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

A Prayer for Coming Home

Gracious and loving God, this prodigal child is coming home. I’ve been awaymuch too long. I can’t believe the welcome mat is still out after how poorly I’ve treated you. I’ve been lost in the wilderness, depressed, frightened and angry that life isn’t fair.

I’ve taken detours through doubt and lingered too long in places of sin. I lost my way in anger and self-pity, afraid to come home and not even sure I any longer knew the way.

The simple faith of childhood failed me in times of greatest need. I surrendered to to the demons of temptation that led me down the dead end paths of prosperity, power and fleeting pleasures of the flesh.

I knew better. I had been taught your Word from childhood, but rebellion against the bonds of legalism alienated me from my roots and my heritage. When once I felt closely held by your loving arms I grasped now only air when I reached out to you. My prayers for your help grew empty and hollow because I heard no answers, probably because I never stopped the pursuit of happiness long enough to listen for your reply. My vision was clouded by tears of frustration and fear; so I could not even see you in the beauty of creation. And I certainly couldn’t see you in the chaos and injustice in our world. I gave up trying to find you.

I drank deeply of the great American myth of individualism. I succeeded so well at school and work that i never learned the lessons that failure alone can teach. When things became to challenging rather than fail I simply quit. I gave up on relationships and career goals instead of doing the hard work of trying multiple ways to solve a problem. I played it safe rather than risk taking unpopular stands on social justice issues. I took the wide path that leads to destruction.

But now I’m coming home. I humbly throw myself on your mercy, trusting that you will catch me and hold me close, hold me until my fear gives way to peace. I’m coming home, not for a fatted calf, but hoping your Holy Spirit will ignite the fire of faith in me anew and send me out to invite other lost ones longing to come home but are too afraid and ashamed.

In the name of the one who overcame Satan’s temptation in his wilderness time. Amen

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?

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!

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.

.

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.

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

We are Butt Dust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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