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, I 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.