I often start communications to our congregation by saying, “I hope you are doing well.” That is always my prayer, though I know that many are dealing with difficulties of illness, disruption of life or livelihood, lingering grief over the loss of loved ones, and deep feelings about what we’ve seen and heard happening in our communities in recent weeks. We find ourselves grasping for hope, sometimes, even as we affirm God’s sovereignty over life and nature and our future as human beings. After weeks of dealing with the impacts of COVID-19 on our daily lives, we now witness the opened wound of continued racial divisions in our society. This has made itself evident both in acts of violence and civil disobedience, and in powerful statements of unity among people of various races, backgrounds and ethnicities. For those of us old enough to have lived through a number of political and social cycles, it’s discouraging to see that we are still dealing with the same things that were dividing us fifty years ago; not only racial divisions, but also political polarization on nearly every issue that makes the news.
It may sound odd to hear me say this, but if you were to ask me today how I feel, I would tell you that I feel hopeful. I believe that the difficulties with COVID-19 in recent months have exposed many of our vulnerabilities and helped us reexamine what’s important in our own lives; and I believe that the festering wound of racial division in our nation has been recently opened in such a way that it can be cleansed and begin to heal. The cleaning and healing of old wounds is a messy business. It can even be pretty ugly in the beginning, as you’ll know if you’ve ever had an old wound on your body that had to be opened and retreated. The process of cleansing and healing of old wounds takes time. It also takes great care and regular attention. So, where will you put your attention, today?
I don’t know who said it first, but I’ve heard it repeated many times in recent weeks that it’s not enough to just be a “nice” white person. I confess that has been my approach for much of my adult life; that somehow if I were just courteous and fair and friendly in all my dealings with people whose race is different from my own, that I would be doing my part for racial justice. What I’ve come to realize is that while these things are important, they are not enough. Being “nice” is not enough when I am not seeking to understand the intricacies of systemic racism and to respond to how it affects the everyday lives of others.
Our Bible is full of instances where justice for marginalized people is held up as an ideal that pleases God. In the railings of the Old Testament prophets, there are two themes that emerge time and again; that the people have “forgotten God” and that they have committed injustices toward others. Jesus as God incarnate had an eye for the presence of injustice and discrimination in the culture around him. If you and I are followers of Christ, then we are to be in the “justice business” in Christ’s name. Often, the first step in advocating for justice for others is recognizing and understanding our own privilege, even and perhaps especially when we think we are not privileged; by the color of our skin, by the resources at our disposal, or by the safety and access we enjoy.
It’s easy to look around at some of the things that are happening right now and to find fault. It can be hard to muster empathy for people who destroy businesses, deface public monuments, and who shout insults at well-meaning law officers who are just trying to do their jobs. There are even some who use moments like these to advance causes that have little to do with the issue at hand. But you and I can’t let the worst of what we see deflect our attention from the best of what we can see. This is true of any situation, and it’s especially true right now. Look for the words and actions that hold up the principles of Godly love and justice, and join the fight.
This is a message to myself, as much as it’s a message to anyone else. Doing justice and loving kindness and walking humbly with our God (Micah 6:8) is hard work. But we have the greatest Helper on our side, and the greatest Healer for the old and deep wounds in our souls and in our society. We are the reason Jesus went to the Cross, and there’s nothing he wants more than to see us love him with our whole heart and mind and strength, and to love our “neighbor” as much as we love ourselves.
With prayers for our shared journey,
A friend of mine commented recently about having “pandemic topic fatigue.” Many of us who feel responsibility for speaking encouragingly about what is happening in our culture right now feel like we are running out of things to talk about that anyone will want to hear. Most all of us have dealt with disrupted schedules and measures of frustration and fear, and many of us have felt the loss of uncelebrated events such as graduations, birthdays, and time with grandchildren and other loved ones. Many people I talk to are ready for all this social isolation to be over with, and yet, they still feel afraid. There are so many unknowns about this COVID-19 virus, and an effective vaccine and good “therapeutics” seem too far away to give much comfort right now.
One way that some people have chosen to deal with their fear is to latch onto conspiracy theories that claim the pandemic is not “real,” or that it was all engineered for political purposes. While following this kind of intrigue can give relief from weariness or fear, it’s not healthy or productive when we stop listening to our credible scientists and place confidence in circulating information of unknown origin or credibility. Social media in particular has exacerbated this phenomenon, but it’s an age-old problem; in the midst of crisis, we are susceptible to whomever tells us what we want to hear. Many would rather believe that the pandemic is not “real” or that it’s overblown, than to accept the fact that a new illness is circulating among us that is killing tens of thousands of vulnerable people and for which we don’t yet have a good solution.
It’s no wonder so many of us feel afraid. Fear is a natural human response to threat, but it can be taxing on us when it goes on indefinitely in the face of the unknown. Our fear response is helpful when the threat is clear and immediate, such as our ancestors’ facing wild animals, or when our child runs out into traffic. Our adrenaline rushes and we’re able to accomplish feats that we might not otherwise be able to carry out in order to remove a predator or to save a child from danger. But when our anxiety remains high over a period of time because of what “might” happen to us or to someone we love, it wears on our bodies, our minds and our spirits. That’s how many people feel right now.
I can’t wave a magic wand and make your fears go away. But I can direct you to the Source of all comfort. When we can center ourselves in the steadfast love of God in Jesus Christ, we can find peace. We can step away from all the “what ifs” and the “how longs” and the nagging anxiety of COVID-19 and other problems in our lives, and put those things in perspective as we simply enjoy being in the presence of God. To regularly experience God’s presence in this way through prayer gives us strength and wisdom for dealing with all that life brings to us, both now and in the future. It enables us to live out of love, rather than out of fear.
The earliest followers of Jesus faced threats that most of us can only imagine. To these followers and to us today, Jesus offered the promise of God’s Holy Spirit, whom he called “the Advocate.” This Advocate dwells with us when we accept the grace that God offers to us in Jesus Christ and as we seek to follow Christ's teachings. Jesus also offered his disciples – and us – his godly peace.
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27)
If you are lacking in peace right now, present yourself to the Prince of Peace. Tell him exactly how you feel, and ask for what he has to offer. Then listen as he speaks to your heart and to all your fears.
With blessings for your journey,
We are in an unusual season of the Church’s life. All over the world, church leaders are having to make decisions about how to worship and work under threat of a global pandemic. A few have denied the imperative to cease gathering, claiming that there is healing power in the Eucharist or that God would protect them in some other way from the effects of the novel coronavirus if they continued to hold worship services. But most have understood that while there is indeed a great power of God to heal, there is also a moral responsibility to use the intellect God has given us to make good choices to protect the most vulnerable among us.
Hebron Church is among those whose leaders have chosen to suspend gatherings for worship until the greatest threat from the effects of COVID-19 have passed. We have done this out of care for one another and for our community, and for our health care workers who are on the front lines of fighting this disease. We have chosen instead to offer a live-streamed worship opportunity on our church’s Facebook page each Sunday, and to record the service for posting afterwards. Many have appreciated the opportunity to worship together in this way.
It has been sad to think of celebrating Easter without being able to gather as a church family. One thing we have encouraged people to do is to submit photos of something that represents “resurrection” to them. These will be compiled and presented as a slide show on our Facebook page on Easter Sunday. One photo I submitted is of my son, Henry, at the top of Volcano Baru in Panama at sunrise. It’s a recommended hike for visitors to the area, but it’s long and arduous and it begins in the dark. Henry was in Panama for a medical project with Floating Doctors. Several members of the team started out in the middle of the night for the top of Volcano Baru, so they could be there for one of the summit’s famous sunrises.
Henry’s photos showed that it was indeed a glorious sunrise, and well worth the hike. As stunning as it was, however, it was over quickly and there was nothing left to do except start the long hike back down the mountain and get back to work. The team was helping to provide medical care to remote river villages. It can be challenging work, but they did it that day with an eyeful of the astounding beauty and wonder of God’s creation within memory’s reach.
The celebration of Easter does something similar for us as Christians. It’s a glimpse of God’s glory and beauty in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ that interrupts our ordinary lives. If we’ve engaged it fully, then we’ve come through the arduous journey of remembering Christ’s suffering during Holy Week; his arrest, his interrogation, his torture and his excruciating death on the Cross. We make this dark and difficult journey with Jesus through the Scriptures, to come into the new light of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday. Then we “head back down the mountain” to continue God’s work. But our work has been strengthened by the memory of Easter Sunday.
We are finding in so many ways that this present interruption of our normal work and worship is a time of potential creativity, as we seek different ways to do the ordinary things of life. I pray that Easter Sunday will be a time when you will feel the closeness of Christ’s presence and get a glimpse of God’s glory that will empower you for the days ahead.
With prayers for your journey,
Every once in a while, someone will ask me, “What’s your favorite Bible verse?” I guess a pastor is expected to have a “favorite” verse of Scripture. But I never know how to answer that question. There are so many! And a lot of them are nestled inside marvelous passages of the Bible, such as the promises of God found in Psalm 139. The last time someone asked me about a favorite Bible verse, I thought about which verses I quote most often in conversation. That brought a few chuckles. I think the verses of Scripture we latch onto say something about our personal struggles. Because I grew up being taught and preached to from the King James Bible, that’s the version I most often hear in my head when I’m thinking about an oft-quoted verse.
One verse I’ll often say to myself and others is: “Sufficient unto the day is the evil, thereof.” That’s from the 6th chapter of Matthew, where Jesus teaches his followers to lay up treasures in heaven, rather than on earth. In other words, we should put our greatest energy into efforts that matter for eternity. Jesus reminds his followers that God’s care for nature indicates that we also will be cared for by God, as we seek his righteousness. The lesson then concludes: “Take therefore no thought for the morrow; for the morrow shall take thought of the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” (Matthew 6:34, KJV) Translation? Don’t borrow worry from the future. I tend to do that, a lot. Do you? I think that’s why it’s one of my favorite verses from the Bible.
Another verse I’ll often quote comes immediately after the one above in Matthew, though I don’t usually think of them, together. Jesus says: “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” I used to have a friend who would quote that verse right before sharing some bit of gossip! It was kind of funny, but certainly contradictory. Verses 1 and 2 of Matthew 7 say: “Judge not that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” (Matthew 7:1-2, KJV) Translation? Being judgmental of people is like a boomerang – it comes back to us in the form of judgment from others. While we must at times make discernments about the actions of others for the sake of the public good, we’re to leave the judgment of other people in God’s hands as much as possible.
One other verse that often comes to my mind is not from Scripture, but from an ancient Christian prayer called Phos Hilaron (“O Gracious Light’): "You are worthy at all times to be praised by happy voices, O Son of God, O Giver of Life, and to be glorified through all the worlds.” This is a vesper prayer, and I think of it nearly every time I see a sunset. I also think of it when I hear happy voices in the sanctuary on Sunday morning. We are so blessed to be loved by a God who promises to care for us so that we don’t have to borrow worries from tomorrow; a God who takes on the burden of judging and who promises to judge rightly (better than we ever could!); and a God who calls us to look for his gracious light, so that we might share that Light with the world.
With prayers for your journey,