Life vs. Liberty

During this pandemic we are experiencing the consequences of two American personality traits and beliefs: rugged individualism and its cousin personal freedom as the ultimate American value. Neither of those traits is dangerous per se, but in times of crisis when collaboration is essential they can be deadly. We really do reap what we sow as Galatians 6 teaches us: “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.” (vs. 7-10 NRSV) And it appears with some bad theology thrown in the mix we are inheriting the whirlwind (Hosea 8:7).

Some People who are refusing to follow simple guidelines about physical distancing and wearing masks are doing so out of a fear that the government is infringing on their personal “God-given” right to individual freedom. They are misinformed by media like Fox News spouting conspiracy theories and politically motivated false reporting. But the problem is that when someone else’s personal freedom means to congregate or engage in behavior that endangers my life it crosses the boundary into recklessness and is no longer valid.

I venture out about once a week to buy groceries, and when I did that today I was amazed to see only about 20% of people were complying with the Governor’s and the CDC’s recommendation to wear masks when out in public. This is a life and death matter, folks, and wearing a mask is not a huge problem if it means saving lives.

The other irresponsible groups that are defying the recommendation to not gather in groups larger than 10 are some large evangelical churches. Most churches I’m happy to say have complied in creative ways to present meaningful and safe worship experiences, but several mega churches have continued to hold large worship services, arguing for freedom of religion or even worse that they are protected by the blood of Jesus and won’t get sick. I hope they are right, but why endanger each other and everyone else they interact with when the God they claim to worship is present and available everywhere, not just in church buildings. The early church began with small house churches, and Jesus himself said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:20 NRSV)

Of course money is an issue for churches as it is for everyone, and Easter is one of the biggest events of the year for churches of any size. I get that, and I’m sure that’s true for Jews and Passover, and I can hardly wait to see what happens with Ramadan. But to quote Jesus again, “Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.” (Luke 17:33 NRSV) I believe that applies to churches and other organizations just as it does to individuals.

Finally, I would remind those ignoring what is for the good of all of us that when our nation’s founders wrote those great words in the Declaration of Independence that we “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” Life comes first, not liberty or happiness. Lives are at stake and as citizens and especially as Christians we are all called to sacrifice some of our own liberty and happiness for the primary goal of life itself.

Palm Sunday Pastoral Prayer

There are so many needs and so much we need to be grateful for that to try and list joys and concerns would take all day. So I’m just going to pause for a moment and ask you to pray wherever you are right now and share whatever you most want to say to God, knowing that God is always close enough to taste the salt of our tears, be they tears of joy or sorrow. Let’s pray. [PAUSE]

O Gracious and merciful God, this is not how we planned to celebrate Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. But we pray that this COVID interruption will disrupt the ruts we can get into with doing things the same old way. Traditions are important to give a sense of security, but when forced to do things in new ways we are reminded of how dependent we truly are on you as the source of the only real security there is.

Remind us that if the familiar rituals of this season are silenced the very stones Jesus walked on will cry out with the eternal truth of your kingdom. Because nothing in all creation can silence your power, O Lord; not fear or selfishness, not even this awful virus or any threat this world can throw at us. None of those can silence the cries of Hosanna for the one who has conquered death itself.

Today we remember a triumphant entry, but we know what lies ahead for our Lord this week. He has to walk the lonesome valley by himself. He will be betrayed and abandoned by the adoring crowds in his hour of greatest need. This Palm Sunday we feel like we’re walking that lonesome valley alone too, God. We are in hiding from an invisible enemy and fearful of friends and loved ones who might unwittingly inflict this curse upon us on those we love.

We’re tired, Lord, so very tired. It seems like this crisis has been going on forever, and yet we know we are far from the end. Give us strength to carry on when our arms are too weary. Don’t let us give up doing the things we all must do to save others. Grant us wisdom and courage for the living of this unusual Holy Week and the hellish weeks that may follow.

Strengthen us as you did Jesus so long ago to ride into Jerusalem knowing what lay ahead for him. Empower us with patience as you did the Hebrews for forty long years in the wilderness, as you did Jesus for 40 days of temptation by Satan, and as you did St. Paul through shipwreck and persecution to keep the faith, to fight the good fight and to finish this race. We know we can and we will persevere because all things are possible through you.

We need you like never before, O Lord, just as Jesus had need of that donkey so long ago. But even in our fear we also know that you have need of us. You need us to be the hands and feet of Christ for those in need; to pray, to check on our neighbors, to make phone calls to the lonely, to share what we can with those whose needs are more desperate than ours. We know you ask us to give all that we can, as Christ gave his all for us on that dark Friday.

We are so overwhelmed by the needs of those around us, those we hear about on the news, and we’re not even sure how to pray. And yet in our weakness we know your Holy Spirit intercedes for us in sighs too great for words.
Remind us daily to take time to breathe, [PAUSE]
to be still and know that you are God and we aren’t; to feel the life-giving breath of re-creation; the breath that is the living spirit of the risen Christ in which we live and move and have our being. For through him and with him we will be the church deployed in this Holy Week and in the weeks to come. Amen

Northwest UMC on-line worship, April 5, 2020

Spring Cleaning the Temple

One of the most dramatic stories in the Holy Week narrative is what we know as Jesus’ cleansing of the temple. Matthew’s Gospel describes it like this: “Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, “It is written,‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.” (Matthew 21:12-13)

I had forgotten until I looked it up that John’s Gospel puts this incident, not during Jesus’ last week on earth, but right at the beginning of his Gospel in John 2:14-16. In either place it is the most dramatic challenge Jesus makes to the religious authority and practice of his day. He often rhetorically calls into question the “old” ways of doing things in radical ways, but here he goes a little Rambo and drives the money changers physically out of the temple.

As one of my seminary professors cautioned me long ago we should not take this story as typical of Jesus’ behavior. In fact it is so powerful because it stands in stark contrast to almost all of what we know about Jesus’ personality and character. He teaches loving enemies and turning our cheeks, going the extra mile, and laying down one’s life for a friend. But here he’s had enough and takes bold action that certainly won him no friends among the temple authorities. But Jesus is more concerned with doing what’s right that winning popularity contests, and immediately after the above description Matthew tells us in the very next verse that Jesus reverts right back to his usual compassionate self: “The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them.”

But what struck me most in looking at this story today was a slight difference in the translation of one phrase. I grew up mostly hearing stories from the Synoptic Gospels where the phrase “Den of thieves” is used to describe the money changer temple. But John uses a different term. In John Jesus says, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

I love exploring the Scriptures because every time I do it I can be surprised by hearing something I’ve missed before or maybe just wasn’t ready for. But my Ah Hah moment today was how this story speaks to the pandemic crisis we’re in. We’ve all been struggling at one level or another with balancing our concerns for health and survival of this plague with the economic impact it is having on the marketplace. Some are feeling that pain much more than others, and my heart breaks for them. But I suspect even as he comforts the unemployed and those who have lost their livelihood, Jesus is really angry at those who have price-gauged and tried to profit off of the suffering of others.

I applaud the companies that have donated essential goods and services to defeat this invisible enemy, but woe to any who have done insider trading or hoarded supplies. Woe to any who have put economic decisions or political priorities ahead of life-saving, sacrificial decisions that will flatten the curve and save thousands of lives. Woe to those who refuse to stay at home and practice physical distancing to engage in their own unnecessary activities. Woe to churches that have continued to gather in large groups against all advice from medical experts.

The Easter message is that we will get through this plague, but the Jesus I know says we will get through it sooner and more of us will survive if we drive the money-changers out who worship the idol of the marketplace more than the God of love and compassion.

Little Boy Blue

Please permit me a very personal reflection on a very special day in my life 46 years ago today. On March 30, 1974 a very special person came into my life. He wasn’t very big but quite impatient, demanding to be let out of his solitary confinement ASAP. His mother and I barely had time to arrange for childcare for our daughter and get to our designated meeting place once we got his urgent call to meet him.

We didn’t know it at the time but he was in distress, having a hard time breathing; so we were very glad it was a Saturday and we didn’t have to deal with much downtown traffic. I saw him first and was scared because he was so short of oxygen his color was really bad. I feared he might not live and was terrified that if he did there might be brain damage. I don’t think I had time to process all those feelings before the doctors and nurses whisked him away behind one of those MEDICAL PERSONEL ONLY doors.

We were at the old St. Ann’s Hospital in downtown Columbus because it was then the only hospital in town that was allowing father’s in the delivery room. At that moment I wasn’t sure I wanted to be there. The OB doc had told us the umbilical cord was wrapped around our baby’s neck, and we needed to get him out fast. He urged my wife to push, and thank God for Lamaze classes she could and did. I wanted to believe the nurse who told me “He’ll be fine,” but even though this was my first ever experience of childbirth I knew babies weren’t supposed to be blue– unless they were Smurfs! I certainly wasn’t in any shape to crack wise about such a possibility at the moment. I was too worried about what to say to my wife. I think I was even too scared to pray. I’m sure it was one of those moments Paul had in mind when he said, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26)

Fortunately, in a few minutes, which seemed like an eternity, the nurse came back with our now pink bundle of baby, and handed him to his greatly relieved mother; and I was able to breathe again. I didn’t look in any mirror, but I may have been bluer that Matt had been when he made his hasty entrance into the world.

Even though I am a pretty good wordsmith I have no words that can adequately describe how proud of the man, father, husband and genuinely good human being Matt has become. I have been blessed way more in life than I deserve, but my greatest blessings of any kind are a distant second to how grateful I am that both of my kids have grown into loving, caring, kind and responsible human beings.

Matt’s older sister’s birth is also an interesting story, but I’ll save it for her birthday in July. For now, Happy Birthday, Matt. Thanks to our pandemic we can’t eat cake and celebrate as usual, but even good, old COVID-19 can’t stop the goodness you have brought into the world.

Pastoral prayer for March 29, 2002

Scripture today was from John 11, the raising of Lazarus from the tomb.

Merciful God, Sometimes we feel like Mary at her brother’s tomb.   We are grieving for so many things that are missing in our lives now – things we have just taken for granted till somebody turned our world upside down.  We’re trying to stay positive, Lord, but sometimes we feel like “if you had been her none of this mess would have happened.” We feel like the psalmist who cried to you out of the depths of despair asking, “How long, O Lord, how long?”

Like Lazarus’ tomb this crisis really stinks.  We believe, God, we really do, but please help our unbelief!  This season of Lent has been like none we can remember.  We are only 3 weeks from Easter, but it seems so very far away.  Remind us, O holy one, that every Sunday is a day we celebrate resurrection because it was on a Sunday that our Lord and Savior escaped forever from the bonds of death.

We see an Easter preview when we watch Lazarus emerge from the tomb.  Out of a season of weeping come tears of joy, but before we can experience the joy of resurrection we have to be unbound and set free.  And so we pray today, O God of Glory and Grace, to be set free from any and all things that have us bound up – cut us free from guilt and sin, from doubt and fear, from fatigue and loneliness.  Unwrap our troubled souls from the chains of regret and grief.  

On this first day of the week send your Holy Spirit among us all, even as we are physically apart from each other but united by the ties that bind us forever to each other, to the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us, and most of all to our Lord and Savior who calls us to “come out;” to come out from the darkness into the light of resurrection faith. 

Empower us to serve you in new and creative ways for the needs of this time and place. Roll away the stones of our excuses and set us free as agents of your unstoppable grace and mercy, for we truly believe in the one you sent into the world to redeem all of creation. Christ has taught us that those who mourn are blessed for we will be comforted; and so we trust that you will turn our mourning into a morning of Resurrection and new life. Forgive us when we falter. Remind us that we all fall short of your glory, but that failure and even death no longer have power over us because we are one with the risen and living Christ, and in his name we pray. Amen

Our Jericho

I have a small tattoo on my wrist to remind me of a lesson I learned 15 years ago in a leadership development workshop presented by a California company, Klemmer and Associates. The tattoo is of Klemmer’s logo, and it comes from an exercise they do in one of their earliest workshops. The Red/Black game, like most of Klermmer’s training is very experiential. I won’t share the details of the Red/Black exercise because words can’t do it justice. You have to experience it to feel its power. What I will say is that prior to red/black experience I was ready to walk out of the whole workshop because of my own insecurities, but that game turned me around and convinced me to stick with the program, and I’m glad I did.

The Klemmer training taught me a lot about myself and a boatload of things about teamwork and collaboration, and playing the game of life as a win-win adventure, not a competition. On one of the weekend in California we did an outdoor team-building experience in a redwood forest. The location itself was awe-inspiring, but the final task/challenge we were given seemed absolutely impossible.

As I’ve been reflecting on this COVID-19 crisis we’re going through I’ve certainly had days when it too feels overwhelming, like we will never get through this. How will we ever come up with enough ventilators, masks, tests, health care workers, ICU beds, and PPE’s, an acronym I’d guess few of us knew a week ago, to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of critically ill people. We simply don’t currently have anything like the capacity we will need to meet the life and death needs that are coming. And when far too many people refuse to take the threat seriously it seems even more daunting. Some days I feel like we’re all on Apollo 13 and there aren’t nearly enough MacGyver’s around to figure out how to save us.

That’s the same feeling I had that day in the redwood forest when our group of 30-40 was taken over to a very large wooden wall that was probably 12 or 14 feet tall, and we were told to figure out a way to get everyone over that wall. I thought and may have even said out loud, “You’ve got to be kidding! There’s no way this group of all ages and all levels of physical fitness, or lack thereof, is ever going to get up and over that wall!” We might try marching around it for a week like Joshua’s people did at Jericho, or being in California we could hope for an earthquake to make the wall come tumbling down; but there was no way in the world we were all going over that wall. There wasn’t even a rope on it to scale it, as if most of us would have had the strength to do that!

One of the things that amazes me about the Jericho story in Joshua 6 is how obedient the priests and soldiers were when Joshua told them his plan for conquering this fortified and seemingly impregnable city. No one raises any doubts or questions about why just marching around the city for 7 days and shouting when the trumpet blew on day 7 would work! Surely there must have been some realists in the crowd who thought, “O, come on Joshua, you’ve got to be kidding!” (By the way, if you read Joshua 6, stop when the wall falls down. The rest of that story is brutal and gory and really bad theology.)

But that day in the redwoods was our second training weekend, and we had already done several others less daunting tasks that I didn’t think we could pull off either. So we began to strategize. There was a platform near the top on the back side of the wall; so we knew that if we could get a few people up there they could help pull others up. Being one of the runts in the group it was pretty easy for the stronger folks to boost me up so I could go over. Remember this was 15 years ago; so I was in much better shape than I am today. They did the same thing with some of the other lighter members of the group, and those of us on top were able to work together to assist others. And as the collective strength of the group on top grew we were able to help bigger and heavier people up.

Slowly but surely, one person at a time was lifted, pushed, and pulled over. The stronger guys built human pyramids for people to climb, but as the group on the ground grew smaller the options became more limited. Frankly I don’t remember all the tricks employed. As the platform on top got full those of us who arrived first were allowed to come down and watch from the ground.

I do remember that one concession made to safety was that we were given a vest made out of strong netting that could be used by the last person on the ground so those above would have something relatively safe to grab hold of and hoist him up. And thanks to the stronger members of our motley crew, the obstacle that looked impossible was conquered.

COVID-19 is a humongous obstacle facing the world today. I don’t know what creative solutions will be found to overcome this challenge, but this I do know, we cannot and will not succeed in this battle without every one of us doing whatever we can for the team, i.e. the human race to survive and conquer. That means huge sacrifice and risks for exhausted medical personnel, researchers and public health officials. It means creative use of technology for people to have their social and spiritual needs met. It means unemployed folks going to work in new and different fields where critical jobs much be done, things we used to think of as menial work like stocking grocery shelves, sanitizing public spaces, and delivering life necessities to those who are in need.

But for many of us it means doing the easiest and simplest thing ever asked of us – to just stay home and not take any risks of getting or spreading this virus. There are no excuses – we can all do this; and the longer some people refuse to make that small sacrifice the longer we are going to be in this crisis and the more people are going to die. Teamwork is not doing what is good for me and my glory or comfort. It means each of us doing what is needed for the entire team to succeed.

Maybe that’s the real miracle at Jericho – everyone did what they were told they needed to do, and when they did the wall came tumbling down!

Fight the Good Fight

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” II Timothy 4:7

Listening to Ohio Governor Mike DeWine’s daily update on the COVID-19 war yesterday reminded me of one of my all-time go-to quotes from my favorite authors. The passion and effectiveness of the Governor’s plea to every Ohioan to do their part in this battle moved me. I have been very grateful for his leadership and that of Dr. Amy Acton, our Director of Public Health during this whole crisis.

But yesterday I was impressed by the Governor’s rhetorical style. He did what I always urged my preaching class students to do, i.e. use Aristotle’s holistic appeal to reason, emotion and will. The Governor gave us something to think about, something to feel and then a call to action. To paraphrase, he said that every night when he goes to bed he asks himself if he has done everything he could to help lessen the deadly impact of this pandemic, and then he urged every one of us to ask ourselves the same question every night.

Helplessness in the face of this crisis is a common feeling for all of us. We can easily focus too much on all the things we can’t do right now. But the Governor reminded us we are not helpless. There is one vital thing we can all do that will help flatten the now familiar curve and save lives. And that thing is to simply stay home and do absolutely nothing that will endanger ourselves or the lives of others.

So here’s the quote from Nikos Kazantzakis:

“My prayer is not the whimpering of a beggar nor a confession of love. Nor is it the trivial reckoning of a small tradesman: Give me and I shall give you.
My prayer is the report of a soldier to his general: This is what I did today, this is how I fought to save the entire battle in my own sector, these are the obstacles I found, this is how I plan to fight tomorrow.” (“Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises”)

We will survive this pandemic if we all do our part. How do you plan to fight it today?

Be safe and well.

Sunday, March 22, 2020