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

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