As if a global pandemic and fearful quarantine were not enough to endure, we find ourselves as Americans facing our continued systemic racism. Sadly we are unable to gather with each other in our sanctuaries today on Pentecost Sunday to confess our sin and pray for courage as congregations. Our church’s Facebook page has become an important avenue of communication in the past ten weeks. I invited people to respond to the horror of George Floyd’s death and the national reaction in the form of prayers last week. From those I wove together our “Prayers of the People” for our on-line worship this morning. Perhaps our church family’s words will give voice to your own. I invite you to add your prayer to these.
God of all power and mercy, we are thankful for your Holy Spirit. We celebrate the gift of the outpouring of Your Spirit on Pentecost when men who were afraid huddled behind closed doors and were surprised to discover what Jesus meant when He said He would not leave us alone or without power. And so today we celebrate the birthday of the Church. We ask that You would continue to join people together of different languages, races, and nationalities.
We recognize that on that day the Holy Spirit entered into a mob and turned them into converts in the power of Your Holy Spirit. We praise You that Your Spirit still moves among us, bringing unity among diverse peoples. We cry out to You for Your unifying power today. Even as restrictions begin to lift and we dare to venture short distances from our homes, we look in on crimes of racial injustice that sicken us. During these unsettling times, God of justice, we pray that You embolden us to live out our faith. Open our ears to the pleas of the oppressed and give us the strength to stand with them. When angry words are hurled and violence ensues we look to the example of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King who mobilized orderly masses to march for peace. Teach us to show the love of Christ when righteous indignation wells up within us. May those of us who enjoy unearned privileged position be willing to step down to join our voices with those who face discrimination on a daily basis. May our courageous and compassionate response to the evils of our world lead those who doubt your power to a place of belief. This week we pray for the family and friends of George Floyd. We pray for the Twin Cities, our own hometown of Grand Rapids, and so many other cities that have exploded into fiery anger at the injustice of his death. We confess that too often our law enforcement agencies and individuals act out of a racial bias and innocent lives have been lost. We pray for our police officers who are now, as a whole, slandered because of the cruel actions of a few. We are a broken people and we cannot heal ourselves. So we invoke Your Pentecost power today, life-giving breath that invigorates us to do Your will, whatever the cost to us. We promise to place the well-being of our community above personal desire. We open our hearts so that there is room for Your Spirit to dwell. We pray for members of our congregation who are battling illness, depression, isolation, and broken relationships. We yearn for the freedoms we took for granted before the shelter-in-place mandate and fear that some of them will not return for quite some time. You have taught us during this pandemic that we are linked to one another and so we pray for the unity of the Pentecost crowd as we offer the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory forever. Amen.
In the midst of a global pandemic that has confined families to homes, pushed businesses to the brink of disaster, medical systems into crisis mode and nations into financial stress, I want to pull us back to our micro-reality. One child. Just one child. We are caught up in the tragic news of the lives of residents in Midland, Michigan being washed away in a flood of historic proportion. We are reminded that funds are still needed to reforest millions of scorched acres of land in Australia. Colleges are making decisions about whether to only offer on-line classes in the fall. Family budgets are stretched to the breaking point. But I want to rejoice in the value of just one child. On Sunday our congregation celebrated Christian Education Sunday and, even though our Sunday School year was wildly interrupted in March, teaching has continued in new ways. More than ever we celebrate the presence of children in our congregation.
For our worship, one family acted out a version of the story that has been passed on to us from Luke’s Gospel. People brought their children to Jesus, hoping for a blessing. It’s akin to our desire to baptize our children into the care of Christ’s Church. The disciples shooed them away, certain that Jesus juggled far too many demands to drop to a knee and hug a child. But Jesus, irate at this judgment call, took the boy in His arms and blessed Him. It’s the story of just one child who had the hug of a lifetime from the Son of God!
In 1 Samuel 3 we learn that the priest in charge of the Israelites’ spiritual well-being was Eli. He was an older man and his sons had not been faithful to the holy call on their lives. So God withheld the life-giving Word. Eli and Sons Ltd. was a bust. It doesn’t always work to pull the next generation into our line of work. Eli’s sons rejected God, abused the privileges that came with their position and lorded it over their congregants rather than serving them. As is often the case with adult children who inherit sizable gifts from their parents, these boys expected to receive acclaim as a right. They were too lazy to develop the skill, self-discipline, and attitude of service needed to be good leaders. So the story has overtones of darkness. Visions of God’s presence were rare. Old Eli could barely see BUT the lamp of God had not gone out. In spite of faithless leadership, God had not abandoned this place or these people.
The back story to our passage is that a woman named Hannah was unable to have children. She earnestly prayed in the sanctuary in Shiloh for a child, promising God that, if she was blessed with a son, she would dedicate him to a holy life of service. A year later she gave birth to a son and committed to give him over to Priest Eli once he was weaned. At age three she brought him to Eli who had failed to raise his own sons well. This baby for whom she had long prayed was left in Shiloh in the embrace of an old man who could not even see the beauty of his small face. Hannah made her way home. A deal’s a deal. A pledge made in prayer must be kept. (If it makes you feel any better, she did have other children after Samuel. But still…) God had a plan. Since Eli’s biological sons weren’t going to make good on the commitment to lead God’s people, God would form a different kind of family. It came to Eli in the form of an energetic toddler who must have turned his sedentary life upside down. Samuel was tutored in the ways of worship not out of a sense of entitlement but because God gave it to him as a gift.
In the first verse of chapter three we learn that the Word of the Lord was rare. It came to Eli but his sons’ narcissism interrupted the natural order of children following in their father’s footsteps. Young Samuel, however, matured in his faith. The dedication made on his behalf by his mother, became his life’s calling. Even though he was following the guidance of the old priest, he still didn’t yet know God’s voice. When the time was right, God called to the boy in the dark of night. On the third try, Eli finally understood that it was a different Father or Master who was calling out to Samuel. He attuned the boy to the One he was meant to serve. God moved to the next level. Samuel heard the divine voice and was ready. Through this one child, prayed over by a devout mother, God began to speak to the Israelites. God’s Word came alive once again.
Our Christian Education Coordinator and I had a great time going to the homes of our first grade graduates this past week. We stayed on the lawn, apart from each other and from the children as we presented them with their own Bibles. It is our custom to give these to them once they have learned how to read. They were ready for us, some dressed in “church clothes” for the first time in months. They were excited to receive their own copy of God’s Holy Word. As we conversed from a distance with their parents, all of us starved for conversation, several of the children sat quietly on their front porches on a cold May morning, reading their new Bible. The Word of God comes alive for them now. Some who have younger siblings are looking forward to reading their Bible aloud to their little brother or sister. Others will, no doubt, sit in their parents’ laps and share the joy of being able to read Bible stories on their own. In Psalm 68 it states, “Father of orphans and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation. He sets the lonely in families, he leads out the prisoners with singing.” Families are woven together in so many beautiful ways. What a gift it is when the Word of God is valued and the traditions of the faith are passed on from one generation to another. It is our privilege and responsibility to faithfully raise the children in our Church to serve God. Through just one child, God’s Word spreads powerfully into our world.
I am so impressed with the children and young adults living through this very challenging time of a global pandemic. Our seniors have been robbed of their graduation ceremonies and open houses. Young couples have had to forfeit the wedding of their dreams. Proud first graders received their Bibles on their front porches, not in the warm physical embrace of their church family. Yet none of those I’ve spoken to have lamented the losses. They have taken it in stride much more readily than their parents. This is a generation of minimalists who say “No thanks” when we offer them Great Grandma Gertrude’s beautiful set of dishes. They are more apt to rent than own. They choose to live in small spaces rather than big homes with a rented storage unit on the side. They have a broad acceptance of differences in people. They call a spade a spade when looking in on our country’s polarized politics. I am counting on these fresh faces who so value authenticity to lead us out of our adult messes. Through each child raised in the Church, God’s speaks so that the Light of the Lord is not extinguished!
A friend told me about her five-year old granddaughter who became very ill several years ago. She sustained a 104-degree fever for three days. When she finally began to feel better and a small amount of energy returned, she confided in her mom that God had visited her in those fevered nights. “I’m not afraid of the dark anymore. God and I talk to each other.
Our calling is to claim our own vocation as disciples of Jesus and to awaken a sense of that in our children. We teach them to listen for God’s voice. But many times, out of their trusting spirituality, they remind us that God is still speaking. When we introduce them to the faith, the darkness of our world is lightened by each precious child. As we increasingly entrust our well-being into their capable hands, as old Eli had to do with young Samuel, we can rest assured that the lonesome will be placed in families. The lamp of God will never go out and the Word of the Lord will not fail us!
Reflecting on the service of our soldiers this weekend I was struck that our spiritual journey is akin to that of a military recruit. We are all stripped to a level of sameness. We start learning the rules and obeying our Commander. I spent four years in Middle and High School living in base housing on the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. My father was a Chaplain for the cadets there. We hosted the doolies (freshmen—and they were all men when we lived there) at our house for dinner and I heard stories I could not believe. They could be subjected to a room inspection without notice. Their bed had to be made with perfectly square corners. The bedding had to be pulled so taut and tucked in so well that the inspecting officer could bounce a quarter off of it! Looking down on their cement campus you see a grid pattern etched into the pavement. For their entire first year, doolies had to walk straight lines and make square corners. They were mandated to salute any higher-ranking officer (pretty much anyone else) and infractions meant punishment. The most common disciplinary measure for simple errors was a certain number of “tours” that needed to be marched. Each tour was one hour. So, if you thought staying after school for an hour of detention was cruel, try marching in a uniform in either the blazing Colorado sun or in a freakish July snowstorm (yup, it happened once!). You’re concentrating on making square corners and walking long stretches of concrete while your classmates cast a knowing glance your way.
Another way you give up your power when you join a branch of the military is with your personal appearance. As soon as a recruit arrives their outer presentation is homogenized. They submit to a one-size-fits-all hair cut. You have no “civies” left in your perfectly arranged closet, just variations on the uniform. No sweat determining what outfit to wear each day. Every unique element to your personhood is removed or diminished and your instinctual response changes very quickly to “Yes, sir!” (Is there a “Yes, ma’am!” now as well? Or is there a more androgynous response?)
The first year at any of the military academies is brutal. I could see the weight lift as first-year cadets moved out of the ranks of the lowly (the term “doolie” comes from the Greek word doulos meaning “slave” or “servant”) and gained just a few more privileges. They made it! They succeeded! They felt proud of mastering the rules and began to have an attitude of “I’ve got this!” We know what that feels like. With some maturity, however, we recognize that highpoints are a gift and the topography to our life can change in an instant. One moment a cadet might be aloft in a glider, looking down on the Rocky Mountains on a crystal clear Sunday afternoon. But the next day the quarter doesn’t bounce off their sheets and they failed to salute an officer in the mess hall. Punishment is meted out.
Like a military recruit, we think we’ve got it all figured out and that’s when we begin to relax the rules. At some point, we hit up against a challenge and realize how little we know. Our bubble pops. We are stripped bare all over again. This time it’s not our civilian clothing or hairstyle that we lose. It’s our ego. Just as we had begun to put our shoulders back and look others confidently in the eye, we get shot down. Suddenly we’re walking straight lines and making square corners once again. There’s nothing natural about that!
There’s a plea Jesus’ disciples cry out in one of those humbling moments: “I believe! Help my unbelief!” I love that. I get that. I am reassured by that! If they were traveling, eating, theologically wrangling with Jesus but still couldn’t learn the lesson, I feel better about my own idiocy. Living our faith is called “spiritual discipline” for a reason. We’ve never learned the last lesson. We’ve discovered in the past 9 weeks that a whole new set of challenges confront us even when we’re simply staying home! “How hard can that be,” we might have thought in early March. Now we know. We’ve never got life figured out and our instinctual responses to our surroundings need to be continually reformed.
So we continue with a faith that God is with us. We are relieved when we find out that God doesn’t expect us to ace the course. In fact, we will never earn a pass on the dreaded room inspection. Jesus’ disciples were humbled repeatedly and that’s our place as pilgrims. Even as we march a tour on unyielding cement, silently derided by our peers who are grateful their sins go undetected, we discover that God will build us up with grace. We can’t earn it. We don’t deserve it. But the supply will never run out. There’s enough for our lifetime.
Some of you walked or ran 2.23 miles on May 8 to mark the birthday of Ahmaud Arbery. On February 23 25-year old Ahmaud was attacked and killed as he ran through a neighborhood just two miles from his home. The news surfaced almost two months after the murder because of a short video showing the encounter. Georgians, newly released from a shelter-in-place mandate, took to the streets and cried out for justice. Within 36 hours of involving the Georgia Bureau of Investigations, a father/son duo were arrested. They had decided that Ahmaud was the one who had been burglarizing area homes and took justice matters into their own hands. Very quickly our country was up in arms over another case in racial profiling which resulted in the death of an innocent and unarmed black man.
On Wednesday the local news covered the story of Breonna Taylor, a young woman who grew up in West Michigan. Now living in Kentucky, police stormed her apartment on March 13, believing that a drug dealer operated out of her home. She and her boyfriend were asleep when three plainclothes police officers kicked through their door prepared for a drug bust. Breonna’s boyfriend shot at the midnight intruders. They returned fire and Breonna, a nurse who has been working on the front lines fighting COVID 19, was shot eight times. Breonna is African-American. The police officers are white. They had the wrong apartment and fired more than 20 bullets before pausing to see who lived there.
As the COVID lockdown wears on us in strange ways, we are sickened to hear these stories of injustice. The word “lynching” has been used in Arbery’s case which kicked up something deep in our nation. We are so shocked that this continues to happen that we are tempted to seal off a part of our hearts for self-protection. Turning off the news, one way or another, is the easy way out. We administer localized anesthesia to numb our outrage.
I’ve been doing pastoral phone-calling of parishioners during the COVID 19 siege. Sometimes people don’t take my call because my home caller ID comes up under the name of my husband’s law firm. When they see Solomon Law Firm calling, they ignore it, convinced that they are victims of robocalls. When I begin to leave a message, announcing who I am, they pick up the phone with an apology. When life is going well, we don’t seek out the services of an attorney. Too many people have learned not to trust any administrators of justice.
In this passage from Luke’s gospel, Jesus is approached by an expert in the law, a Pharisee, a religious attorney. His aim is to put Jesus to the test. His question is aimed to get Jesus in trouble. In typical fashion, Jesus throws the question back at him. What does the Law tell us? The attorney answers well and Jesus praises him. A+ for content and brevity. But that’s not enough because the attorney really didn’t care about Jesus’ answer. Remember? The text says, “Wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus…” How many of you want to converse with folks who are set on justifying themselves? Those are the phone calls you don’t pick up!
The question the attorney asks pushes the limits of liability: “And who is my neighbor?” In other words, how can I get away with the least amount of responsibility? Instead of giving specifics that could get Him in trouble, Jesus tells a story that has traveled the distance of 2000 years: The Good Samaritan.
Jesus chooses the setting carefully. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was long and winding. It’s a rocky 17-mile long journey that is 2500 feet above sea level at its highest and descends to the lowest place on the planet that is not covered by water: Jericho. It was a well-traveled route by religious pilgrims and merchants. Thieves hid around blind corners of the road or in the many caves found along the way. They worked in tandem, attacking the innocent travelers before they had a chance to respond. It became known as “The Bloody Pass.” Jesus set up the story in a place that would instill fear in His listeners. The tale of an innocent man being ambushed was believable. But making a despised Samaritan the hero was not!
As the Corona Virus continues to dominate our news, a justice issue is resurfacing. A disproportionate percentage of the COVID patients are people of color. In Washington, D.C., where African Americans make up 46% of the population, 81% of those diagnosed with the virus are black. In newly opened Georgia, 56% of the COVID victims are black even though they comprise only 32% of the population. What does this point to? Facts we’ve known for a long time. People of color have lesser opportunities for good jobs which means inferior health care which enhances the possibility of pre-existing symptoms. Many who work at lower-income jobs have greater exposure to the disease because they work in the public domain. The Hispanic community in our country has been hard hit by the disease for similar reasons. Confronted anew with these injustices, do we anesthetize ourselves to the mandate for change?
At a church in our predominantly white town, the pastor and music director are African American. They have found themselves less than welcomed. The musician has been pulled over six times in his life, five times here in Rockford in the past few years. Not once has he been ticketed. The Corner Bar, a beloved local eatery that dates back to 1873, has lost a couple of great workers—both African American—because they were repeatedly stopped when driving after dark. Our friends call this DWB or Driving While Black. The restaurant workers decided it wasn’t worth the trouble. They could make the same salary in a town where they weren’t being hassled by local justice systems.
Localized anesthesia is when we numb ourselves to feelings in particular areas. Sometimes we have to do that to survive. It’s what front-line workers are doing right now to be able to function. But all anesthetized areas need to be reawakened at some point. Healing requires that we walk through the areas we’ve intentionally numbed. There is no shortcut. There is no exception. Our beaten victim in Jesus’ parable is going to need to heal on the outside but he will also have emotional scars that are less visible. In order to heal on the inside, he must go into the depths of his past to relive it and let it go.
The surprise element to Jesus’ story is the rescuer. The highly esteemed professionals are first presented: a priest and a Levite. Both positions have privileged access to the Jewish temple life. Surely they would stop to help the bloodied man on the side of the road? But they don’t! Perhaps they fear for their own safety if they slow down their own journey? If thieves had done this to an innocent pedestrian, they could be lurking and ready to pounce again. An instinct toward self-preservation runs deep in all of us. The religious authorities anesthetize themselves from the world’s pain and hurry past. Jews despised Samaritans, half-breeds of another race. Yet it was a Samaritan who was moved with pity when he came across this victim and took it upon himself to get him medical help. We can imagine the inconvenience of loading a grown man onto his donkey, finishing out the arduous 17-mile journey, putting himself at greater risk of attack by his kindness. He spent his own money to get the man good medical care and promised to check back to ensure his well-being.
“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” Jesus asked. Defeated in his trickery, the attorney hangs his head and admits, “The one who showed him mercy.”
Bingo. School’s over. Jesus moves on and we’re still talking about that interruption to His journey today!
This past week I put a question to our membership on FaceBook: Who are the Good Samaritans in our world today. They are counselors who tenderly care for the emotional well-being of their clients by zoom now. They are frontline medical and rescue professionals who are putting their own lives at risk through their merciful actions. They are folks in food pantries, emergency housing programs and nursing homes caring for vulnerable groups. They are folks who deliver groceries to your doorstep so that you don’t have to shop amidst throngs of others.
I asked how our congregants had acted as Good Samaritans in the course of our shelter-in-place time. Blessed with a steady income, many have contributed money to some of the helping organizations I just mentioned. Some bought toilet paper and gave it away. Another person took on an extra job of sanitizing surfaces in a local grocery store each evening and gave away the money he earned from that job. Two teachers, thankful for their own security, gave their stimulus check money to former students who are suffering financially right now. Some folks sent checks to prison ministries, reaching out to a suffering yet forgotten population. Some started making and giving away facemasks. Others baked bread and left it on people’s doorsteps. (I’ve heard that yeast is hard to come by in stores right now as people bake away their stress!) Rather than anesthetize ourselves to painful realities in our world, what a beautiful story it is when we join forces in our churches to extend mercy to those around us in Jesus’ name!
When my mom was dying of terminal cancer at age 66 she was understandably subdued. Always optimistic and energetic before, heading toward certain death was more difficult that I can begin to imagine. She told me that one of her doctors suggested a prescription of anti-depressants to take the edge off of her grief. She was matter-of-fact several times with her doctors who looked in on terminal cancer from the outside. She said that she had good reason to be sad and didn’t wish to emotionally numb herself in this last stage of her earthly life.
Father Henri Nouwen wrote, “The great challenge is living your wounds through, instead of thinking them through. It is better to cry than to worry, better to feel your wounds deeply than to understand them” Administering local anesthesia to the areas of our life that overwhelm us seems like the best solution. But the only way we will be able to move forward with strength in any crisis is to feel those emotions so that we can put them in proper placement and make room for the here and now. I expect there will be a staggering siege of PTSD in our world as we emerge at some unknown future point from COVID 19. Rather than trying to move forward too quickly to reclaim the past and make it fit to the future, we are called to emulate the Good Samaritan: to be moved with pity. Strangely, it is when we huddle together in the trenches, tending to each other’s needs, that we find healing.
As Jesus challenged at the end of His parable, “Go and do likewise.”
Sixty days into a quarantine we have learned much about ourselves and each other. Some of our revelatory moments come from intentional sharing. Others stem from organic observation. Questions have been answered whether we wanted them to be or not! People preface their comments with a phrase that I have heard ad nauseum: “In these uncertain times….” If I never hear that sociological intro again, I will be happy. These are uncertain, difficult, unprecedented, heavy times. As with any crisis, we are laid bare before each other with our authentic selves exposed.
Let’s start with our hair. Have you ever wondered about the true hair color of your perfectly-coiffed neighbor? Well, now you know! Two months without chemicals and trained stylists and the stripe of color growing freely from our scalp boasts a natural beauty to the world. Of course, we’re really not seeing anyone besides those closest to us so maybe our secret is still intact? Those wildly independent gray hairs that grow jubilantly at our temple have free rein and, each time we look in the mirror, we have the same epiphany that we haven’t tipped our hair stylist enough in the past! “What’s your natural color” is a question we need not ask again after “these uncertain times” pass!
“How are you sleeping?” Simple. Trazadone. 50mg at bed and I can let go of the weight of the world and slip into an alternative state of being. Most nights. When the virus first landed in our town and threats of quarantine loomed, there were nights I heard sirens wailing. An awareness of death was deepened by this sound of warning that we seldom hear in my neck of the woods. In the dark of my room my anxiety level rose. I wondered what carnage lay ahead. So I’m thankful for a little pill that has eased my middle-aged sleep struggles for more than a dozen years. I can easily point back to the time that I first needed it. August 14, 2007. Our house burned to the ground that night. Unknown causes. No one was hurt—physically. My eldest headed to her dorm shortly after that to start another year of college. The other five of us relocated to a 2-bedroom family cottage for a year. In the dark of night my thoughts would wander to what could have happened if the fire had started at 3AM when we would have been fast asleep. I had heart palpitations. I was exhausted with the demands of keeping up with family and career but, additionally, navigating the demands of the insurance industry. In those uncertain times my doctor suggested trazadone. Originally an anti-depressant, the first round of users discovered that it made them sleepy. I suppose putting folks to sleep is one way of temporarily suspending anxious thoughts. But it was subsequently rebranded as a sleep aid. I don’t hear sirens in the night much anymore but a little white pill at bedtime has been a true friend!
What’s for dinner? I haven’t needed to cook an evening meal for years. My husband usually works late and my kids are grown so the days of figuring out what to put on a plate by 6PM are over. But not in quarantine! With little else to do I dove into recipe exploration. I’ve always loved to cook and now there were four of us captive in our home. So our daily gathering was at supper. Not only would it be fun to try out some new foods. It might actually empty out our freezer! I am certain that there are meat products buried in the depths of our garage freezer that make a mockery of their expiration date. With two grown sons living with us in these uncertain times, we ate well. Never mind the threats that shelves were empty in grocery stores. We have had plenty to eat. The excitement of foraging through my cookbooks has waned however. My husband texted me last night at 6PM to tell me he had picked up rotisserie chicken and was bringing it home. Good, I thought, since I have nothing planned. And as for Project Empty-the-Freezer? Not so much. My husband does man-shopping at Sam’s Club. You know, where he buys large and multiple quantities of specific food items, empties them from the car and then we struggle to figure out where they can safely be stored? So our freezers are still at capacity. Stop by if you run out of your own supplies.
Do you have any pets? The good news in these uncertain times is that the animal shelters have largely been emptied! Pandemic Pets have warmed our hearts and invaded our homes. Children have learned how to potty-train new puppies. Purring cats have pulled us countless times from the brink of despair. My sisters and I send each other pictures of beloved animals on our beds who clearly have the positions of honor in our families. We have been put on this earth to serve them, not the other way around! Praise God for the sweet companionship of the animal kingdom!
What’s your new routine? Actually, you may not want to know. With board meetings scrapped and office parties cancelled, let’s just say that my regular hygiene routine has been…altered. Do I really need that shower today? Do I want to stand at the bathroom sink wasting my time with a blow dryer? Did I brush my teeth this morning? Did I wear these leggings for the last two days or has it been three? Should I wash a load or wait another week? I wonder if we will re-enter our world with a changed set of priorities? Has our anxiety over choosing the right shade of eye shadow to match our outfit been misplaced? It seems like I have slipped into a rather androgynous style of personal presentation—which is all the rage, fortunately! I may not reclaim my previous habits as the pace picks up going forward.
That leads nicely into the next question: Are you wearing pants? I’ve heard that asked of more newscasters than I’d like to think. They are sitting at makeshift desks in their basements—which, by the way, have had obvious renovations over the course of the quarantine weeks—trying to look professional while the dog walks in on their news report and a baby cries in the next room. To what base level have we sunk when we don’t bother to dress half our body that won’t be seen? Pretty low, apparently. And it may be hard to go back to full office attire when the shelter-in-place mandate is lifted! Who knew that we didn’t need half of our clothing?
What day is it? Good question! I’m still pretty good at day and night differentiation (although even that is muddied as our daylight stretches well past 9PM in Michigan now). Without the usual schedule of events that happen on the same day of the week, we have no gauge for the passage of time. In the last years of my mother-in-law’s life, her schedule of activities lessened and some minor confusion developed. She would often say to us, “It feels like Saturday.” Like, every day. My kids and I would laugh at that. But now we hail her as the true sage of our family. Everyday our schedule is open so our mind computes that as a Saturday, a day off. Today it feels like Saturday—and it is! I guess I’m not losing it completely.
How is the family? Great, thanks for asking! In spite of being separated in different households we have celebrated three birthdays in social-distanced porch parties. We ate a hot meal together on our front porch on Mother’s Day when it was 43° and rainy. That’s when I really knew my children loved me! We have talked by zoom. We have lamented that we can’t hug each other. We have processed life with each other in ways that have kept us laughing and sane when we might well have fallen into pits of despair.￼￼
How’s church? That’s a great question! Church is alive! We are open! Not the building, but our hearts! We are making plans by zoom, praying over the phone, planning drive-by delivery of Bibles to first-grade graduates and finding that the internet is God’s greatest gift and, sometimes, fierce adversary. I have never been one to grab at the spotlight but, when it became clear that we had to cancel in-place worship, I decided to own my new role as a televangelist.
I had to believe that my message, preached to my camera-man husband, would be heard by others whose faces were no longer in front of me. Our on-line services have been an essential lifeline to our congregation as we have so missed each other’s physical company. Our coffee hour zooms are filled with laughter and expressions of affection for one another. A variety of people participate in the worship, recording their part of the service and sending it to our fearless youth leader. He has saved the day by taking on an overburdened internet and uploading our service to Facebook and YouTube. In exciting new ways we are doing “liturgy” together. Liturgy translates to mean “the work of the people” so, with each face and voice that guides us into God’s presence in our Sunday worship, our congregation unites as the Body of Christ, separated in body but joined in heart.
So on this Saturday (it is Saturday, right?) in these uncertain times, with interrupted sleep patterns and increasingly informal attire, may you know the nearness of the One who holds all things together when we’ve finally realized that we don’t and can’t!
Sometimes it’s the oddest things that can give us hope! This past week the North Kent Recycling Center re-opened after being closed for weeks due to the fear of COVID 19 spread. I had some outdated magazines that had been sitting in my car as a result of my quarantine sorting. So I joined the long line of cars that were dumping off recyclables we had stockpiled in garages and sheds.
My hope soared when a new license plate arrived in the mail over the weekend! It was a replacement plate I had ordered more than a month ago. It was a nightmare to navigate the Secretary of State site when all offices were closed because of the pandemic. My license plate literally fell off my car and was lost on the last outing I made the day before our governor shut down the state. My husband’s technological skills ultimately prevailed as we ordered a new plate on-line…but then we waited. Nothing was in production anywhere in any form, it seemed. I borrowed my husband’s car for the few outings I made in the past weeks, feeling like a 16-year old waiting for my own set of wheels. So when the license plate arrived in the mail I rejoiced that some regular productivity is resuming in some factory where new license plates are forged and sent out to liberate captives like me! Sometimes it’s the oddest things in times of trial that can give us hope!
Let me just start off my introduction to the text from Jeremiah with an attestation of adoration: I love Jeremiah! Like all prophets, he was plucked from an otherwise happy life to serve as God’s spokesperson. When God Almighty handpicks you for the job, there’s no saying no. He could not have known that total destruction of the beloved city of Jerusalem would happen on his watch. As the Babylonians soared in strength and numbers, they marched into terrified towns, extending their vast empire. The Jews in Israel didn’t escape their notice. For 12 difficult years Jeremiah thanklessly preached doom to a people who had long since forgotten to trust in God. Before we judge them too harshly we would do well to admit that clinging to faith in God when faced with mortal danger on a global scale is seldom our first instinct. Rather, we look to our own resources that we can manipulate and assume that we can make the difference. We can manage quite well on our own, thank you very much. It’s only when all our human efforts fail us that this nagging afterthought occurs to us: Maybe I should turn this over to God? For 12 years Jeremiah pointed to God as the only hope for their salvation but the Jews weren’t buying it.
So then this odd thing happens. God shows up in the form of a cousin who asks Jeremiah for financial help to retain land that was at risk of being sold out of the family. It’s difficult for us to remember the great value placed on keeping the farm in the family in our transient society where big business produces much of our food. But land was wealth and identity for Jeremiah’s people and the impending national defeat by menacing soldiers put their inheritance at risk. Faced with certain attack and probable exile, all local properties were greatly devalued. Who would buy a condo or a plot of land in Wuhan, China right now? Warren Buffet suggested optimism in the U.S. economy recently but only after he divested his staggering wealth from all airline stakes. One video that went viral last month was a flight attendant doing the usual welcome and survival instructions that kick off each flight. You know, the reminders about oxygen masks falling out of the ceiling should our plane meet up with trouble? Stewardess Jessica personalized her opening monologue to the one passenger on the flight from Washington, D.C. to Boston. That’s right. On April 20 Sheryl was the only passenger on the plane, receiving the full attention of two flight attendants. No one wants to get into a closed cabin these days and fly through celestial territory while invisible Corona assailants might be circulating through the plane. So Buffet dumped his airline stakes and struggled to find any kind of investment that looks attractive in a global pandemic. Who would invest in a dying enterprise?
For Jeremiah’s cousin to ask him to cough up some cash to keep the family plot in their name was ludicrous. But God nudged the prophet to do precisely that. “Buy the field,” he was instructed. His action would be symbolic, offering hope for a return to the homeland one day. This land would have value for them later even if right now it seemed like a wasted investment. So, after 12 years of doom and gloom preaching, signing on a property deed turns Jeremiah’s message around. Following God’s foolish directive to believe in a future worth living gives him hope which he offers freely to his people. They carry it with them as they are marched away from their homeland and held captive for half a century. Though Jeremiah would not live for the return, he died with the satisfaction of knowing that his descendants might one day return to that field and resume the work of their ancestors, planting crops for another generation. Sometimes the oddest things give us hope when we are marched away from the life we know and love.
Today is Mother’s Day. Restaurants are closed in much of the country so there are no lavish brunches for well-deserving moms. Many of us aren’t even able to be in the same space as our children since the Corona virus continues to stalk us. No hugs from sweet grandbabies. Only zoom calls with mothers who live in the nursing home one town over or across the country in a time when no one is getting into planes. Fortunately, mothers don’t do the job for the recognition. This national holiday isn’t going to be cancelled because we can’t honor our moms in our usual manner this year. The investment of a mom is probably the most costly she will make. It will literally take over her body. It will cost her a good night’s sleep more times than she will ever wish to count. She will wash more dishes, fold more laundry, cook more meals than she ever could have imagined. She may well work outside the home to provide an income so that she will be able to pay the estimated $235,000 it costs to raise one child in our country from birth to age 17. This kind of commitment is not predicated on having the right kind of treatment on any one particular day of the year. It is the full investment in shaping joyful, healthy, well-balanced children who will be able to contribute well to our world as adults.
There are plenty who say it’s not worth the cost! There are too many traps that potentially ensnare our dear children, breaking our hearts and emptying our wallets! In 2017 the birthrate declined to the lowest number seen in 30 years! Much of our society determined that babies are not a worthwhile investment. But those who will not be treated to an extravagant brunch or large family gathering aren’t going to check out of their role as mother because of that! We just have to look in on a few scenes to understand what lies at the root of being a mom. I think of the parents who rejoice when they discover that horseback riding opens up previously non-existent lines of communication between them and their autistic son. I think of the parents who weep for joy as their learning-disabled child receives her hard-earned diploma. I remember the fierce love of parents who walk alongside of their child as he fights cancer, as she battles depression, as he fights social rejection, as she struggles with addiction.
Many would say it’s not a good investment but the love that shines out in so many mother-child interactions assures us that no gift could be more meaningful. Where was Sheryl, that single passenger on a plane, traveling on April 20? To be with her mother in a hospice facility where she was in the final stage of her life. Treated like a queen on the flight, she disembarked and made it to her mother’s side so that she could be there as she breathed her last a day later. An investment made with love yields a harvest that will bring hope out of the most discouraging situations.
When God first commissioned Jeremiah to prophesy to his people, he was told that his job description was to plant and to build. Sounds great, doesn’t it? But, as is often the case with divine communication, we misunderstand God’s intent. We sign the contract with no guarantee of what lies ahead. The field we are to plant may need first to be cleared of stones. The soil may have impermeable clay. The seed may be old and our tools outdated. But God works alongside of us at each daunting juncture so that we can plant and build in challenging seasons. Our investment is completely reliant on our faith in a powerful God who directs the universe. Rather than despairing in desperate times, our investment in the God of Jesus Christ breathes new life and resurrection joy into us. It offers courage to those who share in the journey. When God is at work, it is the oddest things in times of trial that give us hope!
So your life is hard. Daily living is weighty. You tune into our worship service looking for hope. And we dig into Psalm 137? Yikes! (Can that be a proper liturgical response to a scripture—Yikes?!) This brief psalm is among the most shunned because it comes from the gut. You’ve heard of actors who are overlooked by the Academy? Well, the biblical scholars who put together the 3-year cycle of readings called the lectionary crossed to the other side of the street when they came across Psalm 137. The author is hateful and unhinged. His writing is an embarrassment to orderly believers who turn to God with polite prayers. The only other Psalm that is possibly more humiliating is Psalm 88. It starts as a rant and finishes as a rant with not a breath of fresh air in-between. Even though roughly one third of the psalms are considered lament psalms, the Church seldom taps into these emotionally heavy writings. Psalm 137, with talk of bashing infants to death, is in a special category all its own!
Richard Rohr defends this genre of Lament literature in the Bible: “One practice Christianity has developed to nurture resilience is lamentation. Prayers of lamentation arise in us when we sit and speak out to God and one another—stunned, sad, and silenced by the tragedy and absurdity of human events…Without this we do not suffer the necessary pain of this world, the necessary sadness of being human.” (Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation from the Center for Action and Contemplation. March 15-21, 2020)
This past week we exceeded 1,000,000 diagnosed Corona virus cases in the U.S. Maybe a lament psalm is just what the doctor ordered? Rather than run to praise psalms that utter words of thanksgiving, it might be more authentic to cry out. Why plaster a fake smile on our faces when we’ve plumbed the depths of all our self-help books and none of them touches our pain?
Context matters so let’s take a moment to step into the world of this ugly step-daughter of a psalm. The Hebrew people were overtaken by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. They were forcibly removed from their homes and relocated to their captor’s land hundreds of miles away. With each step of a deadly march toward Babylon, they locked their memories of the homeland into a safe mental space so they would never forget Jerusalem. The skilled workers and artisans were particularly desirable for the relocation project. Superpower Babylon wanted the talents of captive Jews to enhance their own cities. This psalm is sung after the exile is ended and recalls a specific moment of their 50-year long captivity. The Temple singers had carried with them for hundreds of grueling miles their harps or lyres. Imagine the enemy knocking down your front door and demanding that you leave NOW. You grab the things that mean the most to you and precious little can you carry. The temple musicians grabbed their instruments of praise! One afternoon, by the flowing river of their new land, the Captain-in-Charge asks the prisoners to take their lyres down from the tree branches where they had hung them, and to sing a little Jewish ditty. It is clearly meant to amuse the guards and they understand how painful a request that is for those who ache for their homeland. Remember the scene in “Sound of Music” when the Von Trapp family has to do an encore after winning the talent competition? Nazi soldiers wait in the hallways of the grand auditorium to take the father of the family to his new post with the German Reich. Georg chooses to sing a love song to his native Austria, knowing that he will have to leave her: Edelweiss. He is unable to get through it because the anguish of leaving a land, a people, a culture and freedom behind is more than he can bear. This is the kind of song the soldiers demand of the weary Jews. Jerusalem is more than just a place for them. It is where their God has lived among them. In remembering the moment, the author cries out, “How can we sing the song of the Lord while in a foreign land?”
There was then–and still is among Jews today–a passionate loyalty to their homeland. The writer invokes a sort of curse on himself if he ever forgets Jerusalem and does not place all other treasured aspects to his life as less than his love for the beloved city. He remembers how the Edomites, an enemy clan, had cheered on the Babylonian soldiers on the day of defeat. “…tear it down to its foundations” had a deeper meaning than simply destroying city walls (as if that weren’t enough!). They were urging these warriors who were known for their brutality to destroy the very order established by God for the chosen people. The author reminds God of the Edomites’ treachery hoping for divine retribution. It’s like one brother reminding his parents that the other brother didn’t do his chores. He wants to ensure that the parents evens up the score when he isn’t allowed to do it himself!
We discover in the scriptures that we are not the first to be frustrated with our “enemies.” C.S. Lewis points out that the first 11 verses of Psalm 143 invoke God’s presence with moving language of trust. But then the writer adds, almost as an afterthought in verse 12, “In your unfailing love silence my enemies, destroy all my foes, for I am your servant.” And remember the psalm we quote to new parents, exalting the miracle of this new life: “You knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139) Lovely, right? A few verses down the writer switches gears and reminds God of the justice that needs doing: “If only you would slay the wicked, O God! Away from me, you bloodthirsty men!” What? I thought we were looking down adoringly at a newborn child? When did revenge creep into the room? The writer of the 137th psalm remembers the cruelty of his captors and cries out from the gut, “O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you for what you have done to us—who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.”
Wow. The baby shower grinds to a halt. The guests disappear. Hatred is left spilled out on the table next to the untouched blue cake.
It is important to note that the Jews don’t act on these words. They are entrusting their God with the task of meting out justice. After they were hauled off to Babylon, the prophet Jeremiah gave them strict orders to bring peace with them: “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile.” Generations later a Jew named Jesus urged His followers to love their enemies. He called out forgiveness on those who handed Him over to be crucified. This cry from the gut for revenge in Psalm 137 entrusts God with the task of making things right while the believer strives for peace.
This is a psalm for the long haul, for the marathon of human suffering. It points to a resilient hope that is unwavering against all the facts. Walter Brueggemann calls this a psalm of disorientation, which should strike a chord with us in our present circumstances. He writes, “Faithful tenacity is our capacity to endure, to maintain identity, to embrace a calling in situations of sell-out.” He suggests that we must have an alternative vision in order to endure with sanity against despair. The displaced Jews would not forget their temple, even though it lay in ruins. It stood for their faith and their relationship with a loving God under which every other aspect to their life was lived. (The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary by Walter Brueggemann.)
A common theme I hear from our church family is that we miss each other. We yearn to meet in our sanctuary. Perhaps in this time of isolation, fear and dying we recognize that our place in Christ’s Church is our greatest joy? Perhaps, in the confines of our own homes or in hospitals hallways filled with breathless patients, we have had to examine our priorities and ask what stands in the way of honoring them? 100 years after the exile in Babylon, Governor Nehemiah weeps as he remembers the hardship of his people in captivity. What memory can still bring you to tears years later? Are those tears shed out of gratitude for God’s saving activity in that time of suffering? Or are we still crying out from the gut for revenge on our enemies? Are we wasting our lives plotting for ways to settle the score?
This is a strange crisis we confront today because our enemy is faceless. Certainly there are those who have tried desperately to hang blame on nations or leaders. But most of us realize that we are fighting against—and, for many, losing to—an invisible yet deadly virus. We can act out our frustration by naming enemies, like Don Quixote slashing his sword at windmills. Or we can let go of the blame game and become the people God would have us become. We can have a huge fight in the aisles of Walmart over a 6-pack of toilet paper but we will not be transfigured then into the new creation of God’s calling. We choose to move forward in our grief or stay stuck for a lifetime.
Martin Luther nearly lost his life, reshaping a Church that he understood to be corrupt. He described his fight in the hymn, “A Mighty Fortress.” One of the lines is his affirmation of faith in the face of death: “The body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still.” We find our home today in the Protestant tradition because Luther did not shy away from threats of death. Clinging to his faith, he—and we– became a new creation. We are not an angry branch of the Christian family tree. We are people of conviction who protest wrongs out of a love for Christ.
So how can we pray using this rejected Psalm? We find in it a courageous perseverance in prayer. We are invited to leave behind the notion that our prayers must be polite. Instead we pray through our anger, frustration, and spite—against human or faceless enemies—and submit to God’s will. Our conversation with God intensifies and puts all other conversations in their respective places. Martin Marty identified the greatest challenge to mainline Christianity in his publication, Context. In 2009 he wrote: “The greatest challenge to mainline Christianity is not the loss of members or the fragmenting of generations into sociological interest groups whose needs require the gospel to be adjusted or fine-tuned. It is not the soul-withering processes that have asserted control of denominations and governing bodies that sap the life out of congregations and pastors. The challenge is simpler and deeper; it is the pearl of great price that rescues authentic faith and faithful discipleship from the dustbin of ecclesial history. It is prayer: prayer to the living God in the Spirit, prayer which is regular, disciplined, and communal. Upon such prayer hang the prayers of individual disciples and church members.”
100 years ago Hannah Whittal Smith wrote of a brief conversation in her book, The God of All Comfort: “I remember hearing of a Christian who was in great trouble, and who had tried every deliverance, but in vain, who said finally to another in a tone of the utmost despair, ‘Well, there is nothing left for me now but to trust the Lord.’ ‘Alas!’ exclaimed the friend in the greatest consternation, ‘is it possible it has come to that?’”
When your self-help library has failed you, is it only then that you remember to pray? Are you honest with God or do you keep it polite, as with a distant relative? How are you surviving the first pandemic in our lifetimes? Are you directing your anger at an enemy? Or are you yielding your control to the God who will be there for the long haul, anxious to hear from you and ready to re-form you? There’s new life for you, for me, for all of us, on the other side of this crisis. The outcome depends on how we fight the battle.