“I Can’t Breathe. . .”

This weekend, churches are going to be hearing a lot about breath and breathing. Folks will hear the story of the Spirit coming at Pentecost, visible with tongues of fire, audible like the sound of a mighty wind, or was it a mighty breath. Take your pick, the Greek word there can mean either. At any rate it was something good. That wind, that breath, empowered them and propelled them into the streets to proclaim this new thing God was getting started.

Then they’ll hear the story of Jesus on Easter evening, his appearance to those same disciples. He appeared to that gathering of disciples, sans Thomas, and showed them the scars of his torture and death and offered them a word of blessing. Then Jesus breathed on them. He breathed on them and gave them the gift of that Holy Spirit that Luke reports only came at Pentecost. Regardless, both imparted by a breath. Breath is life-giving. On June 7, we’ll read the long account of creation which ends with the forming of the human creatures. In the more detailed account (which we won’t read), the humans were formed out of the dust of the ground, and then God breathed (Spirit-ed, wind-ed) into them the breath of life. Breath is life-giving.

Except when it’s not. It’s so jarring to have these images of the life-giving breath when we are all locked up in our homes because of the fear of the other’s breath. As we continue to learn more about this virus, it is becoming more and more clear that the primary risk is breathing the aerosol that has come from the exhaling breath of an infected person. So, life-giving breath becomes illness-bearing breath and potentially life-robbing breath.

And then there’s the lynching this week of George Floyd in Minneapolis by those whose vocation is supposed to be to protect and to serve. As he was pinned to the ground with the police officer’s knee on his neck, he repeatedly pleaded with the officer; “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.” His pleas fell silent on the ears of those who decided that the life of a black man wasn’t worth the trouble. Robbed of his breath. Robbed of his life.

Though I’m not expert on crucifixion, I read that those who hung on the cross actually suffocated – they couldn’t breathe. The weight of the body pulling down from the extended arms eventually prevented the victim from expanding their lungs and eventually they could no longer inhale. I wonder if in the cry “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus was also saying, “I can’t breathe.”

Another crucifixion on the asphalt of Minneapolis.

The breath that God breathed into us is the breath of life; it is holy breath. Every breathing human is holy. Every human breath is holy because it comes from the divine; every human who breathes that holy human breath is the holy creation of the one who breathes into all of us the breath of life. Period. No exceptions.

How could we ever have misplaced that critical truth? It’s why the outrage is flowing out into the streets and into the Target store and the other businesses in the neighborhood. The denial of the equal humanity of black folks has been ignored; add to that the stoking of the flames of bigotry and hatred and division and it all adds up to death, literally and figuratively. Apparently way too many of us are fine with peaceful protests as long as the protesters are white, even if they’re carrying assault rifles. But when the protesters – both white and black – are protesting the lynching of a black man at the hands of the police, out comes the riot gear and tear gas. Honestly, what do you expect them to do when no outlet is allowed for their justifiable outrage?

I am both heart-broken and outraged and the senseless brutality and death of George Floyd. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to be black in this country right now.

But this is not just about injustice to our black siblings. Racism is suffocating all of us; our black siblings know it because they live it every day. But we white people are suffocating under racism, too; we just don’t see it and can casually ignore the effects. Racism lies to us about our history and allows us to live in denial of 400 years of systematic and systemic oppression of people of color and Native Americans. It hides all the ways that the success of white people came on the backs of others and leads to the mistaken assumption that we are more deserving than we are. It robs of us the talents and gifts of our siblings of color. Racism makes us think that none of this applies to us and that we have a right not to feel uncomfortable about it. We develop a knee-jerk reaction, “I’m not racist!” that prevents us from hearing and receiving and understanding the experience of our siblings of color, and in the end it prevents us from taking responsibility for our part. We are suffocating. Collectively, we can’t breathe.

This Pentecost, when we hear the story of the powerful wind that blew through that upper room, I’m praying for a new breath/wind of the Spirit to blow through the church. That first coming of the Spirit was disruptive, and I’m hoping that this one will be no less disruptive. That She will not only breathe on us but also send fire to burn us out of our blindness and complacency and denial. That She will send us out of our ease and comfort into the streets to stand side by side with our siblings of color. And that She will light the fire of anger under us so that we will no longer settle for a society that works only for some of us, but demand that it works for all of us.

So that every man and woman, holy and good, created in the image of God, can breathe.

“That They May Be One”

We tape our services on Thursday, so what has been written and preached has been written and preached.

This is one of those Sundays when I would have been tempted to rewrite on Saturday morning the sermon that I had written on Thursday.

Once again yesterday, the President took yet another opportunity to sow divisiveness and discord in a time when we desperately need to be working together.

What’s ironic is that the divisive salvo happened to fall a few days before the Sunday when tens of thousands of churches will be reading from Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer in John 10. The reading ends, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” (John 17:11)

That’s right. A prayer for unity in a time when the divisiveness and polarization keeps getting ramped up, and the president is the Stirrer-of-the Pot-in-Chief.

I understand that Jesus’ prayer is not a prayer for the unity of a nation-state. It’s a prayer for the unity of the church. What saddens me and concerns me is that the politicization of our response to this pandemic on that national stage, and more and more on the state and local levels is going to spill over into congregations. The President’s pronouncement just made exponentially more difficult and precarious the work of local congregational leaders and pastors who are trying to be responsible and conscientious and are trying to make plans based on the advice and counsel of the public health officials.

I haven’t read of one public health official who says that it’s time to open up the churches. The science of the coronavirus hasn’t changed. Gathering indoors in confined areas is still one of the riskiest ways to contract the virus. It’s still true that speaking and singing and distributing communion are three of the riskiest behaviors for contracting the virus. It’s still true that asymptomatic persons can infect dozens of others before they know they are sick. And it’s still true that the older you are, the greater the chance that contracting Covid-19 will be fatal. Those facts are apolitical, and they are the reason that public health officials have urged patience and caution about churches returning to in person worship.

I’m grateful for the consistent voice of my denominational leaders who are urging caution and patience. (Shout out to you, Bishop Eaton and Bishop Mansholt.) Also for the Wisconsin Council of Churches who not only urge caution, but have done an incredible amount of work in providing detailed guidance about what gradual reopening might look like and how to make a timeline. I’m grateful that the leaders of my congregation are taking that collective counsel seriously.

But I can see what’s happening in congregations because it’s beginning to happen in mine. The leadership is urging caution while a few voices are beginning to push back because they want to be in church again. And the President’s unhelpful words yesterday only give a larger soapbox for that sentiment.

Divisiveness in the church is evil. And it’s always knocking at the door. Read Paul’s letters carefully. In every one of them he has to warn against the factions that are developing in the churches he’s planting. Ironically, in the second lesson that will be read this weekend, the writer of the letter that we call First Peter also ends with a caution, “Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith.” (1 Peter 5:8-9) The divisiveness that is always standing at the thresholds of our congregations is now ready to pounce by sowing the seeds of discord over how and when we should open. The society-wide politicization of our response to this pandemic is now about to explode (if it hasn’t already) in congregations. I’m telling you, that’s not the work of the Spirit; it’s the work of Evil.

So, don’t let it happen. Stay together. Like the disciples in that time between Jesus’ ascension and Pentecost, make this time a time of prayer. In my sermon that my people will see tomorrow, I asked them to pray for discernment for our leaders.

I wish I had also asked them to pray that our plans to gradually reopen don’t cause division, but rather help us to be the answer to Jesus’ prayer, that we may be one.

Easter Lament?

As I was trying to find some inspiration earlier this week for a Holy Week devotion, I ran across this quote from Angela Bauer-Levesque, a biblical scholar who writes for Feasting on the Word. “Exile is not just a matter of time and place. Exile. . .represents a sense of radical dislocation, separation from all that is familiar and beloved.”

Not “all,” of course. But enough that I can tap into the feeling; it’s what I’m experiencing. For instance, the loss of:

  • familiar work space and the people I enjoy working with
  • freedom to go where I want
  • making pastoral calls
  • going out to a restaurant
  • getting my hair cut at my favorite salon
  • meeting parishioners or community members for coffee
  • a quick trip to the grocery store or hardware store
  • shaking hands or receiving a hug
  • and most of all, not being able to go to church, not gathering as the weekly Christian assembly.

One of the cruel ironies is that in times of grief and loss, we crave, indeed, we need connection. That’s exactly what we’re being denied as we work together to slow the spread of this pandemic. In this exile, we are experiencing not only the uncertainties of the future, but losses upon losses in the present. And that is even without the rising tide of death that the experts warn us to expect.

I’m a church geek. I acutely miss the weekly gathering. I miss the greetings, the singing, the preaching when I can see the faces of those I’m preaching to, the gathering at the table.

I think I have a much better insight into what it must have felt like for the exiles from Judah after the Temple was destroyed and they were carted off to Babylon. They, too, wondered how to worship when the core location of their worship was no longer available. The words of Psalm 137 have become viscerally real.

By the rivers of Babylon—

there we sat down and there we wept

when we remembered Zion.

On the willows there

we hung up our harps.

For there our captors

asked us for songs,

and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,

‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’

How could we sing the Lord’s song

in a strange land?

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? How shall we sing, “Jesus Christ Is Risen today” in an empty sanctuary, or even while taping the service at home? In a faith and a tradition where the gathered assembly is so important, where bodies washed with baptismal water stands as the entry rite, where bodies gather around the altar to receive Christ’s body in a morsel of real bread, how do we capture the joy of the resurrection when none of it is the way we want it to be? We preachers are trying to figure out how best to preach the joy of resurrection in these strange times with a strange way of worship, worship in a foreign land.

I get it that the building and the assembly is not required for our worship. We’ve been proving that for the last few weeks. Yet the truth that this is not how we wish it would be needs to be acknowledged. Honesty and pastoral care – both – push us to figure out how to lament on Easter Sunday even as we celebrate the joy of resurrection.

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann repeatedly insists on the necessity of lament. He writes that full one third of the psalms are psalms of lament or complaint, yet they are largely absent from our lectionary. In lament we acknowledge the reality of our situation and then move from there to action. Brueeggmann warns us about depriving the church of language to express the depth of disappointment, despair, and anger. It leads either to guilt – there’s something wrong, and it’s my fault – or denial – pretending there’s nothing wrong when there’s actually something deeply wrong. Action without lament brings false hope; in this case, celebration without lament brings false joy.

So, in the worship I lead this Easter – taped on Holy Saturday, which itself feels so weird – there will be an element of lament. I’m not sure yet how. For sure it will be in my preaching; maybe in the prayers of intercession; maybe an acknowledgement of the longing we experience to share the Eucharistic meal, though we are not; maybe even a song that departs from the exuberance of Easter hymns. While I’m not sure what it will be, it will be there.

If Bauer-Levesque is right, that exile is a sense of dislocation and the loss of things that are familiar and beloved, then this feels like exile. I suppose as Christians, we are always in exile, aliens in a strange land; this year that theological concept feels not like a concept, but real life. I’ll preach the good news of Christ’s resurrection, for sure. And maybe, knowing and acknowledging our dislocation and loss, it will be more meaningful this year than ever.

 

When “One Day at at Time” Really Means One Day at a Time

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve practiced a little self-coaching through difficult stretches by taking a few deep breaths and reminding myself, “One day at a time.” Yet I will confess that I’m always only partially successful in taking my own advice. I can’t function well either in my vocation or my family life without planning ahead. What’s happening on Sunday? What’s happening next week, next month, next fall?

Except now, “one day at a time” has become much more literal. It’s like being on the fault-line in the middle of an earthquake. The ground is changing around me, I’m standing here, and I have no idea what it will look like when the shaking is over, or even whether the ground around me will swallow me.

Our church council met on Saturday morning and made the difficult decision to suspend in-person worship on Sunday and for the next 4 weeks. Some felt we were being a little reactionary; at that time the CDC was discouraging any gatherings over 250. By Sunday, the number had dropped to 100; Monday morning, 50, and by Monday afternoon 10. That’s how fast it’s changing.

Social media is abuzz with how churches and leaders are responding to this new normal. Some are trying to figure out how long they should be planning the suspension of their in-person worship. Frankly, I think that’s an exercise in futility. Our local school board at first cancelled classes until April 6. Now, it’s May 4. Others are suggesting that school is over for this school year. Who knows what we’ll be saying by the end of the week? We haven’t been here before; no one knows. One day at a time. Literally. Because that’s how fast it’s changing.

That thumbnail prayer of Jesus gives us a little something to hang onto in the new one-day-at-a-time reality. There’s a reminder about the daily-ness of God’s provision. “Give us today our daily bread” – not tomorrow, not for the weekend, next week, or next month.

The provision that God gave God’s people in the wilderness sojourn was for that day. The manna came each morning. The Israelites were instructed to gather enough for that day, and only that day. The greedy among them discovered that gathering more only got them rotten leftovers.

It’s hard for me as part of a culture of planners suddenly to be thrust into circumstances when making plans for the future is pretty much impossible. Yes, it will pass. Yes, we will get through it. But there is no timeline and no roadmap. One day at a time.

This has forced me also to take a step back in my own faith life; it’s pulled the curtain back on my self-made illusion that I’m in charge and have control over my life and my circumstance. I know that’s never really true, but in my life of relative privilege, I usually live as if it’s so. It’s not.

So, a day at a time. Literally. We’re doing the best we can, making our decisions with an eye towards caution and love for our neighbor, trusting that for this day, God is with us.

There’s that other thing Jesus said. Don’t worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” Indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the reign and the righteousness of God, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow.”

For Such a Time as This. . .

What a time to be the church, huh? A sign of life in the midst of swirling waters.

Challenging times and difficult decisions, decisions that are at the very heart of who we are called to be and what we are called to do: to love and care for people as the presence of Christ in the world. 

I know that a lot of you are weighed down with the burden of the moment. I am, too. When we make hard decisions, even those for which there really is no other option, no matter what we decide, someone’s going to be disappointed, even angry. Don’t take it personally. That comes with the territory. It’s not about you. 

At our place, we made the decision on Saturday morning to suspend in-person worship for the next four weeks. That seemed pretty radical at the time. It’s only 48 hours later, and the CDC is recommending that we plan on not gathering for the next 8 weeks. This morning, it was no gatherings of more than 50. This afternoon, it’s no gatherings more than 10. 

I came away from our meeting on Saturday with a deep respect for our leaders. They knew the gravity of the decision we were making. Individually, we did not come to the same conclusion about how we should move forward. Yet our conversation was respectful, loving, and imbued with a spirit of how best to love our neighbor. That was community and leadership at its best. I love those people. 

We are carefully avoiding using the language that church is cancelled. It’s not. At our place, it’s just taking a different form. So, yesterday morning I gathered in the sanctuary with a couple of tech people, a pianist, and a small group of singers and we worshiped. Before going live, we gathered in prayer, asking God to use this time to bring us together even though we were separated by distance. The whole experience was not what I imagined it would be. It was way better. We were standing on holy ground, even if virtual holy ground. A remnant gathered though scattered. And while I couldn’t read the comments, I could see on my phone screen the comments that poured in while we were worshiping, people participating remotely, yet still somehow gathered together. For those who weren’t on Facebook or couldn’t tune in at the right time, the whole service was uploaded to our website for folks to join at any time, and as the day rolled on, so did the supportive comments. I did my grocery run this afternoon, and saw a member who said she loved going to church in her pajamas.

What I’m discovering already — even in these first few days that necessitate a different way of being church — s that though we are not together, a strong sense of community persists, and maybe it’s even growing. At our meeting on Saturday, our council members committed to make personal phone calls to all our local residents once a week. I’ve also committed to making 10 phone calls a day, just checking in with people. We send out a weekly e-newsletter; I think for the time being, I’m going to send out a daily e-letter, just to remind God’s people that they are part of us, and they are in our prayers. I’m also designating times when I’m going to invite the whole congregation to be in prayer (thanks, Northwest Synod!). And instead of our midweek Lenten service, I’m going to livestream a brief order of compline. We’re going to use our website to upload printed versions of our livestream services so folks at home can follow along. In these times of anxiety and uncertainty, we are going to do our best to keep people connected. For all of us, what a blessing to have social media, email, websites, and iPhones! 

We got a message from our bishop this morning recommending that all congregations cancel their services. I’m grateful for that word coming from the synod office, especially to provide cover for pastors who would be putting their own ministry at risk were they to make the decision without support from above. 

If you’re a leader, hang in there. Take care of yourself. Make sure to schedule those times that feed you and get your mind off the hard stuff for a while. I’m finding myself even more drawn to spend time in scripture and prayer. Maybe that, too, is one of the blessings of suddenly having everything taken off my schedule. 

If you’re a lay member of a church, give your pastor and congregational leaders some love. They need it. They are feeling the weight and the burden of the decisions and of how to be in ministry to you and with you. Send them an email or note of encouragement. Post something supportive and kind publicly on Facebook. Let them know you are praying for them. Make sure you keep up with your pledge. 

I feel the weight of these times. Yet, I feel unexpectedly hopeful, even excited, for the authentic opportunities we have to be church. For such a time as this, we are church. 

Thank You, Senator Warren

It’s 6:30 in the evening on Thursday, March 5, 2020.

I have had a full and busy day.

I came home to the news that Elizabeth Warren has dropped out of the Democratic Presidential primary race.

I am sad about that.

Full disclosure: I’m not sure that I would have voted for Warren in the Wisconsin primary. There are many things that I have liked about her. She was in my top tier of candidates. I also had reasons to support her competitors. I think my decision might well have been a standing-in-line-to-vote decision.

Still, I am sad.

Warren is in many ways the perfect candidate. She is smart, experienced, a track record of getting things done, the kind of assertiveness that is needed to get things done, an impeccable resume, and on and on. She knows politics and the art of compromise. She has a plan for EVERYTHING. She was a strong candidate. The only down side, culturally speaking, is that she is a woman. I’m not saying that as a personal opinion, but as a cultural observation.

What makes me sad is that a Democratic field that started with six strong female candidates, not to mention a strong candidate who is gay and married, has now narrowed to two old white guys. That’s a step backwards.

A deep and strong sexism exists in our culture. It must be addressed. We can and must do better.

The first step is to acknowledge it. For those of us who are white, male, and in my case, old, to shut our mouths and listen to our colleagues who have been the victims of our patriarchy for far too long. And it is also our responsibility, not only to listen, but to call out sexism when we see it.

I serve on the board of a burgeoning not-for-profit organization. We are a mixture of gifts and talents, all of us strong, smart people. I noticed that the strong and smart women were continually being interrupted by the strong and smart men. Old white men. I called them out on it. It was a tense moment. But it also gave us the chance to look at ourselves in the mirror, acknowledge the wrong, and move forward in a way that gave a much more equal voice to the entire board. We need to do better.

This evening, I am sad. I thought we were better than this. I thought we had made progress. I’m not so sure. We have a long way to go.

Life from the Ashes

I’m the pastor of a congregation that’s really not into Ash Wednesday.

Maybe every congregation where I’ve been pastor has not really been into Ash Wednesday.

Maybe the human community is not into Ash Wednesday. I don’t know. You tell me.

What I know is that the twin themes of Ash Wednesday — repentance and mortality — are not on the top 10 list of things that we pay attention to.

In bible class yesterday we spent a lot of time on the reading for the first Sunday in Lent, the story from Genesis 3 that the church has traditionally referred to as The Fall. The church has spent way too much energy trying to use this story as an explanation for the how evil came into the world. I don’t think that’s really what it is.

Characteristic of the Hebrew scriptures, the text is not interested in explanations; it’s more attuned to a mystery at the heart of human existence. The story offers us a touch point to that thing we all know in our bones. We possess an inclination to yearn for what is beyond us. We bristle at limitations. In trying to make the move from creature to creator, we transgress the divinely established boundaries that were graciously established to give us life. Instead of life, we barter in the ways of death. By our own behavior, by giving in to our deep-seated, but misguided yearnings, we distort and inevitably destroy the gracious relationship that God created and still desires to have with us.

“I’m sorry.” That’s what repentance is. “I’ve done wrong, and I’ve got no excuses.” That’s it. Well, that and a commitment to go in a different direction. It’s not that complicated. That it’s simple doesn’t mean that it’s easy. I still wonder why it’s so hard to acknowledge that we have done wrong and are in need of a change of direction. I wonder that in my own heart. So, Ash Wednesday. I am wrong. I need a change of direction. Not one that finds the initiative in my own heart. One that by definition needs to come from outside me.

Which is why the ashes that are placed on my forehead is in the shape of a cross. Only the death and resurrection of the Son of God is able to enact that reality that I cannot. The death that I keep on choosing through my ten thousand acts of rebellion are reversed in his death and resurrection. The Ash Wednesday reversal calls us to that life.

Paradoxically, the ashen cross also confronts us with our mortality.

I remember a day in the life of a pastor when I talked by phone with the spouse of a 93 year old who had been diagnosed with a not necessarily fatal form of cancer. “I just hope (s)he’s strong enough to endure the treatment.” The assumption was that if (s)he is not strong enough, the alternative was death.

A few hours later, I made a hospital visit to someone who had been in and out of the hospital for a few months, never with a diagnosis that in and of itself would be alarming. On the day of my visit, the diagnosis came that signals the end. Neither (s)he nor anyone else in their circle of family or friends could change that. We all know we are going to die. (S)he knew that it was going to happen in the next few months. And so it did.

I sometimes marvel at the clever and creative ways our culture denies the reality of death. Despite the fact that we all know that none of us is going to get out of this alive.

I read once that in medieval times, the work of the local parish priest was to prepare his parishioners to die. Ars morendi, I think they called it. The art of dying. On the one hand, I suppose death was much more a reality in those times than it is for us. Lack of understanding, and therefore treatment, of illness and disease made life expectancies much shorter. On the other hand, the mortality rate for humans is still 100%.

I think Ash Wednesday is one small and useful step on the way to confronting the reality of our own death and to embrace it. I don’t know that any of us are looking forward to that day in the same way that we look forward to a visit from someone we deeply love. Yet, I also believe that we don’t need to dread it or deny it. If the central tenet of our faith is true— that in Christ’s death and resurrection, the Last Enemy has been vanquished — then there’s no good reason for denial or fear. Because we bear the hope that comes from the promise, we  live these meantime days to their fullest.

So, that ashen cross. And the words spoken along with the gesture, “Remember that you are dust; to dust you shall return.” Indeed they are words that express the reality of human life. And the ashen cross inscribed on our foreheads sears on our bodies and our being the hope that is in us. Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.

Here’s to life that springs from the ashes.