save me like you promised me you would?” 

God looked at her and replied, “I sent two boats and a helicopter.”

I am not entirely sure where I heard this parable originally, but I think of it quite often. The answers to our prayer aren’t always dramatic miracles. We don’t always walk on the top of the flood waters. Sometimes God sends us a boat with a friend inside. Sometimes even if we ignore that boat, He’ll try again by sending another boat or even a helicopter to save us from the floods of life. Sometimes, like the woman on the roof, we overlook the help we’ve asked for more than once. There are times for miracle rescues, and there are times for simple row boats to escape life’s floods. It’s important for us to remember that God uses the ordinary for the extraordinary.

I have seen the boats-and-a-helicopter rescue happen in my own life. I did not have a scientifically-unexplainable miraculous cure to my hairy cell leukemia. What I did have, though, was the row boat of a well-timed routine family doctor blood test followed by a motorboat driven by a persistent hematologist and then a helicopter crew of rare disease specialists, nurses, doctors, pharmacists, lab technicians, and many others who pulled me from the flood waters of cancer. God heard my prayer to be saved from the rooftop when my body was flooded with non-functioning white blood cells and sent these seemingly everyday boats and helicopters to answer those prayers. I call that an ‘ordinary miracle.’

The world is now trying to escape the rising floodwaters of the COVID pandemic. Wearing our masks and keeping distance from each other is how we’re climbing to our rooftops to stay above the water. There are boats and a helicopter coming to rescue us, and we better know them as the vaccines. Yes, the vaccines are human-made, and yes humans are imperfect beings that make mistakes. However, it’s unfair for us to assume that just because something was made by humans that God can’t also use it as the answer to a prayer of need. The row boat, motor boat, and helicopter from the parable are made by humans. When we’re on the roof surrounded by rising flood waters, should we really be telling our neighbor that we don’t trust their row boat because they haven’t used it in a flood before or arguing with the firefighters about whether or not the horsepower of the motor on their motorboat is powerful enough to fight the current or lecturing the national guard crew about how the internet says that their helicopter is actually a tool of an extraterrestrial spy agency that will cause anyone who touches it to turn into a purple mongoose on their 37th birthday or the next time Jupiter and Saturn appear close together in the sky, whichever comes first? Of course not. We should do what the woman in the parable did not do. We should get in the row boat or the motorboat or the helicopter when we have the chance to escape the flood. In the flood of this pandemic, we need to get the vaccine as soon as we are able so that we can all get off of the roof.

There is a real temptation for us humans to tell God how things should be done. If we’re honest with ourselves, though, projecting our own assumptions on how God should answer our prayers – such as if I would have demanded nothing short of a miracle healing to my hairy cell leukemia – is incredibly belittling of God. Who are we to tell Him how to answer our prayers? Who is in control? Shouldn’t we let God be God in the way God wants to be God? We need to remember that this is the same God who opted to be born in a barn and to die a literally excruciating death for us. Would any of us humans, even our smartest throughout history, have thought that was the right idea to answer humanity’s prayers for salvation from darkness? If God wants to rescue us from the flood in a leaky rowboat, who are we to stand there and demand a yacht?

If God wants to rescue us from the flood in a leaky rowboat, who are we to stand there and demand a yacht?

When we’re sitting in the dark, sometimes it’s hard to imagine what all we can see in the daylight. We need the sun to come up to show us new possibilities. This time of year invites us to think beyond the darkness of the present moment. Advent reminds us that even when we wait in the night, there is reason to hope. The dawn of true light is coming. Christmas reminds us that this light has come into the world. As one of my favorite Advent and Christmas readings says, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, and upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom, a light has shone.

Let us not constrain God by thinking that those made in His image cannot also be the instrument of His answering prayer. We must not fall into the temptation of thinking technology invented by humans is automatically evil. He empowered us to invent helicopters and vaccines, both of which were created to save people rather than harm them. Let us also avoid thinking that the darkness around us will always be there. The light is coming, and we should not let go of that hope. Let’s all keep praying for God to rescue us and that we not be too blind to see the answer to that prayer when it arrives. We need to get in the boat when we can so that we can float to safety from the flood. Finally, as we continue to celebrate Christmas, let’s remember that true hope came into the world in an ordinary manger. As in times of old, we continue to pray:

Come quickly, King of kings.

Our hope is in You.

It’s Not About You

My dad has a small frame on his desk at work that says simply “It’s not about you.” I have never asked him the story behind this frame, but I imagine that it could have been a gift or a Spirit-led purchase or just one of many random things that has accumulated over the years. Regardless of how it ended up on his desk, there is a lot of wisdom in its words. From the time of Moses to the present day, our clear direction as people of faith is to love God and love our neighbor. In Jesus we have the ultimate example of selfless love – dying for God’s enemies to make them His friends. Living a selfless life rather than a selfish life is our calling.

Selfless living is hard. We fight biological tendencies, human instincts, and temptations. Physically we’re wired to survive, and that means making sure we have enough to eat, sufficient rest, water to drink, and a whole host of other basic needs. To ensure we meet our physical needs, our instincts keep us thinking about ourselves. We try to make sure that we get what we need and what we want. These tendencies at their core are good, but they can easily be twisted against us to tempt us into selfish living.

This temptation is real and is always around us. In March, as COVID concern was blitzing across the nation, there was a run on grocery stores. Shoppers filled their carts well beyond their normal levels, leaving meat coolers empty, canned food shelves sparse, and gaping holes where toilet paper should have been. Fear preyed upon our instincts and told us to fill our homes with food and supplies before we couldn’t get them anymore. I would suspect that we were all pulled into this frenzy to some degree. Though we tried not to, Meghann and I certainly were sucked in a little. Pre-COVID, we typically got a larger batch of groceries every 2-3 weeks with a couple of smaller batches in between as needed. In the middle of March, we were nearing the end of that 2-3 week cycle and legitimately needed to restock our pantry and freezer. However, with the uncertainty and feeling of scarcity swirling around us, it was impossible to avoid buying both some extras of our normal items and some unusual-to-us things. Did we really need that extra jar of peanut butter or that box of frozen fish sticks in a house where my son is allergic to both? With toilet paper in extremely short supply in stores nationwide, was it the right thing to buy that package of scratchy, off-brand toilet paper for the time when we would run out of our regular kind at home, which could be as long as 6 weeks from now? Should I have really grabbed 4 cans of peaches instead of the 2 we usually would buy? Do we really need 24 bottles of water when we have more than ample reusable ones at home to fill with our reverse-osmosis system? Both chocolate and vanilla pudding in the cart when we rarely buy either? It wasn’t that we set out to clear the grocery store shelves or to stock our house floor-to-ceiling with supplies; in fact, we tried to avoid being “those people” who were clearing store shelves. All we wanted to do was to make sure we had enough for our family. Yet, like most everyone else, we contributed in some way to legitimate shortages in the stores with our purchases.

It’s easy to start to think defensive thoughts to rationalize our choices, like “well, we didn’t buy 20 packages of toilet paper like those people they showed in the news.” After all, we only bought a little more than we normally would buy that week, right? If we’re not careful, though, this kind of thinking can be a dangerous temptation to relativism. Regardless of the scale of our fear-induced acquisitions, buying more of a limited thing means there is less available for others. The scratchy toilet paper that I bought in mid-March still sits unopened in our house right now, as we have been able to buy the soft kind we all like since sometime in April. My purchase of that toilet paper that day, seemingly lucky at the time given that they were stocking only a few new packages on the shelf when I went by, could have prevented some other family who legitimately had none at home from finding any. Did that family have to drive miles to try another grocery store? Did they have to spend excessive amounts of their meager income to pay inflated prices from a price-gouging individual? Did they have to take health or safety risks using a bathroom in a public place, or did they sneak an extra roll home from their employer? I certainly hope that none of these scenarios happened. Yet, these seemingly basic, almost reactionary, decisions can have implications that we cannot see. Was my toilet paper purchase a selfish decision? I don’t know.

The COVID pandemic is showing us that the struggle against selfishness isn’t just a matter of the comfort of our toilet paper or the availability of our favorite foods. Our decisions, even when they seem small, matter in a big way. The choices we make on a daily basis are not just about ourselves.

While all incurable and potentially dangerous infections are challenging, COVID is especially hard for a number reasons. It’s possible to be infected and not know it, and you can spread the virus for at least a couple of days before you feel sick. You can be infected for as much as two weeks before you show symptoms, or you can be sick and have no symptoms at all. It’s highly contagious and is easily spread through ordinary actions like breathing, talking, and singing. The severity of the disease varies wildly, and whether it will be a major illness or a minor inconvenience for any one person can seem a bit like a game of roulette. COVID can kill as easily as it can be a nuisance.

These factors stack up in a vicious, and arguably evil, way. When you interact with anyone, you are interacting not only with that person but everybody that they have interacted with for the past couple of weeks.

Let’s imagine a hypothetical but realistic scenario. You spend a Saturday visiting with a family member whom you trust greatly and is being careful to avoid risky situations. The family member is not too “out and about” and is only going to essential places like work, other than visiting you. Sitting next to that trusted family member at work the whole week before today, though, was an office mate who had just been to a night out with a small group of friends in a restaurant celebrating a birthday. Though everyone in the office mate’s group of friends has been careful to avoid crowds, the group of people at the next table, who the office mate does not even know, has not. The people in this group aren’t openly questioning whether COVID is a real threat or outright rejecting distancing and mask wearing, but they all believe that since they are young adults who are otherwise healthy and not “high risk” that they don’t really need to be too concerned. One of the people in this group that night in the restaurant is unknowingly infected and very contagious. As he talks and laughs over a plate of tacos, he shares the virus not just with his friends at the table but also with the tables nearby, including the group celebrating the birthday party. Over the next couple of days, all who attended the birthday party begin to spread the germs in their own circles of interactions, including the office mate. Within a few days, all of the office mate’s workplace neighbors, including your trusted family member, are passing it around too. So on this Saturday, your family member, who isn’t going anywhere but work, is passing COVID to you.

The thing about COVID is that ordinary, daily activities, even with the best of intentions, spread the virus everywhere. Our normal activities and interactions create a complex chain of interactions that is much bigger than any one of the individuals in it. COVID amplifies our selfish decisions. The choices of any single individual – such as the otherwise healthy and unconcerned person unknowingly spreading the disease in a restaurant – affects a world that is much, much bigger than himself.

What if the “you” in that story has a weakened immune system because they just finished chemotherapy for cancer? Maybe “you” recently survived a heart attack or have asthma or are overweight or have some other health issue that you don’t know about yet, any of which could make it really hard to fight off a COVID infection. In the story, the person unknowingly carrying COVID in the restaurant didn’t intend to make anyone sick. It was just a night out for tacos with friends. If he would have known he was sick, he would have stayed home. Yet, you both now have become connected in this twisted way, even though you don’t know each other. The complex chain of interactions transmit our choices with far-reaching effects regardless of the best of intentions. It’s not just the sick guy in the restaurant. The co-worker who went to the same restaurant and later shared the virus in the office didn’t want to make anyone sick either. The family member who picked it up at work was trying really hard to protect you and was staying home other than essential trips to work. In spite of these efforts, the chain of connectedness that is our world still enabled the infection to pass far beyond the guy in the restaurant who made selfish choices, ultimately getting to you, a person who might now spend weeks in the hospital.

The simple, hard truth of the COVID pandemic is that it’s not about you. It’s not about your self-determined risk level or your desire to get out of the house or your life milestone you want to celebrate or your desire to hug that friend or your wanting that treat you think you deserve or your needing that vacation. COVID doesn’t care. Every single decision that you make is bigger than you. Every time you leave your home, what you do matters. We human beings are much bigger and smarter than COVID. Yet, our inability to look farther than our own noses continues to enable COVID to thrive. Our weakness to the temptation of self-focus blinds us to the far-reaching implications of what we do.

There is an alternative to selfishness. It is the lifestyle that Christians are called to. Love One Another. Love Your Neighbor. It’s not always easy, but it’s the right thing to do. In the time of COVID, loving those around us means remembering that your actions affect more than just you. They affect people you don’t even know and will never meet. It’s not about politics or self-interest or economics or any of that. At the end of the day, it’s about living how God wants us to live. So when you are debating about whether you really need to wear that mask or whether it’s ok to host that big group event or whether you should even worry about this pandemic anymore, try to leave a little space for the Holy Spirit. That quiet whisper can point us in the right direction and save us from our selfish selves. When you’re worn out, exhausted, and struggling to hold up against the selfish temptation to skip the mask and go to the big party, leave some space for the Spirit there too. The Holy Spirit of God knows it’s not about us. This Spirit will help us Love One Another.

Come, Holy Spirit.

Fill the hearts of Your faithful,

and kindle in them the fire of Your love.

Living in the time of the pandemic is hard for all of us. We are all faced with seemingly small yet very important daily decisions. When we do, let’s do our best to remember those simple words that guide us toward how God wants us to love:

It’s not about you.

A Letter to My Children

My kids,

As I write this letter, we are living in a very interesting time. Even though you are 4 and 2, you have both learned how to say “coronavirus” and “COVID” and have heard your mommy and I use the word “pandemic.” You know that your preschool is closed, that Daddy has been working from home rather than going to the office, that we can’t go visit Grandma and Grandpa right now, and that we watch church at home instead of going into the building. You can tell us to stay 6 feet apart and quickly name and identify our governor and state health director, thanks partially to what you know about the news but mainly to the silly video we showed you in early April where someone parodied an old TV show theme with different words and animation to be about the pandemic in our state.

Your mommy and I don’t directly expose you to the news from the grown-up world, but you do a better job of understanding the important parts of the pandemic than many adults. You understand that your great-grandpa with heart problems could get really, really sick if he got COVID, and that that’s why he has to stay in his nursing home room by himself. You know to wash your hands when you come in from playing and to sing the ABCs while you do it. Daddy’s immune system is still recovering from treatments last year, which makes it easier for me to get sick with things like this coronavirus, and you understand that and are doing your part to try to help me stay healthy. Letting our groceries, mail, and everything else that comes into our house sit untouched for 3 days before we handle it makes perfect sense to you, just like not touching things other people might have touched when we make our occasional trips outside the house. Also, as much as you want to go back to school or play with your cousins, you seem to understand that we can’t do those things right now because we need take care of both our family and all of the other people around us. It might surprise you two, but many grown-ups are having a lot harder time understanding these things than you are.

I don’t know if a miracle will happen, but I like that you keep adding “Go away, coronavirus. Go to the South Pole!” to the end of your prayers at night. I also appreciate, my son, that you don’t want coronavirus to go to the North Pole so that we can keep Santa from getting it. Thanks for thinking of him, too, just like you think about our neighbors, friends, and family.

I’m really proud of both of you right now. We have been home for 2 months now, and you two seem to be thriving. Yes, you fight sometimes, but most of the time you both play really well together. I love to see your imaginations at work, even when I want to sit on the couch but the cushions are currently built into a fort/tent/cave/animal den/delivery truck/gate/space station. I appreciate how much you both like to help your mommy and me with the ordinary things we have to do all the time like cleaning or cooking or picking up your toys. I also appreciate how you help me to step out of the seriousness of the grown-up working world by convincing me to run around in the backyard with you on a sunny spring day.

My son, you are now 4, going on 5. I continue to be impressed by how much you like to look at books and how good you are getting at recognizing words and starting to read on your own. Your interest in most everything, from math to outer space to dinosaurs to science has no limits, except when you’d rather take a dance break or run around the house in your shoes “training for a marathon.” I love your vivid imagination and your limitless curiosity, and I hope you never lose them. When Mommy and I seem to be tired of answering your questions, there is a good chance that we’re actually most tired of things from the adult world asking us questions at the same time. We try out best to interact with you, your sister, and the other grown-ups who need us, but sometimes we feel overwhelmed and tired too. Don’t lose your curiosity because of this, and don’t stop asking those questions. We want you to keep understanding and learning, and we always will.

My daughter, you turned 2 in the time we have been staying home. We had your Elmo birthday party over a video call, and you clearly thought this was pretty normal, even if the all of us grown-ups seemed a little thrown-off. We have stayed home for two months now, which is 8% of your life after birth as I write this. I know this is normal for you, and I also know that when you grow up you probably won’t remember this time. That’s ok. All the pictures we have taken will help you understand, and the deep bond you are developing with your brother will last your whole life. In this time we’ve been home, you’ve changed from a young toddler to an older toddler. You’re learning to use the potty, and Mommy and I will continue to give you that chocolate chip you ask for when you go if you keep heading toward not needing diapers anymore. I love how well you speak and how much you like to play pretend by yourself or with your brother or with one of your parents. You are developing a style all your own, and I won’t stop you from wearing your favorite sparkly shoes around the house, even if you are wearing them over your footy pajamas. You are a confident and smart little girl with a vivid memory, and I love watching you grow (even though it means you are getting heavier and heavier when I pick you up).

Kids, I hope you both know how hard your mommy is working to take care of you and me right now. She has cut her work hours back so that she can play with both of you while I try to work in my home office for most of the day. She is continuing to think of fun things for the three of you to do together, and whether it is a science experiment, making artwork for friends, baking a special treat, or reading a book on the iPad, she puts a lot of effort into trying to keep things fun for both of you and her. Please try to be kind to her throughout the day. Also, remember that it is ok to do things Mommy wants to do during the day, like taking a walk in the neighborhood when the weather is nice. Your legs aren’t too tired for the walk (I just saw you running around a minute ago), and she’s good about bringing you a snack and a water bottle.

There are a lot of grown-ups talking about opening up restaurants and churches and offices right now. People like restaurant owners and our priest and office managers are having to make some hard choices. They want everyone to stay healthy, and they want to be open again too. I know you trust all of us grown-ups to do the right thing. I hope that all of the grown-ups can trust each other to do the right thing too.

Lots of grown-ups like to talk about life “getting back to normal.” When they say this, they usually mean life being like it was in January or February this year, with things like your preschool open and us going wherever we wanted whenever we wanted to. You both seem to understand, though, that “normal” from the past isn’t actually a real thing and that everything is always changing. Just like you both keep growing and moving to new car seats and classrooms, the grown-up world is always changing too. This COVID stuff is one of many things changing the grown-up world in a big way. Some things may not be as good after this pandemic, but many things will get better. Your mommy and I have been talking about how for a lot of grown-ups, this pandemic is kind of like having a new baby. Everything changes when you bring home the little baby from the hospital, and everybody has to adjust to a “new normal” instead of the “old normal.” The “new normal” with both of you has turned out to be great, and I wouldn’t want to go back to the “old normal” where we didn’t have all four of us.

I don’t know when your preschool will open up again or when you’ll be able to play with your friends or when we’ll go visit your grandparents next. I do know, though, that even when things seem silly like they do now that God loves us and is with us. He will take care of us, and we need to keep doing things to take care of other people too. That artwork you made for our neighbors and friends is really helpful. Talking on a video call to people we can’t go visit is too. Keep being kind to each other and to everybody else. Keep growing and learning and playing and exploring. You both are doing great, and I am very proud to be your dad.