Faith for a Pandemic

Like many of you I have had a hard time tearing myself away from all the bad news about the corona virus. Maybe it’s just gallows humor or the old “laugh to keep from crying” strategy, but I have been trying to combat all the fear and trembling with humor. For example when the local news came on at lunch time today with “Breaking News” about another day of the Dow plunging like a lead balloon I found myself singing an old song from the 1960’s. Yes, I’m in the “at risk geezer group” for Covid-19, and that also means I remember song lyrics from my youth better than what I did yesterday.

The song for today begins with one of those profound lines: “Down dooby doo down down
Comma, comma, down dooby doo down down.” And reflecting on my disappearing retirement portfolio I changed the next lines to say,

“Going Broke ain’t hard to do.
Don’t take my funds away from me,
Don’t leave me broke in misery.
Don’t say that this is the end!
Instead of going broke
I wish that we were getting rich again.”

My apologies to Neil Sedaka and a lot of other artists who recorded “Breaking Up is Hard to Do,” and assurance that I was home alone and didn’t inflict my lousy singing voice onto any other living creatures. Although if Alexa was listening she may have been traumatized.
On a more serious note the Scripture that is running through my head today is one from the Sermon on the Mount:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21)

Times of crisis force us to examine what really matters in life, what is really of lasting value. As all kinds of sporting events, performances, concerts and other gatherings are being cancelled we can use the time we normally would have spent there to reflect, pray and ponder where our treasures really are. Unlike most other parts of the world many of us Americans don’t really know what it’s like to “walk in the valley of the shadow of death.” (Psalm 23:4) Words of Scripture in times like these can become more than pious platitudes and be words of hope and assurance when fear threatens to shake the foundations of our faith.

So one suggestion for these troubled times is to be grateful for the gift of time to meditate on the real treasures of life. Give thanks for extra time with family, for time to check on your elderly neighbor. Formal worship services are being cancelled in some places as a valid precautionary measure, but that doesn’t mean we can’t worship wherever we are in whatever way nourishes our souls. Take time every time you feel the tentacles of fear taking hold to just breathe deeply and “Be still and know” you are embraced by the ground of all being that is bigger, stronger and more enduring than this or any crisis we will ever face.

Numbers

Numbers – corona virus up, stock market way down, my weight up and even my clocks confused about what time it is. The only good number is on the thermometer, and I’ll certainly take that; but I need more to shore up the shaky foundations of my faith.
And so I turn to Psalm 46 where there are no numbers because faith cannot be measured or quantified. God’s power and presence is eternal and infinite. We can’t see it or prove it. The source of our being is above and beyond any human metrics. We just have to take a leap of faith and trust, not because of things we can count or measure – but in spite of them.

“God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.”

Sabbatical

I just finished “Sabbath as Resistance,” an excellent book by Walter Brueggemann. It was written a few years ago but is as timely as today’s headlines in our consumer driven, workaholic world. Brueggemann closes the book with reflections on Psalm 73, and I want to quote what he has to say about verse 23 of that Psalm: “Nevertheless I am continually with you; you hold my right hand.”

Brueggemann’s commentary on that verse goes like this: “This is no casual hand-holding. This is a life-or-death grip that does not let go. ‘No-Sabbath’ existence imagines getting through on our own, surrounded by commodities to accumulate and before which to bow down. But a commodity cannot hold one’s hand. Only late does the psalmist come to know otherwise. Only late may we come to know, but likely not without Sabbath rest, rooted in God’s own restfulness and extended to our neighbors who also must rest. We, with our hurts, fears and exhaustion, are left restless until then.” (Emphasis added)

Hurt, fearful and exhausted – describes me to a tee as the bitter conflicts over church and national politics have me so tied up in knots I feel like a pressure cooker about to blow a gasket. Yes, I badly need a sabbatical. Not because I don’t care about the fate of the world, but because I care too much. Therefore at the suggestion of my dear wife who has to live with my depression and anger I am hereby vowing to do the following for at least a week and perhaps longer. This may be my jump starting Lent 17 days early–because when we find ourselves in the wilderness can’t always be neatly scheduled on the calendar.
For the next 7 days:

1) I will not begin my day by reading or listening to the morning news. (Doing so has been my morning ritual for all of my adult life. My dad was a newspaper man. I delivered a morning newspaper as a kid. Newspapers have been a part of my life forever; so this will not be easy.)

2) Instead I will begin my day with spiritual and physical exercise of some kind, after my first cup of coffee of course.

3) I will temporarily snooze my most ardent Facebook friends on either side of the great American political divide, refrain from posting or writing any political words, memes or blogs; and stop listening to political news and talk radio in my car.

I thank you in advance for your prayers as I begin this sabbatical. Pray that I can let go of trying to control my life so God can, and feel free to help hold me accountable in any way you like—even if I act like I don’t want you to.

In the name of the one who always has me by the hand, even when I squirm and try to pull away like an indignant two-year-old, Amen.

New Year Epiphany Prayer

O gracious God of endings and beginings, the new year gives us a chance to reflect on our goals and recommit to aligning our will with yours. The new year is a time to let go of regrets and guilt that hold us back, and so we offer them now to you.
January is a time for new hope in old dreams–dreams that cannot be fulfilled with our puny new year’s resolutions. The challenges facing our world require revolutionary thoughts and action. Please show us the way to be revolutionary agents of love, peace and justice for all of your children.

We confess, Lord, that we often lose our way in the dark. Our hopes for the new year can get swallowed up in the darkness of last year’s problems and regrets. We are heartsick about the terrible fires in Australia, about our failure to be good stewards of your creation. We pray also today for our Jewish sisters and brothers and an end to hateful anti-Semitism. And we pray also for those full of hate that their hearts will be changed by the Light of the World.

We are also saddened by the endless cycle of war and revenge that breeds more violence. We pray for the troops and their families, and we pray for President Trump and the leaders of Iran and Iraq. Give them wisdom and direction from your Holy Spirit that they will be able to reduce tensions and bring peace to that war-weary part of your world.

The journey to peace in our world and in our hearts is long and hard, Lord. It’s full of detours, obstacles and false idols like King Herod. The light of your Son seems too often to be hidden by worldly darkness. We pray that you would save us from false promises of an easy way to your kingdom. Grant us courage and faith to persevere and follow your true North Star that always leads us home to you.

We know that we will never solve every problem the forces of evil put in our way, but don’t let that discourage us. Don’t let it stop us from making life better for those we can. Let us be mirrors that reflect the Light of the World to those searching in the darkness and lead them to the one who comes to show us how to live, how to love and how to pray.

Holy Roller Coaster Whiplash

Diana and I went with some family members recently to an amusement park-first time in years, and I had no intention of riding anything wilder than a Ferris Wheel. But you know how peer pressure is even at my advanced age. So I rode a couple of the “milder” coasters, and I use that term loosely. I opted out of things that went upside down but discovered that the old wooden coasters bang you around even more than some of the newer ones. One called the Blue Streak finished me off, and I was glad to find my head still attached to my body when it was done slamming me first one way and then the other.

That’s how I feel about consuming news in any form these days. We all know the stock market has had more dips and plunges in the last two weeks than most coasters, but trying to keep up with the shifting sands and contradictions coming from the White House has been equally disorienting.

In just two weeks we’ve had 3 mass shootings, on-again off-again Chinese tariffs, strange talk about buying Greenland and a cancelled state visit to Denmark. More EPA regulations have been shredded; background checks have been on the table again and off once more. The Emma Lazarus poem on Lady Liberty has been rewritten, as have rules now allowing the indefinite incarceration of migrant children, and the aforementioned stock market highs and lows.

With that entire dizzying blur of reality coming at me I need to pray. Yes, I know “thoughts and prayers” have become a pious platitude that sometimes excuses inaction, but like that seat belt holding me into the roller coaster I need a solid grounding in something bigger and stronger than my puny self before I can even begin to know how to put thoughts and prayers into action. So, let us pray:

O God, I feel you calling me to a higher place where things will make more sense than the crazy world I’m living in. I love that feeling of being embraced in your presence. I feel you near me in summer nights when even the crickets are chirping your glory. I sleep securely in the faith that you never rest from watching over your children. A new day dawns in all its splendor, but then we crest that first big hill and the bottom drops out. The news is about bullet proof backpacks for innocent children and others who are frightened, alone, bereft of parents and life necessities because they come from the wrong side of an imaginary line we humans have drawn to divide some of your children from others.

The roller coaster of life careens around corners where we look for active shooters, past free-falling retirement accounts, endangered species, and climate refugees. We grasp at anything to hang on to as we fly up another hill only to plunge again into the abyss of loneliness and insecurity. We dare to open our eyes long enough to catch a glimpse of sisters and brothers hungering for food and others fighting the demons of addiction. We want to reach out to them, but we’re too afraid for our own safety to let go and extend a hand.

Values like compassion and kindness that we have relied on forever seem to be no more. Everyone is too busy hanging on for dear life to pay attention to fellow passengers on the coaster. We are connected and share a common fate, and yet we feel isolated and alone, helpless and at the mercy of those who build and operate the ride. We are only passengers, out of control.

Some people seem to like the chaos, the adrenaline rush, but it is too much, too fast for me. My mind can’t make sense of the 24/7 news cycle that bombards me with yet more natural and unnatural disasters. When will it stop? I don’t know if I can take it much longer, Lord! Are you on the coaster with us? Does it look less frightening from your perspective, wherever you are?

And then this part of the ride is over. We jerk to a stop and emerge on wobbly legs back into the broken world we call home; and soon we are searching for another escape from whatever new catastrophe awaits if we dare turn on the news again.

I need a sabbatical, a place of respite from the daily drama of Breaking News. But the world is too much like the amusement park, all noise and lights. I can’t see the Milky Way because light pollution robs me of the awesomeness of the universe. Traffic noise, cell phone notifications, construction crews bulldozing yet more trees and paving over more of Mother Earth. Make it stop, Lord! I can’t hear your still small voice above the din, and I have never needed to hear it more.

Oh, let me find that inner stillness, that holiness of true communion with you that transcends my fear, that smooths out the highs and lows of life, and calms my troubled soul so I can let go of my security blankets and extend an open hand to my sisters and brothers.

I am still, and you are God; and that’s all I need to know. Amen

Moon Shot Memories

Fifty years ago this week, like most people who could I was glued to my little black and white TV watching coverage of Apollo 11’s journey to the moon. By a quirk of fate I happened to be living that summer of ’69 on Kelly Drive in my hometown. I was working that summer after my first year of seminary as the associate pastor of the church I grew up in. Kelly Dr. has been renamed since then, not because I lived there, but because the house the church rented for us that summer was next door to Steve and Viola Armstrong, parents of the first man on the moon. So Neil’s “one step” was especially memorable for me, living on what is now Armstrong Drive.

While I’m enjoying reliving that exciting time this week I am also feeling cowardly for not being more prophetic in my ministry all these years. Neil risked his life flying fighter jets in Korea, as a test pilot for experimental rocket planes, regaining control when his Gemini 8 was tumbling through space in a near fatal spiral, and of course commanding Apollo 11. And what have I ever risked for fear of conflict with others who see things differently, who in the 1960’s and still today shout “America, Love it or Leave It” at any who dare to offer honest criticism of our country?

The moon shot helped unite a badly broken country briefly for 8 days in July of ’69, but that was also a year after the MLK and RFK assassinations and the My Lai Massacre in Viet Nam. The country was plagued by civil rights and anti-war protests, the prelude to students being killed at Kent State and Jackson State the following year. And 50 years later it is so discouraging to see us reverting back to hate and division at this stage of my life.

And so I ask myself what difference have I made? The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice but it gets twisted like a pretzel on the way. Neil took one giant leap for (hu)mankind but came home to a broken world that is more fractured and battered now than ever. But the real question is not what I’ve done in the last 50 years for justice and mercy, but what do I do now, today and in the future? How do I deal with my thorns in the flesh and the drain of time and energy they demand of me when there is so much I want to write, say, and shout from the rooftops?

Hamlet’s question “To Be or Not to Be?” or Descartes’ assessment of human life, “I Think therefore I Am” don’t go far enough. Thinking doesn’t change anything, and just “being” as in existence means no more than the life of a hamster in wheel going nowhere. The question is what will I be, what will I become or do with however much time I have left? What am I willing to risk? I gave money yesterday to support our church’s brown bag lunch ministry and that was painless and easy – but I haven’t taken time to go pack one lunch or deliver one brown bag because I’m too busy stringing and unstringing my instrument instead of playing a tune; mowing my lawn, cooking my meals, shopping for stuff or stretching my old achy muscles.

Is that the report I want to give to God about what I’ve done to win the battle in my sector? No pain no gain doesn’t just apply to exercise – it also means that without risk and moving out of my comfort zone I don’t grow and don’t influence anyone else. God’s question to Elijah on Mt. Horeb is the same question she has for me and everyone – “What are you doing here?” “Don’t whine and tell me Jezebel is out to get you and you are the only one left. Go enlist Elisha and other allies. You’re not done till I say so.”

THE CLOCK IS TICKING

Nothing confronts us humans more with the deep mystery of life than our own awareness of our mortality. Woody Allen once said, “I don’t mind dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” By contrast one of my favorite and most challenging Scripture texts is this one in Luke 2 when Jesus is 8 days old:

“Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”

I confess I am more like Woody than Simeon, and life and death are full of countless examples of those opposing approaches to the grave. Dylan Thomas famously said,
“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Contrast that with Elijah passing his mantel on to Elisha and ascending into the clouds. In my own family we witnessed the stark difference between my mother-in-law who was content and peaceful as her last days approached and my father who fought against the inevitable as long as he could.

I’m not sure what to make of this, but I think the clue to contentment is found in Simeon’s surrender when he says, 29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation…” Simeon had accomplished his life’s purpose. He was looking forward to Israel’s consolation and believed God’s promise that he would not taste death until that purpose had been fulfilled.

What is the purpose of how we spend the dash between our date of birth and date of death? That’s a question all of us must wrestle with ourselves. We can ask God’s guidance and seek the counsel of wise mentors, but ultimately the choice is ours. What shall we live for? Are we human beings or human doings? Do we spend our lives in pursuit of things that do not satisfy our souls? Are we so caught up if making a living that we fail to make a significant life?

Since this is Super Bowl weekend let me share this analogy. Even casual football fans know that football time is not real clock time. The final minutes and seconds of a game can fly by or they can drag on forever depending on which team is ahead and who has the ball. If my team is behind they will do everything they can to stop the clock after every play – run out of bounds, spike the ball, call a time out, fake an injury, challenge a call, etc. Many a football widow knows how long it can be from the 2 minute warning till the final gun.

But if the team with the ball is ahead the exact opposite strategy is employed. They will run the ball so the clock keeps ticking after the play. They will stay inbounds; they will run the play clock almost down to zero on each play to use up as many seconds as possible before snapping the ball.

What’s the difference in these two scenarios? Team A is desperate to score again because they have not achieved their purpose which is to win the game. Team B is content to let the end come ASAP because they are ahead – they have fulfilled their purpose and accomplished their mission.

What does the scoreboard of your life say? Are you ahead or behind? Are you accomplishing your purpose or still striving to get to the goal line? I’ll be going to two funerals this week- one of the deceased was in her 80’s, the other just 50. Both dedicated their lives to helping others in personal and professional ways. Both were people of vision and compassion. One slipped gradually toward death over several months, but the other died suddenly leaving many of us again to wonder why.

I simply do not know. Maybe someday I will see clearly what is now only a dim reflection in a foggy mirror. But this much I do know, both Judy and Joe have left a hole in the human fabric; and it is part of my purpose and yours to pick up their mantle. The world will little note nor long remember who wins Super Bowl LIII, but if we want to win the game of life and be content to depart in peace whenever our time comes, we must all trust in God’s promise and make our game plan congruent with God’s will.