COVID COASTER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fiddling Through the Storm

One of my favorite musicals has always been “Fiddler on the Roof.” Its theme of love conquering oppression never seems out of date and is all too relevant today. Some of its insights are so good I am tempted to call it the Gospel according to Tevye. I was in a discussion the other day about praying for President Trump, and all of us present agreed we should and he certainly needs it. His erratic and delusional Messianic references to himself since then only confirm that conclusion.

One of the first things that came to my mind about praying for the President is a line from Fiddler where Tevye says this prayer: “God bless and keep the czar—far away from us.” On a more serious note I think one of the best parts of Fiddler is the opening where the title and its metaphor for life are explained.

“Away above my head I see the strangest sight
A fiddler on the roof who’s up there day and night
He fiddles when it rains, he fiddles when it snows
I’ve never seen him rest, yet on and on he goes

{Refrain}
What does it mean, this fiddler on the roof?
Who fiddles every night and fiddles every noon
Why should he pick so curious a place
To play his little fiddler’s tune

An unexpected breeze could blow him to the ground
Yet after every storm, I see he’s still around
Whatever each day brings, this odd outlandish man
He plays his simple tune as sweetly as he can

{Refrain}

A fiddler on the roof, a most unlikely sight
It might not mean a thing, but then again it might!”

And then Tevye says, “A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But here, in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. You may ask ‘Why do we stay up there if it’s so dangerous?’ Well, we stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: tradition!”

Our traditions of love, compassion, hospitality and justice are under attack, but they are the solid rock and anchor we can cling to in each and every storm; and if we do we will still be around after the perils of this present age are no more.

“A Fiddler on the roof, a most unusual sight…. It may not mean a thing, but then again it might.”

*music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick

Be Their Voice

Just wrote this to my congressional rep and senators: “The humanitarian crisis at the border with Mexico breaks my heart, embarrasses me and makes me furious. Innocent children are living in deplorable conditions for no reason other than the president needs to score political points with his base. I appeal to your basic human decency to address this travesty immediately. Work with the Democrats to adopt humane immigration reform with bipartisan, veto-proof support. America is better than the image we are projecting to the world because of this president’s racist policies and it must stop. I believe what we do to the least of these defenseless children is how we treat Christ himself. (Matthew 25:31-46) Please let me know what you are doing to stop this tragic misuse of political power. Thank you.”

Many of us feel helpless to do anything, and that’s just how oppressors want us to feel. I don’t expect my words to break through the political gridlock, but as discouraged as I am with our political leaders I still do believe there is a basic human sense of compassion (which means “to suffer with”) in most of our elected officials. Most of them went into public service with a real desire to actually serve the public good, but the forces of evil that corrupt even good women and men are very strong. The question is which is stronger?

Yes, the perks that go with elected office can warp the best of human motives. Once these people taste the benefits of insurance and pensions better than the rest of us, not to mention the heady aroma of power, it’s natural that their decisions are affected by the desire to keep their jobs. I’m not sure I could resist those temptations either.

So we are fighting strong, deep-seated powers, and I’m guessing that some of our senators and representatives feel pretty helpless too. But feeling helpless is no excuse to be complicit in causing human suffering by staying silence. Every elected official’s website says he/she wants to hear what’s on our minds. It may not change a thing, but it certainly can’t hurt. The good thing about political influence is that we the people do actually hold the ultimate power. The lobbyists and corporations may have the money, but if we who vote speak long and loud enough and in enough numbers, trust me, the folks in Washington will eventually remember who they work for.

If enough of us care enough to make our voices heard they will listen. Those kids living in squalor at the border, those broken-hearted parents who have had their children ripped from their arms, they can’t wait until 2020. They need those of us who can to speak up for them because they can’t.

The Sacred Responsibility for Children

“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.” That’s Jesus in Matthew 18:6, and that verse came to my mind as I reflect on the awesome responsibility of relating to children. My world changed dramatically 47 years ago when my daughter Joy was born. Holding that precious new life and knowing I was responsible for her flipped a switch in me that meant there was no more pretending to be an adult; this was the real thing.

Unfortunately that switch didn’t always stay on, and there were many times I failed to be the kind of father I wanted to be. The fact that both of my kids turned out to be great people is part grace and mostly because they had a wonderful mother.

Jesus doesn’t mess around with describing the seriousness of how we treat children. If we harm a little one we deserve to be drowned “in the depth of the sea.” Thank God there’s also “a wideness in God’s mercy, Like the wideness of the sea” to stick with the sea imagery from Frederick Faber’s great hymn.

Like many of you my wife and I have been paying close attention to the rescue efforts of the soccer team. We check our phones for updates just before bed and first thing in the morning, and many times in between. As I write this eight of the 13 have been brought out through the treacherous waters, and we are praying hard that the other 5 can be saved before the monsoon rains can do their deadly deed.

Why is the world so fixed on these 12 children and young coach? None of us had ever heard of them three weeks ago. And yet a huge team of experts from all over the world have rallied around in an amazing show of international and humanitarian collaboration to save these young men. No one is even asking how much all this is costing because you can’t put a price tag on human lives, especially those of children.

Maybe we are so drawn to this story because we are starving for good news in a world gone mad with all sorts of pain and suffering. We are certainly in awe of the sacrificial love of these divers who are risking their lives to bring these kids out, and our hearts ache for the family and friends of the diver who lost his life last week.

I don’t want in any way to dampen the joy we feel for the success of this unbelievable effort, and my fervent prayer is that by tomorrow we will be rejoicing that the other five will be set free from the darkness they have lived in for far too long. But in the midst of all the emotion I feel for the Thai kids I can’t help but raise another painful concern. We simply cannot let this huge news story overshadow or distract us from the millstone being put around the necks of thousands of children by our government’s zero tolerance policy. The very term “zero tolerance” should be repulsive to us.

The separation of children from their families for political purposes, and that’s what this is, is a moral outrage; and we cannot let any other shenanigans by the President or even the Thai rescue take pressure off of Congress to find the political courage to force the administration to make reunification of these families a top priority. If the divers in Thailand can risk their very lives to save the soccer team, surely our elected officials can risk their political future to save thousands of refugee kids.

The big irony of all this is that the psychological damage being done to these kids will push them into the kind of violence and drug use that the administration claims to be so concerned about. Children need to be loved, to feel secure; they need more than basic physical needs to be met to develop into responsible, caring adults that are required when they become parents. Jesus understood how crucial loving families are, not just for now, but for future generations. He was a refugee too, and had parents who risked their lives to care for him.

No one can provide the emotional support kids need better than their families. These refugee parents risked their lives to try and escape the violence in their homeland. They love their children as much as those families waiting outside the cave in Thailand love theirs. If we can move heaven and earth to save those 12 kids and their coach, surely we can muster the compassion and political will to stop separating families and reunite all of those whose kids must feel as isolated and afraid as those trapped in that cave.

For those who don’t care, I’d stay away from millstones.

Pastoral Prayer July 1

O God of reckless love, we your children come again to drink of your life-giving spirit. We are worn down by the heat and the steady drumbeat of conflict and division in our world. Speak words of life to us in your still small voice. Renew in us the vision you have given us of a world where liberty and justice for all are realities and not just ideals. As you inspired our ancestors to risk their very lives for that dream of freedom, let our celebration of independence be a time of renewal for all who follow him who is the truth that sets us free.

Let the spectacle of fireworks not only fill us with oohs and ahs in their moment of brilliance, but let them reverberate in our hearts to energize us to be the change we want to see; to be agents of compassion and civility in our daily relationships; to build bridges over partisan divides; to brighten our little corner of the world with random acts of kindness.

As we ring the bells of freedom let us also hammer out justice all over our land. We pray for families that are divided by strife, by politics, by geographic or emotional distance. We pray for military families separated by service to our country; for health care workers, first responders, and others for whom July 4th is just another work day. We pray for the families shattered by the shooting in Annapolis and for those broken by terminal illness, dementia, addiction or grief.

Yes, we’re here, loving God, hungry for love, for good news, for community; for all those things Jesus represents for us; for the things we find in bread and cup; in every child touched by Vacation Bible School; in every brown bag lunch packed and delivered with loving hands; in every smile and hug we share with those here today. We praise and thank you for the many signs of love you give us and pray for ears and eyes to recognize those signs even in a broken world. We dare to live as Easter people with resurrection in our hearts because of the one who taught us to pray……

Like a Fatherless Child

To paraphrase an old spiritual, “Sometimes I feel like a fatherless child.” Today is my first father’s day as an orphan. My dad died 4 months ago, and I didn’t expect to feel the loss today as much as I do. My dad and I were not very close, and his last few years were not conducive to meaningful conversation. Fortunately I made a concerted effort in recent years to forgive him for the things I resented about his parenting; and we were on good terms before he died. But there is still emptiness in my heart today. He’s not where I can visit with him or call him and that hurts.

If I feel that loneliness as a 71 year-old reasonably stable adult, I can’t imagine what the immigrant kids being held by our government away from their parents in a strange country and place they’ve never seen before are feeling. It breaks my heart, and so does the legalistic mindset that says, “You do the crime, you do the time.” Yes, at times that strategy is necessary, but these kids are innocent. They didn’t come here on their own. Many are here because their parents in desperation risked arrest to flee for their lives from danger in their home countries. They threw themselves on the mercy of our country much as immigrants have done for centuries, only this time the quality of mercy has been strained to the breaking point.

The legalistic response from the current administration and especially from (I hate to admit) my fellow United Methodist Jeff Sessions reminds me of the Scribes and Pharisees who wanted to throw the book at Jesus for healing someone on the Sabbath. Yes, Jesus broke the law because he knew compassion and human decency trump the law at times. You don’t tell a person begging for healing, “Sorry, not on the Sabbath.” As Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.”

So what do we do now? Christians across the country and world have raised a hue and cry of righteous indignation, but so far the Republican President and Congress have been unmoved. Such desperate times call for desperate action. The damage being done to these children cannot go on. So here’s my suggestion to the Democratic leadership in Congress. Pay the ransom. Give the president what he wants. Pay for the stupid wall. The billions of dollars are a huge price to pay, but how do you put a price on the well-being of all the Dreamers and other children being held hostage? Pay the ransom for the sake of the fatherless and motherless kids. And then take the reins of government back in November or in 2020 and pull the funding for the worthless wall. It’s getting perilously late to save our democracy, but if a new birth of compassion is restored by the plight of these children it may be worth it.

Pastoral Prayer October 22

O God, we humbly come to you with both joys and concerns. We pray for others that we have mentioned or written on prayer cards or in the secret places in our hearts. But we also stand in the need of prayer. Sometimes we feel like we’re drowning in a sea of trouble and we want to ask “why me?” Our 24/7 access to world news seems to feed us nothing but news of suffering, abuse, conflict, and grief. When the world feels like it is going mad, please reassure us that we are in your hands.

We pray for wisdom and compassion for ourselves and for our nation’s leaders. Give us all hearts open to your guiding spirit. We pray for victims of abuse. Let us share the good news with them that there is still love and goodness in our world. We pray for those in nursing homes and those in homes where grudges are nursed. We pray for those caught in cycles of poverty or violence, for those in such pain that they turn to harmful drugs for relief.

Remind us again of our connections to all of your children. No matter who we are, no matter where we come from, regardless of our financial status, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation – we are welcome in this community of Christ’s church. No matter our differences we are all restless until we find our rest in you, O God. We do not worship or serve an unknown God but one who is the ground of our being, the source of our hope, and the guiding light of our lives.

When we rejoice let us share the credit for our good fortune with all those who make us who we are, and when we are tempted to lose hope in any part of our life, give us again the assurance that you are a personal and loving God that never abandons us. We have a deep peace in our souls because we live and move and have our being in the eternal God, our creator and sustainer.

Hear our prayers O God which we offer in the name of Christ who taught us to pray this prayer ….