Advent: He’s Coming!

It’s Advent, that means He’s coming soon!

Will he come down the chimney?

No, that’s Santa.

Will he come with flying reindeer?

No, that’s Santa too.

Will he bring me toys?

No, that’s Santa, but He’ll bring much better gifts that our broken world needs so much right now: Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love!

His name is Emanuel, which means “God With Us,” no matter what. And no virus or pandemic, no disaster, not even our sin will ever keep Him from holding us and loving us.

He’s Coming, and Advent is the time to prepare our hearts to celebrate His holy presence with us, even on the darkest days of the year.

Righteous Indignation

“Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed.” (Exodus 3:1-2)

“One day, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and looked on their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his people. He looked this way and that, and seeing no one, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.” (Exodus 2:11-12)

Most preachers would be ecstatic to know that a sermon they preached 30 years ago was still remembered. Most of us would feel great if anyone remembered what we said from the pulpit 30 minutes ago. The preacher I have in mind was no ordinary preacher. The Rev James Forbes was senior pastor of Riverside Church in New York City from 1989 until he retired in 2009. He also served at Union Theological Seminary where he was named the first Harry Emerson Fosdick Adjunct Professor of Preaching. His installment at Riverside made him the first African American senior minister of one of the largest multicultural and interdenominational congregations in the United States.

Forbes was the featured preacher at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio’s Schooler Institute on Preaching in the early 1990’s shortly after I began teaching at MTSO as an Adjunct Professor of Homiletics, and I must say he remains one of the most powerful and engaging preachers I have ever heard. It was Forbe’s sermon at that Schooler Institute that I still remember 30 years later.

The sermon was based on the Exodus story, and Forbes was masterful at weaving contemporary situations throughout and illuminate them  with the biblical narrative. One of the most memorable points Forbes made came to my mind today as I began another day today struggling with my anger at what is being done to our democracy by an unstable, vengeful and pitiful American president.

Forbes used the two texts quoted above from Exodus to make the following point. He reminded us that after Moses killed an Egyptian in a fit of anger for abusing one of the Hebrew slaves he fled to the land of Midian to avoid any repercussions from Pharoah. While in Midian Moses stood up for the daughters of the priest of Midian, Ruel, when they came to water their father’s flocks and other shepherds tried to drive them away. That act of kindness and justice ingratiated Moses into a friendship with Ruel and eventually to Moses’ marriage to one of Ruel’s daughters, Zipporah.

Forbe’s interpreted Moses’ time in Midian as a time of spiritual growth for Moses because “he wasn’t ready” for what God had in store for him. And it’s there in the land of Midian while simply doing his day job tending Ruel’s sheep that Moses encounters a burning bush. After all the wild fires we’ve seen recently all over the world there’s nothing very remarkable about a single burning bush. But notice two special things about this bush. It is near Mt. Horeb, also known as Mt. Sinai, and the text calls it “the mountain of God,” foreshadowing Moses receiving the 10 Commandments from God on that same mountain.

But the other extraordinary thing about this bush is that “it was burning, and yet it was not consumed.” That familiar Sunday School story is usually interpreted rather literally as the place that Moses receives his call from God to go liberate God’s people from slavery.

But Forbes found a more profound symbolism in that story and applied it as a metaphor for Moses’ (and our) readiness to stand up to injustice.

When Moses killed the Egyptian his anger overcame him, but, said Forbes, to be ready for God’s service Moses and all of us need to be like that burning bush – angry about injustices inflicted on the most vulnerable of our sisters and brothers– angry but not consumed by our anger.  Instead spiritually mature Christians learn to channel our righteous indignation into positive actions for justice.

I do not presume to claim such spiritual maturity for myself.  Far too often I let my anger at minor frustrations or societal injustices consume me instead of approaching each of them as an opportunity to face a  problem and look for creative and productive solutions to the situation.  

Gracious God, there is so much hate and division in our world, so much deceit and injustice it is so tempting to lash out at those we disagree with or at unfair restrictions imposed upon our lives by an invisible but deadly virus.  We do not want to stop being agents of justice who strive to right wrongs, but bless us with your spirit that enables us to angry without being consumed by our emotions.  Help us “speak the truth in love” to friend and foe alike that we can be peacemakers so needed in our world today.  Amen

Weeping Jesus

Almost anyone who grew up in Sunday School or is familiar with the Bible knows what the shortest verse in the Bible is.  John 11:35 says, “Jesus wept.”  In that instance Jesus was mourning the death of his friend Lazarus. In that case Jesus weeps because his friend Lazarus has died.  This was a very personal kind of grief that most of us have also experienced.  Death is a part of the human condition, and the incarnate Jesus knew all the heights and depths of humankind’s emotions. 

 Less familiar are the other two times in the Gospels that we are told Jesus cried.  In both of those cases he is again grieving but on a macro scale for the city of Jerusalem and the whole Jewish people.  Luke 13:34: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.”

And then on his final trip to Jerusalem and the cross Jesus weeps again. And no, Jesus is not weeping over his own coming passion and death.  He weeps not for himself but again for the city of Jerusalem and the entire Jewish community.  Luke tells us, “As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side.  They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”  (Luke 19:41-44)

The nation of Israel has had multiple chances not only from the Messiah but in generation after generation of prophets who have proclaimed the word of God to them.  But they have been tone deaf and in extreme situations have “stoned and killed the prophets.”  

I call those Scriptures to mind because I believe that Jesus is weeping again today over the United States.  Like the Jews 2000 years ago way too many of us have not had ears to hear the Gospel of unconditional love that Jesus lived and died for.  I can hear Jesus saying today, “Oh, America if only you had listened.”

We have refused to accept a boat load of scientific evidence about climate change for decades.  This dangerous denial and refusal echoes the way the church treated Galileo and Copernicus 500 years ago.  But our current situation is much more urgent and dangerous.  Look at the recent evidence: so many hurricanes in 2020 that we have run through our alphabet naming them and now are well into the Greek alphabet.  Devastating wildfires all over the western part of our country are still burning today because of years of drought due to climate change.  The scientific community has been warning us for years that we are running out of time to stop poisoning Mother Earth.  The rest of the world is taking this crisis much more seriously than we Americans.  We are much too addicted to fossil fuel consumption because of the corporate greed of big oil companies.  Our leadership still unbelievably calls the climate crisis a hoax because once more profits and stock dividends trump concern for the future of our children and grandchildren.  And Jesus weeps.

Scientists and public health professionals have warned us for generations about the possibility of a global pandemic.  Movie producers have frightened us with pandemic thrillers, but we have not been scared enough to admit and listen to the experts when we are actually living that nightmare.  Numbers of COVID cases all over the country and world are increasing daily at alarming rates exactly like the scientists told us they would.  Other pandemics like the Spanish Flu 100 years ago followed the same trajectory.  Public health officials warned us that the fall flu season would be deadly if we all didn’t do our part to control the virus.  Those warnings fell on far too many deaf ears plugged up with greed for political power and economic rewards superseding our value for human life.  We ignore the experts and reopen businesses, bars, and bistros much sooner than is wise.  The virus spreads like wildfire, and Jesus weeps.

When I reread the first Scripture about the death of Lazarus I noticed something I hadn’t before.  The Gospels are carefully organized to show truth with a capital T.  The stories in the Gospels are not randomly placed but are like pieces of a jig saw puzzle with each one making the total picture more complete and vivid.  So immediately after the dramatic raising of Lazarus from the dead the very next thing John tells us is that Jesus went immediately into Jerusalem and drove the money changers out of the temple.  

Why is that significant?  It’s John’s way of telling us that Jesus’ purpose here on earth was not just to work miracles and minister to individuals.  The complete Gospel message tells us that Jesus’ redemptive work then and now also includes confronting the systemic injustices found in our earthly institutions.  That part of Jesus’ ministry just like Amos, Micah, Isaiah and all the other prophets remains unfulfilled today.  Racism, endless wars, increasing injustice in the way economic power and wealth are distributed, and turning our fearful and angry communities into armed camps, just to mention a few, remain further from any workable solution than ever.  And Jesus weeps.  

I woke up this morning with the lyrics to one of the songs from the musical “Godspell” running through my head:  (I apologize for the weird formatting, but I gave up fighting with WordPress after multiple attempts. I hate the changes WordPress has made in its site.)

“When wilt thou save the people?

O God of mercy when?

The people, Lord, the people,

Not thrones and crowns, but men!

God save the people, for thine they are,

Thy children as thy angels fair.

God save the people from despair.”

Dear God, when will you save us from this interminable year of 2020?  When O God, when?  And even as I uttered that prayer I knew it was the wrong question to ask, because we are a people of free will.  God does not micromanage our lives but gives us freedom to make our own choices — and to take the consequences.  You might say that God gives us enough rope to hang ourselves, and that noose is now tightening around our necks.  God has given us the scientific knowledge to defeat this pandemic.  What we are asked to do is not difficult.  Yes it’s hard to give up all the activities we used to enjoy.  I miss seeing my friends and family.  I’m almost 74 years old and I hate having a year or more of the time I have left on this earth taken from me by an invisible enemy.  Yes, it’s a nuisance to wear a mask and social distance, but those are not difficult things to do in order to save the lives of my neighbors; and I will continue to do them no matter how many fools around me refuse to do so.  I’m sure Jesus also weeps for those who are too paranoid and taken in by conspiracy theories to do the right thing.

I too weep for our nation.  These are the darkest days in my lifetime, and yet to carry on honestly facing the realities of our lives in 2020 I must dig deep and humbly ask God to empower and guide my life.  And in those depths I hear words of faith like these from Psalm 30:  

“Weeping may linger for the night,     But joy comes with the morning.”

Or, as Maureen McGovern sang for the movie “The Poseidon Adventure” about a world literally turned upside down, as in a capsized ship:

“There’s got to be a morning after If we can hold on through the night 

We have a chance to find the sunshine, Let’s keep on looking for the light.”

No matter how deep the darkness or how long the night lasts, joy will eventually come in God’s dawning of a bright new day

Servanthood

Jesus said, “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” That familiar quote comes at the end of a discussion between Jesus and two of his closest disciples. James and John have asked a big favor of Jesus, they want their faces carved on Mt. Rushmore. Oh, no, that was someone else who is even more foolish and full of himself.

James and John actually asked to sit at Jesus’ right and left when he comes in his glory. And Jesus, ever the patient teacher told them “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” (Mark 10:38)

This story got me to wondering what Jesus meant when he tells us to become servants. What does it mean for us today to be a servant? In this election year when we will choose those who we want to be our public servants that’s a very important question. Those who run for public office do it for a multitude of reasons, but for many of them servanthood is not high on the list of their motivations. They may want power to shape government policy in ways that favor them or their friends. They may want the perks of government service like a cushy lifetime pension. They may want the kind of glory and fame that James and John thought they were worthy of even though they had no idea, as Jesus points out, what they were asking.

Jesus had rejected the temptations of earthy power and glory immediately after he was baptized and began his public ministry. (Matthew 4, Mark 1, and Luke 4). Satan teases Jesus and dares him to turn stones into bread, to throw himself off the temple to prove God will protect him, and then with power and glory over everything he can see from the mountain top. Of course those things are not Satan’s to give, just as Jesus tells his disciples that the kind of glory they are seeking is not his to give.

Jesus instead relies on his God-granted power to say a firm and definite “no” to worldly temptations of narcissistic grandeur and even to the basic comforts of home and family. In his novel “The Last Temptation of Christ” Nikos Kazantzakis tries to show that point, but it often gets lost in our obsession with sex. The movie version of that novel drew loud protests because part of the temptation for Jesus was to forgo the suffering the way of the cross leads to and to just settle down as a family man with Mary Magdalene.

My point is that service or servant leadership is the road less traveled because it requires sacrifice. Running for public office in our hyper partisan society means giving up all hope for any personal privacy and having every part of one’s entire life put under a microscope. It can lead to physical danger for the servant and his or her family. Dr. Amy Acton, former Director of Public Health in Ohio, served our state brilliantly in the first few months of this pandemic in a reassuring but scientific way, but she paid a price for her firm insistence on sound medical practices. Those who were primarily concerned about the economy and those who refused to accept her advice drove her from office. She even endured protestors armed with assault weapons outside her home.

Candidates for public service in the age of social media (which is often anti-social) are especially vulnerable to attacks that are spread by people on every side of the political spectrum without bothering to fact check. Lies and insults can go viral in minutes. For example, just 24 hours after she was introduced as the Democratic Vice Presidential candidate vicious, racist and sexist lies about Kamala Harris’ citizenship began circulating on the internet and in the White House briefing room. The same birther B.S. used against Barrack Obama has reared its ugly head again.

Senator Harris has devoted her entire adult life to public service at the local, state and federal level. She has overcome obstacles inherent in her gender and race, and she threatens the status quo, namely power in the hands of white males who have run this country for over 250 years. Why would anyone subject herself to such slander and lies? Why would Gandhi or Dr. King or John Lewis endure beatings, imprisonment and even death to be a public servant? Why not give into the temptation to live a safe, comfortable life at home with family?

The answer is in the words of Jesus, “One who would be greatest of all must be servant of all.” Those who lay up earthly treasures and glory that thieves can steal and rust consume are never satisfied. They always want more. More money, more power, more fame and glory because they have not learned the lesson of servanthood. They have rejected the truth:” For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 16:25). Too many of us have been so indoctrinated with the prosperity gospel that we can’t imagine putting our trust in a dark-skinned carpenter who refused to save himself when he could have. The tempter was still there even on Golgotha hanging on a cross next to Jesus begging Jesus to “save yourself and us.” But the other thief knew what it meant to be at Jesus’ side when he came into his glory, and Jesus recognized that request to be with him in paradise while ignoring the other thief who was only looking out for himself. (Luke 23)

Our nation is at a critical crossroads here and now where we must recognize the value of servant leadership and reject false claims of glory. If we fail to do so we will lose our national life by trying to rely on saving ourselves. To survive and thrive we must follow the example of the one who washed the feet even of those who would betray and deny him because he walked the walk as a true servant leader. He knew the truth that true greatness is found in service to others. Do we?

OUR BETTER OR BITTER ANGELS?

I have always been a big fan of Abraham Lincoln. I had the rare privilege as a Boy Scout to hike the Lincoln Trail, a 15 mile route from New Salem, Illinois to Springfield, retracing Lincoln’s steps when he traveled from his home to the state Capitol. I grew up proud to be a Republican because it was the “Party of Lincoln,” the great emancipator.

But in my golden years I have begun to wonder if Lincoln made some major mistakes in dealing with the problem of racism that has divided our country from its inception. One of my most recent quarrels with our 16th president came to the surface this week when our Ohio Governor, Mike DeWine quoted Lincoln’s appeal to “better angels of our nature.” DeWine was using that rhetorical device to plead with Ohioans to comply with scientific advice with regard to the COVID pandemic.

I was curious when Lincoln used that metaphor; so of course I googled it and discovered it was in his first inaugural address on April 4, 1861. Here’s the full sentence: “I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Lincoln was dealing with a deadly situation as we are today and was appealing to the southern states for unity, something still fatally lacking in our country today. Lincoln’s appeal failed big time as the Confederates fired on Ft. Sumter just 8 days after his reference to our better angels, launching the deadliest war in U.S. history.
From what I have witnessed in person and on the news Gov. DeWine’s appeal to our better angels will fare no better. Which leads me to this question: Are there any/enough better angels of our nature then or now to believe human nature is redeemable? I have long been a proponent of the concept of Imago Dei, namely that we humans are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). But the more I see of human nature the more I wonder about that theological affirmation. Human inhumanity to each other and to the rest of creation is so rampant today and in all of human history that it is hard to make the argument that we are created in God’s Image unless God is as evil and selfish and short-sighted as we humans.

I don’t want to go down that road; so I ask myself where did the concept of humankind being a little less than the angels (Psalm 8:5) or the earlier affirmation in Genesis come from? The answer of course is from humans! I believe in the historical-critical school of thought when it comes to biblical interpretation. I do not believe our Bible was dictated by God but is a collection of inspired writings by fallible human beings who were recording their experience with the unnamable mystery we call God. So if human authors are declaring that humans are created in the image of God, might there be a bit of a conflict of interest? Would an indicted criminal get to testify as his/her own character witness in a trial? Of course not. How might our creation story differ if it had been written by an elephant or a dolphin, for example? Might we feel and act differently if some other species claimed they were told to “be fruitful and multiply and subdue the earth?” (Genesis 1:28). By the way, that’s the only commandment we humans have actually obeyed! Might the whole notion of Imago Dei be at the root of humankind’s selfish and not better angels? I’m not sure where to go with that for my own theology, but it intrigues and troubles me.

As a student of rhetoric, which is the art of persuasion, I am also troubled when I find myself arguing with a great orator like Lincoln. I understand that the metaphor of better angels is intended to be aspirational rather than descriptive, but from a critique of rhetorical effectiveness based on practical results Lincoln bombed (pun intended), and I believe DeWine will also, both with deadly results. We humans unfortunately seem to require external agents of enforcement to whip our better angels into line. We need someone to hold us accountable for our behavior which differs from being responsible, i.e. to do something like wearing masks not because it’s mandated but because it is the right thing to do.

Which brings me to my second argument with President Lincoln. I have read a great deal about and many biographies of Lincoln, and I am always impressed with his wisdom, political skill and courage. His commitment to preserving the union at all costs was the driving force behind his political agenda. His more famous second inaugural where he pleaded the case for “binding up the nation’s wounds” might have been more likely if he had lived, but we will never know as that task was left to lesser mortals. But what, I wonder, if Lincoln’s whole purpose of preserving the union at any cost was mistaken? Perhaps the cost of that union has been too dear? Not just in terms of those killed in the Civil War, but also in the continued strife in our country over issues of race 160 years later and counting?

The issue of slavery has been divisive in our country from day one. The framers of the Constitution had to tie themselves into knots, counting a slave as 3/5 of a person and claiming “all men are created equal” while most of them owned other human beings, all to reach a tenuous compromise to even create our nation. Those divisions have never been resolved and can be seen today in the unbelievable battle not just over race but in the culture wars at every level, including the unbelievable battle over wearing masks.

What if instead of one Un-united States of America we had admitted there were two irreconcilable countries from the beginning? What would our history look like? That is a purely speculative question since we can’t go back 144 years and start over, and I also realized that even as I write this I am painting myself into a corner I do not want to be in. My two nation notion would mean that the Confederate States of America would have been a nation based of slavery, and that is not morally acceptable. Am I just weary of the battle and tired of the better angels losing? Perhaps. I certainly am tired of our history of resorting to violence as a means to resolve cultural and political differences, and my biggest fear is that is where we are headed in the great Red vs. Blue political cataclysm we seem to be rushing headlong into.

Oh, I have never hoped to be wrong so much before. I do hope and pray that our better angels will emerge victorious, but I know they will not if we surrender to the pessimism eating at my soul. I believe, Lord, Help my unbelief. (Mark 9:24)

The Big IF: Confession and Forgiveness

Good news: “If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” I John: 1:9

Bad News: “If we say that we have not sinned, we make God a liar, and God’s word is not in us.”
I John 1:10

The smallest word in those two verses is the most important. “IF we confess our sins….” That’s a huge “IF” and a major stumbling block that gets us into all kinds of trouble as individuals and collectively. To state the obvious, one cannot fix a problem until it is recognized. If I ignore the check engine light on my dashboard I can’t get the problem fixed. Or if I disregard the signals my body is sending me that something is wrong until it’s too late for the doctors to cure it I’m in deep trouble.

When it comes to God and our sin it is such a waste to live in denial. Yes, grace may sound like one of those deals that are too good to be true, but it’s not. John doesn’t say “if we confess our little sins” we will be forgiven! He says, “If we confess our sins, period.” There’s no fine print. The deal doesn’t expire at midnight. It’s an unconditional gift, and all we have to do is admit we screwed up.

Why is that so hard to do? Because we don’t trust the offer! We know too many humans who when we admit a weakness or a mistake will never let us forget it. They’ll hold it against us forever as a tool to manipulate us with guilt.

But this is no human relationship. This is a promise from the God who made us and knows our every flaw. God created us as fallible human beings knowing we all fall short of perfection every day.

So what’s the price we pay for not confessing? That denial loads us down with guilt and shame. It undermines our self-worth and makes it impossible for us to learn from our mistakes and do better. It cuts us off from God’s peace and salvation. That’s horrible on the individual level, but on the collective level it’s even more deadly.

Our refusal as a nation and world to recognize and admit our stupid mistakes costs us precious time to change our ways. We know the clock is ticking before we can no longer reverse the damage to our environment from our selfish ways. There is no Planet B.

Denial of our sins and mistakes is biting us in the butt on so many fronts – racism, world peace, bigotry, and on how to control the current pandemic. The human race needs one giant Mea Culpa because as John knew 2000 years ago, “IF we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” BUT “If we say that we have not sinned, we make God a liar, and God’s word is not in us.” Seems like a no brainer to me!

Pandemic Pentecost Prayer

O God of creation and re-creation, as we sang this morning “You make beautiful things out of dust. You make beautiful things out of us” even in our brokenness. Just as you spoke and created out of chaos in the beginning, speak to us now in our distress. We are weary and discouraged by so much we see around us. We don’t like the violence. It scares us, but help us understand the injustices that have created the protests. Some of us remember previous times of riots and civil unrest, and we are tired of so little progress toward the high ideals of our nation. But at the same time we can’t begin to imagine how weary our beloved sisters and brothers of color must be after centuries of oppression.

This morning we read the Pentecost Scripture about violent winds and tongues of flames that touched Jesus’ disciples. On our TV screens we have seen other kinds of violence and different kinds of flames that frighten us. Faith and discipleship are scary too, Lord. It’s easier to accept the status quo than oppose injustice when we are it’s beneficiaries. Renew our faith in your power to find us wherever we are and blow away our fear and break down communication barriers. Give us ears to hear the pain of all the George Floyds and the anguish of our black neighbors who do not feel safe in our society. Teach us to speak the universal language of love to oppressed and oppressors alike.

Forgive us in our comfortable havens of white privilege where we have failed to insist on liberty and justice for all of your children. We’ve been here before, Lord, but not in the middle of a pandemic! The timing of this unrest couldn’t be worse, but we know your time is not our time. We know the Hebrews were enslaved in Egypt for centuries before you liberated them. It’s so hard to trust in your inevitable justice when we live in broken dreams here and now.

Give us ears to hear and really listen, Lord. We don’t know how we can help address this crisis. Let us really listen to those who have different perspectives and are just as confused and weary as we are. Let us listen to those who have lost businesses and livelihoods because of looting and vandalism. Let us listen to the first responders who literally are putting their lives on the line for all of us. We lift up all of our government leaders who are struggling to balance the rights of the oppressed to voice their concerns with the protection of property. Those are difficult decisions that never will satisfy everyone. But don’t let us settle for the false peace of a return to where we’ve been, but only for a peace grounded in just reforms of any and all systemic injustice and inequality.

We lift up to you those who are unemployed and underemployed, those already living in poverty exacerbated by the COVID virus. Show us how we can help to move things ever so slightly toward your will for our nation and world. Help us lift our eyes beyond the overwhelming problems to concrete actions and solutions that matter. But that’s hard too just as daily life is. Without “normal” routines, every decision we have to make takes more energy in these pandemic times. Sometimes we just plain cannot find the words to express how our weary souls are feeling. Remind us again, O God, that when words fail us the Pentecost spirit “intercedes for us with sighs too great for words.”

Remind us, Lord of all, that your voice isn’t always in the earthquake, wind and fire, but sometimes can only be heard in the souls of those who are still, even in the midst of chaos, and know that you are God, the one in whom we can always trust. Amen

COVID COASTER

I know I’ve written about roller coasters as a metaphor for life before (see my post from August 21, 2019), but the emotional dips and twists and turns seem to be more extreme on the ride we call COVID-19. First let me say again that I am now much more a Lazy River kind of guy than a thrill-seeking coaster junkie. Yes, I used to ride coasters, but when I became an adult I gave up childish things, well at least things with names like “Steel Vengeance,” “Wicked Twister,” or “Corkscrew.” Real life is scary enough for me, especially in the midst of a pandemic.

I actually gave up roller coasters and the like many years ago. My junior high youth group back in the ’80’s used to do a mini mission work camp in Southern Ohio Appalachia, and at the end of the trip we would reward the kids with a day at King’s Island, an amusement park near Cincinnati. After several days of scraping, painting or ramp building with rambunctious middle schoolers the last thing we adults wanted was being tossed about on a coaster. So while the kids rode the rides we adults would find a show to watch or simply sit and people watch.

But the highs and lows on the 2020 COVID Coaster are bigger than anything we’ve experienced. It’s a rogue ride on steroids. Sometimes we can’t even see the bottom as we free-fall. And this ride seems to just keep going without an end in sight. The best thing about real roller coasters is that the ride doesn’t last very long. Not so with the emotional ups and downs of this Twilight Zone existence today.

I am thinking about this because I’ve been a very low emotional state for the last few days.
Here’s how I described my depressed mood to a trusted friend and colleague on Messenger the other day when he asked me what I thought the future holds for sporting events he and I both love. I replied, “I’ve been a funk last couple of days so my projections about any future events would be pretty negative right now. Seems like the recommendations on what to do change daily. Sounds like sporting events may come back without fans at first. I’ve been out grocery shopping and am not encouraged by the number of people I see without masks. If people won’t play by the rules I don’t see how any large gatherings of people are likely to happen anytime soon, and I’m afraid it’s going to come down to my deciding what I think is safe vs things I’d like to do. That’s a tough call, but I think I will err on the side of caution. Have to admit I’m feeling cheated out of things I like to do and knowing I have a finite number of years left to enjoy those things depresses me. As for reading I’ve been doing a lot of escapist stuff and very little of any real redeeming value. Sorry to be a downer. Maybe tomorrow I’ll see things in a more hopeful light.”

I think there are several reasons for that gloomy outlook, including lousy Ohio weather, pandemic fatigue, and the cherry on top of that sundae is the grief work I’m doing for a dear friend and mentor who died a couple of weeks ago. Grief is hard work, and it sneaks up on you unexpectedly in something that triggers a memory that seems to come out of left field. I had a dream last night about something I don’t remember now, but for just a second another friend who died suddenly in January was sitting there on my couch. Grief, as my friend reminded me doesn’t proceed in any predictable linear fashion. The stages of anger, denial, bargaining, depression and acceptance don’t march along like little soldiers but are more like a roller coaster.

And grief takes time. Some of mine now is unfinished grief for my father. My friend Russ who died last week was in his 90’s like my father when he died two years ago. The two of them were nothing alike, but the passing of yet another member of that generation is one step closer to that big drop for me.

How do we grieve in the middle of a pandemic? The normal rituals of funerals and memorial services are on hold. Many people tragically can’t even visit their dying loved ones. Just as we have to adjust and be creative with how we celebrate other rites of passage just now, we need outlets to express our grief and loss of people near and dear to us. We need to also grieve over what this pandemic has taken from us. Those feelings are real, and denial is a stage in the process, not a destination.

But here’s the thing, we also need to know that when the coaster ride drops us over one hill or flips us head over heels in suspended animation, there’s another rise to the top of the next hill with a breath-taking view, and finally there’s a blessed end where the ride stops and we can plant our feet on solid ground once more.

One resource I’ve used to keep me grounded are prayers from a book our lead pastor gave all of us on the church staff this past Christmas. Little did she know how much they would be needed. It’s an old book published in 1981 entitled “Guerillas of Grace,” by Ted Loder. I’ve been just opening the book at random as part of my morning devotions and continue to be amazed at how timeless and relevant these words from 30 years ago are. For example this morning I opened the book to a prayer called “Sometimes It Just Seems To Be Too Much.” The whole first half of the prayer is a litany of how there’s too much violence, fear, demands, problems, broken dreams, broken lives, dying, cruelty, darkness and indifference.

And then Loder says, “Too much, Lord, too much, too bloody, bruising, brain-washing much; Or is it too little, too little compassion, too little courage, of daring, persistence, sacrifice; too little of music, laughter and celebration?

O God, make of me some nourishment for these starved times, some food for my brothers and sisters who are hungry for gladness and hope, that being bread for them, I may also be fed and be full.” (p. 72)

That hit me right between the eyes and convicted me again of being too turned in on myself. It reminded me that when Jesus saw the multitude of 5000, plus women and children who were hungry he didn’t ask his disciples to give more than they had. He just asked for all they had, and it was enough. (Mark 6:30-44)

Loder’s phrase “too little compassion” struck a special cord with me. In recent days and weeks I’ve struggled with being angry at protestors who disagree with the governor’s cautious approach to the virus. I’ve been angry at so many people who aren’t wearing masks when I go to the grocery. Those folks are endangering me and those I love by refusing to do things that have proved to work by keeping the infection and death rate here in Ohio among the lowest in the nation.

But then I remembered something from the Holy Week narrative that has always struck me as perhaps the most remarkable thing the Gospels report about Jesus. Hanging there on that cross in unbearable pain Jesus still had compassion on the very people who nailed him up there, and he said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” (Matthew 27:46)

All of us riding the COVID Coaster are dealing with different circumstances. But we all have one thing in common even though we may express it differently. We are all afraid. Some of us wear masks because we’re afraid of getting the virus or inadvertently giving it someone else, and some of us don’t wear masks because we’re afraid of losing personal freedom, of being told what to do, or fear of admitting the threat is real. Some of us stay home because of fear while others are motivated by a fear of economic disaster to protest or ignore recommendations. It’s easy to judge and much harder to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and offer compassion.

Anger is a poison that not only harms others but also the one who is angry. Yes, anger is a natural human emotion. Even Jesus expressed his anger in another cry from the cross when he screamed, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Luke 23:34) How many of us have felt that way recently? It’s OK. Notice Jesus didn’t forgive his executioners himself. He was in too much agony to do that because he was fully human. But he knew God could forgive them. He trusted God even when he felt as low as humanly possible.

Have you ever noticed how young the people operating the roller coasters are? They don’t have a lot of life experience. They are probably doing that just for a summer job. We don’t know how long they’ve been on the job or how well trained they are, or if they are upset and distracted about just breaking up with someone. And yet we trust them with our lives!

We don’t know how long the COVID Coaster ride is going to last, but we can trust the one who is ultimately in charge of that ride to bring us to a safe finish.

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Most Unusual Holy Weeks

2020 will certainly go down in the books as one of the most unusual Holy Week’s in history. Most churches will be virtually empty on Easter even as they are virtually and spiritually connected. With plenty of time to reflect on all kinds of things lately I have pondered Holy Week’s past. This one is very strange, and being retired I’m sure it is 100 times weirder and more difficult for my many colleagues engaged in active parish ministry.

I don’t remember if I’ve ever missed being physically in church on Easter in my entire life. Even as a child I remember my parents getting me up when it was still very dark outside to go to a bonafide sunrise service at our small country church. So worshipping on-line tomorrow will be a unique experience in my nearly 3/4 of a century of Easters. It has felt strange all week for me because due to technological concerns our church has actually “done” our worship all out of sequence. Our musicians actually have been recording music for Sundays on Tuesdays ever since in-person worship was canceled by COVID-19. And the pastors have been recording Scripture, prayers and sermons on Thursdays. Most weeks that’s been ok, although since I’ve been doing the pastoral prayers I must admit that I have frequently thought of something that should be included in the prayer for Sunday on Friday or Saturday, and then I remember, “Oh, yeah, that prayer is already done.”

But this week was even more disjointed liturgically. When I was in the Sanctuary on Thursday afternoon the big cross that hangs over our altar table was already fully bedecked in Easter Lillies. But then on Good Friday evening when we live-streame our Tenebrae service the lillies were gone and the Sanctuary was bathed in semi-darkness. It just felt weird. And I know even though our congregation will be worshiping together on-line Easter morning it won’t begin to match the feeling of being in an overflow congregation with our tradition of singing the “Hallelujah Chorus” to close the celebration of resurrection.

But in remembering other out of the ordinary Holy Weeks I inevitably thought about one that was more challenging even than 2020, although in a much different way. On April Fool’s Day 1993 I got one of those phone calls one never hopes to get. It was the cruelest April Fools Day “joke” I’ve ever gotten or ever hope to get. My mom, a healthy 70 year old that had never been sick in her life was in the hospital with what was either a stroke or a brain tumor. I was so dumbfounded I didn’t know which to hope was the correct diagnosis. My mother had always been the strongest member of our family, our rock. She was so tough she had her tonsils taken out sometime in her 40’s in the doctor’s office! And now with no previous symptoms she was in serious trouble. It turns out she had a glioblastoma brain tumor just like the one that killed her own mother seven years earlier. In fact her reaction when told of her condition was, “Just like Mom.”

Those kinds of brain tumors back then especially were never a good prognosis, and I don’t think they are even today 27 years later. Mom’s was so far advanced before she knew anything was wrong that just 3 days later on Palm Sunday we went down to visit her before her scheduled surgery on Monday morning only to find when we arrived that they were prepping her that evening for emergency surgery to relieve pressure on her brain. She made it through the surgery but was never the same again and died 3 months later.

That would be enough to complicate any pastor’s Holy Week, but it was far from the only curve ball fate threw my way that week. My mother-in-law was also in failing health. She was a few years older than my mom and had been in a nursing home for about 3 years, but her congestive heart failure was getting progressively worse that spring. So on Wednesday, while I was still out of town with my dad and sisters holding down the waiting room between brief visits with my mother I got word that my mother-in-law had died.

So a good friend drove a couple of hours to pick me up on Wednesday evening. I preached and led a Maundy Thursday service, and on Good Friday we drive a couple of more hours to bury my wife’s mother. And on Easter Sunday I preached about resurrection. It was one of the hardest but most meaningful Easter’s I can remember, but it was also one of the most meaningful. I wasn’t going through any routine rituals when I preached about death and resurrection. Those were not abstract concepts for me that April 1993 but very concrete realities.

And so they are again 27 years later. The pall of death hangs over all of us during this pandemic. The mind-boggling ever-increasing numbers of people killed by this awful virus make it impossible for most of us to avoid consideration of our mortality. Even when we try to ignore it the pull of the news reports is hard to resist. The images of exhausted nurses, gurneys in crowded hallways, lonely patients in nursing home windows, and mass graves cannot be erased from our individual and collective memories. We wake up every morning hoping it’s all a bad dream, only to find it is just another ground hog day on a continuous loop. Only the numbers change.

I’m writing this at 9:30 pm EDT, just a few hours earlier than when my parents roused me from sleep, not to find my Easter basket, but to go again to proclaim the good news that has sustained people of faith in hard times for 2000 years — Christ is Risen! He is risen Indeed! And because of what those words mean to us on an existential level so much deeper than Easter finery and lilies and chocolate bunnies, we will wake up tomorrow and carry on because there is something stronger in the human spirit than death.

Hallelujah! Amen.

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.