My church has a wonderful Chapel in the Woods which has been the site of summer time worship every Sunday for over 30 years. It is one of my favorite places to pray and meditate whenever I am near the church campus during the week and on Sundays. It is extra special to me because we have a memory garden at the back of the chapel, and that is where I want my ashes to be scattered when I transition to the next stage of eternal life.
The chapel is also special to me because it was originally started as a fellow Eagle Scout’s project. My favorite feature of the chapel has always been the big cross at the front which was made from a dead tree stump.
But this spring the painful decision was made that the big cross had to come down. The old tree stump had become increasingly unstable due to age and insect damage. So for safety reasons our old rugged cross is no more. We are in the process of deciding what we will put in the old cross’ place. A committee is asking for suggestions for what should come next, but that cross was so perfect for that setting that I cannot yet imagine what could come close to being as meaningful.
The fallen cross seems a fitting metaphor for the grief and uncertainty of the day between Good Friday and Easter. I cannot really imagine the depth of the pain and fear those women and men who loved Jesus so dearly and witnessed his execution on that Friday when the sky turned black. I can’t feel what they felt because I know the rest of the story. We know that the cross is not the end. Thanks be to God
I had a Martin Luther moment this morning. No, I didn’t nail any theses to a church door. It happened like this. I had a busier than usual early morning for me, which means I was dressed and doing some slightly physical labor outside by 9 am. Mornings are hard for me anytime. My arthritic joints complain loudly when pressed into action too soon after I get up.
All of that is to say that my outside chores required more exertion than they used to, and I managed to work up a sweat. I hadn’t planned on showering this morning because I wanted to work out later in the day, but I had a PT appointment and wasn’t fit to go without a shower. As I finished the shower I remembered the story that Martin Luther always reminded himself that he was baptized whenever he bathed. At that moment I realized how fresh and renewed I felt. It was like the warm water had had not only washed away the sweat and relaxed tight muscles, it wrapped me in the grace-filled water of baptism.
This being Holy/Maundy Thursday I had read two devotions earlier this morning about Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, including those of Judas. The familiar story of Jesus overruling the objections of Peter who argued their roles should be reversed reminded me of Jesus’ own baptism where John makes a similar plea that Jesus should be the one doing the baptizing.
One of my favorite moments in the musical “Godspell” is the baptism scene. When John asks Jesus what he’s doing there Jesus simply replies, “I came to get washed up.” And on this Holy Thursday I marvel anew at the integrity and consistency of Jesus’ ministry. From baptism to foot washing he shows us the meaning and the power of humble servanthood. He arrived in Jerusalem that Sunday not in a Lincoln limo, but in a beat up Volkswagen bug. He came to show us in everything he did in the words of the great old hymn by Ernest W. Shurtleff (1887) that it is “not with swords loud clashing, or roll of stirring drums, but with deed of love and mercy the heavenly kingdom comes.” (From “Lead On, O God Eternal”)
Micah 6:8 is the verse I would pick from the whole Bible if I could only have one to describe the meaning of messianic living and what it means to take up a cross and follow Jesus. Holy Week provides the whole story of Christian discipleship in a nutshell as Jesus shows us what God requires of those who would fulfill the human potential our creator has instilled from birth/baptism in all of us. In those 6 days Jesus did justice, he lived mercifully, he did it all in humility, and like God the creator he rested on the Sabbath. And then comes rebirth and a new creation early on Sunday morning.
I am officially in the season of my life when my friends are reminding me of our shared mortality. No matter how hard we try to not be like our elders have been at our age, whenever we folks now in our 70’s get together in person or on zoom, sharing of health concerns tends to dominate or at least infect our conversations. I have for years had a dread of the time when one of my close friends dies, wondering when that may happen; and being grateful that I have been fortunate to reach 76 years without that experience. But now I know it is not a question of if that will occur, but when.
A year ago we lost a good friend who my wife had known for 40 plus years. I had only shared that friendship with her for 8 or 9 years. This year a good friend we’ve both known for 20 years is dying of lung cancer, and also two very good friends of mine whom I have known for over 50 years are facing possible life-threatening issues. Given all that the familiar warning of John Donne to not “ask for whom the bell tolls” takes on a whole new existential meaning.
I was researching another topic the other day and came across some curious biblical passages that address but add no clarity to the familiar quandary we all wrestle with—how long can I expect to live. On that topic Genesis 6:3 has God saying, “My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years.” That could be both good news and bad. But only a chapter later we are told “Noah was six hundred years old when the flood of waters came on the earth.” (Genesis 7:6) And to further muddy the waters (no pun intended) Psalm 90:10 says, “The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.”
If we want certainty about how long we can expect to live those verses certainly don’t help. They were written by different authors in very different contexts; but here’s what they are saying to me. No one really knows how long they will walk on this earth. We can let that uncertainty drive us crazy, or we can make peace with it and live in the only time we really ever have – Today. Some days it is easier to do that than others of course, but finding that peace that passes all human understanding always depends on how well we can surrender our doubts and fears to the very source of our life.
Surrender is hard for us competitive type humans. It sounds like defeat or loss, and most of us really hate losing. But this kind of surrender is just the opposite. It is victory at the deepest level to find relief from things we cannot conquer on our own but need to offer up to a higher power. Prayer can take a multitude of forms, but it is the best way we have to connect with that higher power and simply trust in the goodness and mercy only God can give.
As I was writing this, the words to an old hymn I have not sung for many years, but the lyrics to “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” by Joseph Scriven are still in my memory bank, and they really sum up this whole matter and many other mysteries of life very well. Those lyrics in part say,
“O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry Everything to God in prayer!”
Paul tells us that suffering produces endurance, which produces character, which produces hope. Even though this winter has been mild I figure having lived through 77 Ohio winters; I should be one of the most hopeful characters in captivity.
Suffering is not my favorite thing about being a Christian. In fact, if we were to do a top 10 list of my favorite things about being a Christian, suffering wouldn’t even be on it. I really identify with the Disciple Peter who argues with Jesus in Mark 8 when Peter tries to talk Jesus out of his need to suffer and die, remember what Jesus says to him – “Get behind me Satan, you re on the side of men not of God?” Pretty harsh reply from Jesus, don’t you think. But if we look more carefully at that story Jesus goes on to say, “take up your cross and follow me…” you see, following requires that we line up behind the leader. Remember those days in elementary school when you lined up to go everywhere, and this leader that we profess to follow, whose name we claim as Christians, makes it clear over and over again that cross bearing is part of what we have signed on for at our baptism.
For Christians, suffering goes with the territory, unless we want to give up the reward for genuine suffering, which is eternal life here and forever. In Romans 8, Paul says, “We suffer with Christ so that we may be glorified with him.” But we still wish it wasn’t so, don’t we? When I first heard a story about a Good Friday cross walk several years ago when the faithful from several churches gathered in Dublin, Ohio for their walk and realized they had no cross with which to walk, I said, “That’ll preach!” Wouldn’t we love to have Easter without the suffering and pain of Good Friday and the Garden of Gethsemane? –the betrayal and denial that break Jesus’ heart long before the executioners break his body?
I would. I am not a fan of the” no pain no gain” school of exercise or theology. If there is an easier way to get in shape than sweating and having sore muscles, I’m all over it. And if someone can find an easy path to salvation, I’ll be the tour guide. But, oops, there’s that nasty verse in the Sermon on the Mount, Mt. 7:13-14 that says the wide easy freeway leads to destruction, and that’s the one without the cross, the one most people choose, because it looks easier and lots more fun in the short run. But when it comes to matters of faith, don’t we want to focus on goals and consequences for eternity, not just for today?
There are different kinds of suffering, and some are easier to explain or to deal with than others. First, and easiest in some ways, is the kind of suffering we bring upon ourselves. Kanye West and Will Smith come to mind as two of this year’s nominees in that category. Or anyone who was injured trying to take a selfie in a dangerous place? You can think of other nominees, less famous ones, perhaps, and if we’re honest we could all be on that list at one time or another.
The difference for most of us is that we aren’t celebrities. Our screw ups usually don’t show up on channel 10 news or in big bold tabloid headlines for the world to read in the checkout line at Kroger’s. But that doesn’t mean they are any less painful or hard to live with. Mistakes have consequences, which mean they usually hurt us and/or other people, and hurting is a form of suffering. We all make bad choices, it goes with our free will that none of us want to give up. We make bad choices that impact our health; we drive when we are distracted by electronic gadgets or when our judgment isn’t 100%; we say things in anger that we regret; we break promises to people we love. We give into worldly pressure to succeed or cut corners, knowing we’re violating our own values, and we may get away with it for awhile, or think we have; but sooner or later, our chickens come home to roost and we suffer.
That kind of suffering is very painful and hard to deal with, in part because we know there’s no one else to blame but ourselves, but at least self-inflicted suffering makes some sense. We can understand where it comes from and why.
The second type of suffering makes less sense to me. It’s been 12 years now, but I still remember the heart-wrenching and horrifying images of the Tsunami in Japan in 2011. Innocent, helpless people, thousands of them, minding their own business one minute who were suddenly swept up in what looked like science fiction movie about the end of the world the next. Or name any mass shooting or the inhumane brutality of Putin’s now year old war on Ukraine. Suffering type number 2 is the kind caused by natural disasters or criminal attacks or lung cancer in someone who has never smoked a cigarette; the kind for which there is no justification or satisfying explanation. Innocent children who are physically or emotionally or sexually abused. Faithful spouses who are cheated on, taken advantage of and left with nothing to sustain life. You get the picture.
This is a good place to clarify what suffering isn’t. Shortly after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, the governor of Tokyo made a public pronouncement that he believed this disaster was divine retribution on the people of Japan for their greed. This gentleman is a follower of the Shinto religion, and I have no knowledge whatsoever of what Shinto theology is or believes. I do know there are those tempted in most religions to resort to blaming God for things when we can’t figure any other way to justify or explain why bad things happen. Christianity is not exempt from such bad theology, and I remember there were Christian preachers who claimed that hurricane Katrina devastated the gulf coast in 2005 because of the sin and wickedness of the Big Easy.
Please understand, I’m not saying actions don’t have consequences or that sin doesn’t cause suffering – those things are built into the natural order of things. But that does not mean that the loving God I know and worship would kick people when they are down by saying “Gotcha” or “Take that, sinner” over the broken and shattered ruins of a devastated life or city or nation. When we need God’s comfort and strength and presence the very most, in times of tragedy and loss and despair, would God choose that time to teach us a lesson? NO, that is the time that Emmanuel, God with us, carries us and comforts us. When we suffer God is close enough to us to taste the salt of our tears.
Now, I know you can find plenty of places in the Bible where we are told that God punishes sinners with plagues and boils and hell fire and damnation, and we need to deal with that problem head on. Even in our text for today Paul says we need to be saved from the wrath of God. The Bible was written over centuries by lots of different authors who were trying to answer the hardest questions and mysteries of life. Those who experienced God in their suffering as punitive and judgmental wrote about that experience, and almost all of them did so without the benefit of knowing Jesus Christ, who is the best revelation possible for the loving, forgiving, grace-full God we have come to know and love through Jesus.
We need to remind ourselves that the Jews who wrote their Bible, which we call the Old Testament, also knew the loving, merciful side of God, too. That compassionate part of God’s nature had just not come into clear focus for them as it did in the incarnation of God in Jesus’ human form. We sometimes forget that most of our great images of God, like the good shepherd of Psalm 23, or God as a mother hen gathering her chicks about her all come from the Hebrew Scriptures. The essence of Jesus’ teaching, for example the Great Commandments to love God with all one’s heart, soul, strength, and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself are straight from the book of Deuteronomy.
Paul tells us that suffering produces endurance, character and hope. We can see how these first two kinds of suffering can build endurance and maybe character, but what about hope? We need a third kind of suffering to build Hope, and that is what followers of Jesus do when we voluntarily take on suffering as an act of sacrificial compassion. The reason Christians embrace and even boast about suffering, as Paul describes it, is that com-passion is essential to the Christian faith, and the word “compassion” comes from two Greek words that mean to suffer with. Compassion is the kind of love Jesus came to teach and live. Compassion is the love we feel for neighbors and enemies we don’t even know, simply because we share a common human condition. Compassion is what we feel for the people of Ukraine because we identify and empathize with them and share their suffering as fellow members of the human family. God doesn’t have grandchildren – just children – so our fellow human beings are not cousins once or twice removed, but are all our siblings – brothers and sisters together with Christ.
Compassion is a key to God’s very nature. Why else would God allow Jesus to suffer and die for us while we are yet sinners? When John tells us that God so loved the world that he gave us Jesus – that’s compassion and empathy to the max. God becomes one of us in human form to share our existence, including our suffering.
The cross of Jesus is often misunderstood as a necessary sacrifice or punishment for the sins of the world, but when we experience the cross of Christ as an act of compassion and sacrificial love it is much easier to embrace and to imitate in our own lives. The suffering of the cross for Jesus is an example writ large about how a person of faith handles suffering. Jesus doesn’t repay evil for evil; he doesn’t lash out in violent anger when he is suffering. He continues to live life in harmony with the will of God, bearing the ultimate suffering in love, compassion and forgiveness – staying true to the way of love which is the essence of life and of God. How can we follow Christ’s example and take on the suffering of life with character and hope? Paul says, “Hope does not disappoint us [even in the worst of times] because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” We can’t do it, but God living in us can.
The cross is both a symbol of suffering and hope, because if Jesus’ life ended on Good Friday, suffering would be the final fate of human kind. Death would define our existence. But hold the phone; we know the rest of this story. “Suffering produces endurance and character and hope, and hope does not disappoint.” For those who don’t give up and leave the ball game when the score looks hopeless, there is good news. We’ll experience that in its fullness in a few weeks on Easter morning, but for those of us fortunate to be post-resurrection people we already know that suffering and death are not the final chapter in our story. Thanks to God’s ultimate, victorious will, we can endure suffering and even embrace it because we know it builds our character and makes us people of hope with Easter in our eyes.
Holy one, I want to practice what I preach/write about as we begin this Holy season of Lent. [See my previous post from February 21 for reference to Galatians 5 and fruits of the Spirit.] The two words from Galatians that are speaking to me this morning are “self-control,” as one of the good fruits of the Spirit and “anger” from the list of opposites. I know righteous anger can be helpful. Jesus and the prophets frequently address their anger at injustice and hypocrisy. I don’t have a problem with that kind of anger. Mine is petty, self-centered anger over little, insignificant things that don’t go the way I think they should in my daily life.
That kind of useless anger poisons my soul. It drowns out words of grace and mercy toward others and myself. It blocks love of myself and others and even you when I blame you for the inconveniences I encounter which are a normal part of the imperfect world we live in. I know people that only see me in my pastor role or even in the good face I put on in public may be surprised that I struggle with self-control and anger. Why is it that with the one I love the most I can be the most unloving? Is it because I am tired of pretending to be the good Steve in public that I let the dark side come out as soon as I get home? Is it because I feel safe in a place of unconditional love that I let me anger and frustration get the best of my self-control? Is “self-control” itself an oxymoron or a poor choice of words to be in the good fruits list? I wonder what the Greek word that gets translated as “self-control” is, or is that an intellectual rabbit hole to avoid really looking at myself? Might it be that I really need to surrender control instead of trying like a two year old to “do it self?” As usual I have more questions than answers, but isn’t that where faith comes in? Walk with me on this journey to resurrection, Lord, as you always have. Amen
Two mountain-top experiences in Judeo-Christian Scripture are highlighted in the texts for February 19, the last Sunday before Lent, aka Transfiguration Sunday. Because of that latter designation I have usually focused on the Gospel lesson when preaching on that Sunday. As Matthew’s Gospel puts it, “Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.” This year I also noticed the text from Exodus 24 involves being led by God to a time of solitude by climbing a mountain in response to a divine call.
The closest I’ve come to mountain climbing in recent years has been to walk up a paved path to an observation tower on Clingman’s Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains. At 6643 feet, Clingmans’s Dome is the highest point in the Smokies, but in full disclosure, as with most tourists visiting there, I only hiked the final half mile which is a gain of 332 feet in elevation. That doesn’t sound like much, but it is a fairly steep climb that requires some effort; even though it would never be confused with scaling Mt. Everest. The question these two texts raise for me as we approach the season of Lent again his year is “How much effort am I willing to make in order to put myself in God’s presence?”
Moses responds to God’s call and scales Mt. Sinai, which at 7497 feet is just a bit higher than Clingman’s Dome. Exodus does not give any details on how hard that climb was for Moses, but I am struck by two things it does say. First, after Moses climbs the mountain he has to wait 6 days before God appears. I get really frustrated if I have to wait 30 minutes in a doctor’s waiting room. So what does that faithful, patient waiting tell us clock-driven Americans about what it takes to experience the Holy?
Isaiah tells us that “Those who wait for the Lord will renew their strength,” but that text doesn’t say how long that wait will be. It may just mean that we have to surrender our own agendas if we want to be fully in God’s presence. The final sentence in the Exodus text says Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights. We know that’s Bible speak for a very long time. In other words we don’t measure our time with God in chronos or clock time. Those mountain top experiences can only be described in Kairos time, which means in God’s good time and as long as it takes.
On a clear day you can see for 100 miles from Clingman’s Dome, but Moses got no such photo op on Mt. Sinai; and that’s the second detail that got my attention from the Exodus account. It says, “Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud.” Moses is totally enveloped by God’s Holy presence. There’s no multi-tasking if we want to feel God’s manifestation. We have to be fully committed and open to whatever God is calling us to do and become.
I get a lot of inspiration from music lyrics, and the song that I’m hearing as I ponder these biblical stories is “Climb Every Mountain” from “The Sound of Music” by Richard Rodgers, and Oscar Hammerstein. The lyrics to that song say,
“Climb every mountain,
Search high and low,
Follow every byway,
Every path you know.
Climb every mountain,
Ford every stream,
Follow every rainbow,
‘Till you find your dream.
A dream that will need
All the love you can give,
Every day of your life
For as long as you live.”
If you remember the story this song is sung by the Mother Superior to a young Maria who is wrestling with her vocation, her call from God which seems to be pulling her away from the religious life in the convent to a totally different purpose. To surrender to God may take us in very surprising directions, but whatever that path is it will require struggle and effort, not just one mountain-top experience. The song says climb every mountain, search high and low, and follow every rainbow to pursue a dream that requires “all the love you can give, every day of your life for as long as you live.” Every mountain. All the love. Every day. As long as you live. God doesn’t ask more of us than we can give, just all we have.
Lent is a great time to ponder such things. Jesus translates that all-in commitment to “Let the dead bury the dead.” “ Leave your nets.” “Take up your cross and follow me.” We need mountain-top experiences to refuel and renew our souls, but we don’t live on the mountain top. Moses had to come back down to his golden calf worshipping flock. Jesus and the disciples had to come back down the mountain and set their faces toward Jerusalem. We need solitude and close encounters with God to empower us, but we live in the lonesome valley of dry bones and the shadow death.
Spend time alone with God this Lent, as much time as it takes, and wrestle with whatever is on your heart about what God requires of you in this time and place.
It’s 9:40 pm on Maundy Thursday and I just had a whole new take on that scene in the Garden of Gethsemane where the disciples keep falling asleep instead of keeping watch while Jesus is praying. It’s all too easy to pass judgment on the disciples. There’s just about nothing they do right tonight. We worshipped on-line tonight with our congregation, and then I sat down to read. But I keep falling asleep. It happens a lot in the evening lately. My spirit is willing but my flesh is weak and just plain tired.
I’m not physically tired, just exhausted with world news overload. Maybe it’s compassion fatigue or just frustration that there seems to be so little I can do to save the world from its warring madness. I can’t not watch the news, and if the scenes from Ukraine or the New York subway shooting aren’t fatiguing enough they are interspersed with incessant mean-spirited and dishonest political ads.
Maybe Jesus’ disciples were just worn out from all the weird stuff going on around them. They had to be confused trying to understand Jesus’ determination to put himself in harms way and with all his talk about death and resurrection. They had been on an emotional roller coaster from Palm Sunday’s high to this strange trip to the Garden in the dark. Jesus’ strange behavior, insisting on washing their feet, a job only done by servants, not a Messiah. And what did he mean about his broken body and his blood shed for them?
It was too much to comprehend. Maybe their bodies just shut down to get a respite from the confusion in their minds and spirits. They had hoped he was the one to throw off the Roman oppressors, but they were wrong.
What next, God? Here we are in the dark of night, discouraged and afraid. There’s a cloud of fear in the air everywhere. People are not OK. I’m not OK. The gunman in Brooklyn is certainly not OK and hasn’t been for some time. Neither Putin nor American conspiracy theorists are OK. Today for not the first time when I stopped at Tim Horton’s for coffee I found myself looking around wondering what I would do if a deranged person with a gun started shooting. A server just doing her job at a local restaurant was wounded by a stray bullet from a fight outside just the other night here in Columbus.
Like Peter, Andrew, Bartholomew and the others on this Holy Thursday we’re tired. So tired. Maybe if we just go to sleep we’ll wake up and find this is all a nightmare. But here comes a mob with clubs and torches and Judas is leading them right to Jesus. This can’t be happening! What do we do now?
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.
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
“Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” (Psalms 19: 2-4a)
On Ash Wednesday 2019 I was 10,000 miles from home on a sail boat in the harbor of Akaroa, New Zealand. There were literally no words, no imposition of ashes, none of the customary rituals that have marked the previous fifty beginnings of Lent in my life.
Diana and I were on a cruise down the east coast of New Zealand, and one of our excursions from our ship took us on one of the most peaceful and sacred moments of my life We sailed out into the harbor surrounded by gentle hills and a few caves along the shoreline. The captain of our boat let us drift as the gentle waves kept time against the sides of the small boat and explained that he was going to play some meditation music because it usually attracts a school of dolphins. Like a choir processing to an introit the dolphins appeared on cue and for several awe filled minutes our boat of twenty total strangers sat in holy silence.
[after multiple failed attempts to put a video of the dolphins here I gave up. Please trust me, they were awesome]
After enjoying the dolphins for a time we sailed close to shore where one of the natural caves indented the hillside, and the captain put on some organ music. I don’t remember the tune, but it reverberated off the walls and ceiling of the natural cave like the Hallelujah Chorus in a Gothic cathedral.
Fast forward a year and we were on another let’s-escape-winter vacation. This time we were “only” 1300 miles from home on Isla Mujeres, a beautiful tropical island near Cancun, Mexico. It was time there, as in many Roman Catholic locales, for the carnival celebration known best for the grandmother of all carnivals, Mardi Gras in New Orleans. But Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is celebrated all over the world by Christians as a time to party hearty before the solemn season of Lent begins with the Ash Wednesday reminder that “we are dust and to dust we shall return.”
We were told by the natives in Mexico that the serious celebrations of Carnival don’t really begin until 10 or 11 pm and often go on till dawn. Needless to say that’s way past my bedtime. But the party there began on Friday and was going strong when we last witnessed some of it several hours before Ash Wednesday officially began.
What we saw during the daytime hours of the Carnival were people of all ages in elaborate costumes dancing in the streets.
We watched a few dance groups in one small town and then saw them load into pickup trucks, golf carts and on motor scooters to travel a few miles to the next town where we saw them perform again as we were trying to make our way through crowded narrow streets that were often closed for 30 minutes or more for the performers to do their thing before moving on to a new location.
These were two very different experiences a year a part on either side of the world to mark the beginning of Lent. One was peaceful and serene in holy communion with the created order. The other was a loud and jubilant celebration of culture and tradition. And both were avenues to the mystery of God. We couldn’t speak to the dolphins in New Zealand, but their majestic presence touched my heart beyond the power of any human speech. And in Mexico I could not understand the Spanish lyrics to the songs of Carnival. But the beauty of the dancing and the costumes—yes, even the outlandish and erotic ones—speak to the human need to dance and sing with joy to the universal mystery of God’s inspiration in all cultures and races.
Both experiences helped prepare this pilgrim to begin the holy season of Lent once more.