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.


Vita Interruptus

One of my favorite metaphors for ministry is that it’s like being in a tank of piranhas—no one wants much of you, but everyone wants a little piece. Perhaps the best example of that is in Luke 8. There in the space of just 9 verses Jesus is interrupted three times by people who need something from him.

“Now when Jesus returned, the crowd welcomed him, for they were all waiting for him. Just then there came a man named Jairus, a leader of the synagogue. He fell at Jesus’ feet and begged him to come to his house, for he had an only daughter, about twelve years old, who was dying.” (vss. 40-42)

Jesus goes with him, and “As he went, the crowds pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years; and though she had spent all she had on physicians, no one could cure her. She came up behind him and touched the fringe of his clothes, and immediately her hemorrhage stopped. Then Jesus asked, “Who touched me?” (vss. 42-45)
Jesus blesses the woman and commends her faith, and “While he was still speaking, someone came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead; do not trouble the teacher any longer.” (vs. 49)

These were all very urgent and legitimate requests for Jesus’ time and special power: a man with a sick and then dying daughter and a woman suffering for 12 years with a hemorrhage. Pastors today have similar emergency requests for pastoral care from parishioners or community members when there is a death, accident, life threatening illness, financial crisis, or any number of things that are perceived as a crisis. And that perception is what matters. Yes the woman in Luke had been bleeding for 12 years and we might think, “Couldn’t she have waited another few hours till after Jesus’ could go heal Jairus’ daughter?” After all, while she delayed Jesus with her crisis the little girl died!

Maybe she didn’t mean to delay Jesus. Luke tells us she believed that if she could just touch his robe she would be healed. But Jesus stops and says, “Who touched me?” He felt power go out from him, and that’s important for pastors and parishioners to notice. Each time we make a genuine connection with someone in need it takes emotional and psychic energy to do so. Too many pastors and church workers fail to make time and space for self-care because there is always someone or something that needs our attention.

In Mark’s Gospel we don’t even get through the first chapter before “the whole city was gathered around the door” where Jesus was because he had healed the sick and cast out demons. (Mark 1:33). And in the very next verse Mark says, “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he (Jesus) got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” If Jesus needed spiritual renewal and self-care you can bet the rest of us do too. But the respite is short-lived. Next verse—“And Simon and his companions search for him. When they found him they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.”

Most of my ministry was done before the advent of cell phones; so I can’t imagine how much harder it is for pastors and church staff members to get away from it all in our hyper-connected world today. In the good old days one could actually “get away from the phone,” but now we are all not only available 24/7 but we are also constantly in touch with the mind-numbing, depression inducing stream of bad new and injustices around the globe. Everything is “Breaking News!” Never has the need to unplug and get away to a quiet place been more necessary.

And I know it‘s not just a clergy problem. Being able to work from home can be a blessing at times, but that convenience is a two-edged sword that can cut deeply into family time, recreation and vitally important rest and relaxation.

I have learned the hard way retirement doesn’t solve the problem either. Self-care still requires intentional and disciplined attention. For example, I have been meaning to write this post for over a week now and other things keep interrupting. Those things run the gamut from broken-down lawn mower to chronically stopped up toilet, not to mention the eight health related appointments I’ve had in the last two weeks.

I don’t practice this well, but what I’ve learned over the years is that resenting the interruptions does no good whatsoever, in fact it just makes things worse. If instead we can learn to see the interruptions as the stuff of life itself, the very opportunities to be most alive in service to others, what a difference it makes. Look at one more example from Jesus in Mark 6:
“The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them.” Their much-needed R & R is ruined, and what does Jesus do? Does he say, “Oh crap, look at all those people! I can’t take it anymore! Let’s go somewhere else.”

Not at all. Listen to what Mark says next: “When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.” Jesus embraces the interruption because his compassion was stronger than his weariness.

Where does he get that strength and compassion? Read the rest of that story. After he asks the disciples for what little bit of food they have and feeds the multitude with it, this is how the story ends: “Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray.”

Self-care for our own physical, emotional and spiritual needs is the secret to living abundantly in the reality of Vita Interruptus.


We’ve had a series of medical emergencies during Sunday morning worship at our church this winter when it was necessary to call the emergency squad.  This has happened so often we’ve thought of asking the EMT’s if they’d like to join the congregation.  After all, they’ve been more regular attendees than some of our members!

I suppose that’s why I dreamed the other night that they came again, but there was a major difference in my dream.  Instead of one ambulance, a whole herd of them arrived in our parking lot, and they loaded up the whole congregation and took us to the ER to check our congregation for signs of life.  Ironically we had just finished singing the old Methodist hymn, “And Are We Yet Live?” when we heard the first sirens.

In the ER there was another patient in the cubicle next to ours, and HIPPA privacy laws or not, I could tell from the conversation I overheard through the flimsy dividing curtain that it was another congregation.  From the pieces of conversation I got between the doctors and nurses, I knew that other patient was in trouble.  They were checking the vital signs and none sounded good:

  • Spirituality – detected in the brain but not in the heart
  • Mode of Worship– luke warm and dropping fast
  • Small group involvement – below normal
  • Loving Community relationships– compound fractures and divisions
  • Evangelism and outreach – barely detectable

Pretty soon I heard the steady hum of a heart monitor that had flatlined.  I heard someone, I guessed the hospital chaplain, explain the death by quoting parts of the New Testament letter of James.  I questioned his bedside manner, but the words rang true –“Be doers of the word and not merely hearers…Faith without works is dead.”

That got me to wondering.  When new people first enter our church building do they see those signs of life?  Do they experience the final vital sign that is our topic for today — a congregation that shares God’s gifts in ministry and service to others?

Mark 6 says the disciples came back from their mission trips and their evangelistic efforts at school and work and “reported to Jesus all that they had done and taught.”   How different would our lives and our church’s life look if we intentionally reported to Jesus every day what we did that day for the good of God’s creation and God’s children?

Please note, I celebrate all the wonderful ministries our congregation is already doing – the ones going on for years, decades, some even for the 177 years we’ve been here.  And I love the new ministries, like the Knit Wits (who make warm hats for homeless folks) or our Kids Morning Out program that reaches out to the smallest members of God’s family.     So this isn’t about a guilt trip – those don’t ever take us anywhere God wants us to be.  This is about examining our hearts to see if we are discerning correctly what God wants us to be doing here in this place as a church in 2012.

One of the Jesus tests for answering that question comes from Matthew 25 where Jesus reminds that what we do for the least of our sisters and brothers is what we do for Christ.  Sometimes the least of us go to great lengths to hide their needs from others and from God.  The least could be someone who appears to have the most.  I read in the news this week that actress Jennifer Aniston spent—are you sitting down–$141,000 last year to maintain her youthful appearance.  After being shocked and angry at what she spent on hairdressers, personal trainers, a private nutritionist, and laser peels (I don’t even want to know what that is), I wondered if anyone is also ministering to her spiritual needs.  Is anyone sharing with her the good news that God loves her just the way she is without spending all that time and money on her exterior image?

The ministry of gifts is the rubber meets the road vital sign for the church.  Health professions measure our health by checking blood pressure and heart rate, weight and cholesterol.  What yard stick do we use to check how alive we are as a congregation?  Is it good enough to be doing better than the Presbyterians or Baptists?  Or more than our unbelieving friends and neighbors?  Sorry, Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook that easily.  Jesus himself is the gold standard, the best model of servanthood and the sharing of gifts.

Look at how Jesus lives that out in the familiar miracle story of the feeding of the 5000.   First, Jesus sees the crowd as they get off the boat on the way to a much-needed spiritual retreat.  Mark tells us that Jesus and the disciples were so busy ministering to the crowds who pressed in upon them to be healed and taught that they “had no time even to even eat.”  That’s way too busy.  Jesus sees the weariness and the need for a time away to rest and renew.  So they get in a boat to cross the lake, but the crowds saw them leaving and started texting and tweeting to their friends; so when Jesus and the disciples got to their destination to get away from it all – it was all there waiting for them.

How does Jesus respond to the needs of the crowds clamoring for time with him?  What we’d expect – he sees they are like sheep without a shepherd and he has compassion on them.  That’s all well and good.  I have compassion every time I see a homeless person standing by a freeway off ramp holding a “will work for food” sign.   I pray for them or even give a little cash, but then I quickly move on to my intended destination.  Not so our mentor servant Jesus.  He responds to the need he sees and postpones the R&R he and his boys really needed and were counting on.  He sees and feels the spiritual hunger of the crowd, and he teaches them.  He doesn’t toss a pious platitude to them or say “take two proverbs and call me in the morning.”   He sits down and listens to them, teaches them until the sun begins to set and his disciples interrupt to say it’s time for supper.

Ok, another need has arisen, this time not spiritual but physical hunger.  Notice the difference between Jesus’ response to this need and that of the disciples.  The disciples are anxious to get on with their own agenda.  They say, “Let’s send them over to Chipotle or Subway so they can buy themselves some food.”  “ Nope,” says the Lord.  He looks Peter and John and the others right in the eye, and he says, “YOU give them something to eat.”     And what does he get from the disciples?  Excuses.  “We don’t have that kind of bread, Jesus; we’ve barely got enough for ourselves.  There must be 5000 of them.  We can’t possibly feed them all!”

Jesus says, “Go, and see what you’ve got.  Check out your available resources.”  Jesus asks us to take that kind of inventory too.  What do we put on our list?  We don’t think about all the gifts we have as a congregation.  The big ones are obvious – the music program, the mission trips, the weekly trips to serve a meal to the homeless, Sunday school teachers & youth leaders, committee chairs – but what about the gift of a friendly smile to a stranger, the ministry of calling a child by name so she knows she matters, setting up chairs for worship, rocking an infant in the nursery.  And the ministry of gifts is an even more effective witness when we do it away from the church building.  Forgiving a rude driver on the road or giving up your spot in line at Kroger’s to a harried father with 3 squirmy pre-schoolers in tow – those are gifts of ministry to God’s children.  And let’s not overlook the gifts of ministry children offer us –their curiosity, pure innocent honesty, exuberance and energy.  In the Gospel of John’s version of this miracle (John 6) the food Jesus uses to feed the masses comes from a little boy in the crowd.

It is a gift to grow food for the hungry in your garden or to lead a community organization, mobilizing efforts to change things in our society and world that are unjust or just plain wrong.  We all have unique gifts,  and our call is to take whatever God has gifted each of us with and re-gift it to those who need it.

So the disciples report back to Jesus with a meager 5 loaves and 2 fish.   They give it to Jesus; he blesses it – offers it to God and has the disciples share it with the crowd.  Not only does everybody get food to eat, Mark tells us that they all are satisfied.  And not only that, there are enough leftovers to feed the next hungry people already coming down the road.

In the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 7), Jesus says, people will know us by our fruits.  [I held up a beautiful large red apple in one hand and a very black, over-ripe banana in the other]  What kind of fruit do we want to be known for?

Remember we’re not talking about buying new expensive gifts, just sharing the talents we already have.  When he feeds the multitude, Jesus doesn’t ask the disciples for more than they have – that would be terribly unfair, but he does ask us to trust him with ALL that we have – whatever that may be.  There’s a great example of the miraculous results the  spontaneous ministry of gifts can have in a short documentary on you tube about a little known part of the events of 9/11.  “Boatlift: The Untold Story of 9/11 Resilience” tells how immediately after the towers collapsed thousands of frightened people were desperate to get away from ground zero.  They had no idea what other attacks might be coming.  But the subways and bridges were all shut down, and as the film’s narrator Tom Hanks says, “Many people realized for the first time that Manhattan is an island.”  The miracle is that 500,000 people were evacuated from Manhattan in just 9 hours by a group of volunteer tug boat and ferry boat captains who saw a need and put out a radio plea for other boats to join them.  They had no plan, no organizational chart.  Dozens of good people simply decided to share the resources they had available – no more, no less – and their gifts bore great fruit.  (For the full story, go to

When they do the EKG to check on the heartbeat of Jesus followers at Jerome Church, what fruits will they know us by?   What can we report to Jesus that we have done in the past and will do today to feed the spiritual and physical hungers of his children?

The bottom line is this – when the time comes for Jesus to check my spiritual vital signs he’s not going to ask me why I didn’t take my canoe to help with the boatlift on 9/11, or why I didn’t sing like Josh Groban, or minister to the desperately poor like Mother Theresa.  Those gifts belong to others, not me.   All Jesus is going to want to know is if I’ve been the best Steve Harsh I could be and used the gifts and talents God gave me to show God’s love and mercy to my sisters and brothers

Jesus will remind me that life isn’t Facebook.  We can’t just push a button and unfriend the annoying or the needy.  We are called to share the gifts of ministry with them all, the least and the most of them – the poor and the poor in spirit — to share with them all the gifts we’ve been given.  And when we do, miracles happen, and it is more than enough.