Thursday, May 21, 2020

I am not afraid. I am heartbroken.

I live in Montana, a state with a very low number of diagnosed COVID-19 cases. Even more specifically, my county has not as yet had any cases. This passover is both a blessing and a curse because it divides the community, with some of our citizens feeling as though we have been spared because we have been careful and others suspecting that our precautions were "sound and fury, signifying nothing". (Macbeth)

Now we have the ever-present questions about what we can do, what we should do, and from what should we abstain. In the conversations around masks, distance, and open v. close, the word "fear" gets bandied about. It is murmured that people who are cautious are "fearful" or being led by fear, as opposed to faithfulness or freedom.

I cannot speak for everyone, but I can speak for myself. As a mother, as a wife, as a sister, as a friend, as a pastor, as a neighbor, as a daughter, as a citizen, I am not afraid. I am heartbroken.

My heart broke when I posted a sign in March, closing the church to the public and to in-person worship. Praying for those who depended on the building for 12-step help, a source of community, and actual sanctuary, I ached and I grieve.

Another fissure came through weeks of preaching without seeing faces, feeling the energy in the room, or hearing singing other than my own. Learning that singing may be off the table for awhile brought tears and sorrow too deep even for sighs. Remembering our harmonies between the Yellowstone and the Boulder, I hung up my harp. I ached and I grieve.

The experience of Holy Communion brings heart wholeness through Christ's presence in the elements and in the community as we eat, drink, and breathe together. In our present fast from the physical sacrament, the pieces of my heart vibrate with longing. Making the decision for the fast was right for our community, but I ached and I grieve.

This past week, I denied a person a hug because I had permitted a person outside my family to hug me the day before. In embracing one another, I also embraced a waiting period to be sure I neither caught nor transmitted anything but love and compassion. To be physically present to one meant denying another. For the same reason, I am continuing to only eat takeout from local restaurant and not to sit inside. In the waiting, I ached and I grieve.

A friend of mine, another pastor, talked with her community about the fact that continuing to worship virtually permitted the pastors of the church to be present- with masks and other precautions- to the sick and dying of the church. When a pastor hasn't been exposed to 50, 60, 90, 150 people on a Sunday, he can more easily go to a bedside or home because it is a more calculated risk for himself and the person he is visiting. This isn't the case in all places right now, but it is for this church and the pastors in question. In choosing the needs of the few for the sake of spiritual care, I am hoping not to drive away the many. For the whole church, I ached and I grieve.

I have offered commendation of the dying over the phone. Heartbreak. I have watched divisions and harsh words in online spaces and in-person conversations. Heartbreak. I have stood on steps and talked across the porch to people who are bored, lonely, and worried. Heartbreak. I have wept over whether I am currently an effective pastor to the 13 people with no internet connection at all. Heartbreak. I have seen an increase in our church's attendance online and wondered how we may be true community to those who are experiencing church in a helpful way for the first time. Heartache.

Recommendations about how to space people in pews, skipping coffee hour, and how to encourage masks in church are difficult to decipher and painful to consider.

Worry about people whose marriages were struggling, children and teens who need structure for their mental well-being, seniors who live alone and receive little information or communication- these things fill my mind.

Navigating tense political, emotional, and social conversations is a tightrope that I balance across, Bible in hand, not because I want to be liked, but because I want the relationship to remain open for the sake of Christ in both of us.

This is the truth, but not all of it. All of it would be too much to write and too much to read.

One final truth, though, I am not afraid of re-opening because of COVID-19 or because I am "cowed" by rules and regulations.

I am afraid my heart and my spirit cannot take it if someone or several someones became sick at church.

I am afraid my heart and my spirit cannot take it if we resume in-person worship, which means I am unable to visit the most vulnerable, even on their porch.

I am afraid my heart and my spirit cannot take resuming worship only to refrain from Holy Communion, sharing the peace, corporate speaking, and group singing.

I am afraid my heart and my spirit cannot taken it if I have to do more funerals, by interment only, and mourn apart from the consolation of being physically together.

So, yes, I am afraid. I am afraid not of the virus, but of more unending, bone-deep wearying heartbreak.

Some of these things will not be avoidable. They will likely come because this will be a long journey. But you can carry the baton for your pastor (and your neighbor) a little way if you understand and respect that they are not afraid. They are heartbroken.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Into Our Blind Spot

Fourth Sunday in Easter
John 10:1-10

It is a dangerous thing to preach about sheep to people who know more about sheep that you do. I’m not quite that dumb. I have nothing to say about ranching, sheering, lambing, or butchering. I won’t offer comment on fodder, spacing, or breeds. I do have a comment on sheep physiology, though. Even that is risky, but I did a lot of research (science reading, not theological) and I did attempt to talk to a couple people about my questions. 

Sheep have excellent vision- in their peripherals. Due to having eyes on the side of their heads, they can see things sneaking up on them from the right, left, and behind. This is called monocular vision, which means each eye has its own field of view and the eyes do not share a field of view. Binocular vision, what humans have, is when both eyes receive the same information at the same time- in the best of circumstances. 

Due to monocular vision, sheep can see to their sides and when they lower their heads to graze, they can see very well around them. However, monocular vision does sacrifice depth perception. This means sheep can have a small blind spot right in front of them, when their heads are raised. You may observe this if you see a sheep run into the fence instead of going through the empty gate. 

The author of Psalm 23 spent enough time with sheep to be able to perceive some of these realities of sheep physiology. Guiding sheep to green pastures not only meant taking sheep to fresh graze, but also guiding them over changes in terrain that might make them balky. Leading them beside still waters meant bringing them to safe places to drink. In a desert climate, stagnant water could create illness. A still pond, perhaps fed by a stream, could help thirsty sheep, but they might need to be watched if it was a deep pool. 

Monocular vision offers safety in the periphery, but as sheep evolved superior vision from side to side- they sacrificed vision that looks up. Since sheep have been domesticated for thousands of years, sheep haven’t often needed to look up into trees to watch for predators. Shepherds do that. This means that traveling through a valley needs the shepherd to be with the sheep because the sheep are not able to look up at the terrain where threats might be present. 

Shepherds were used as a metaphor for good kings in the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament). Shepherds cared for an important resource- sheep. Shepherds provided for the needs of the sheep, kept them safe, and guided them through all kinds of weather and terrain. Thus, these seemed like transferable characteristics for a good king. This meant that the king’s people, then, became synonymous with sheep. While this metaphor has often meant associating people with the worst (often imagined) qualities of sheep, the whole purpose of the comparison was about the king, not the people. 

Jesus as the Good Shepherd, then, is not about us as sheep, but about who He is and what he does. We have binocular vision- seeing ahead of us. Yet, we also have a blind spot there. We do not know the future. Rather, we have to trust the shepherd who provides for our needs, guides us to safety, and accompanies us through treacherous times and places. This same shepherd seeks us out when we stray and guides us back to the fold. 

Trusting in Jesus’ voice and his provision is what it means to have abundant life. Unfortunately, many of us like the idea of trusting, but find the execution difficult. Following Jesus into our blind spot definitely means acknowledging that we are not in control. 

When we instead look to the sides, where there are many temptations, or back, to what we knew before, it is very tough to move forward in faith. Thus, the Church and church people often intellectualize faith- making it about “believing” the right things, meaning knowing the right information in your head. Jesus, however, has never described faithfulness in this way. Particularly in the Fourth Gospel (John), faith equals abiding with Jesus. This means pitching your tent in Jesus’ campsite and following his rules. It also means recognizing that the ways of the world do not offer you the abundant life- peace, joy, and grace- that can only come from the Good Shepherd who provides for your needs. 

In this time of change and stress, what we can see to the sides and behind us is often far more appealing that the unknown future. We are tempted by voices that promise things that seem to give a better sense of control or offer choices that open doors we wish weren’t closed. If we wish to be disciples of Jesus, to be the sheep of His flock, then we must weigh these voices against His voice. We must carefully compare what they offer us against what our good Shepherd offers. 

This way of living can be tough. It may put us at odds with others in our family, in our community, even in our church. Yet no one else in these settings offers us what Jesus does- provisions, safety, accompaniment, and guidance in all situations. The leading we need- into the blind spot of the future- should only be entrusted to a Shepherd who is willing to die for us (and who already has). 

Amen. 

Eternal Light

In 2012, I wrote about changing the eternal candle in the congregation I served at the time. It is a very short post. I still think about this, even though I am not always the one to change the candle in the current congregation I serve. 

When Montana went into "hunker down" mode for a few weeks, I stayed home too. Even though I could have continued to cross the street to the church and worked there alone, it seemed important to set a good example. Since I also believe that the church is the people, not only the building, I set up a little place in my house. On March 26, I brought the eternal candle into the parsonage where I live. 

I lit at the start of each work day. Making phone calls, praying, working on videos, reading the Bible, leading Bible study, the candle burned. I would go up at night and blow it out, just because I didn't want to keep a candle burning all night- no matter how stable and safe. (I also have to set a good example for my kids.) 

Somehow these candles in red globes have become, in my mind, a symbol of what it means to be a pastor of a congregation. I am not the Savior. I am not God. I do not control. I lead, I pray, I mess up, I repent, I try, I forget, I remember, I grieve, I rejoice, I long, I stretch, I ponder, I proclaim. And over and over, I make sure that the symbols of light remain visible- so that we can all trust in the true Light of the World, which cannot be overcome. 

This morning, across an empty 4th Avenue, with only bird song for accompaniment, I carried the eternal candle back to the sanctuary. 

In the vow portion of the Service for Ordination to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament (being a pastor), the final comment of the bishop is this, after the pastor has asked for God's help and guidance in fulfilling many promises: 

Almighty God, who has given you the will to do these things,
graciously give you the strength and compassion to perform them.
And then the congregation responds, "Amen."

 Being a pastor creates a restlessness in me for service and creating community. This restlessness is the Holy Spirit stirring at my will. In the details, though, I am met by Christ who provides the strength and compassion.

No one carries a candle home and tends it for glory. They do it for love. And it is the same love that keeps on hoping for the day when we can all safely worship together in person, again.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

God's Breath and God's Hands (Sermon)

John 20: 19-31

Let’s talk for a few minutes about the gospel according to John. The Fourth Gospel is very different from Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Those three together are called the “synoptic” gospels because they provide a synopsis of Jesus’ life. The writer of the Fourth Gospel, on the other hand, has selected some of the highlights of Jesus’ life and ministry and then shaped his narrative to be a parallel to the whole biblical story. 

John begins in the beginning, with the understanding that the Word (capital W) has always existed. It is through this Word that God brought all things into being. As the second member of the Trinity, on equal footing with the first and the third, the Word brings forth life. Eventually, that Word becomes flesh for the purposes of the salvation and faith of creation, including us. 

Now I confess to you, friends, that this line of conversation is very near and dear to me and I am tempted to go on about it, but I also recognize that in this time of stress, it may be better to get to the main point. Some of you might argue that it is always better to get to the main point and you’re not wrong. 

Since the beginning of John’s gospel is focused on creation, all things coming into being through the divine power in the Word, I want us to think about the creation accounts in Genesis. In Genesis 1, God makes human beings at the same time, in God’s own image. What is that image- creative, capable of great love, caring, merciful, judicious, connected? We have to prayerfully consider what God’s own work tells us about the divine in order to consider what it means for us to be made in the image of that same glory. 

In Genesis 2, God makes the earth and wants a caretaker for it. God then makes a dirt man, which is what A-dam means because it seems related to the Hebrew word “adamah”, which means earth (as in soil or dirt). God breathes life into this creation. Life begins, then, at God’s hands and with God’s own breath. 

Now back to John, who has set up a creation story in the Fourth Gospel narrative. All the disciples, except Thomas, are gathered in an upper room. They are afraid for their own lives. They know that Peter and the beloved disciple went to the tomb and found it empty. They’ve heard Mary Magdalene’s account of the risen Lord. Yet, they are still confused and terrified. Even if Mary is right, and they probably wondered about that, they are now worried about what this news will do to the people who killed Jesus and who may still be looking for them (the disciples). 

In the midst of this chaos, this void of hope, Jesus appears. He speaks to them and shows them his hands and his side. Then he breathes on them and speaks a word of peace. Jesus, who is God, comes among the disciples in an image they recognize and, through his hands and his breath, reshapes their experience. In that very room, Jesus crafts a new creation- fear into hope, doubt into trust, grief into joy. The Word present at the beginning of creation repeats that work in the upper room.  

Reshaping or re-creation does not bring new elements into being. It takes what is and reconfigures it into something new and useful, alongside what was. Our hope is made from the same building blacks as our fears; it is just used in a different way. The same with our doubts reframed into trust. The questions are not eliminated, but they are re-arranged to be a tool for our faith. Our grief remains a part of us, but in its resurrection reformation to joy, it becomes something we can live with- can hold a little more lightly. 

When Jesus comes into that room with the disciples, he does again for them (and then for us) what God the Holy Parent does at the very beginning of all things. Through Jesus, a new creation has happened- a world where death does not have the last word. God needs someone to work in that creation, to tend it, and to cause it to flourish. Jesus comes into a room, full of people- who are made in God’s image- and makes them new. 

With his hands and his breath, the disciples- all who were gathered in that room- have their fear, doubt, and grief reshaped into hope, trust, and joy. And then they are sent, just like the first man of the earth, to tend God’s garden with those tools. 

In his own time, Jesus does this same re-shaping for Thomas. Through Thomas’s story, Jesus promises to do the very same thing for those of us who are not in that room, but who receive the gift of faith. We too have been recreated, born again, through Jesus’ own hands (crucified, died, buried, and resurrected) and his breath, which brings to us God’s peace for our own hope, trust, and joy. 

We are in a time of our own upper room. There is much fear, doubt, and grief. Just like the disciples, there is good reason for those things. We are not irrational to have those thoughts or feelings. At the same time, we are also not alone in them. Where we are, with whatever we have, Jesus comes to us. He comes to us to bring us new life, again and again. Through his hands, through his breath, we are remade as disciples of resurrection truth. Our fear is reshaped to hope, our doubts to trust, and our griefs to joy. 

To those of you who might say, “I hear your words, but I am not experiencing that right now”, I believe you. And I understand that. I urge you, friends, if that is the case, to remember our brother, Thomas, who received this blessing in his own time. The absence of personal experience does not make truth untrue. It just means it hasn’t yet happened to you, but what is true is true, regardless of our experience or understanding. 
It is true that God made all things, including people in the divine image. God’s hands and God’s breath gave life to the first humans and so it has been ever since. At the right time, for us and for our salvation, the eternal Word became flesh and was called Jesus. In his glory, he too gives us new life through his hands and his breath. 

And we are sent out into the world, even when we have to stay home- we are still in the world. We, like the first people and the disciples, are sent out to care for God’s world and to share Christ’s peace. With the help of the Holy Spirit, we are called and equipped to work where we are- reshaping fear into hope, doubt into trust, and grief into joy so that all may believe and have life in Christ’s name. 

Amen.