Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

Love in the Time of COVID: It’s not what you think

Image of an infant hand holding onto the finger of an adult hand

I wonder what church would be like if we dropped everything except the two greatest commandments. What would worship be like if it was focused on expressing our love for God with all our hearts, souls, and minds? What would kinship and missions be like if we focused all our activities on loving our neighbors as ourselves? This would be a new reformation that I could get behind. If an activity doesn’t focus on love in one way or another, then it probably isn’t necessary to life of the church. Don’t get me wrong, this focus on love, both divine and human, isn’t easy and much of society doesn’t support love as a foundation for all human action.

Jesus doesn’t speak casually of love the way we do today. We love chocolate. We love TV shows. We love our spouses. We love good food. We love time at the beach. We use the word for all the things we enjoy whether it’s simple enjoyment or deep emotional and spiritual connection, the word is the same – love. Jesus had a few alternatives to choose from and I’m convinced he chose his words carefully. He used the word agape. Yes, this is the kind of unconditional, steadfast love that God has for us. Jesus set his expectation of humanity high. He wants us to live into, strive for, this same kind of love. You know, here on earth as it is in heaven. It’s a goal and an invitation to start the journey. It’s only impossible if we rely only on ourselves. In community, it might just be possible to embody Christ in such a way that agape becomes a reality.

I don’t know what your experience has been during this pandemic. Mine has been one marked by privilege for sure. I have been able to stay home, work from home, and have most things I need delivered. I haven’t lost anyone close to me to the virus. On the other hand, I have struggled with feeling powerless when I’ve had to offer pastoral care virtually rather than in person. I’ve had to stay home and offer support when there were protests I would ordinarily have been a part of. I’ve had bouts of irritability no doubt caused by essentially being confined to my house and not being able to go back East to visit the ocean and friends, many of whom comprise my family of choice. This being said, pandemic has given me profound insight into a part of myself I didn’t know existed.

While I have had health concerns most of my life, I never considered myself to be limited by them. No matter how I was feeling, I did what needed to be done. I pushed through pain or fatigue or other symptoms. I always presented myself as fine. Since I have multiple risk factors for COVID-19, I have had to stay home, stay away from people. No more trips to the grocery store. No more working from the office. No more in person gatherings or meetings for any purpose. I have been forced to face my own ableist views. Masking the symptoms of my illness and pretending I am fine all the time, perpetuates the myth that if you look fine then you are fine. This way of denying my physical health needs reveals a less than loving attitude toward myself and toward my neighbors who may also have an invisible or visible disability. I am working toward being more kind and gentle with myself, and being more honest about my physical health. If I can love others who have disabilities, then I can love myself.

My personal revelation has made me more sensitive to the ways in which church has been ableist centered as well. A year ago we said that we couldn’t manage online services because the technology was too expensive or too complicated. Look at us now. Most congregations have figured out how to have online worship, kinship, and educational activities. Some of us even plan to keep online worship as an option when we are able to meet in person again as a way to include those for whom actually getting to worship is a challenge. Making it easier to be part of a worshiping community is the goal here. It is the loving thing to do – love for God and love for neighbor.

Jesus spoke an invitation, a vision for how life could be for those of us who follow him. My example of ableism and how it permeates our society and the church, is just one way in which we have not been faithful followers, not embodying love for all our neighbors. Imagine a world where we each respond to Jesus’ invitation to love without condition, to love fiercely and constantly. This amazing vision Jesus had for humanity where we love God, ourselves, and all of our neighbors with the kind of steadfast love God has for us is still possible. The invitation is still echoing through the generations. We can claim it and begin the journey of building this world in which all people have value because they are God’s beloved. It’s not too late and it begins with us, as church, embodying the love made known to us in Jesus. The vision is beautiful and it won’t become reality if we all don’t get busy living it. And don’t worry about those times when we fail because there is grace enough to cover us all. After all, we’ve been blanketed in God’s grace for more generations than we can remember.

For all the suffering that 2020 has brought, maybe we can make it the year we began to embody agape for real… Then maybe, in a hundred years or so, historians might look back at this time as another Reformation…

RCL: Year A Twenty-first Sunday After Pentecost October 25, 2020 Deuteronomy 34:1-12 with Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17 or
Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 with Psalm 1 and
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Matthew 22:34-46

Photo: CC0image by Bonnie Kolarik

Categories
Poetry

The Backside of God: somewhere between prayer and poetry

Image of frost on glass with a blue-gray background with orange light nearer the top
The Backside of God

This season rests heavily upon the earth
pressed down on us with waves of sickness
made unforgettable by loss of life, of livelihood, of loved ones, of safe harbor
driven home by super storms swirling with ever-increasing force
and wild fires devouring acre after acre
letting scorched and scarred earth speak for itself
 
In the daylight I watch sets of leaves fall in synchronous circles
joining the growing, glowing throng of their siblings
when night falls as it does I am startled by
scuttling sounds of leaves chased down the empty street by autumn winds
under the weight of the season I am comforted by the scurrying scuttle
the ordinariness of the sounds
 
Then snow falls out of season, portents of winter yet to come
erasing the memories of rainbows stretching over a muddy river
heightening the distant dogs barking their warnings and welcomings
magnifying the angry neighbors shouting over the opinion of others
lifting up politicians making promises demonizing their opponents, losing sight of democracy
pandemic strengthening its hold, targeting the vulnerable and devalued ones
 
Between autumn and winter, winds blow, storms rage with unfamiliar intensity
God’s absence floods the spaces
between hope and despair,
life and death,
lies and promises,
guilt and liberation,
sickness and healing
 
In the chaos desperation thrives, feeding on anger and hatred, hopelessness and isolation
leaves crunching underfoot give voice to yearning for rest, renewal, a fallow time,
a dormancy that will yield new life in due time
 
In this time between what is and what will be God is present
in the harsh winds and caressing breezes
in the sun, the rain, and the intricacy of each snowflake in season and out
in the frenzy of nut collecting squirrels and the determined dogs seeking to deter themi
in the cat purring on my lap and the geese calling out their journey south
in the rainbows and the rivers
in the space between neighbors where love abides
in the hands that mark ballot ovals
in the healers and hope-bearers
in the prophets and the poets
in the moments of stillness
in the cacophony of nature
in the recognition of Mars shining pink in the night sky
in death and in life
 
Yet, we often fail to notice
mistake stillness for absence
or patient waiting for our attention for a lack of care
 
How often we miss God passing by in every moment!
If we pay attention, we might be lucky enough to catch a hindsight glimpse
of Love
of Glory
of Grace
of Healing
of Hope
of New Life
of Forgiveness
of New beginnings
of kindness
of Justice
of Transformation
 
of an opportunity for us all to live better trusting God’s presence in every moment
honoring God’s desire for us to live in service to all our neighbors
and embody Divine Love when we feel it
and when we don’t
 
If we want to see more than the backside of God
we can take time to read the book of Creation
and look one another in the eyes
 
a moment of Grace is all it takes to discover Christ within us
a moment of stillness is all it takes to discover God around us
a moment of compassion is all it takes to discover the Spirit among us
 
Hindsight is fine
seeking God in the depths, the heights, and the extraordinary in-between
might be better

RCL: Year A Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost October 18, 2020 Exodus 33:12-23 with Psalm 99 or
Isaiah 45:1-7 with Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13)
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Matthew 22:15-22

Photo: CC0image by Bonnie Kolarik

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

A Change of Clothing

Image of a hiker overlooking a mountain trail

I’m taking a class on discernment this fall as part of a graduate certificate program in spiritual direction. Up until now I had always considered discernment as the process of making big life decisions and was startled to discover that discernment is best when it is an intentional part of daily life. I say “intentional” because many of us engage in discernment without conscious thought. However, think of the possibilities if we were to all intentionally seek out what God desires for us in every day. I don’t mean in a ritualistic way that can become rote practice. I mean in a way that takes us deep within ourselves to discover the Holy and allows us to draw that holiness out into our daily lives. We would be better equipped to care for our neighbors, ourselves, and the planet.

In the context of discernment, Paul’s words to the church in Philippi make far more sense. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (4:4-7). If we are reaching for the Holy that lies within us every day, then it is easier to connect with the Holy around us. Rejoicing in the Lord always becomes a very real possibility. Then we can pray with gratitude and open the way for peace to flood our lives. It’s not as easy as it is simple, of course. Yet, this speaks to a yearning of my spirit and maybe to yours as well.

These days it is not easy to find peace, and if we find it, it is fleeting. This is likely because we think peace and passivity are linked. However, it is possible to act out of peacefulness. It is possible to be guided by passion and cling to the peace that Paul wrote about. Even in pandemic, it is possible to seek peace in our lives and offer peace to our neighbors. The key is to avoid getting caught up in the fear and chaos that abounds.

Remember the Israelites in their desert wanderings? As soon as Moses was gone from them for a few days they demanded that Aaron make a god they could see and touch. While I don’t think many of us are creating golden calves, we are often lured away to worship gods of our own making. These are the gods that thrive on fear and chaos and gain power in our distress. The path to worshiping these demanding gods is much easier to follow than the path of the God who desires us to be at peace in ourselves and in the world. Is it possible for any of us to sit still long enough to (re)discover the holiness that is our very core? Is it possible for us to pull away from the chaos and fear that so easily grasps our attention and focus on what is good and kind and beneficial to all?

I think so. Jesus certainly believed it was possible. Why tell the parable of the wedding banquet if Jesus didn’t believe that we are capable of seeking what is good? We have been invited to a feast and we often fail to attend. When we are summoned, when we feel the pull of the Spirit, it is best we follow. There is a seat at the table for all. However, we cannot go clothed with our ego and our own desires. We must go with clothed with the peace of Christ, with humility, with love. It is better we ignore the invitation than go without the proper clothing.

Discernment, looking for the pull of the Spirit, seeking the banquet invitation, is a daily activity the deserves more of our attention. We might find ourselves in strange company if we genuinely ask what God would have us do on a daily basis. We might discover that we have a whole new wardrobe to wear as we offer ourselves in service to our neighbors, to God. Isn’t it time we leave behind the ways of idol worship? We need not wander in the wilderness of fear, anxiety, hatred, or violence any longer. There is truly a better way. I intend to seek it out. Will you join me?

RCL – Year A – Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 11, 2020
Exodus 32:1-14 with Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23 or
Isaiah 25:1-9 with Psalm 23
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

Photo: CC0image by Dariusz Staniszewski

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

On Being a Vineyard Worker

Image: squash plants over growing the garden edge with two nearly ripe squashes visible

It’s no secret that I’m not much of a gardener. Last spring, like many others, I planted more than usual.  Or, at least, I tried. None of the herbs I tried to grow from seed succeeded because I started them too late and transferred them outside before they were strong enough. The tomatoes I grew from seed were also started too late and aren’t going to bear any fruit this season. The jalapeno plant gave me one pepper in the early summer and is now covered in blossoms. The zucchini plants gave one zucchini and promptly died. The cucumber has been trying all summer and only know has a one cucumber that might be ready before the first frost. The tomato, basil, thyme, oregano, and lavender plants purchased in late May have done all right. My garden is a mystery, really. I don’t understand why some things grew and others did not and still others are just growing now.

Let me tell you about the squash, though. Butternut squash to be exact. I saved the seeds from a squash we ate in late March when I realized that I wouldn’t be able to go to the store to buy any seeds and most places were already sold out of seeds. I ended up planting six seeds. Four in large containers and two in my small garden. It turns out that the large containers were not large enough and the squash has done little more than produce small leafy vines with a few blossoms all summer. However, the two I planted in what had been a small herb garden just went wild. I’ve never seen anything grow like this squash. It managed to hold it’s own against the mint that has been slowly taking over my entire yard. Not only have these two plants produced amazing vines, they have also produced actual squash. I’ve picked four already and there are many more that will be ready soon. Who would have guessed that these squash would grow so abundantly with virtually no help from me?

Image of fall squash leaves with two young squash visible

I wish working in God’s vineyard was more like growing squash. I wish it was as easy as saving some seeds, planting them, watching them grow, and then harvesting the results. Working in God’s vineyard is more like my failed container garden where only the basil was truly happy. The basil and the one pepper and the late cucumber. This vineyard work is not for the selfish of the faint of heart. Some days the hours are long with no noticeable difference. Some days the labor is heartbreaking and full of grief. Yet, there are the days of joy when seeds take root and begin to grow.

We are meant to be the caretakers, the gardeners. We are meant to be the ones who make way for the mysteries of new life and growth and fruit-bearing. The vineyard is not ours. The results of our labors are not ours. It can be so hard not to claim ownership when one has worked so long and so hard. This vineyard tending is tough because it isn’t really about us at all and whose ego wants to hear that? As soon as we start thinking it’s about us, we put everything in jeopardy.

Some days I’m afraid that I am no better tending God’s vineyard than I am at gardening. What I think will grow doesn’t. What I think will flourish withers in the sun. And then I’m surprised by what blooms later than expected and what bears fruit when it appeared to have no life left in it. Sometimes I over water and other times I don’t water enough and I still haven’t sorted that out after decades of this work. Some days I’m like the worker who promises to show up and never does. Other days I’m like the one who said they weren’t going to be there and then showed up late in the day. And, you know, I’ll confess that I can’t always tell a weed from what’s supposed to be growing.

I’ll also confess that there are days when I wonder if all the labor, the time, the heartache is worth the harvest that will one day be. It can take me a while to remember that it isn’t about me, this work I’ve been called to do. Then I remember that this vineyard is cultivated for the sake of my neighbors, particularly those who have been ignored, dismissed, or devalued. The vineyard is cultivated with justice and love, grace and forgiveness. It’s meant to be a glimpse of the abundance that is to come. I am just a caretaker. I do not have to understand all the mysteries of growth, of failure, of flourishing, of dying, of new seeds sprouting, and of old ones bearing fruit.

I will keep working in this vineyard, trusting that I am not alone and this work will bring more life than I can know. I pray for the strength, courage, and wisdom to keep tending these strong and fragile vines. I pray everyone at work in this vineyard. We are not the first tenders and we will not be the last. The best news, though, is that we are not alone in this sacred, mysterious, awe-filled work we have been called into.

Image of late season cucumber surrounded by green leaves with hints of brown

RCL – Year A – Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 with
Psalm 19 or
Isaiah 5:1-7 with Psalm 80:7-15
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

Photo: CC-BY-NC image by Rachael Keefe

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

In Search of God’s Good Pleasure

Image: a field crowded with sunflowers in full bloom

Anger. Outrage. Despair. These feelings coursed through my body, and linger even now. At first I heard that none of the officers involved in Breonna Taylor’s murder were indicted. Then I saw that one officer was charged with “wanton endangerment.” Not because Breonna Taylor died. Rather, because the other bullets endangered Breonna’s white neighbors. It is no wonder that uprisings are happening in Louisville and other cities. If I were not high risk for COVID-19, I would be out on the streets protesting police brutality, state sanctioned murder. It is hard for me to stay at home and do nothing other than pray and write.

How much more blood has to fill our streets before we recognize that our militarized policing system, which grew out of slave catching, has no place in civilized society. And the criminal legal system is no better. The officer was indicted for the bullets that threatened white neighbors, not for the bullets that ended Breonna’s life. There is no justice to be had here. Police need to be held accountable for the lives they have stolen from POC.

Yes, as white people we are conditioned to call police when we feel we are in danger. There is so much wrong with this. What constitutes danger? Surely, it has to be more than the presence of someone whose skin is not white. And police cannot continue to justify their murdersome ways by claiming that they fear for their lives. This is ridiculous. This white supremacist nonsense is lethal to too many of our neighbors. It must stop. How do we not remember that Jesus had brown skin and would be targeted by police in this country if he were alive and speaking truth to power today?

In Philippians, Paul calls us to account: Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus… (2:3-5) Notice there are no qualifiers here. If we have true humility, we regard others is if they were better than we are – all others not just white others. Moreover, their interests are to be attended to before our own. Those police officers and D.A.s who call themselves Christians seem to forget this when they “fear for their lives.” And the mind that was in Christ, the mind that ought to be in the church as the Body of Christ, is a mind of Love. This Love views all human beings as beloved. Shouldn’t we?

Elections are weeks away. While I’m sure most people have decided for whom they will vote, there is yet time to prayerfully consider which candidate will better serve the interests of all who call the U.S. home. Which candidate is more inclined to advocate for those who are different from himself? Which candidate is more likely to recognize the rights of every citizen, and those seeking to become citizens? Which candidate is willing to learn what he doesn’t know and change his behavior if he learns his ways are causing someone(s) harm? Is there humility to be found in either candidate? When you are still, and listen to God, which candidate is likely to do the greatest good, or at minimum, the least harm?

Friends, there are days when COVID-19 seems the least of our worries, and it is very worrisome. However, the loss of lives because we refuse to change systems of policing and the criminal legal system and remain bound by systems that were built on and thrive on white supremacy, seems to me to be at least as concerning, if not more so. More so because there is no vaccine being developed for racism and white supremacy. The example and teachings of Jesus should be enough of a vaccine against hatred, though it seems not to be the case.

Later in the second chapter of Philippians Paul writes, “…with fear and trembling work out your own salvation, for God is the One working in you to both will and work according to God’s good pleasure” (2:12b-13, my own translation). May we all take an honest inventory of our lives and figure out where we have more work to do on our own hearts and minds. If we can open ourselves more to God’s work within us, then maybe more of us will be transformed from ways of hatred and death to ways of Love and life, not just for ourselves, for the whole of Creation. Because we need to be more focused on “God’s good pleasure,” I leave you with this prayer attributed to Marthe Robins who relied heavily on a similar prayer by Ignatius Loyola:

May God take my memory and all it remembers,
Take my heart and all its affections,
Take my intelligence and all its powers;
May they only serve your greatest glory.
Take my will completely,
for always I empty it out in yours.
No longer what I want, O my sweetest Jesus,
but always what you want!
Take me … receive me … direct me.
Guide me! I surrender and abandon myself to you!
I surrender myself to you as a small sacrifice of
Love, of praise and Gratitude, for the Glory of your Holy Name,
for the enjoyment of your Love, the triumph of your Sacred Heart,
and for the perfect fulfillment of your Designs in me and around me.

RCL – Year A – Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 27, 2020
Exodus 17:1-7 with Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16 or
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 with Psalm 25:1-9
Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32

Photo: CC0image by Inactive account – ID 9301

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

Learning and Growing in the Wilderness

Image of earth viewed from space with grid points of light connected across the globe

In recent days I’ve witnessed people romanticizing their past in ways I don’t quite understand. There was the person who continues to grieve over parents, stating that they were “the best” parents and how much they are missed. I know for a fact that these people were not good parents and caused a lot of harm in the world. Another person was lamenting the end of their marriage and saying how much they missed the relationship and all the “good” it brought. In fact, it was not a good relationship at all and caused a good deal of pain. And then there are the many people longing for the days “before pandemic” as if they were perfect days where love, peace, and justice reigned over the world. I don’t think I will ever understand what it is that causes people to forget the hard parts of their history and glorify the better parts. However, it’s a long-standing human behavior.

Remember the Israelites right after they crossed the Red Sea and found themselves in the wilderness? They were angry. They wished they had died in Egypt where they had fire, fleshpots, and bread. They were unhappy with the emptiness in their bellies and focused on that rather than on their new-found freedom. They quickly came to believe that the God who led them out of slavery had abandoned them to the challenges of the wilderness. Instead of asking for what they needed, instead of looking for God’s presence among them, they complained to Moses and regretted their choice to follow him away from the comforts of Egypt where they had been slaves into the discomforts and unknowns of liberation. Fortunately for them, God heard their complaints and provided manna and pheasants (they would later complain about these).

Here we are in the midst of pandemic, a wilderness of unknowns and discomforts for sure. The challenge for us as church is not to romanticize the past and long for when we can get back to “normal.” This wandering we are doing now will lead us to a new place. We must remember that before pandemic life was not perfect for the church. Our numbers were on the decline, our budgets were tighter every year, our technology was barely adequate, our buildings were needing repairs and updates… the list goes on. The complaints about Zoom worship, Facebook live, YouTube Live, and all the other ways we try to meet the needs of our communities, are a distraction and no real difference from the days when the sound system didn’t work or the projector overheated. Our longing for what was (in our own romanticized recollections) may prevent us from seeing what God is doing right here, right now.

Online worship, education, and kinship activities in whatever form provides access to folx who might not be able to join us in person for a variety of reasons. For those of us who are offering online communion, the complaints that it doesn’t “feel like communion” could distract from the ways in which God is drawing us together across miles. And what does communion feel like? Yes, we are all missing the in-person gatherings. It’s true. That missing of being with people does not need to negate the beauty and wonder of our online gatherings. We can grieve for what was and embrace what is.

The more we look back with the proverbial rose-colored glasses the more we will miss in the present. What are the manna and quail of our wandering in the wilderness of pandemic? Are they the wonders of technology that allows us to gather online? Are they the beauty of being able to expand our welcome? Are they the renewed appreciation for community? Are they the generosity of folx who provide tech access to those who didn’t have it before? Let’s not mistake grieving for what was for a longing that recreates the past to meet our own needs in this moment. God is in our midst and still doing the liberating, the leading, the transforming that God has always done.

Friends, there will be no going back. Just as those ancient Israelites could not return to Egypt in spite of their longing for fires and food, the church cannot go back to what was. This life in the wilderness of pandemic, no matter how long it goes on or how soon it ends, will forever change us. Perhaps we should spend our time searching out where God is active now and seek that vision for our future that God has for us. May we lean into the liberation from the limits of our buildings, the leading into a new shape for the Body of Christ, and the transformation of our communities that God is doing. Let us not grumble about what was and embrace what is. After all, our histories have shown us that there is far worse than manna and quail by whatever name.

RCL – Year A – Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 20, 2020
Exodus 16:2-15 with Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45 or
Jonah 3:10-4:11 with Psalm 145:1-8
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

Photo: CC0image by Inactive account – ID 9301

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

Suicide Prevention: Embodying Love, Forgiveness, and Mercy

Image: square of sunlight shining through a dark tunnel

As I write, I am aware that September is National Suicide Prevention Month and September 10th is World Suicide Prevention Day. It’s the prefect time to talk about God’s love, forgiveness, and mercy and how they save lives, or could if congregations could grasp hold of them in meaningful, transformative ways.

Let’s start with the story of the Israelites escaping Egypt. This is a familiar story. We know that God heard the people’s cry and sent Moses and Aaron to free them from Pharaoh’s oppressive rule, a Pharaoh who did not know Joseph. After a series of plagues, the Israelites follow Moses and cross the Red Sea. Pharaoh’s army is washed out. It’s a powerful story of God’s liberating love, without question. If we look closer, there are also some indications of how God continues to work in our lives.

The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them.It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.

Exodus 14:19-20

Notice that the angel, the cloud, moves from the position of leading out of oppression to the position of protector from the persuers. It’s the next verse that I find particularly compelling. The cloud was there with the darkness. In the midst of the fleeing, the fear, the chaos, the literal dark of night, the cloud was there and it provided light, safety, guidance, protection, and hope. It kept the dark from being all there was. What a powerful metaphor for the Body of Christ today. If we could be the presence that is there with the darkness, the despair, the hopelessness, the depression, the chaos, then we, as church, could be the beacon that keeps the gaping maw of total despair at bay. If we could be the embodiment of the liberating God who offers love, forgiveness, and mercy without judgement or condition, we could save lives. Imagine the church as the cloud, the messenger of God, that can lead out of oppression and protect from the oppressive forces. There would be hope for all, especially those who struggle with suicidality.

If this story is not sufficient for how the church could be a powerful witness while in the midst of all that is life-destroying in this world, there are others. Think of the story of Joseph. He was thrown into a pit by his brothers and sold into slavery. When he could have become embittered and held onto anger, he offered forgiveness to his brothers. He recognized that while his brothers had intended harm, God transformed Joseph situation into something good and lifesaving. We can learn much from this story.

We can see that we should not look down on those caught in the “pits” of today’s world. It’s not like they fell into the depths on their own. While their literal siblings might not have been the ones to discard them, they were definitely discarded. Also, we never know whom God will pick to do great things, even those who have been sold out by others who ought to know better.

And then there is the forgiveness piece. Joseph modeled how God forgives us – without condition. It was enough for Joseph that his brothers came with humility seeking his help. God requires even less than that. Of course, we cannot find God’s forgiveness and live it out if we do not go seeking it with humility. So, too, for our congregations. We need to approach God like Joseph’s brothers, acknowledging that we are responsible for the pits of society; if we didn’t help dig them, we’ve not done all that we could to fill them in. While we are seeking God’s forgiveness, we also need to be offering it much more freely. If God forgives without condition, the church should be like Joseph was with his brothers and be profligate with forgiveness.

Just imagine how a forgiving community could change the life of someone who lives with tremendous guilt and shame over things that they have done or things that have been done to them. A word of forgiveness, an act of merciful acceptance, can save lives when offered with sincerity. For the person who lives with symptoms of mental illness, especially suicidality, a reminder of God’s forgiveness embodied by a community has more power than most of us recognize.

Jesus was clear on the power and importance of giving and receiving forgiveness. You know, “forgive seventy-seven times” meaning as many times as necessary. If we believe that we are loved without condition, then we must work toward accepting God’s unconditional forgiveness. It’s imperative that we do this. There are people in this world who are desperate for hope, desperate for the presence of God to be with them, illuminating a way through the hopelessness, promising liberation and protection. People who experience suicidality are unlikely to encounter God’s presence because depression lies and blocks out everything except one’s own utter lack of worth. If we want to save lives, then we must embody Divine Love, demonstrating unconditional forgiveness, and offering continuous mercy.

No one is exempt from suicidal thoughts, especially now in this time of pandemic. While we work toward living into God’s vision of love, forgiveness, and mercy, let’s take time to equip ourselves to save lives. Learn the risks for suicide, the warning signs, and the resources in your community and denomination. Hopelessness, depression, anxiety, and suicide are all on the rise. When we embody God’s love without conditions, we save lives. When we talk about mental illness and suicidality in our churches, we save lives. This is the work that God has set before us in 2020 – to do all that we can to save lives. We have work to do. Yet, we do not go alone. There is a Light that shines with us all and nothing can extinguish it. It is our guide and our protector. May we all live lives of love, forgiveness, and mercy so that our churches may be lifesaving.

Image: Text HOME to 741741 for crisis support in the U.S.
Image: Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255

For more about being a Lifesaving Church.

RCL – Year A – Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 13, 2020
Exodus 14:19-31 with Psalm 114
or Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21
Genesis 50:15-21 with Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

Top Photo: CC0image by Rúben Gál

Categories
Musings

Recognizing Reality: The Stress of Pandemic

Image: open journal with fancy pen and a cup of hot tea on a white cloth

Turn my heart to your decrees, and not to selfish gain. Turn my eyes from looking at vanities; give me life in your ways. Psalm 119:36-37

Here we are on the brink of another church program year, a year very different from previous ones. With the possible exception of epidemiologists, none of us could have predicted that we would be planning a program year to be online. As strange as this is, many of us believe we have become accustomed to the “new normal” dictated by pandemic. We wear masks in public, minimize contact with people outside of our “bubble” or take every precaution when our jobs mandate personal contact. We tell ourselves we’ve adjusted and go on with life.

On the one hand this is true. We get through our days and don’t think twice about wiping our mail and groceries with a bleach solution. We cross the streets to avoid those who choose not to wear a mask and try not to judge the cyclists and joggers who don’t alter their course to stay six feet away. Some of us have even come to appreciate some of the benefits of working from home if we are lucky enough to be able to do that. We’ve created a routine for ourselves which might even include new hobbies taking up the time we used to need for commuting.

This is all fine. It’s the other side of our days we need to look at. Those moments when the smallest thing brings tears to our eyes or sends anger coursing through our bodies, and we wonder what’s wrong with us. These moments reveal the truth of the situation. We are living under a tremendous amount of stress. It is on-going. Just because our daily routines have accommodated it, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. We haven’t gotten to the point of dealing with Post Traumatic Stress; we are still accumulating trauma and stress.

Think of it this way. Pandemic has us living at 80% of our stress capacity. This is why those minor things set us off. We aren’t going from 0 to 100 without cause. We are going from 80 to 100 with good reason. If there was no pandemic, the dog incessantly barking might cause usual stress levels to go up 20 points. We get annoyed and yell at the dog with a little more volume than strictly necessary. However, given the 80% stress we endure as a result of COVID-19, the same constant barking puts us at or over maximum capacity to cope. We might end up crying over the stubborn dog or feeling way more anger than the situation calls for.

We need to recognize this and have more patience with ourselves, and be ready with healthy coping skills(see below for a list of suggestions) . In other words, we might not be able to decrease our stress levels or control our seemingly over reaction to what were previously minor irritants, though we can learn to respond differently to our emotions. This is where faith can be helpful. Prayer, meditation, gratitude, and other spiritual practices can help refocus us and defuse the intensity of a pandemic stress response. Think of the psalmist asking God to turn their heart to focus on God’s ways and to have the ability to find life in those ways.

Practicing love of self, neighbor, creation, and God in this time of pandemic can help mitigate the stress we are all living under. Of course, not all of us are in the same boat. Those of us with more resources have an obligation to support those with fewer resources. We need to remember that for some of our neighbors pandemic conditions have elevated their stress levels to maximum; they are coping the best they can. Now is a time to practice compassion and not judgment. Remember that Paul tells us in Romans that we are to “owe no one anything, except to love one another.” If you are doing okay today, right now, what can you do to help someone else alleviate some of their stress? Reach out and listen before choosing what to do. Remember that people living alone, single parents, healthcare workers, retail workers, delivery people, people with physical disabilities, people with mental health challenges, People of Color, and many others have increased stress, often more than the 80% we can attribute to COVID-19.

For yourself, consider making time for a daily spiritual practice. Engage in something each day that opens you to the Spirit, grounds you in the present, and guides you to a sense of meaning and purpose. Almost anything can qualify as a spiritual practice if you are intentional about it – prayer, meditation, journaling, creating, baking, walking or running, gardening, expressing gratitude, true self-care, etc. One of the most often over-looked spiritual need is the need for community. A good spiritual practice is to intentionally connect with a community (church, AA, book club, etc). Remember that it is okay to be stressed, to be overwhelmed, to feel what you feel in any given moment. It is not okay to ignore the stress, self-destruct, or take out our emotions on another person. We are not alone. God wants us to find life in God’s ways even now.

It’s okay to take time out to care for yourself in healthy, constructive ways. It’s also important that we reach out to our neighbors when we have the resources to do so. No one is at their best right now, and it may be quite some time before we are able to be functioning better. In the meantime, let’s all do what we can to love and support one another. As this church program year begins, may we all practice compassion with our neighbors and patience with ourselves and those we love.

Healthy Coping Skills

  1. Focus on breathing, slow deep breaths in and out
  2. Exercise (walk, run, etc)
  3. Yoga or Tai Chi
  4. Go outside and pay attention to your senses
  5. Call or text a friend
  6. Do something nice for someone
  7. Clean something
  8. Make a cup of tea, coffee, or cocoa and enjoy it
  9. Bake and share with a neighbor
  10. Do something creative – paint, write, knit, crochet, etc.
  11. Journal
  12. Meditate
  13. Pray
  14. Make a Gratitude List
  15. Share your feelings with someone you trust
  16. Play an instrument or listen to music
  17. Do a crossword puzzle or sudoku or word search
  18. Work on putting a puzzle together
  19. Give yourself a manicure or pedicure
  20. Sing
  21. Watch your favorite tv show or movie
  22. Watch funny pet videos
  23. Punch a punching bag, pillow, or mattress
  24. Plan a vacation
  25. Take a virtual tour of a museum
  26. Color a picture
  27. Read
  28. Try a new recipe
  29. Aromatherapy
  30. Spend time with your pet
  31. Dance
  32. Go for a drive
  33. Contact a helpline or therapist
  34. Read the Bible
  35. Rearrange a room
  36. Take a hot bath or shower
  37. Sit in the sun
  38. Write a letter
  39. Perform a random act of kindness
  40. Make a healthy snack
  41. Make a gift for someone
  42. Research something that interests you
  43. Finish a project you’ve been working on
  44. Go for a walk and take pictures of everything you see of a color you choose
  45. Send an encouraging email to someone else
  46. Attend a virtual support group
  47. Send someone a thank you card
  48. Learn a new hobby
  49. Sit near water
  50. Memorize a Bible verse, poem, or song
  51. Fly a kite
  52. Watch birds or fish
  53. “Shop” online without buying anything
  54. Attend a virtual worship service or Bible study
  55. Blow bubbles
  56. Play a video game
  57. Call someone who makes you laugh
  58. Wash dishes
  59. Create a video
  60. Organize a messy drawer, closet, or room

RCL – Year A – Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 6, 2020
Exodus 12:1-14 with Psalm 149 or
Ezekiel 33:7-11 with Psalm 119:33-40
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

Photo: CC0image by Free-Photos

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

Be Barefoot with Moses, Paul, and Jesus

Image: crowd of protestors carrying signs for Black Lives Matter and anti-racism

Anyone remember the story of Moses and the burning bush? It isn’t really the cute children’s story we might have learned in Sunday School. And it isn’t one of those stories that had meaning then and is unclear for today. With the shooting of Jacob Blake last week and the Uprisings in Minneapolis last night, we need to revisit that story that has become too familiar to us. There’s a message in there that we need right now.

As you may remember, Moses was minding Jethro’s sheep one day when a voice called to him out of a bush that was burning but not being consumed by the fire. Moses was not looking to disrupt his complacent, ordinary life. For all we know, he liked tending his father-in-law’s sheep. God had other plans for him, though. He had to take his shoes off because the ground under his feet was holy (and it’s harder to run away when you are barefoot). God proceeded to tell Moses that it was time for him to go to Pharaoh and tell him to set the people of God free.

Note Moses’ response here. He basically said, “Why me? I’m nobody. Shouldn’t somebody else go?” Like most of us in the world today, if we happen to hear God’s voice calling us, nudging us, to go confront the Pharaoh or his agents, Moses begged off. We know that the story ends with Moses going to confront Pharaoh and eventually freeing the Israelites. What if it hadn’t? What if Moses walked on by? What if he just said, “Nope, not me”? and lived his life as a shepherd of sheep rather than a leader of people? Would God have called someone else? Did God try others before Moses agreed?

Back to today. What if every moment of discomfort we white folx experience when we read or hear the news of police shooting another black man or police responding to protestors with violence or police pepper spraying media is actually God reminding us that the ground under our feet is holy? What if, instead of turning away while wishing this unrest would all go away, we actually took off our shoes and stayed a while, listening to what God might be calling us to do? You know, starting with the judgement about “those people” who are Uprising? If you’re like me, meaning white, then you really don’t know what it is like to live under systemic oppression (white supremacy) for four hundred years. We really have no idea what it feels like to be treated as “less than” from one generation to the next. If we did, we might be tempted to unleash some rage as well when police act out of their racism and harm or kill people who have the same color skin we do.

Then once we’ve stopped judging and started to empathize, at least a little, then we can also stop defending the police. There is no excuse for shooting black people… in their cars… on the sidewalks… in front of their families… No excuse for kneeling on their necks…. doing nothing while they cannot breathe… God is asking us to free God’s people from Pharaoh’s ways. God is asking you and me to go to Pharaoh now. No excuses. We are needed because the police officers aren’t going to be taking their shoes off any time soon. Pharaoh has them trained too well.

Still not convinced this is a reasonable interpretation of the burning bush story? Okay. How do you feel about Paul and what he had to say in Romans? Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Paul is pretty clear in how we should act and how we should treat one another. Loving all our neighbors is Christian mandate. Hating evil means hating white supremacy and all the racist systems it sustains. Hating evil does not mean hating people who are not white. Wouldn’t it be more in keeping with God’s laws if we tried to outdo one another in showing honor? These days, showing honor looks an awful lot like the abolition of police and voting for change come November. There are too many people dying because Pharaoh and those in his service fear change – change that means equity and justice for all of humanity.

If you still aren’t convinced that God does not endorse systemic racism and is heartbroken by the white nationalist conflation of white supremacy and Christianity, how about that time Jesus called Peter Satan? Peter just wanted Jesus to turn away from Jerusalem where his fight with Empire would surely end in his death. Peter wanted Jesus to follow an easier path. Jesus was tempted. Why else would he call Peter “Satan” while telling him to get away? Yes, if we commit to fighting the Empire and it’s oppression, then we will be tempted by easier paths. It’s best if we take our shoes off so we cannot run away.

With our feet bare and our hearts open, may we burn with the passion for justice, burn but not be consumed so that we may actively seek to set ALL God’s people free.

If you are looking for sermon help, try here.

RCL – Year A – Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost – August 30, 2020
Exodus 3:1-15 with Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c or
Jeremiah 15:15-21 with Psalm 26:1-8
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

Photo: CC0image by

Categories
Poetry

A Conversation with Jesus

Image of face overlaid with shadows of trees on a background of red, rippling water
in a Roman stronghold, You asked your first disciples
     a seemingly simple question
yet You asked them to put their lives on the line for You
their answers could be, should be
      treasonous to the ears of the Empire

Who do you say that I am?

a worthy question, even now, especially now
we live in another Empire with a Pharoah who does not know Joseph
and would enslave us all, try us for treason if he could
Your question hangs in the air, awaiting our answers

Who do you say that I am?

You are the Messiah, of course
the One who sets us free
and saves our souls
Messiah

what does this mean for children in cages, families torn apart?
what does this mean for immigrants, refugees, assylum seekers,
all who come with hopes and dreams for a life of freedom
and are met with white supremacy, racism, and rejection?

Who do you say that I am?

You are the Prince of Peace
the One who guides our feet
in the ways of justice
Prince of Peace

our lips may speak these words
our actions say otherwise
there is no peace without justice
ask George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmoud Arbery
     and counteless others

Who do you say that I am?

You are the Great Physician, Healer of the Nations
the One who makes us whole
and unites us in love
Great Physician

there is no evidence of this truth
in a nation that values perfection over wholeness and wealth
     over people
where is unity for those on the edges, devalued and dismissed
     by Empire?

Who do you say that I am?

You are the Living Water
the One who quenches thirst
and brings new life
Living Water

then why are so many so very thirsty
in Flint, at the border, on our streets?
why withhold water for the poorest
when we have more than enough

Who do you say that I am?

Lord and Savior
the One who saves us from ourselves
and frees us to love without condition
Lord and Savior

again, where is the proof?
we act as if Love were a precious commodity
and hoard it for ourselves because Empire tells us
there is not enough for those who are undeserving

Who do you say that I am?

Light of life
the One who shines with hope
chasing away our despair
Light of Life

then why not wear a mask to show our love for our neighbors?
why not welcome all with grace and mercy?
suicide rates are climbing and we refuse to share our hope
perhaps our trust, our faith, is not up for the task at hand

Who do you say that I am?

Wonderful Counselor
the One who guides life
offering wisdom, healing, grace
Wonderful Counselor

is it not Empire that guides our choices?
is it not Empire that teaches us to hate?
is it not Empire that divides us from our neighbors?
when will we listen and actually care for the vulnerable among us?

Who do you say that I am?

Mighty God
the One who loves without condition
waiting patiently for us to believe
Mighty God

Love knows no limits
hatred, destruction, division, violence, war are purely human
perhaps now is the time for transformation
paying heed to the prophets among us

Who do you say that I am?

be careful how you answer
do your words match your deeds?
do you love your neighbor as yourself?
do you follow the ways of Empire
rather than care for the vulnerable among you?
will you put your life on the line
for the sake of love?

Who do you say that I am?

RCL – Year A – Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost – August 23, 2020
Exodus 1:8-2:10 with Psalm 124 or
Isaiah 51:1-6 with Psalm 138
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20

Photo: CC0image by Gerd Altmann