All the beauty of the world,
the beauty that calls our admiration, our gratitude,
our worthship at the earthly level,
is meant as a set of hints, of conspiratorial whispers,
of clues and suggestions and flickers of light,
all nudging us into believing that behind the beautiful world
is not random chance but the loving God.
— N.T. Wright, For All God’s Worth
These days I give over many of my thoughts to the millions of devastated lives that have been besieged by the coronavirus. I cannot stop the tears at times when I hear people tell their stories on news reports or when I see the ugliness of images around the world — people suffering, people in hunger, people grieving and languishing as the lives they once knew are snatched away from them. My one solace is a gift from a friend who is a lover of nature. She graces me every time we communicate with the many ways she has learned to find peace in the beauty of the world.
This morning, a cool wind was blowing as the sun warmed my face. I was warmed not only physically, but also emotionally and spiritually. All was quiet, except the wind, the flutter of hummingbird wings, the gentle tinkling of the wind chimes and the birdsong that I could hear all around me. I looked up into my favorite tree with its background of a perfect, cloudless bright blue sky. I could not help but notice the leaves in the tree, moving in the wind and presenting a shimmering display showing off hundreds of shades of green.
It carried me away, even if just for a few minutes, and I found myself embracing the beauty of the earth and the God who created it. I found a smidgen of comfort, peace and the kind of inner joy that is beyond any sorrow I might feel. Instead of being swallowed by the ugliness of the television news, I was blessed by delighting in the freshness and the beauty of the world around me.
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. — Genesis 1:28-31
For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible . . . all things were created through him and for him. — Collosians 1:16
In this present moment in time, I cannot help but see the finger of God in all of creation. I cannot help but offer praise to God through the words of the hymn we often sing, For the Beauty of the Earth.
For beauty of each hour
Of the day and of the night,
Hill and vale, and tree and flower,
Sun and moon and stars of light:
Christ, our God, to Thee we raise
This our grateful hymn of praise.
Text: Folliott Sandford Pierpoint; Music: William Chatterton Dix (1864)
I invite you to listen to the video below. For just a few moments, pay attention to this lovely hymn of praise, perhaps as part of your meditation time.
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.
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.
What a time in the story of our lives! In my lifetime, I have never been personally affected by a pandemic. I have lived a little over seventy years without having this troubling and potentially deadly experience. My prayer is that once the pandemic of year 2020 has run its course, we will not have to live through another one for at least seventy years.
In the past few days, I have heard from students lamenting the loss of their senior year. I have commiserated with friends who feared for their elderly parents, especially those in nursing homes. I listened recently to a discussion about how we could possibly keep incarcerated persons safe from this virus. I have listened to friends and family express deeply held fears about how the virus might affect them and their families. I have heard almost daily from my adult son (an unprecedented number of calls in such a short time) who is worried about his parents and about his wife and their new baby to be born in early April. I have heard from friends my age who are quarantined at home fearing for their health. I have communicated with post transplant patients like me expressing their most intense fear because of their suppressed immune systems. As a recent transplant recipient myself, I completely understand their angst of being on immunosuppressant medications. Like them, I know I have no immune system right now.
There is no doubt that all over the world people are frightened. People of faith, however, know that faith is stronger than fear, God is stronger than despair and love is stronger than death. Of course, even though we might have great faith, we must admit that we don’t know what God will do or how God can protect us. That is not unfaith; it is the reality of our humanity. Oh, we can take the easy way out and proclaim words like, “God is in control” or “everything happens for a reason.” But doesn’t the past suffering and pain of your life convince you that those words are not your reality?
One of my former seminary professors taught and preached often about the experience of Jesus’ suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane. Dr. Frank Tupper’s answer to the question about how a loving God could allow Christ’s suffering went something like this: “because before the foundation of the world God had chosen the way of self-limitation.”
Dr. Tupper also said some things that some people might consider blasphemy:
Ido not believe that God is in control of everything that happens in our world. Indeed, I would argue that God controls very, very little of what happens in our world. God chose not to be a ‘do anything, anytime, anywhere’ kind of God. In every specific historical context with its possibilities and limitations, God always does the most God can do.
In my mind, and through the crucible of my life, I believe that God wanted authentic and honest relationships with humankind that affirm both divine love and human freedom. God built that kind of relationship with me when, through every life storm, every time of despair, every disappointment, every fear, every loss — and through my life-threatening illness — God did not change any circumstance of my suffering, but God promised me a love that would not let me go, ever.
In these days, God is not stopping the dreaded Coronavirus pandemic. God is not stilling our current storm. God is not taking away our very real fear. God is not telling us, “Go on out to that social gathering, I am in control.” Instead God has promised us peace through the words of Jesus recorded in John 16:33:
These things I have spoken to you, thatin Me you may have peace.In the world youwill have tribulation; but take courage,I have overcome the world.
I pray that you will find peace in these troubling days and that your faith will be even a little stronger than your fear. I pray that you will not experience economic hardship and that you will have all you need. I pray that illness will spare you and those you love. I pray that your children will thrive even though their schools are closed. I pray that you will find ways to worship God even if the doors of your church are shuttered. Most of all, I pray that you will feel God’s love as a love that will never let you go.
The words of one of my favorite hymns express these thoughts so well:
O Love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
that in thine ocean depths its flow
may richer, fuller be.
O Light that follow’st all my way,
I yield my flick’ring torch to thee;
my heart restores its borrowed ray,
that in thy sunshine’s blaze its day
may brighter, fairer be.
O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow thro’ the rain,
and feel the promise is not vain
that morn shall tearless be.
O Cross that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
and from the ground there blossoms red,
life that shall endless be.
— Author: George Matheson, 1842-1906
Perhaps you would like to spend a few moments of quiet meditation listening to this beautiful hymn arrangement.