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.

 

 

 

In a Shaken Time . . . The Unshakable

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I have written often about times when I have been shaken to my core, the hard times and the seasons of angst. Not because hard times have been a constant in my life, but because in the middle of them, I have found a Divine Constant that sustained me at times and saved me at other times.

As we approach the Sunday of the Palm and Passion, we remember the journey Jesus traveled.

. . . the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting,“Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord— the King of Israel!” (John 1:12-13 NRSV)

Yet, before the day is done, the Gospel of John tells us how troubled Jesus was as he spoke about his death.

Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. (John 1:27-28 NRSV)

As we recall Christ’s passion, we cannot help but recognize our own — and the passion of our families, friends, neighbors scattered throughout the world. Each of us, no matter where we are, are covered with the fear of a pandemic we can not begin to understand, the virus that knows no boundaries. It goes where it will, infecting those exposed to its microorganisms and leaving fear and anxiety in its wake. We are shaken to the core.

Those who are infected, or have watched as their infected loved ones battle the virus, cry out for mercy, for grace and for comfort. They are in search of the Divine Constant, a “very present help,” who keeps vigil with us offering a comfort that surpasses our ability to comprehend it. There is no better description of divine comfort than the words of the Psalmist in the 46th Psalm that tells us to take heart, hang on, fear not.

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.

The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Come, behold the works of the Lord;
see what desolations he has brought on the earth.

He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.

“Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.”

The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.

At the very beginning of the Cold War in 1952, Harry Emerson Fosdick spoke to students and faculty at the Pacific School of Religion. After acknowledging the very real fear and uncertainty in the world at that time, he spoke these words: “The highest use of a shaken time is to discover the unshakable.”

Oh, that we might find the highest use of this time! Oh, that we might find it alone — isolated in our homes, in our prayer closets, in the breeze and beauty of springtime! Oh, that we might find the highest use of this time in community — in all the ways we are striving to create holy community despite our isolation.

Yes, we are shaken right now, but again the Psalmist has the last word of divine comfort and hope.

The Lord is close to the brokenhearted
and saves those who are crushed in spirit.
(Psalm 34:18 NIV)

As I look around, hearing from those closest to me and also hearing the stories of people around the world, I witness signs that we are indeed discovering the unshakable in this shaken time — the unshakable in ourselves, the unshakable faith we hold in our hearts, the unshakable spirit within us and the Unshakable Constant God who pours grace upon us when we most need it.

May each of you stay safe and healthy. May you wave your palms and witness Christ’s passion still believing in the resurrection that will dawn upon our lives again. May you find the unshakable within you and hold the Unshakable God near you.

For a time of prayer and meditation, you may be inspired by listening to this beautiful arrangement of the hymn, “Nearer, My God, to Thee.”

 

 

“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.

 

 

Peace, Pandemic and Love

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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: 

I do 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, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will 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.