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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Grounded Guerrillas of Grace

“To wed guerrilla with grace suggests that the truer cause is God’s kingdom. Since the ‘principalities and powers’ are never completely ‘out there,’ but also stomp and rumble around ‘within,’ a significant piece of the life to be reclaimed or liberated is the prayer himself or herself. In an unavoidable way the struggle begins—and begins again and again and again—with choosing sides. Choose one side and you’re a conformist; choose another and you’re a guerrilla!”
You may be surprised to know that those words were not written about the current struggle for the soul of our nation, and yet they seem as fresh as new mown hay on this Martin Luther King Jr. holiday 2020. I had not read those words for over 30 years, and reconnecting with them recently is like embracing an old friend. They are from a book of prayers entitled “Guerrillas of Grace” by Rev. Ted Loder and were published in 1981. A friend blessed me with a new copy of the book this week and as soon as I opened it I knew it was a gift from God.

My soul is weary with despair over worldly and personal concerns to the point that I am questioning the foundations of my faith again. I’ve been down that road before, and Loder’s “old” book reminded me again that while much has changed in the last 40 years, the struggle with evil in its multitude of forms is still the same as it was for Amos, Jesus, Paul, Bonhoeffer, Gandhi, Mother Theresa, and Dr. King. As it was in the first century Roman Empire these words from Ephesians 6 still ring true in the 21st century” “For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the world rulers of this present darkness…”

Even before I began rereading Loder’s book I was reminded of a song that inspired my meek guerrillaness back in the decade that Loder was compiling these prayers. I remember preaching a sermon in those days on the David and Goliath story, one that I have been drawn too as one who has always been of very small stature. I’ve since distanced myself from it because of its reliance on violence to resolve conflict, but all that aside the song it led me too was one that says:

“To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go

To right the unrightable wrong
To love pure and chaste from afar
To try when your arms are too weary
To reach the unreachable star

This is my quest, to follow that star
No matter how hopeless, no matter how far
To fight for the right
Without question or pause
To be willing to march
Into hell for a heavenly cause

And I know if I’ll only be true
To this glorious quest
That my heart will lay peaceful and calm
When I’m laid to my rest

And the world will be better for this
That one man scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To fight the unbeatable foe
To reach the unreachable star.” (“The Impossible Dream,” by Joe Darion and Mitchell Leigh)

I have certainly not lived up to that impossible dream, and I understand that none of us will ever fully conquer the principalities and powers of evil without or within ourselves in this life. That’s why we will always need guerrillas of grace to journey with us and share the power that strengthens hearts and minds arms that are too weary of the world’s woes with prayer that is in Loder’s words attentive, open, imaginative/playful, intentional, personal and corporate.

As one who lives with ambivalence as a staple of my existence I am challenged by Loder’s statement that “Ambivalence generates resistance. It is hard to get carried away when we’re hanging on tightly to the familiar.” I am also an impatient prayer. I want results yesterday if not sooner, and Loder cautions that being a guerrilla of grace “may mean being carried away as a stoker on a slow freighter.” One of my chores as an adolescent was putting coal in the stoker that fed our home’s furnace. (Yes, I am That Old!) It was a daily thankless and never-ending chore, putting coal in and taking the “clinkers” of unburned waste out of the furnace; but if I failed to do it our whole family would have been cold, pipes would freeze and life would have been dire.

I’m rambling, but I do rejoice that Loder has re-stoked my spiritual furnace with just the introduction to his book. I look forward to getting reacquainted with the prayers that follow; and I want to close by sharing the first prayer in the book, entitled “Ground Me in Your Grace.”

“Eternal One,
Silence, from whom my words come;
Questioner, from whom my questions arise;
Lover, from whom all my loves are hints;
Disturber, in whom alone I find my rest;
Mystery, in whose depths I find healing and myself;
Enfold me now in your presence;
Restore to me your peace;
Renew me through your power;
And ground me in your grace.”