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

Pastoral Prayer, March 22, 2020

We lift up all who are ill in body, mind or spirit here in our country and around the world.

Lord, hear our prayer.

We pray for all who are experiencing food or economic insecurity.

Lord, hear our prayer.

We lift up health care workers and caregivers who are risking their own well-being to care for others.

Lord, hear our prayer.

We pray for all government, church, and public health officials at every level that you will guide them in making wise and difficult decisions.

Lord, hear our prayer.

We ask that you hold teachers and parents and children and the elderly, any who are most vulnerable, in your loving arms.

Lord, hear our prayer.

We lift up the homeless and those working to house and feed them, the grocery store employees, the truck drivers, farmers and everyone in the food chain we all depend on.

Lord, hear our prayer.

And we lift up others now that we have not specifically named who are in need of your love.

Lord, hear our prayer.

O merciful creator God, who can take a formless void of darkness and speak light into existence, we give you thanks for light that enables us to see – to see hope and faith where others see only fear and despair. As people who follow Jesus Christ we live and worship not as cockeyed optimists who live in denial, but as those who dedicate our lives to be reflectors of the Light of the World into the darkest corners of our common lives. And we are going through one of the dark, dark seasons, O God.

We are like astronauts on the back side of the moon, isolated and out of communication with each other. But like those space pioneers we also know that there will be a morning after the darkness. Give us eyes of faith, Lord, to see the flower in the bulb as crocus are croaking and daffodils are poking their heads up out of the cold earth. Give us eyes to see the promise of spring even on chilly March days.

We need spiritual cataract surgery, O great physician. Peel the clouds of doubt from our eyes and install new lenses that see all the beauty and glory of creation. Remove the fear from our eyes so we can see as never before how much we need each other. Give us new lenses of creativity inspired by the necessity of this crisis, new lenses of compassion and gratitude, and new lenses of courage for the living of these days.

Through eyes of faith, O God of history, give us new appreciation for parents and grandparents who lived through the Great Depression and World War II. Forgive us when we forget that we are not the first generation to suffer and sacrifice for the greater good of your creation. When we look in the mirror help us see beyond our own image, beyond our own needs and fears. Shine your light so we can see the big picture. Shine the light so we can see your Holy Spirit carrying us now as you stood with Daniel in the lion’s den, with little David facing Goliath, with Ruth as she cared for Naomi, and with Mary and Martha as they mourned for Lazarus.

You are the light in the darkness, O God, who gives us faith to carry on. We praise you that even this crisis can be a lens that focuses our vision on our common purpose. Be the light again that led the Hebrews by night through the wilderness, the light that struck Saul blind on the road to Damascus so he could finally see your purpose and salvation for his life. Like Saul we have sometimes been blind to your presence, but in this moment we see clearly because we know you hold the future. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ, the Eternal Light of the World. Amen

Northwest UMC, On-line worship, March 22, 2020

Waiting and Renewing

Back in the 1980’s when I was going through one of several mid-life crises I found great stress relief in running. My routine often included running 3 or 4 miles a day, and I participated in road races several times a year. In those days 5 mile races were the most common, and I had run several of those in or just under an 8 minute per mile pace. That was usually around the 50th percentile for my age group, and I was pleased with that given my below average height. Guys with long legs took many fewer steps per mile than I did, at least that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

But I remember very well the first 5K race I ran. It was a small, local race in my neighborhood; so I knew the race course well. It was “only” 3.1 miles after all, and with fewer participants I for some reason figured I could do better than my middle of the pack finishes in longer races. So I took off with the faster runners at a much faster pace than usual. The good new—I ran the first mile in 6 minutes, 30 seconds, the fastest mile I had ever run in my life. The bad news—I had burned up way too much energy and had to walk part of the next mile which was, of course, up hill. It was a classic tortoise and hare situation.

In the end my average time per mile for that 5K was about the same 8 minute pace I always ran. So what’s that ancient history got to do with anything? Well, this pandemic is not a sprint. We’re in this for the long haul like it or not. And that reality is setting in as it did for me when I realized I had shot my wad in the first mile of that 5K. We need to pace ourselves and practice good self-care during this enforced sabbatical from our normal lives.

For too many of us “normal” life is a rat race, and while this new reality is awkward and weird it can provide an opportunity to hit the pause button and reflect on other aspects of life that we too often run past or away from. It’s not easy, and I’m having a hard time not feeling trapped by this situation. We’re over a week into this marathon and the reality that we’ve got many miles to go is hitting some of us like marathon runners hitting “the wall.”

Isaiah 40 says, “Those who wait for the Lord will renew their strength.” But it doesn’t say how long we have to wait. Most of us are busy active people. Even my retired friends all comment about how busy they are and don’t know how they had time to work. We stay busy having lunch with friends, running errands, going to doctor appointments, socializing and enjoying recreational or volunteer activities. All of that has come to screeching halt, and we’re finding doing nothing is exhausting.

So we are learning how to wait, and it’s a choice how we wait. Are we just waiting for this pandemic to be over or are we waiting in a way that renews our strength? For me it’s all too easy to get frustrated with this waiting game. I’m in that older generation. I know I don’t have that many “good” years left in my life and I feel cheated that I’m being robbed of things I want to do. March Madness and the Masters golf tournament are my favorite time of the year. Gone. Lent and Easter as I’ve always known them, Caput! Trips we want to take, on hold. Spending time with my grandkids, Nada!

So what to do with those frustrations? I had a long talk with God this morning and got some of them off my chest. Don’t be afraid to let God have it when you get to the end of your rope. Much better than taking it out on your spouse or kids. God can handle it and understands. After all our Bible has an entire book devoted to complaints about terrible circumstances. It’s called “Lamentations.”

It’s ok to complain, but don’t stay there. Then we move on to figure out how to wait creatively. It’s true that necessity is the mother of invention. We’re learning how to live in a different reality in so many ways. We’re staying connected on line and practicing physical distancing. Teachers and parents are re-inventing how to do education. Churches are figuring out ways to be the church in new and marvelous ways.

We need time to rest and pace ourselves for the long haul, but waiting does not mean hibernating till this blows over. We are called as people of faith to keep caring for the most vulnerable among us; to stay in contact with those who are most isolated and with each other for moral support. Waiting means time to reflect on what we’ve lost in this situation, but also to be grateful for what we’ve gained and what we’re learning.

The “normal” rat race we were living a month ago wasn’t all perfect. What a tragedy it would be if we when this is all over we just go back to living the way we were. Take time to observe what’s better about our new normal. Journal and make notes about how you want to be on the other side of COVID-19. I know that’s not easy when you’re just trying to figure out how to survive this crisis. But remember, we have more time now – time we would have spent commuting to work, time we would have spent this weekend watching hours and hours of basketball and watching our brackets get busted.

How will you use this gift of waiting time? Use it wisely to take care of yourself physically, mentally and spiritually, and remember “those who wait for the Lord will renew their strength.” With God’s help we will get through this and come out better and stronger. Amen

Pastoral Prayer on John 4

O Gracious God, it’s hard to know where to start today. It’s a day of National Prayer inspired by a pandemic. But for people of faith every day is a day of prayer. Please hear the deep desires of our souls that defy expression in mortal language.

We’re thirsty, Lord, but not for the water we can store up in our pantries and garages. We’re thirsty for living water, for blessed assurance that we don’t have to keep social distance from your eternal spirit. Remind us again of the wilderness time of our ancestors who were also thirsty, and you provided water and manna to sustain the–one day at a time. Like us they couldn’t see where they were going. They had no GPS that would give them an ETA. They didn’t know how long their wilderness time would last, and neither do we.

The Hebrew pilgrims were scared and wanted to go back to the familiar life they knew in Egypt, even if that meant being enslaved again. We’d like to go back too, God, to the “normal” routines we had just a week ago. We don’t always like our jobs or our schools, but they look really good to us now that we have to suspend them.

It’s no use hiding our fears and feelings from you, Lord. We know what the Samaritan woman at the well learned, that you know everything about us. You know some of us are mourning the loss of March Madness. Remind us of others who mourn the loss of loved ones. Some of us are already feeling trapped at home and getting cabin fever. But we know there are others who have no home to go to. We know health care workers would love to spend time with their families, and we thank you for all of those who are sacrificing their own safety on the front lines of this global struggle with a deadly invisible foe.

Calm our fearful hearts, Holy One. Help us be scared without being scary in the ways we treat others. Save us from playing the blame game so we can focus on accepting and living faithfully in the uncomfortable present. Most of us know little about the struggle for existence that people face every day in other places in our world. Forgive us our self-preoccupation. Guide us by the power of your Holy Spirit through this wilderness so we can live out of the abundance of your Living Water instead of a scarcity mentality fueled by fear.

Comfort us and everyone who is suffering just now. We pray for those who are most vulnerable to COVID-19, especially for those in nursing homes and their caregivers. We pray for young people whose dreams have been shattered by cancellations of tournaments, performances and educational opportunities. Save us from dispensing pious platitudes about “learning life lessons” and show us how to just offer empathy and love instead.

Guide our government leaders on every level. Inspire the researchers desperately searching for ways to unlock the mystery of this virus. Help us all learn from this time in the wilderness so that when we emerge on the other side, whenever that is, we may be a stronger and better people, not just in America but in unity with our sisters and brothers around the world. For this virus has shown us how interdependent we really are on this little planet.

You have also taught us again the true danger of storing up our treasures on earth. Most of us have less net worth today than we did a week ago, by the world’s standards. Please don’t let our fear about that loss reduce our compassion for those who had no worldly net worth to start with. As our financial standard of living declines please let our standard of loving increase faster than this virus can spread.

Finally, O well of eternal wisdom; help us to be open to the heavenly surprises around us even in dark days. The water we are thirsting for may come from a total stranger like a woman at a well, even one we consider an enemy. May we, like that woman, go and share the good news of the Gospel with others in new and creative ways. We know fear is contagious, Lord. Remind us again that love and hope are even more so. Quench our thirst; give us living water that we may find ways even now to start an epidemic of compassion and love. Amen

We are Butt Dust

“For God knows we are but dust and that our days are few and brief.” (Psalm 103:14) OK, those words are not much comfort in pandemic panic time, I know. But here’s the thing, it’s Lent, and words like those are traditionally used on Ash Wednesday to remind us of our mortality. God also knows, as do I as a member of the at-risk elderly crowd, that we don’t need any more reminders of our mortality right now.

So why quote those words today of all days? Glad you asked. It’s because of a story I read recently that made me chuckle, and I am a firm believer that we’ve got to have some humor in the midst of this darn crisis or we’ll all go off the deep end. It seems that a little girl was in church when she heard the pastor quote those words above, “we are but dust…” The girl immediately turned to her mother and asked, “Mommy, what’s butt dust?”

The story doesn’t tell us how the mother responded, and I’d love to know. That’s one my kids or grandkids have not asked me. But it does remind me of another similar story I heard many years ago. Billy’s Sunday school class had a lesson on the creation story in Genesis one day, and that afternoon Billy tapped his dad on the shoulder while he was watching some sports on TV (remember those days?). When he got to a time out on TV Dad finally turned his attention to his son who said he had a question. Billy said, “Today in Sunday School we learned that God made Adam from dust.” “Yes,” the father said, “That’s right. But what’s your question, Billy?” “Well, our teacher also said our bodies return to dust after we die.” The father nodded getting a little nervous about where this conversation was headed. He was considering referring Billy to his mother for this theological question when Billy finished. “Well,” Billy said, “I just looked under my bed, and there’s someone either coming or going under there!”

Certainly COVID-19 is no laughing matter. I applaud the courageous job our Governor and public health officials are doing of taking what may seem like drastic measures to avert a catastrophe. None of us like having our lives put on pause with no promise of how long that hiatus from our “normal” lives may be. And the real effects of this crisis haven’t even hit yet. Once kids are home from school 24/7 and people living from paycheck to paycheck start facing hard choices on what they and their families have to do without things are going to get a lot harder very quickly. Tempers are going to get shorter; escapes from reality through entertainment or simple solitude are going to be among the first casualties. Social problems like homelessness, mental health resources, domestic abuse, and universal access to health care are going to be magnified every time the number of confirmed cases and deaths goes up.

The necessity of choosing to look for positives instead of being overwhelmed by the scary truth that we are all butt dust is the challenge facing each one of us. And it is a choice. We can choose to watch the depressing news all day or just get summaries of what we need to know a few times a day. It’s a choice to be irritated by the inconvenience of antsy children underfoot while we are trying to work from home or being grateful for a flexible schedule and more quality time with our families. I can whine and complain about how much I miss March Madness or I can choose to be thankful for time to catch up on things around the house and to get reacquainted with my wife.

Life is nothing but a series of choices. Life happens, and it isn’t always what we’ve planned or hoped it would be. It’s much too easy to feel like we are victims to what life throws at us. I go there all the time, and trust me it’s not a fun place for me or anyone around me. Life sucks right now for everyone, but much more for health care workers, janitors, grocery store clerks and stockers, and residents and staff of homes for the elderly. The best cure for having a pity party is to think about the fact that we are all butt dust – meaning we are all in this boat together. None of chose to be here, but being frustrated, angry or blaming someone else for the crisis is simply a waste of precious energy.

I started a gratitude practice several weeks ago before any of us knew Corona was something other than a beer. I think God knew I was going to need that practice to prepare me for this pandemic. As I’ve written here earlier, I’ve been surprised (and grateful) that the simple practice of being grateful for at least three things each day for 21 days would rewire my old brain and form a habit of being more grateful in general. Yes, I frequently slip up and revert to my old glass half empty personality, but not as much. Yes, these last few days I’ve had to be more intentional about actually looking for things to be grateful for.

For example, yesterday I was doing what used to be a simple task. We had some plumbing done this week, and I was struggling to put some shelves back together under my bathroom sink. Because I have a bad back and arthritis in my fingers getting under the sink and screwing the shelves together was, to say the least, not going well. After a couple of expletives my wife offered to help, which I of course ignored because my little male ego was threatened by admitting that I failed. But after several more futile attempts (and a few choice words) I finally gave up and asked for her help. It wasn’t easy, but I finally was grateful that she was able to do what I couldn’t instead of being angry that I couldn’t. Yes, it would have been much better for both of us if I could have been humble enough to ask for help much sooner; but that doesn’t mean I can’t even today be grateful that I’m not alone to deal with life’s challenges.

And none of us is alone in this crisis. We just have to get more creative, humble and grateful about how we find new ways to be in community while keeping a safe distance from each other. Let’s be grateful for the technology that helps us stay in fellowship with each other while remembering that some of the most vulnerable do not have that technology to use. More than ever we need to give thanks that we are indeed our sisters and brothers keepers. That’s a gift, not a burden; and every act of compassion we engage in will bless us even more than those we serve.