Sermon, March 29

A friend of mine texted me yesterday and posed the question, “what’s it like to minister to people in all this?”

While I’ve certainly spent time thinking about the fact that I’m ministering in “all this” I hadn’t really thought about the answer to the question.  But the words jumped to my fingertips as quickly as they flashed into my brain:

“It’s like playing pin the tail on the donkey,” I said. “I’m trying so hard to get it right, but I don’t know where the target is, I can’t see, and I’m dizzy.”

This might not be a metaphor for the ages, but it does pretty much sum up how it feels to be ministering right now. I’ve never done this before. We’ve never done this before. Not that I read books or anything, but even if I did I wouldn’t be able to find one about pastoral care during a pandemic in modern America. There is no book. Everyone is just making it up as we go, and doing the best we can. Myself included. 

I had hoped that God would infuse me with profound thoughts and wise words during this kind of thing, so that I could preach sermons that would impact the masses (and by masses I mean the 20 or so people that regularly attend Church of the Beloved).  

And yet, God has not given me wisdom. God has not inspired the most beautiful poetry I have ever written. The Spirit has not breathed on me words that will propel us through this difficult time with poignant serenity. 

No, God has given me parodies. 

Now for clarification, I tend to credit God with most of my creative efforts. There is a freshness to a spark of creativity that for me, feels divine. My creative self feels like my best self, my God-given self, and so practicing that creativity is part of practicing my spirituality. 

All that said I’m not sure if God really wants any credit for my recent creativity. 

Spoiler alert, tomorrow’s parody is going to be a love song to my weighted blanket. So…

But pray as I might for inspiration on my sermons, that’s not what’s coming. Neil Diamond hits are coming. 80s hits in general. But I mean, try to tell me 80s music doesn’t bring you closer to God because I. WILL. FIGHT. YOU. 

The parodies have been fun, and I do think there is wisdom to making space for fun and joy in the midst of stress and anxiety. I believe God yearns for that for us. But parodies don’t solve the fact that here I am, on the third week of this pandemic, preaching to you about… I’m not sure what. When I dig deep into my soul for a sermon I find a valley of dry bones. And not a prophesy to be found. It’s just dry. Real dry. 

So that has been a struggle for me. In the midst of everything else being a little bit of a struggle. Preaching is kind of the thing that I’ve always been a little lucky with. The words come. But maybe it’s because I’m working so hard to also figure out facebook live or Instagram live or how to get in the same screen with my musicians – maybe there’s just not enough room or something. 

I don’t know. 

When I read these readings for this week – the valley of dry bones and Lazarus rising from the dead – my first, second, third and fourth thoughts were “we don’t need a sermon on these readings. These readings speak for themselves right now.”  What can I possibly add to these words that have already been spoken here tonight? Surely everyone feels the dryness and despair of death right now. Surely everyone longs to have new life, new skin, new health breathed onto all of us. Surely I am not the only person desperate for God right now, wondering if Jesus weeps with us in this uncertainty and worry. 

So yeah, no sermon needed. You can read. 

But typically, when I read a passage of scripture and there’s no sermon there, it’s because I’m not engaged with the right parts for me. So I suppose as an act of desperation (because cancelling church really felt like an easy way out) I kept coming back to the readings. I kept reading and praying and reading and praying until finally I realized what the issue was. 

And now listen – this is the part where I’m just reaching around blind trying to find where the tail of the donkey is meant to land. I don’t know if my searching for meaning in these passages reflects what you need to find or connect with in these passages. But since I can’t see – since I’m a little dizzy myself – all I can do is take my best guess, and tell you what it’s like from behind my blindfold. 

What I realized, when I came back to the readings again, is that even though my well of inspiration for preaching might feel like a valley of dry bones right now,  do not feel like a valley of dry bones right now. And I don’t feel like Lazarus, dead in the grave, waiting to be brought back to life. I don’t have anything to say about that new life being breathed into the bones, into Lazarus, because I don’t feel that way right now. We are surrounded by death and the threat of death, but I do not feel death myself. 

In fact, I feel quite the opposite. I feel alive. Perhaps the most alive I have ever felt. NOTHING that I’m doing in my life is unconscious right now. I am aware of every feeling: every surge of anxiety, every tear of despair, every swell of joy, every wave of panic. I am aware of the people and the communities and the practices that matter most to me in my life, and I’m aware of the things that fill my time that simply don’t matter – the things that have become important by default. I am aware of how precious my loved ones are, and how much all those strangers that felt so different and apart from me before a month ago because we held different political or world beliefs suddenly matter to me. I’m aware of how much I have taken things for granted – the availability of food at the grocery store, the waiter in a restaurant, the experience of sitting next to someone at a pew and hugging them at the peace. And this whole range of human experience and emotion existed before three weeks ago, but I simply wasn’t always conscious. 

So the last thing I need right now is more life. More flesh. More breath. 

These readings weren’t doing anything for me because in my own confusion and disorientation I decided that I should most connect with those that were dead in these readings. 

But I am not dead. I am so very alive. 

I am not Lazarus in this story, I am Martha. I am Mary. I am experiencing a life event that is so outside of my typical experience that – like grief – it brings everything around me into sharp focus. I am confused and uncertain and there has been loss – not quite the same as the loss of a loved one, but a more nebulous loss that I can’t yet define or explain. And in my hazy grief I realize what I didn’t appreciate before, and what really matters now. But the clarity of purpose doesn’t cancel out the darkness and despair. 

I am Mary, and Martha, meeting Jesus on the road and saying 

“Where have you been? What exactly are you doing here? If you were here, this couldn’t have happened.” 

That these two women would meet Jesus, and be so very bold. It is stunning. And though Jesus could have rebuked them instead he meets them with tenderness, greatly moved, and disturbed in spirit. And he asks, do you believe? 

And even in their doubt, even in their grief, even in their accusation, even in their confusion and unknowing, they believe. 

They don’t know how Jesus will undo what has been done. They don’t know he could transform their grief into joy. They don’t know how he could make right what had gone so horribly wrong. But somehow, when pressed, they admit that they believe. I believe you are the Messiah. 

Maybe it’s because I have the benefit of these stories my whole life, but more likely because I have seen God transform even my darkest moments into light, I believe too. I believe that in a way I cannot anticipate or understand that God is working here, and that resurrection – a resurrection beyond one that we could possibly have experienced before – is coming. 

If we are very, very lucky, we will come out of this with a strong grip on our alive-ness, and those things which we have realized with such clarity will continue to hold meaning in our lives. And maybe resurrection for us will look like an end to apathy and complacency. Maybe resurrection will look like a collective restructuring of how we spend our time – our most precious resource. Maybe resurrection will look like a wave of compassion towards the people around us, even those that are different, because we realize they matter. The possibilities for resurrection are endless. 

While I look forward to the resurrection ahead, we are still in Lent now. We are still in the waiting. Still in the wilderness. And there’s no telling what the timeline will look like for wilderness vs. resurrection in this particular season. I am not sure if the wilderness will be confined to 40 days or if the fullness of the resurrection will be realized when our church calendar changes to the Easter season. But regardless of how this timeline works out, we need both of these experiences – the wilderness and the resurrection – to be in relationship with one another regardless of the calendar date and the season of the church year. The people we become in the wilderness will determine how we live out the resurrection. Our aliveness and awareness matters  – now, and in what is to come. 

And in the meantime, if all you can muster is to meet Jesus on the road and accost him – ask him where he’s been or what the hell he’s been doing, or tell him that if he was really here all this wouldn’t have happened. Well? Jesus can handle it. Jesus will meet you where you are with tenderness and understanding. God transforms this world whether or not we can understand what’s happening in it. Abundant grace rains down on us regardless of if we are cranky and confused or grateful and accepting.  Resurrection happens even in our darkest moments of doubt and despair. 

And that is something we can believe in. 

Amen.

tenderhearted

In 2018 our summer theme at ECC was 1 Peter 3:8: Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind.

When I met with the rising counselors and young adult staff in January to choose the theme, this verse jumped out to all of us primarily because of two words:

Tender Heart

At the time, we were feeling weary by the divisions in our country, and wanted to spend the summer exploring ways that we could soften towards the people around us, especially those who were different than us. We wanted to be tenderhearted.

Over the last few days I find myself reflecting on that theme with some regularity. This experience we are all living together is scary and confusing and wild and challenging and creative and unexpected. And through all of the unknowns and anxiety I have begun to experience something else as a theme through it all: tenderness.

Last night I walked into a cold barn with Faith, Joyce, and Lance for our third livestream service of Compline since this whole thing started in earnest. The four of us have said Compline in the barn together hundreds of times before, but always surrounded by at least another couple dozen people. These gatherings have been different – all of us spread out, a phone perched on a tripod, and the cold quiet filling the space around us. It looks a little like this:

Leading the service is surprisingly emotional. Words that we have said over and over again somehow take on new meaning.

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night.

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.

Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping.

Last night, as Joyce read the words to her favorite Compline psalm, 91, I felt chills through my body as she read the words

“There shall no evil happen to you,”

and we responded,

“neither shall any plague come near your dwelling.”

We are only four of us standing there, but somehow in the starkness of the empty barn we can feel all of you with us. And it is very, very tender.

The same is true for me at home, where I set up a home office after finally coming to terms with the fact that I would be working from here for some time. The first thing I set up was my prayer bowl, and a space where I could begin each day shuffling through the prayers that people have shared with me, and offering some of my own.

(The prayer shawl was made for me by members of the camp community in 2004 when I was working at camp the summer my father died and before I left for seminary.)

Yesterday I sat and prayed and wept, and even though I was all by myself, I felt everyone there with me. And it was tender.

What’s so interesting to me about all of this is that we aren’t doing anything we couldn’t have done before. We could have done a livestream Compline before this – we had the technology. We had the barn. We had the people. And I could have set aside a space for prayer in my home. We could have shared Church of the Beloved services on the internet – and allowed other people the access to the beautiful music and worship we share together there each week.

We could have done all of these things. We just didn’t.

There is something about sharing this experience together that brings into sharp focus how much we matter to one another – how much we rely on one another. We are sharing anxiety and grief and confusion, and suddenly it opens doors for creative new ways of connecting and consequently, for a tenderness that perhaps we don’t always experience together. Even though this time is scary, it is also beautiful.

It’s worth noting that sharing anxiety and grief and confusion with the larger world can also cause us to be a little more brittle. (For example, in the middle of writing this post I got into an argument with a family member that caused to me to feel decidedly not tenderhearted. Life is complicated.) I think that makes these shared experiences of prayer and connection even more important. With any luck the tenderness we share doing Compline together online help us to be tenderhearted to the people we are with in the grocery store line (and to our family members). With any luck tenderness can become grace, and we can see the people around us scared children of God, all of whom deserve connection and prayer.

I will be curious to see how we go back to “normal” whenever normal comes. I’d love to believe that this experience is shaping who we are as people of God. I’d love to believe this is fundamentally changing who I am as a priest, and helping me to re-prioritize the most important parts of my job: not email, but prayer. Not administration, but worship. Not excel sheets, but connection.

It’s impossible to know what will happen even though I have some guesses (some changes, other things resorting to the way they were before). But regardless of what comes in the future, I will be grateful today for the very tender connection I feel to all of you right now. We might not be together in person, but we are together in spirit, and I love being with you in this way.

Let us bless the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Bonus picture with Faith!

joy and sorrow

Well, the livestream of Zumba I offered from ECC certainly seemed to be a hit for people.

Some other time I’ll cover how totally mortified I am to think of all those people seeing me dance like a moron all by myself, or we can unpack why I felt the need to double wave. Lord have mercy.

But late last night, as I watched our engagements and number of views climb I started wondering why there was so much of a response to this post. I figure it must be one of two reasons:

  1. You all are very kind, and you sympathy-liked or commented on this post to try to lessen the sheer mortification you were feeling on my behalf. Or,
  2. People are really craving some joy right now.

I think it’s mostly the second option (thanks to those of you for whom it was the first – I see you, and I appreciate you.) I felt the joy while I was doing it. I had to face the screen towards me so I could make sure I wasn’t dancing out of view, so I saw the comments and likes coming in as I danced. I felt like we were together. The sun was out, the music was blaring, and even though it made my whole body hurt the jumping and dancing and smiling really worked. I wasn’t faking that up there – I was joyful.

I went to bed feeling a slight vulnerability hangover but mostly really glad that so many of us had shared something fun together. Some of you sent me videos of you dancing in your living rooms (it’s not too late to still do that!), many of you sent words of thanks. I felt connected. I felt grateful. I felt good.

This morning I woke up and laid in bed while I listened to the rain outside wondering what today would bring. I find planning pointless these days, because nothing happens as I think it might. I came downstairs and poured myself my coffee and picked up Facebook (because I don’t heed my own advice) and almost immediately saw this comment in my Facebook feed:

And in a moment, I was crying in my kitchen.

I’ve been doing a lot of self talk lately. I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m still being paid. I have people in my house so I’m not totally alone. At least for now I can still stand in the barn at ECC and read the words of Compline. The internet exists. I have toilet paper. I should just be grateful. This could be so much worse.

And all that is true. But what the wise mama on my Facebook feed said is also true. There is grief in this for every single one of us. We have all experienced so much change so quickly. We have experienced loss and at the time of this writing we have no idea how much more loss we will sustain before this is over. Grief is wholly appropriate. It felt good to cry.

Which got me thinking. Yesterday I saw our collective deep craving for joy, and today tapped into a well of grief I didn’t know I had. And I bet I’m not the only one carrying that around. So if the need to experience these two emotions is so strong – what’s happening in us as we move through these days?

My best guess is that we are walking around trapped in between. It’s incredibly hard to access joy when we are so anxious, and it feels almost taboo to do so when we know so many people are struggling. And I think we are terrified to tap into the grief for fear of being overwhelmed.

So what happens instead is we are hovering in this middle place – this purgatory. We don’t allow joy or grief and so instead all that’s left is….anxiety.

But friends, we need to be brave here. Brave enough to feel. We needed to dance together yesterday, and we might need to cry with one another today, and we need to allow for that full range of emotion. Each of these moments – the good and the bad – they pass. I think we will do well for ourselves if we let ourselves sink in to both. Allow yourself a good belly laugh and the high of endorphins, and allow yourself to sink into a pile of tears. I don’t think these feelings will overwhelm you – I think they will set you free.

I want to leave you with some of my favorite words on this idea, from the writer Kahlil Gibran.

Please go easy on yourselves, friends. This is hard, and we can do hard things. Even when the hardest part is just living into all the feelings that come up along the ride.

The inevitable and the optional

My mother has offered me countless nuggets of wisdom over my lifetime, but one of the ones I remember well and yet have always struggled with is a Buddhist saying:

Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. 

The first several times she offered this to me I couldn’t grab hold of it. I didn’t know exactly what it meant, and I couldn’t figure out how to parse out the difference between the two. 

Then one day, after I had experienced a devastating break up and my first real heartbreak I was sitting in my room wallowing in my tears, which had become a regular practice. I glanced down beside me and saw the novel that I was reading, lying in wait for me to dive back into the story. I looked at the book, considered it for a moment, then shook my head. “No,” I said to myself, “I just feel like all I can do is sit here in my misery. I don’t have the capacity to read.” 

And then, suddenly, the lightbulb went off in my brain:  Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.

There was no avoiding the pain I was experiencing from the loss of a relationship. That pain would be with me until it went away (which took about a year, for what it’s worth). But I did NOT have to choose to sit with misery as my companion. I could pick up my book. I could lose myself in a story. I could allow myself some reprieve. 

As we all sit in wait of what the next thing the CDC or government is going to recommend in the midst of the spread of COVID-19, I have found myself reflecting on that nugget of wisdom quite a bit. That exact line doesn’t work, but some variation of it does:

Gathering information is necessary, panic is optional. 

Planning is necessary, obsession is optional. 

Staying home if you’re sick is necessary, buying toilet paper is optional. 

Kidding on that last one, of course. Couldn’t resist. 

But here’s the thing: I’ve been trying to send out a couple of emails for 48 hours now and I can’t get it done.  I can’t get to it because I’m either fielding phone calls from people who are spinning with the magnitude of this thing or I’m pacing my kitchen trying to figure out if I have enough food in the freezer for…what? I’m not even sure. The not-knowing what exactly is about to happen is causing its own anxiety. 

This is unchartered territory for us, and there’s a lot of unkowns still. But there are also some ways we can mitigate the anxiety, and walk through this as informed, careful, sane humans. I believe in us. We can do this. 

Here are a few thoughts I’ve had about how to navigate this time – how to choose NOT to obsess or panic:

  1. Easy on that social media, Sparky.  Listen, as we’re being asked to practice “social distancing” this is perhaps the most grateful I’ve ever been for technology, because we still need to be connected. But your Facebook newsfeed is dangerous territory right now. This is a great time to create some groups and post encouraging words to one another, offer support, and share cat videos. If you are accessing Facebook on a computer browser, consider getting a news feed eradicator extension, which allows you to go on Facebook and visit the groups without seeing the newsfeed. 
  2. Watch Love is Blind, not CNN.  If there’s ever been a time to give thanks for crappy reality shows, it is now. You can read articles and listen to podcasts (as long as you are checking your sources) to get the information that you need, but the news media is trying to fill a 24-hour news cycle and they will sensationalize. Wouldn’t you rather see Amber get engaged?
  • Laugh. We don’t need to be making light of something that is very serious, but a little levity will go a long way for us right now. And the internet is full of amazing memes and gifs to keep us going.  Endorphins, people. We need them.
  • Exercise. Doesn’t need to be fancy. Push-ups in your living room will do. (See what I did there? I made you laugh! WE ALL KNOW I DON’T DO PUSH-UPS)
  • Read a book, play a board game, listen to a podcast. All of these things will help you unplug for a while and you can, at least temporarily, forget about coronavirus. Your brain needs a break! There are countless podcasts that will inspire you and help you connect with God, like this one
  • Check in on someone else.  Like I said earlier, we need to be connected right now. Take a Lysol wipe to your iphone and start using it! Call people you often call, and call people you don’t usually call. See how they are doing. Crack a few jokes. See if they need anything. If you are young and healthy and good about not touching your face, deliver a few groceries to someone that can’t leave the house. If you are in a position where your income will not suffer from not being at work, buy an amazon gift card or some groceries for someone who isn’t as fortunate. Doing something for others will help you feel like you do have control at a time when it’s feeling like control is being taken away from you. Take it from Olaf:
  • Go easy with self-medicating. Wine and brownies are starting to look reallllll good right now, but ultimately will not help you have your best brain. Moderation is important, and so are vegetables.
  • Pray. Crazy, I know, but I’m convinced that this will help too. For me, it’s especially helpful to do something with my hands. Folding origami stars, for instance. Write the name of someone you are praying for on the paper and get to work. Write letters or cards to people letting them know you are thinking of them. Read scripture.
  • Listen to music – all the music. It will soothe your soul. Start with this one, which I have a particular affection for.
  • Breathe. We’ll get through this. We are taking extraordinary measures to prevent things from getting worse. It feels extreme, but we are being as careful as we can be. We are helping keep people safe and healthy.

Friends, this is hard, but we’re in this together. Please love yourselves and others – love is the very best antidote to fear. And when you find yourself faced with a moment where you can choose something other than panic – do it! You’ll be glad you did.

Quick note: Some of us have very real anxiety issues, and I am not trying to suggest that you can choose your way out of that. Call your doctor and have your prescriptions refilled. Call your therapist, because insurance companies are approving phone meetings right now. Take care of yourself. (THEN watch Love is Blind.)