Sunday, March 29, 2020

Lent Five: Facing into Fear

The Storm on the Sea of Galilee Rembrandt, 1632.
It’s easy to miss the underlying reality of danger that weaves throughout the gospels.

There’s the slaughter of babies when Herod feels threatened by the visit from the magi.

John the Baptist’s head on a platter at the whim of a royal consort.

Stoning by angry mobs.

The spectacle of crucifixion.

And disease: don't forget disease. Lepers, dying children.

“Don’t be afraid,” Jesus says.

“Don’t be afraid,” when he calls Simon Peter to follow.

“Don’t be afraid,” when the storm threatens to swamp the boat.

“Don’t be afraid,” when Jairus comes pleading for his daughter to be healed.

“Don’t be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. . .  Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

That’s an easy message when the sky is blue and life is fine.

Harder when an invisible virus brings sudden death to even the healthiest among us, when any friend or neighbor could be spreading disease without knowing it, when reported infections double every three days and hospitals in some areas are already overwhelmed.

Don’t be afraid.

I’ve been thinking about the night before Jesus died.
They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said to them. “Stay here and keep watch.”
Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”
Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane
Nicholas Ge, Russia, 1880
What was Jesus wrestling with?




Are those separate emotions or tied together?

I’ve been feeling all three, not so much for myself as for people I know and love. Older relatives in New York City. Friends on the front lines of medical care. Young families in urban places where too many people live too close together, where there’s too little green space, no safe choices for buying food and diapers.  

I’ve been realizing how truly sheltered and privileged I’ve been. How easy it is to hold fear at bay when I live far from war or famine, surrounded by green, peaceful spaces, a quick drive from three good hospitals, refrigerator full, loving family nearby.

And struggling with the feeling that I’m helpless to help.

So much of the world lives in fear every day: terrible floods, horrific fire, not enough food, no clean water, ethnic warfare, bombs, drones.

I believe Jesus wrestled with fear, dread, sorrow, and went on to face the dangers confronting him calmly, confidently, because he knew what lay beyond the fear.

He reminded his followers before he went: don’t be afraid, for I am with you always. Even to the end of the age.

Strange as it sounds, I’ve experienced that presence in times of great stress: several times when those I love were at the edge of death, other times when challenges overwhelmed me. In prayer I’ve felt a nearness I can’t explain. Not always, but often enough to know, even now, when fear presses in: we are not alone. And there’s hope beyond the fear.

We aren’t the first to wrestle with epidemics, with fear, with things beyond our control. In the Rise of Christianity, historian Rodney Stark points to Christian care for the sick during times of plague as a significant factor in the spread of the Christian faith. The first hospitals were created by Christians to provide care for people abandoned by their families.

In 1527, Martin Luther answered a letter from fellow pastors asking whether Christians should flee or stay in the face of the plague spreading through European cities. His extensive answer argues against both reckless folly and fearful withdrawal, insisting on courageous love for neighbor while taking appropriate precautions.

The challenge is to see what that care looks like now, today.

I first heard this song, Nothing to Fear, on Christmas Day, and have been singing along to it in my various travels. I’ve argued with it, question it, prayed it. It’s become a good anthem for this strange time:
When you pass through the waters I will be with you
And the depths of the river shall not overwhelm
When you walk through the fire you will not be burned
I am the Lord, I am the Lord.
In the depths of your sorrow I wept beside you
When you walked through the shadow I drew you near
Yesterday, today, tomorrow - always the same
I am the Lord, I am the Lord.
And there is nothing to fear, nothing to fear
There is nothing to fear, nothing to fear
For I am with you always.

This is the fifth in a Lenten Series:

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Lent Four: Wait. Watch. Wonder.

In this strange season of pandemic, we find ourselves waiting.

Not all of us. Some have been swept into the center of the maelstrom: doctors and nurses, other hospital staff, medical supply chain, grocery workers, officials tasked with impossible decisions.

But most of us are waiting, some anxiously watching symptoms develop, in ourselves or loved ones, but far more of us just waiting, calendars swept clean, activities abandoned, conferences, competitions, rallies, receptions all dismantled. Indefinitely. For the foreseeable future. Weeks? Months? We don’t know.

Waiting does not come easily to humans of any age. We want schedules, deadlines, plans, explanations. If we must wait, tell us exactly how long. Give us a checklist, a calendar, a countdown clock.

We grieve the sudden death of goals and plans. We grieve the sudden strange expanse of time.


My husband Whitney is reading through the Bible this year and occasionally reminding me of odd bits of scripture we’ve both read and forgotten, or never really noticed. This week he shared a passage from Numbers 9: God led the Israelites by a pillar of fire that would remain for days, weeks or a year. Over midday lunch we talked about the challenge in that: would the Israelites set up a full camp if only staying for a day or two? Would they plant lettuce and other greens if staying for a year? If they didn’t know, how could they use their time well? How do we use our own time well, when we don’t have an end in view?

I’m reminded of the passages in the gospels where Jesus invites his closest friends to wait for him. On the Mount of Transfiguration, where Peter, James and John dozed off while Jesus met with Elijah and Moses in glorious splendor. In the garden of Gesthemane where Jesus spent his last night on earth. He asked his friends to wait and watch with him. “
When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy.”

Those brief episodes hold a clue to the essential work done in waiting: Watch. Watch while you wait. Keep your eyes open. Be ready.

I’ve been encouraged by people around me who are looking for creative ways to connect in a season of isolation. My husband has been spending time every evening making calls to people who might be alone or need encouragement. Our church is now offering the daily office, a short friendly reading and reflection at noon, and learning to livestream a Sunday service. Musicians are providing pop-up concerts online. A children’s artist offers daily doodle sessions, encouraging young children to doodle along and explore art in a fun new way.

But I wonder: will more be needed? Much more? As thousands lose their jobs, as medical facilities reach capacity, as human need presses in around us: many will need more than remote connection. What then? How do we help?

While we watch for ways to help and connect in this immediate crisis, we also need to watch the interplay of larger structures, and begin asking harder questions:
  • Does fractured, privatized, for-profit medicine provide a platform for effective treatment, or are nations better served by a unified, national, single-player plan?
  • Do some economic structures incentive protection of the public good more effectively than our own?
  • What role should government play in a global crisis? Do we all pay a cost when professional roles are politicized in a way that rewards partisan allegiance and devalues expertise?
  • Who is responsible for hourly workers when their work is summarily canceled?
  • Who is responsible for rural communities when health care is no longer profitable?

Wait. Watch. Wonder.

Another point of interest, shared by Whitney in his brief wanders through the house between conference calls with his American Bible Society colleagues: in 1527, the bubonic plague swept through Europe. Martin Luther wrote a letter to his friend Rev. John Hess:  
I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me however I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.
How will I respond if my neighbor needs me?
Who is my neighbor in this time of trouble?

But there's more here than wondering about what I should do, what we, as a people, a church, a nation, should do.

There's the promise, again and again, that when we wait, we see God act. We come to know God better. We learn to see what's real.

Is that possible? 

I wonder as I watch and wait.

I’ve been sharing songs from the Porter’s Gate project, but that project has pointed me toward another, launching tomorrow: Pray as You Stay. I’ll be checking it out. Join me.

This is the fourth in a Lenten series:

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Lent Three: Lord have mercy

During Lent, my church, like many others, begins each worship service with the decalogue: a reading of the ten commandments, with the refrain, after each: Lord have mercy.

It’s a reminder, a prayer, a confession.

Lord have mercy.

In the Prayers of the People we repeat the same refrain:
For the aged and infirm, for the widowed and orphans, and for the sick and the suffering, let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy. 
For the poor and the oppressed, for the unemployed and the destitute, for prisoners and captives, and for all who remember and care for them, let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy. 
For deliverance from all danger, violence, oppression, and degradation, let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy. 
This past week has been a difficult one. I began the week deep in preparation for a large Rally to End Gerrymandering in Harrisburg on March 23, with 14 buses coming from all corners of our state, with over 600 people already registered. Volunteers had been working for months arranging bus routes, scheduling legislative visits, preparing and ordering materials.

On Tuesday it became clear we would need to cancel and began the hard work of communicating that change. That was confirmed two days later when the capital complex closed to all events and visitors. Our roll-back of programs escalated: canceling or postponing events across the state, unraveling many hours of work by dozens of volunteers.

We’ve been working for four years now to change our state constitution. A tight timeline suddenly looks impossible as our state legislature struggles to put emergency legislation in place before recessing indefinitely in the face of a spreading pandemic. We are grieving the hard work dismantled, the forward motion suspended.

Lord have mercy.

Multiply our losses by millions: conferences upended, athletic careers put on hold, senior years disrupted, vacations, travels, celebrations abruptly upended.

And far more important: lives lost. Health threatened. Family finances for many who live on the edge suddenly more difficult than ever.

Thrown into glaring relief are realities too long ignored:

Leaders who put polls above people.

Healthy systems built on profit rather than public good.

Governmental structures that reward partisan maneuvers rather than enable efficient enactment of data-based solutions.

A harsh economy that offers no margin to the most marginalized among us. No guarantee of income in times of illness. No guarantee of continued employment when markets drop or doors close unexpectedly. No steady supply of medical care when situations change.
Lord have mercy.

I’ve wrestled with that word mercy before:

Ancient Hebrew offers three root words linked to mercy. One, "racham," is related to the word for womb, carrying with it a sense of family love, compassion, strong carrying weak, parent tenderly carrying a tiny child.  In the King James, “racham” was regularly translated “tender mercy.”

Another Hebrew word, "chanan," is sometimes translated pity, or generosity: those who have much giving to those with little.

The word most often translated mercy, “chesed,” or “hesed,” is also translated “steadfast love,” “lovingkindness,” “unfailing love,” “faithfulness.” Mercy is love that won’t give up, won’t let go, never grows tired. 

An Old Testament refrain insists: “For the Lord is good, his mercy (chesed) endures forever.” (Repeated in Psalms 100:5106:1107:1118:1-31361 Chronicles 16:342 Chronicles 5:137:3; Ezra 3:11Jeremiah 33:11

This is the unconditional love we can’t quite get our heads around.

“Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love (hesed) for you will not be shaken.” (Isaiah 54:10)

“No one is cast off by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love (hesed).” (Lamentations 3:31-32)

Suffer the little children; Orthodox icon
In the New Testament, the word translated “mercy” is the Greek word “eleos,”  from the same root as oil, “oil poured out”. Again and again, Jesus was asked for mercy and extended it in healing, in forgiveness and finally, in his greatest act of mercy, in conquering death through his own death and resurrection. 

In this fractured time, my heart turns toward that image of God carrying us, like frightened children, in strong arms of mercy.

We don’t deserve it, can’t earn it. We fight against it until overcome by grief or fear.

Lord have mercy.

The word carries mysteries: how can mercy intervene when our best efforts fail?

In the beatitudes, the first lengthy teaching Jesus offered, he said “Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.”

At first sight, this looks like a contradiction: if mercy is something unearned, then why does it seem conditional?

That word “eleos”, like oil poured out, suggests a way of understanding this: when we allow ourselves to be channels of mercy, we experience it more fully, see it more clearly.

When we refuse to offer mercy to others, we shut ourselves off from mercy itself, like rocks hardened to God and to each other.

To live in the mercy of God.
To feel vibrate the enraptured
waterfall flinging itself
unabating down and down
to clenched fists of rock.
Swiftness of plunge,
hour after year after century . . .
not mild, not temperate,
God’s love for the world. Vast
flood of mercy
flung on resistance.
(from “To Live in the Mercy of God.”
Denise Levertov, 1996 )

In this time of loss, anxiety, uncertainty, fear, 
may we set down our resistance, pray for God’s mercy, live in God’s mercy, act as agents of that mercy we so desperately need.  

Lord have mercy.

The song is from a CD my son gave me for Christmas from The Porters Gate, sacred arts collective founded in 2017 to be a "porter" for the Christian church: "one who looks beyond the church door for guests to welcome." The Porters Gate CDs, Work Songs and Neighbor Songs, have become the soundtrack for this season in my life: a time beyond the church door, working in the political arena as I try to live out love for my neighbors across the state of Pennsylvania.

This is the third in a Lenten series:

Parts of this post are reworked from earlier posts on mercy:

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Lent Two: rethink hunger and fasting

Our rector, Richard Morgan, spoke on fasting last Sunday. He talked about Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, about the ways we imagine we’re starving when dinner is a few minutes late, about a very different hunger that sets in after a lengthy fast.

My childhood faith tradition was dismissive of Lent and its practices. But in my years in a more liturgical church, I’ve come to welcome Lent and the encouragement to step back, to review, to let go of things that have taken too strong a hold on me.

Many years I give up sugar as completely as I can. I grew up in a family that saw sugar as nurture, love, comfort, and in a church community in which food seemed the one approved fellowship and entertainment. During spring, summer, fall I tend to eat carefully: fruits and vegetables, with lots of outdoor time weeding, pruning, birdwatching, kayaking. Around Thanksgiving, I become more sedentary, make lots of pies, slip back into old patterns. By the time Christmas ends I’m a sugar addict again. In Lent I go clean and start the year new.

What are the superficial hungers I, we, our churches, communities, nation fall prey to?
What are the deeper hungers we ignore at our peril?

Superficial hungers are easy: noise, excitement, digital devices, alcohol, sugar, whatever’s new or different, the need to be right. We all have our own list of things that quiet our inner fears and dull our anxieties at the end of the day.

Deeper hungers?

We have no word that comes even close. 

And the vision, in both Old and New Testaments, goes far beyond the personal. We are to hunger and work toward a restored creation where personal priorities, social patterns and political institutions are all brought into harmony with love for God and neighbor in a way that allows every single person to thrive and contribute. 

And then, the bigger, harder task: embrace the hunger that will never be fully satisfied, but that opens our eyes and hearts to the world's great need and daily draws us closer to the one who made and loves us all. 

I’m giving up sugar again this year, but rethinking that pattern: the goal isn’t to give something up then slip back. It’s to loosen its grip so we escape it completely. My prayer this year is that the patterns that feed that addiction will be shaken so fully I stay healthier all year long. Is that possible? We’ll see.

But I’m also rethinking the whole idea of hunger. As Richard suggested in his sermon, some hunger is a lie: it tricks us into thinking we need what we don’t need. It traps us into dependence on temporary fixes and superficial remedies.

The deeper hungers, like the hunger at the end of a forty day fast, alert us to what’s really needed. If there’s no food after a sustained fast, the body starts to shut down organs. Lasting harm begins. Death isn’t far behind.

There’s a clue in this passage from the beatitudes: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, For they shall be filled.” Matthew 5:6.

I’ve written several times about that idea of hungering for righteousness. That word is too easily confused with “rightness.” Many who think of themselves as righteous are in fact addicted to rightness - a very different thing. 

I grew up in a tradition that believe there was a “right” opinion on everything, from length of skirt to acceptable entertainment to forms of baptism to roles of women to the work of the Holy Spirit to the chronology of the end times to political platform.

"Rightness" (what I believed was righteousness, but in many ways was far from it) was a competitive activity, with a strong punitive edge.

Who would hunger and thirst after that? And what would it mean to be satisfied?

Righteousness, I now believe, is something far different. The Greek word used in Matthew, “dikaios,” is the same as the Hebrew word “tzedakah,” a word used throughout the Old Testament to describe the character of God and God’s restorative actions: justice, truth, compassion, kindness, making right, renewing, restoring, ensuring good things for those without, restraining the powerful, lifting up the weak, repairing ruined vineyards and fields, ensuring wise governance and an equitable economy.

But the challenge in this word goes further: righteousness describes the complex goodness of God but also invites us to become representatives of that goodness ourselves in a way that unites faith and practice, reaching from our own personal experience into a broken world around us.

The Concept of Tzedakah, Outer Banks Common Good
In the Jewish tradition, tzedakah is the standard of charitable giving, an expected part of every Jewish faith and practice. Giving that goes far beyond a simple gift: giving that renews, repairs, allows the other to thrive and learn to give as well. It carries a sense of both unity and integrity: action aligned with spoken word. 

In the gospels and New Testament epistles, we’re instructed to take that even further, to love our neighbors as ourselves in ways that are sacrificial, inexplicable, possible only through the power of God’s spirit. 

I am learning to hunger for that in myself, in those around me, in the larger community of Christ followers we call the Christian church. The more I hunger, the more I see how far from that we are.  

Here is a mystery worth pursuing: how do we grow past a superficial hunger to a craving for righteousness so deep it reshapes our spending, reframes our conversation, redirects our every ounce of energy?

In thinking about this, I realize the greater question is this: how do we allow the prayer for God's kingdom to become an essential part of who we are, all day, every day, in ways we never expected, in places we never chose.  

The Porters' Gate CDs my son gave me for Christmas have become my soundtrack this Lenten season. Today, this is the one I return to as I pray: Father, let your kingdom come. 

This is the second in a Lenten season. 

This content of this post is in part a rethinking of past posts on the topics of righteousness and fasting: 

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Lent One: start with lament

Last weekend I was on the leadership team for a retreat our church provides each year. It's called Freedom in Christ. It offers space for people struggling with grief, anger, addiction, guilt, to start or continue the process of healing.

I helped lead worship but also gave a two-part talk on beginning to acknowledge and deal with the baggage we've been carrying. As I said in my talk, digging a rock from a backpack full of shattered glass and other reminders of past brokenness, that rock was once so heavy I could hardly move. It's smaller now. But still not gone.

Lament is part of the process of healing and freedom. In my talk I read from Psalm 6: Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint. Heal me, Lord, for my bone are in agony. My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long?

Lent starts with the ashes of Ash Wednesday –a symbol of grief and lament. In our modern liturgical traditions, we dot the ashes on the forehead and wash them off at the end of the day. In ancient Hebrew tradition, the practice of lament went far deeper and lasted longer: mourners sat in ashes, or poured them on their heads, ripped clothes, wore sackcloth. This practice of shiva, of extended grief, was expected in most cases to last a week, sometimes longer.

We hurry through lament, often to our loss: Suck it up, walk it off, let it go, move on. We hurry toward “closure” without doing the hard work of grieving.

Hope, George Frederick Watts,
England, 1886 
In his article ‘The Hidden Hope in Lament’, Dan Allender writes, "Christians seldom sing in the minor key. We fear the somber; we seem to hold sorrow in low esteem. We seem predisposed to fear lament as a quick slide into doubt and despair; failing to see that doubt and despair are the dark soil that is necessary to grow confidence and joy."

As a young teen, learning to play the guitar, I was drawn to songs in minor keys. I was given my first guitar just months after I left the home I’d lived in most of my life. I was sharing a narrow attic room with my grandmother in a small house with people I didn’t know, struggling to find my way in a large new school where I didn’t feel welcome, not sure how long I’d be there, or what would come next.

I remember an elder in our church, a family friend, stopping me in the middle of a song I was practicing: “Christians don’t sing in minor key.” I’ve remembered his words – although I’ve never agreed.

A third of the Psalms are written in minor key – songs of grief, of anger, of confusion:
I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
it has melted away within me.
My strength is dried up like a potsherd,
my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
you lay me in the dust of death. (Psalm 22)
I am like a desert owl,
like an owl among the ruins.
I lie awake; I have become like a bird alone on a roof. (Psalm 102)
Some of the lament psalms are very personal. Others are corporate – an acknowledgement that things aren’t right, not just for the individual writing the psalm, but for his people, sometimes for the earth itself.
Do you rulers indeed speak justly? Do you judge uprightly among men?
No, in your heart you devise injustice,
and your hands mete out violence on the earth. (Psalm 58)
How long will the wicked, O Lord, how long will the wicked be jubilant?
They pour out arrogant words; all the evildoers are full of boasting.
They crush your people, O Lord; they oppress your inheritance.
They slay the widow and the alien; they murder the fatherless.
They say, The Lord does not see; the God of Jacob pays no heed. (Psalm 94)
That refrain of "how long" has been echoing in my mind and heart, a song of both lament and hope, a reminder of how far we are from a world of shalom, but also a promise that God is at work. And an invitation to be his agents of reconciliation.

For Christmas my son gave me two CDs to carry me through long road trips over Pennsylvania mountains in my aging Honda Fit. Both are products of a sacred arts collective, The Porters Gate, founded in 2017 to be a "porter" for the Christian church: "one who looks beyond the church door for guests to welcome."

I love the vision and love the music the collective has created. One song has become a refrain for my travels, a word of promise in a time when truth is often trampled and evil seems victorious:
When will the truth come out?
When will Your justice roll down?
When will Your kingdom come
And evil be undone?
When will the wicked kneel
And the abused be healed?
When will our sisters speak
With no more shame or fear?
How long? How long?
When will the daughters of Zion rejoice
In the house of the Lord?

If you have time, listen to the song, but also the prayer at the end.

As I listen, I find myself grieving:
Attitudes that undermine the joy of others; that divide, rather than unite.
Systems and structures that stand in the way of justice, that protect the strong rather than provide mercy to the weak.
Ways that churches have silenced voices we most need to hear.
Ways the door has been shut on those most hungry for welcome.

Yet, I'm reminded: the psalms that start in lament often end in confident praise. So I start this Lenten season in lament and repentance, singing a refrain of hope: How long?