That Mysterious and Mystical Reality

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Watercolor art by Kalliope, Holy Ghosts

You might be thinking that both mysterious and mystical are the antithesis of reality. If you are thinking that, you might be wrong. So might I. But in my experience, life itself is a mysterious and mystical reality. That reality fills my spirit with hope in my darkest moments. Dark moments, hours of grief, dark nights of the soul, lamentations of the spirit — all have been part of my life journey. My pathways have often been rough and rocky. My life’s travel has often taken me to disconcerting forks in the road and confusing crossroads. I have known times of despairing and times of uncertainty — reluctance, despondency, angst, heartbreak, fear — “break-out-in-a-sweat times” that forced me into dangerous depths of anguish. For me, taking my own life was not something I could consider. Yet there was that one day — that span of just a few moments — when I was alone, afraid and very far from home.

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Japan’s Aokigahara Suicide Forest

One of the most thoughtful and intriguing movies I have ever experienced is The Sea of Trees. I was captivated by the film that tells the story of a despondent professor. After the death of his wife, he despaired of life and searched for a way to end his. His reflective, angst-filled search led him to Aokigahara, a forest in Japan known also as The Sea of Trees or The Suicide Forest. Aokigahara Forest has been home to over 500 confirmed suicides since the 1950s. It is called “the perfect place to die” and is the world’s second most popular place for suicide.

Don’t worry. This post is not about suicide. Rather it is about the people who loved us in life and continue to love us in death, those who watch over us in our times of deepest anguish. It is about the mysterious and mystical reality that between us and our loved ones in heaven, there is but a thin separation. Heaven and earth,” the Celtic saying goes, “are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter.”

To know that my sweet Yiayia (grandmother in Greek) and my Thea Koula might still be protecting me from harm and life disaster is soul-comforting for me. Perhaps the strength and hope I felt as I was chaplain to disheartened hospital patients came from them. Perhaps they sent me the staying power to comfort, protect and advocate for thousands of abused women and children. Maybe the deep grief of losing my brother to cancer was eased by their prayers from heaven.

I often wondered if my mourning of the loss of the life I knew — replaced by daily dialysis — was lightened by their loving presence with me in a horrible time. I wonder, Yiayia, were you watching over me on November 12th when I closed my eyes in the operating room to receive my kidney transplant? I wonder, Thea Koula, did your intercession save my life on those times when my life literally hung in the balance?

This life is not an easy one. No person gets through life unscathed. No one travels a path smooth and straight. Like me, you have more than likely walked on a rough pathway with stones in the road, dangerous curves and life-altering crossroads. Robert Frost wrote eloquently in his poem, The Road Not Taken, about someone standing at a fork in the road pondering a life-altering choice:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth . . .

Then took the other, as just as fair,
and having perhaps the better claim
because it was grassy and wanted wear . . .

Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

My life is filled with “roads not taken,” some not taken by my choice, others thwarted by chance or fate or maybe even God. It is almost like traveling through a “sea of trees” that hide our view of the way ahead, causing us to lose our way. For my art today, I chose one of my watercolor paintings. A few years ago, I painted this “sea” of leafless trees against an ethereal, melancholy wash of color. Interspersed among the trees are ghost-like figures hovering. Actually I titled the painting Holy Ghosts. The painting was inspired by the words of a friend.

When the dead come to mind, they are like holy ghosts, as real as hope or faith, as tangible as trust and love.  – Ragan Courtney

This painting was never meant to be disconcerting or morbid. It represents just the opposite for me. It represents the souls who hover over me for protection, those with whom I shared love and life. It represents my aunt and my Yiayia and my brother because I am certain they protect me, pray for me, lift me up and cheer me on.

Who knows! Maybe my brother Pete, who died of renal cell carcinoma, hovered above me in a kind of holy kidney disease kinship and protected me when I was diagnosed with end stage renal disease in 2014. Maybe he prayed for me during my transplant surgery in 2019. I can, of course, never know that for sure. The veil between heaven and earth, between the dead and the living, is a mystery we simply do not understand. Our understanding does not reach that far, but what we feel in our spirit does reach that far.

In the end, my spirit senses that between us there is but a thin separation, that the spirits of my loved ones are are connected to mine, especially when I am disconsolate and in despair.

In the comfort of that mysterious and mystical reality, I can heal. I can rest. I can continue my journey of dangers, toils and snares. I can know the amazing grace that comes from sacred connections. I can know peace after sorrow. And so can you.

May God make it so. Amen.

 

Together!

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A blending of two photos: One is an image of protesters in Minneapolis. The second image is a portrayal of people raising their hands to celebrate Pentecost.

This morning I have no words. I have tears. I have sadness. I even have some anger that the people I love whose skin is not “white” are living in grief and frustration. I say only that injustice and oppression cling so close to my friends, today and in centuries past.

F0ABFCC6-C312-44E2-A39F-35F520174256I hear my dear friends cry out for justice. I hear them using words to make sense of it all, and I hear their voices fall silent. Silent, with just these words, “I’m tired.” A dear friend posted the words on the left this morning. I want to see her face to face. I want to be together. I want to comfort her, hoping beyond hope that it is not too late for comfort.

I read this horrific headline this morning.

Prosecutors in Hennepin County, Minnesota, say evidence shows Chauvin had his knee on Floyd’s neck for a total of 8 minutes and 46 seconds, including two minutes and 53 seconds of which Floyd was non-responsive.   — ABC News

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Artists honor George Floyd by painting a mural in Minneapolis on Thursday, May 28, 2020. Artists began work on the mural that morning. (Photo: Jacqueline Devine/Sun-News)

Today I find myself deeply in mourning for the violence that happens in our country. I find myself trying to share in the grief of my friend and knowing I cannot fully feel the depth of it. Today I find myself unable to emotionally move away from it all. Today I contemplate George Floyd’s cry, “I can’t breathe.”

If there is any comfort at all, it comes as a gift of the artists pictured here. In an act of caring, they offer this mural at a memorial for George Floyd.

The names of other victims of violence are painted in the background. The words, “I can’t breathe!” will remain in our memories. Today we are together in mourning.

But tomorrow, I will celebrate Pentecost. I wonder how to celebrate in a time when lamentation feels more appropriate. I wonder how to celebrate when brothers and sisters have died violent deaths and when thousands of protesters line the streets of many U.S. cities. I wonder how to celebrate when protesters are obviously exposing themselves to COVID19.

Still, tomorrow — even in such a time as this — I will celebrate the breath of the Spirit. Tomorrow I will join the celebration that has something to do with being together, being one. To juxtapose the joyous celebration of Pentecost with the horrible picture of what we saw in cities throughout our country for the past few nights seems an impossible undertaking. What does one have to do with the other?

Perhaps they do share a common message. From those who protest, this message:

“We bring our broken hearts and our anger for the killing of our people, for the murders across the ages of people who are not like you. You treat us differently than you treat the people who look like you. For as long as we can remember, you have visited upon us oppression, slavery, racist violence, injustice. And we are tired. We are spent. We are beside ourselves with collective mourning. We can’t breathe!“

From those who celebrate Pentecost, this message:

18bbdca6-8ece-4df4-aa13-fe110e3298cb“How we celebrate the day when the Holy Spirit breathed upon those gathered together, with gifts of wind and fire!

How we celebrate the story told in the 2nd chapter of Acts!”

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.

They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”

Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”

Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:

“‘In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.

Your sons and your daughters will prophesy, last days, God says,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.

Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.’”   —
Acts 2:1-18 NIV

The people did not, in fact, have too much wine. Peter made it clear that wine did not empower the people who gathered in Jerusalem —  “every people under heaven” — to speak and understand as they heard every word spoken in their own language. That would be a start, would it not, if we could speak the same language and truly understand — people who have flesh-colored skin, and brown and bronze, and red and black . . . every skin color under the sun. If only we could understand each other.

And then, what if we could gather together, welcoming every person? What if we could truly gather together and wait for Spirit to fall upon us with empowerment like we have never known before? What if we allowed the Spirit to give us breath, together?

41F5FD83-6B7A-4393-BF9E-57F0E4D51023In the end, there is a tiny bit of joy in George Floyd’s tragic story. It is a joy much deeper than reality’s sorrow. The artists completed their mural, and in the very center near the bottom, they had painted words that express the greatest truth of all.

Can you see it behind the little girl? “I can breathe now!”

What if we welcome Spirit Breath that will change us? What if we embrace empowerment from the Holy Spirit to help us change our world? What if we end oppression and injustice, together? What if holy perseverance could inspire us to live and act in solidarity with our sisters and brothers, all of them?

What if we dare to give our soul’s very breath to help bring about Beloved Community, together?

Together! Together!

May my God — and the God of every other person — make it so. Amen.

 

 

 

The Whirlwind Is Here

 

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Moon Over Harlem, William H. johnson, 1943-1944. © Washington, DC,                           Smithsonian American Art Museum

I share this blog post today in memory of Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed in the state of Georgia, the state in which I live in full and free safety. Ahmaud Arbery did not know such safety. But today we say his name and honor his memory. There are so many names we could speak today: Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd. Breonna Taylor and hundreds more, even thousands. What can black parents possibly tell their kids now about staying safe? I also honor the parents who try to find the right words, the right admonitions to say to their children. Most of all, I honor the strong and powerful voices who continually cry out: “Justice!” My friend and pastor, Wendell Griffen, is one who cries “justice” with a particular eloquence.

Wendell Griffen is a pastor, state court trial judge, and social justice activist in Little Rock, Arkansas who lectures and writes about social justice. I am pleased to share with you his most recent article. He will call you out. He will speak plainly to those of us who are white. He will call you to act against injustice, drawing your courage from God, who whose children are deeply loved — all of them!


 

For they sow the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.
Hosea 8:7 (NRSV)

Have you viewed the ten minute and twelve second video of the May 25, 2020 killing of George Floyd by former members of the Minneapolis Police Department?

Why haven’t you? What are you afraid you will see? What are you unwilling to see? What are you unwilling to admit?

Have the four now former members of the Minneapolis Police Department responsible for killing George Floyd in broad daylight before onlookers who also videotaped their conduct been arrested on suspicion of committing a homicide (causing the death of another person) of George Floyd?

Why haven’t they been arrested? Why have they not been held in custody and required to post bond? Who decided they should not be arrested? What message was sent when they were not arrested?

The killing of George Floyd was a criminal act. There are witnesses to the act. The fact of Mr. Floyd’s death is indisputable.  Mr. Floyd was not threatening anyone — none of the officers nor anyone else — when he was killed. The actions of the officers were not taken or necessary to prevent him from threatening anyone.

In other words, there is no legal justification for the actions of the four former police officers who killed George Floyd.  None.  Period.  Full stop.

We should not be surprised that people around the world, including Minneapolis, are furious. George Floyd was slain by agents of the state. His killers are still at large. They have not been arrested. We should not be surprised that people in Minneapolis are outraged by statements on Thursday from local and federal prosecutors calling for “patience.” Why should they be patient about deliberate refusals to arrest known homicide suspects? Why should they “trust” a “process” that reeks with corruption and injustice?

We should not be surprised that people are outraged by the decision of the Minnesota Governor to mobilize the state militia — the Minnesota National Guard. Minneapolis is not under siege or being attacked. The “peace” and “order” of the Minneapolis area is not threatened by the civilians who protested while four Minneapolis police officers killed Mr. Floyd.  It is not threatened by Mr. Floyd’s family members and friends. It is not threatened by the many people who took to the streets to protest his death and how local authorities refused to arrest his killers.

Do the Mayor of Minneapolis and Governor of Minnesota believe that it takes 500 National Guard soldiers to arrest four suspected killers?

And does anyone really believe that the fiery protests seen tonight would have happened if the four suspected killers had been already arrested?

Let’s talk plainly. George Floyd was killed. At minimum, he was recklessly killed. At worse, he was knowingly killed. In Minnesota and every other US jurisdiction, recklessly causing the death of another person is manslaughter. In Minnesota, state prosecutors can charge people who commit manslaughter without convening a grand jury.

Let’s talk plainly. In Minnesota and elsewhere in the United States, a person who cooperates with, assists, helps to conceal, or otherwise interferes with efforts to stop a homicide is liable for the homicide as an accomplice. Each of the officers involved in the homicide of George Floyd should have been arrested and charged days ago with manslaughter! The prosecutors can later seek grand jury indictments for murder if other evidence is uncovered.

Let’s talk plainly.  The Minnesota Governor and Minneapolis Police Department, and the Hennepin County prosecutor are demonstrating their cultural incompetence. That incompetence is not merely personal. It is institutional, pervasive, pernicious, and infuriating!

The same cultural incompetence happened when Ahmaud Arbery was killed in Georgia.

The same cultural incompetence happened when Breonna Taylor was killed in Kentucky.

The same cultural incompetence happened when a white woman named Amy Cooper falsely accused a black man named Christian Cooper (no relationship) of threatening her life.

That cultural incompetence is not new.

The Louisville Police officers who killed Breonna Taylor in her home have not been arrested – yet!

The killers of Ahmaud Arbery were not arrested for months after he was attacked and slain. They were only arrested after (and because) a video was exposed that chronicled how he was killed and who killed him.

We should also demand that the former police officers involved in the Floyd matter be arrested immediately on suspicion of manslaughter. There is plainly probable cause for arresting the officer who held his knees on Floyd.  However, there is also probable cause for arresting the other officers as accessories (accomplices) because of their active presence and complicity in the homicide (manslaughter).

Few statements to date have stressed this fundamental issue. Arrests do not need simultaneous charging actions. There is no need to await charges before each of the former officers who were involved in the homicide of George Floyd is arrested on suspicion of manslaughter. There is no requirement that the autopsy be completed before persons suspected of manslaughter are arrested. There is no requirement that ALL possible information be gathered before suspected killers are arrested.

Each former officer should be arrested on suspicion of having committed manslaughter in the death of George Floyd.

Prophetic people know that refusal to arrest of the former officers is a political statement by the Minneapolis Police Department. The Department has chosen to not arrest killers.  That fact should be strongly proclaimed. Prosecutors do not arrest suspects. That is a policing decision, and the police have deliberately exercised their discretion to NOT arrest four homicide suspects.

Telling people to “trust the process” is infuriating when “the process” is openly working to perpetuate a blatant injustice.

Stop saying “you feel the anger” of people in Minneapolis, and especially “feel the anger” of black and brown people. No, you don’t!  You haven’t suffered this mess. You haven’t dealt with it every day and night.

You haven’t seen people be called “lawless” for loudly protesting a homicide except when the victim is a person of color.

You don’t “feel our anger.” You may feel your own anger. Good. But don’t claim that you “feel our anger” or “share our anger.” You don’t unless you have shared our pain, shared our discrimination, and shared the centuries of blatant state sanctioned slaughter of black and brown people by law enforcement officials. We know you don’t feel and share our anger. Stop fooling yourselves and stop trying to fool us!

Black people are not fools. The U.S. Justice Department is headed by William Barr, the same person who decided that the United States would not charge Daniel Pantaleo, the NYPD officer who killed Eric Garner by choking him to death, with violating Garner’s civil rights.

We live with discrimination every day. We do not have to act like we like it. We do not have to put on a good face about it. And we will not do so. If you aren’t comfortable with our anger and the way we express it, get out of the way. If you aren’t turning over the institutions responsible for our anger and angry behavior, get out of the way.

As the prophet Hosea wrote concerning the ancient Hebrew nation of Israel, this society has always sown the wind of white supremacy with its tolerance of state-sponsored terrorism and slaughter of black, brown, red, yellow, and poor white people. People of color have long known that this society “shall reap the whirlwind.”

The whirlwind from the seeds of long pent-up outrage about systemic law enforcement abusive and homicidal conduct has arrived at the same time the nation and world are gripped by the global Covid 19 pandemic which highlights racial disparities in countless areas of life. The whirlwind from generations of corrupt and racist political leadership now has arrived when the US is led by a vicious idiot, despot, racist, and sociopath named Donald John Trump.

The whirlwind is here. The United States cannot, should not, and will not escape.

©Wendell Griffen, 2020


Amen, my brother. Yes, our country has reaped the whirlwind. We have reaped the whirlwind. Let us gather our resolve and look to our faith to guide us, and then let each of us work to break the bonds of injustice in whatever ways we are able. Today I committed to using my art and writing to portray the rise of white supremacy and the oppression of non-white persons. What gifts could you use to enter the struggle for justice? Can each of us work for justice with a sense of urgency?

May our God find us faithful to the creation of Beloved Community.  Amen.

KMF

Lament

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Monday of Holy Week
April 6, 2020

I have been thinking today that this Holy Monday is the threshold into Holy Week, and that I am standing at that threshold in fear. It is true that this time of pandemic has brought a season of fear to many of us, as well as a time of heaviness, concern, confusion and lament. Just one year ago, on April 5, 2019, I posted the following thought.

Courage is not the absence of fear but rather the judgment that something is more important than fear. The brave may not live forever but the cautious do not live at all.

— From the movie “The Princess Diaries” (2001)

I testify to the reality that courage really is deciding “that something is more important than fear.” None of us anticipated what 2020 would bring. It was simpler last Holy Week to write eloquent words about fear and courage. We could contemplate such thoughts far more comfortably than we can in this season of pandemic, the virus assailing the earth and the arrival of the season of Lent just to make sure we are all weighted down sufficiently.

I do not know about you, but I am experiencing these days as heavy. It feels heavy to me being confined to home. It feels heavy to be overly worried about my suppressed immune system since the transplant. It feels heavy to know that so many people all over the world are suffering with the coronavirus and that many have died. I just feel an oppressive heaviness. I feel as though the place we must be right now is a place of lament. 

Who brought the world as we know it to such an abrupt halt? Is one purpose of this pandemic to make us stop and take time to heal our souls? Is another purpose a demand for us to be still and allow our stillness to begin to heal an earth rife with environmental destruction? Is it to tell our churches to stop, to re-think worship that is sometimes predictable, stale, spiritless? Is the pandemic’s purpose to teach us to cherish the community of faith we have taken for granted, as now community is somewhat lost to us?

There are so many things to lament in these days, for all of us. But I have not intruded on your time today just to write about my laments in this season, to tell you all about my heaviness and the heaviness of the world. I write on this Holy Monday in hopes that we will sit quietly for a few moments of contemplating passion and promise — the Passion that leads to Christ’s death and the Promise that always ends up with Christ’s resurrection, and ours.

Not only is the lament, the heaviness, the anguish and fear of death that surrounds us this year a global phenomenon, but the things that Christians normally do in Holy Week to create transcendent meaning are painfully denied us for now: our palms and crosses, our washing of feet, our sharing of the bread and cup. These powerful physical and sacramental expressions of our faith we always do together. We cannot do them together this year.

In some ways, though, we are humanly and globally more united now than we have ever been (by this virus), and yet more separated than ever (by our fear of it). It is as if we have crashed suddenly and directly into the emptiness and shock of Jesus’s tragic death, before we have even started the journey to Jerusalem with him. Let us not rush. Instead may we walk the way of Christ’s story this week, through the times of passion, to the moment Jesus died, and on to the glorious resurrection Rushing through Holy Week is like controlling the story.

Controlling the coronavirus “story” is also problematic because it isn’t just a story. We are in it, and for now none of us can get out of it. But the glory of the Passion story is that it also isn’t just a story. It is, as we Christians have to remind ourselves during this time, the final and ultimate story of “the struggle between life and death” and of life being triumphant in the extraordinary power and mystery of the resurrection.

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Together in Community

God’s Son breaks the bonds of death and shatters the forces of darkness and sin. We must remember that holy mystery in these days. We must remind ourselves that, even when lamenting our separation one from another, Christ’s resurrection binds us together across the boundaries of time and space and even death itself. 

And, wonder of wonders, the fear and anguish of COVID-19 reminds us of this same fact: that we belong together, in need and vulnerability and compassion and mutual belonging. We are one — both in death and in life.

In this Monday of Holy Week, the coronavirus story meets the Passion story. We may be lamenting the worship we will miss this Holy Week. We may yearn for the physical and spiritual comfort of the familiar traditions that the virus has stolen from us. We quake in fear at the pandemic itself. Yet during this time, we are being stretched in new and unthinkable ways, precisely by that fear and by the temporary loss of worship with our faith community. We stretch to consider afresh the core of our baptismal faith: that the resurrected body of Christ sustains us all, even in and through death itself. 

I wonder how I will spend this very different Holy Week, as I am at home feeling alone on Holy Monday. I am lamenting the temporary loss of my worshipping community. You may be lamenting the same loss. As always, this holy day will lead us into the week and through the Passion of Jesus — his heart breaking for the betrayal of Judas, his moment of feeling that God had forsaken him. We face the Passion story reluctantly this year, already troubled and fearful. We may be afraid to add the story of the crucifixion to the loss the pandemic has also brought us.

But I will not leave us in this place, each of us isolated and lamenting. The very core of our faith — during Holy Monday and always — mystically unites us not only to Christ but to each other.

The coronavirus story will not supplant the story of Christ’s passion and resurrection. The virus will not have the last word, because even in its random cruelty, it may yet turn us back to the transcendent source and unity of our faith. In its scourge, it may open us up to the realization that we are the Body of Christ in this world, together, in radiant community that will endure. The circle of the faithful will not be broken, even by a worldwide pandemic. 

O God, abide with us on this holy day
and through the pain of Holy Week.

Grant that our deep lamentations cease,
even as we walk with Jesus and hear again the story of his death. 

Grant that our deep lamentations cease
as we lift our faith and pray for an end to the pandemic
that harms our entire world.

Help,us, God, to endure what lies before us with hope, courage, patience and faith.

Because our faith tells us, God, that as the Holy Week story continues, our laments will be replaced by praises to God as we witness again the glory of the risen Lord.

Amen.

 

 

 

“Crimson Contagion,” Grace and Eternal Hope

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Today of all days, with the entire world embroiled in a real live pandemic, I will not write out of political bias. Instead, I want to open our eyes to some very troubling present realities. My focus is on the coronavirus pandemic in the United States and how circumstances have transpired, both on a logistical level and a human one. I read a Huffington Post article this morning revealing that last year the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services conducted a months-long exercise that showed that the nation was unprepared for a pandemic. The exercise, code named “Crimson Contagion,” had chilling similarities to the current real-life coronavirus pandemic. That fact got my attention!

microscopic magnification of coronavirus that causes flu and chronic pneumonia leading to deathThis pandemic has taken a toll on so many Americans. Mothers are struggling with children being at home, some having to learn on the fly how to home school them. Families grieve the loss of loved ones who died from the virus. Older adults fear their increased vulnerability and their body’s inability to fight the virus. Immunosuppressed persons like I am are terrified to leave home and are incessantly washing their hands, wearing masks and using hand sanitizer. Many people have lost their jobs while businesses all over the country have shut their doors. Churches have suspended worship services and other gatherings indefinitely. That is merely a tiny snapshot of the human toll the coronavirus is taking.

On top of any list we could make describing loss, inconvenience or isolation, there is widespread, overwhelming fear that has made its way into our very souls. This is a pandemic that has descended upon all of us — real people with real fear.

I’ll get back to the human toll of this virus, but I want to say a bit more about the “Crimson Contagion” exercise, which involved officials from more than a dozen federal agencies. The Huffington Post described the “Crimson Contagion” scenario:

 . . . several states and hospitals responding to a scenario in which a pandemic flu that began in China was spread by international tourists and was deemed a pandemic 47 days after the first outbreak. By then, in the scenario, 110 million Americans were expected to become ill.

The simulation that ran from January to August exposed problems that included funding shortfalls, muddled leadership roles, scarce resources, and a hodgepodge of responses from cities and states . . . It also became apparent that the U.S. was incapable of quickly manufacturing adequate equipment and medicines for such an emergency . . .

According to a New York Times report, White House officials said that an executive order following the exercise improved the availability of flu vaccines. The administration also said it moved this year to increase funding for a pandemic program in HHS.

But Trump’s administration eliminated a pandemic unit within the Department of Homeland Security in 2018. And weeks after the first real coronavirus case was diagnosed in the U.S., Trump submitted a 2021 budget proposal calling for a $693.3 million reduction in funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There you have it! In the throes of our real time pandemic, we hear of a “play-like” pandemic — a simulation conducted in 2019 that might have prepared us all, including our nation’s leadership. That didn’t happen, and those of us who have been in the world for so many years know the saying well: “Don’t cry over spilt milk.”

So we wipe up the milk that’s all over the table in front of us, and then we go about making our way through the dark, murky waters of this pandemic. We wash our hands, distance ourselves from others, stay at home, figure out how to handle our children who are now at home, cancel our travel plans, mourn those who have died, pray for those who are ill from the virus, grieve the loss of the life we knew before and pick up the pieces of what’s left.

What’s left? Well, what’s left is our ability to find ways to help our neighbor, to feed the hungry, to comfort the sick, to reach out to the lonely, to love the children and to pray for one another without ceasing. We may have to learn to do those things by phone or online chatting, but we will find a way.

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Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P.; public domain; St. Quirinus of Neuss – for those affected by bubonic plague and smallpox; Edwin the Martyr (St. Edmund) — for victims of pandemics; St. Anthony the Great – Patron of those affected by infectious diseases

Those of us who are religious will pray without ceasing — imploring God to be merciful, asking various saints to intercede for us, lighting candles to express devotion and sitting for a moment in the flickering light that reminds us that God’s promise is about light overcoming the darkness.

The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it.
(John 1:5)

In the end, perhaps we will have discovered that, through this terrifying and expanding virus, that we have learned how to care more and to love deeper. Perhaps we will find that we have a more heartfelt capacity for compassion. For that, God will pour out grace upon our weariness and renew our eternal hope.

If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.
(Isaiah 58:10 ESV)

May God make it so. Amen.

 

 

Resurrection!

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“Art: Resurrection Morning” by James Martin

As people often say, things come and go. Today the resurrection came, so clearly in our worship service and especially in our Sunday School class. When we are gathered in community, the sharing of our lives becomes resurrection for us all. So for us resurrection came, but it did not go.

It remains in the resurrection stories we share and in the ways we bear witness to the grace-full acts of God. The stories around the circle were about places of darkness and death and about the resurrection that always follows. For some, physical health reaches a dark place and we pray for the resurrection to come in their lives. For others, emotions around fear are on the surface and we pray for the resurrection to overcome the fear. Still others grieve for friendships that feel like the end, and we pray for the resurrection they need. Others mourn the loss of friends to death and, as we pray for the healing of those left behind, we also rejoice in the promise of resurrection for those that leave their earthly life.

Death comes in myriad ways. But resurrection comes, every time, to shatter death’s darkness in ways that seem like mighty wonders and wondrous acts of God. Ready or not, resurrection comes to us and makes its home in us. We are resurrection people because we made the choice to proclaim to the world that Christ is risen! 

The Scripture gives us so many stories of resurrection. Sacred texts allow us to look into the lives of many people who have looked at death and have come through it to resurrection. And in our own lives, we can bear witness to the glorious reality that we know the One who is “the resurrection and the life,” that because we believe in the Christ, we will never die. (John 11:25-26)

As you enjoy Easter and lean into the resurrection that never leaves you, think on these Scripture texts:

Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 

When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

Jesus said to her, “Mary!” 

She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

— John 20:11-18 (NRSV)

 

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 

In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 

— 1 Peter 1:3-7 (NRSV)

 

With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.

— Acts 4:33 (NRSV)

 

*James Martin’s art is available at http://www.veritasse.me.uk/artists/james-martin/

Remembering the Levite’s Concubine

 

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“The Levite’s Concubine” by artist, Dee Jones

It is art we do not want to see, art that so closely mimics reality that we are compelled to turn away. But the artist, Dee Jones, captures every emotion, all the terror, every horrific aspect of sexual violence. If we care, we must look. And we must see all the ways in which sexual and domestic violence is a travesty. 

It is true that, when we find such depraved violence in our Scripture, it is shocking. But we find It today in the 19th chapter of the Book of Judges, and we must steel ourselves to truly hear this awful story. Ken Sehested describes it with these words: “The narrative is monstrous, quite possibly the most visually brutal story in all the Bible.”

The story is about a Levite traveler and his concubine. Though you may be daunted by reading the entire 30 verses of this chapter, it’s worth your time to hear the whole story of another nameless woman in Scripture.

In those days Israel had no king.

Now a Levite who lived in a remote area in the hill country of Ephraim took a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah. But she was unfaithful to him. She left him and went back to her parents’ home in Bethlehem, Judah. After she had been there four months, her husband went to her to persuade her to return. He had with him his servant and two donkeys. She took him into her parents’ home, and when her father saw him, he gladly welcomed him. 

His father-in-law, the woman’s father, prevailed on him to stay; so he remained with him three days, eating and drinking, and sleeping there.

On the fourth day they got up early and he prepared to leave, but the woman’s father said to his son-in-law, “Refresh yourself with something to eat; then you can go.” So the two of them sat down to eat and drink together. Afterward the woman’s father said, “Please stay tonight and enjoy yourself.” And when the man got up to go, his father-in-law persuaded him, so he stayed there that night. On the morning of the fifth day, when he rose to go, the woman’s father said, “Refresh yourself. Wait till afternoon!” So the two of them ate together.

Then when the man, with his concubine and his servant, got up to leave, his father-in-law, the woman’s father, said, “Now look, it’s almost evening. Spend the night here; the day is nearly over. Stay and enjoy yourself. Early tomorrow morning you can get up and be on your way home.” But, unwilling to stay another night, the man left and went toward Jebus (that is, Jerusalem), with his two saddled donkeys and his concubine.

When they were near Jebus and the day was almost gone, the servant said to his master, “Come, let’s stop at this city of the Jebusites and spend the night.”

His master replied, “No. We won’t go into any city whose people are not Israelites. We will go on to Gibeah.” He added, “Come, let’s try to reach Gibeah or Ramah and spend the night in one of those places.” 

So they went on, and the sun set as they neared Gibeah in Benjamin. There they stopped to spend the night. They went and sat in the city square, but no one took them in for the night.

That evening an old man from the hill country of Ephraim, who was living in Gibeah (the inhabitants of the place were Benjamites), came in from his work in the fields. When he looked and saw the traveler in the city square, the old man asked, “Where are you going? Where did you come from?”

He answered, “We are on our way from Bethlehem in Judah to a remote area in the hill country of Ephraim where I live. I have been to Bethlehem in Judah and now I am going to the house of the Lord. No one has taken me in for the night. We have both straw and fodder for our donkeys and bread and wine for ourselves your servants — me, the woman and the young man with us. We don’t need anything.”

“You are welcome at my house,” the old man said. “Let me supply whatever you need. Only don’t spend the night in the square.” So he took him into his house and fed his donkeys. After they had washed their feet, they had something to eat and drink.

While they were enjoying themselves, some of the wicked men of the city surrounded the house. Pounding on the door, they shouted to the old man who owned the house, “Bring out the man who came to your house so we can have sex with him.”

The owner of the house went outside and said to them, “No, my friends, don’t be so vile. Since this man is my guest, don’t do this outrageous thing. Look, here is my virgin daughter, and his concubine. I will bring them out to you now, and you can use them and do to them whatever you wish. But as for this man, don’t do such an outrageous thing.”

But the men would not listen to him. So the man took his concubine and sent her outside to them, and they raped her and abused her throughout the night, and at dawn they let her go. At daybreak the woman went back to the house where her master was staying, fell down at the door and lay there until daylight.

When her master got up in the morning and opened the door of the house and stepped out to continue on his way, there lay his concubine, fallen in the doorway of the house, with her hands on the threshold. 

He said to her, “Get up; let’s go.” But there was no answer. Then the man put her on his donkey and set out for home.

When he reached home, he took a knife and cut up his concubine, limb by limb, into twelve parts and sent them into all the areas of Israel. Everyone who saw it was saying to one another, “Such a thing has never been seen or done, not since the day the Israelites came up out of Egypt. Just imagine! We must do something! So speak up!”

— Judges 19: 16-30 NIV

The story begins by telling us that Israel had no king, thus describing a violent and lawless situation in the land. The structures of justice had collapsed. The rest of the story is a brutal account of rape, torture and murder. In her book, Texts of Terror, Phyllis Trible offers this commentary:

Of all the characters in Scripture, she is the least. Appearing at the beginning and close of a story that rapes her, she is alone in a world of men. Neither the other characters nor the narrator recognizes her humanity. She is property, object, tool, and literary device. Without name, speech, or power, she has no friends to aid her in life or mourn her in death. Passing her back and forth among themselves, the men of Israel have obliterated her totally. Captured, betrayed, raped, tortured, murdered, dismembered and scattered—this woman is the most sinned against.” (pp. 80-81)      

The story closes with the woman’s dismemberment and the scattering of her body parts across Israel. The last verse says: “Everyone who saw it was saying to one another, ‘Such a thing has never been seen or done, not since the day the Israelites came up out of Egypt. Just imagine! We must do something! So speak up!’”

Ken sehested observes that the narrative closes with three imperatives: “Consider this, take counsel, speak.” Ken says it like this: “Let this horrible story instruct you. And finally, ‘speak.’”

For us, in these violent days, the message is just as critical, and yes, we must speak! The silence around violence against women must end. If we can find the courage to end our silence through the stories of unnamed, forgotten and reviled Biblical sisters, then their horrific stories have sacred meaning and divine purpose. 

“They have names, and we must learn them,” Ken Sehested insists. “They have histories and we must tell them. In the end, we must nurture a vision where our security and theirs are bound up together.”

It’s the only name we have for her, the Levite’s Concubine. Yet, we must mourn her and remember her and know her story. So let us hear, if we can, this monstrous Biblical narrative and allow it to instill deep within us an unwavering commitment to do everything in our power to end violence in the world.

“Feeling the Spray of Jordan”

 

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Crossing the Jordan River. Photo by Siiri Bigalke/ICSD.

As a hospital chaplain, I kept vigil at the bedside of many persons who were preparing themselves to die. For me, being present with a person who is approaching death is, without equal, the most sacred and holy privilege of a minister’s life. Yet, I found it difficult at times to keep myself emotionally and spiritually healthy. During my darkest times, one phrase of the beloved hymn, “Softly and Tenderly” washed over me: “Shadows are gathering, deathbeds are coming.” With those words, the hymn text gives us a striking image of death.

Each of us has images of death. Every person has uniquely personal ideas about death. Some meet death with fear. Others who come near to death, whether their own or someone else’s, feel anger. Some have a sense of doom, while others are filled with a comforting calm. Always through the years, I heard the phrase, “crossing the Jordan,” most definitely a preacher’s expression meant to celebrate a life well-lived while standing at the end of life, the edge of the Jordan.

Rev. Gardner Taylor was one of those preachers who proclaimed death as a celebration of life and a joyous passing into eternity. An American preacher noted for his eloquence, Taylor was known as “the dean of American preaching.” Today my professor/preacher brother, who is always sending me something to read or listen to, sent me a stunning piece of Gardner Taylor’s preaching. The sermon was from the 1976 Lyman Beecher Lectures.

Gardner Taylor shared about one of his beloved deacons who was on his deathbed. The deacon expressed the wish that he could hear Taylor preach one more time. Reflecting on that experience, Taylor inspired those attending the lecture with the following message of eternal Christian hope. As my brother wrote, “It may be the most poetically beautiful thirty seconds of preaching I have ever encountered.”

Indeed, it is . . . so full of abiding Christian hope. This is what he preached:

Now, no preacher has of himself or herself anything of real significance to say to anyone who is within the view of the swelling of Jordan. But there is a Gospel, and you are privileged to be summoned to declare it. It can stand people on their feet for the living of their days. And, also – what a privilege almost too precious to be mentioned – it may be that the gospel which you preach will then steady some poor pilgrims as they come to where the bridgeless river is and some of them, feeling the spray of Jordan misting in the face, might thank God, as they cross the river, that he made you a preacher.

As for me, I do expect to feel “the spray of Jordan,” and as I cross the river for the last time, I will most humbly thank God that he made me a preacher.

That is the secret of greeting death for us all, I think, being able to stand — with a steady heart and a calm spirit — and give thanks to God for what he made you. You might very well feel “the spray of Jordan” as a mist on your face.

Thanks be to God.

When Your World Ends

66A9AA3C-258F-40E7-AB87-32000E79567EMy adult son is a master at denial. He can get very upset over a situation, but before you can blink, he has moved on as if it never happened. To be honest, I have often envied that part of his personality. As one who tends to brood over life’s challenges and problems, I would love to just be able to blow things off.

There is no chance of that happening for me. I think that this brooding part of me emerges from the trauma I have experienced over the years. My world has ended many times, or so it seemed. Yet, there has been a positive aspect of my brooding: that I have learned to sit with an issue for a while, dissect what has happened, feel the depth of hurt, and reflect on the depth of the emotional assault I’m experiencing. Blowing off pain just doesn’t work for me. Denial is not my way.

Denial never makes hurt go away. Denial never even diminishes hurt. So be warned. Blowing off pain is a path to internal disaster. As difficult as introspection can be, I am grateful that I am able to deeply feel the feelings I feel, to let the hurt wash over me, and finally to emerge better and stronger. Feeling the depth of my heartaches has served to disempower them and, most importantly, to enable me to harness my inner power to be free.

This, I believe, is the path that takes us beyond despair. This is the path that lets us own our heartbreak and then leave it behind to move into a fresh, new day. I am strengthened by the words of poet Nayyirah Waheed.

feel it.
the thing that you don’t
want to feel.
feel it and be free.

the thing you are most afraid to write, write that.

it is being honest
about
my pain
that
makes me invincible.

i don’t pay attention to the
world ending.
it has ended for me
many times
and began again in the morning.

To sit with your pain, to touch the heart of your hurt . . . that is what makes you free. And that freedom will be for you this miracle . . . when your world ends, and it may end many times, it begins again in the morning.

Thanks be to God.

 

Stars in Our Darkened Skies

IMG_6048In these tumultuous days, so many people are grieving. And for them, the skies above are dark, starless, devoid of any promise of hope.

In California, wildfires that are still burning have been called “the greatest tragedy that California has ever faced.” At least 40 people have died and more than 200 people are missing. An estimated 217,000 acres have burned, more than 5,700 structures have been destroyed, and approximately 75,000 people have been evacuated. Evacuees are returning home to a heartbreaking new reality.

The Las Vegas mass shooting reminded us that any community, any event, any neighborhood can become a place of grave danger.

In the September earthquake in Mexico, 255 people died. More than 44 buildings were completely destroyed and another 3,000 were severely damaged, forcing thousands of people to evacuate and leaving countless more mourning their tragic losses.

The 2017 hurricane season has been catastrophic. Hurricane Harvey killed 75 people, mostly in Texas, while Irma killed 87 people in the U.S. and its territories. As of yesterday, 48 people have died in Puerto Rico as Hurricane Maria left so many people without shelter, clean water, electricity or hope.

At least 500 people are believed to have been killed or seriously injured in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, in one of the most lethal terrorist acts anywhere in the world for many years. The death toll from yesterday’s attack, which was caused by a truck packed with several hundred pounds of explosives, stood at 276 today as more bodies are removed from the rubble spread over an area hundreds of miles wide.

Perhaps some people feel abandoned by God, lost in their grief, not knowing where to turn. Perhaps some people look upward to find comfort and find instead a starless sky that speaks only of sadness and loss. Words of consolation seem empty. Sermons are never enough comfort. Sometimes prayers are not enough either. And yet our faith offers us the image of one who comforts and who understands our deepest sorrows. This comforting presence is beautifully portrayed in the poetry of Ann Weems. These are her words.

In the quiet times this image comes to me: Jesus weeping.

Jesus wept,
and in his weeping,
he joined himself forever to those who mourn.

He stands now throughout all time, this Jesus weeping,
with his arms about the weeping ones:
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.’

He stands with the mourners, for his name is God-with-us.

 

‘Blessed are those who weep, for they shall be comforted.’

Someday. Someday God will wipe the tears from Rachel’s eyes.

In the godforsaken, obscene quicksand of life,
there is a deafening alleluia rising from the souls of those who weep,
and of those who weep with those who weep.

If you watch, you will see the hand of God
putting the stars back in their skies
one by one.

– From Psalms of Lament, Ann Weems

If we have anything at all to share with the thousands of our brothers and sisters who mourn today, it is this image of a weeping Christ who “was acquainted with grief” and who always — always — puts the stars back in our darkened skies, one by one. That is hope. Amen.