In a Time of Change and Loss

I called her “St. Nancy” (now of blessed memory).  She had been a member of the congregation for over 40 years. Maybe a charter member, I don’t know. She had spent her career as a hospital nurse and was steeped in service to others; there was an assertive, yet loving way about her. By the time I began my ministry in that congregation, Nancy had retired, but still active. Over the decades, she had probably taken nearly every job there was at church, from council president to leading the women’s guild. She had a heart as big as the Indian Ocean and a healthy, direct way of speaking. When she disagreed with something, she said so, but it was never mean; she was always a team player. (I’m guessing you can picture your own Nancy.)

When our parish nurse died suddenly, Nancy was heartbroken. Not only had she and Sue been friends, but she was deeply committed to Parish Health ministry. So, when we decided for budgetary reasons not to fill the position, Nancy was upset. And when the leadership wasn’t responsive to her insistence, trouble began. She took it to the streets, in that ugly way that we do.

At a staff meeting we talked about it and knew we had to address it. One of us volunteered to go talk to Nancy one on one. We discovered that replacing the parish nurse was only the cover for something much deeper. Nancy said, “For 40 years, I’ve been taking care of people in this congregation. Now that I’m old, who’s going to take care of me.” It wasn’t about filling a position or not. It was about the fear of losing something that she had been instrumental in nurturing, that we take care of our elders. It was about change and loss.

Leadership guru, Ron Heifitz, writes that it’s not change that people dread. Let someone win the lottery and they’re more than willing to change their lifestyle. It’s loss. That’s what people fear.

In this pandemic disruption, people are experiencing both change and loss. For at least 6 months now, we have experienced the loss of significant ways of being the church that have meant so much to us. We aren’t gathering for worship in the church (at least most of us aren’t; and if we are, it doesn’t look much like what we were used to). We can’t have our coffee hour, we can’t hug people on the way into church, we long to be able to sing together again. The pandemic has messed with so many of our cherished practices and traditions. What’s maybe more troubling is that some of those losses will be permanent.

So, both loss and change. No wonder people are anxious.

I fear that the dynamics of loss and change will be too much for some congregational systems to handle without spiraling down into some pretty serious conflict. The tensions between those who are pushing to get back the building and those who are more risk averse are already showing up. At first there was impatience to get back in the building; now the impatience is turning to frustration, even anger.

Here are a few things that are going to be important in the next few months as we navigate what’s turning into a much longer disruption than we expected.

Creating space for lament. Wise pastoral leadership will create space to give expression to the grief and sadness, the frustration and anxiety that we’re all experiencing. People need an outlet for the grief they are experiencing at the loss of what may never return in the form they were used to. In one of our Sunday morning Zoom conversation, I asked how folks were doing and one of them just blurted out, “This is hard. I’m having a hard time with this. I just feel like nothing is normal anymore.” Not only did they have a chance to give voice to their grief and loss, but it gave the community an opportunity to practice care for each other.

Pay attention to relationships as well as tasks. In the church, we are often so occupied with the tasks that need to be accomplished that we forget that we are fundamentally a relational community. Maybe it’s beginning the meeting with a rounds question that invites people to share something about themselves. Maybe it’s just opening the space for people to talk. We are both rational and emotional beings and while we might not be very good at expressing the emotional part of who we are, it doesn’t mean it’s not important. And we can get better with practice.

Keep your leaders close. Check in with them. Get in the habit of a regular phone call or email just to see how they’re doing.  Focus on the leaders who are calm and courageous; strengthen and support them. And don’t ignore the ones from whom we’re sensing tension. We don’t need to focus on them, but we do need to listen and pay attention.

Keep the mission in mind. Especially in these times, it’s so easy to focus on what needs to be today. I have those days when I’m just trying to get done today what can’t wait until tomorrow. We are having to make so many decisions that it there doesn’t seem to be room for one more. But while circumstances and context have changed dramatically in the past 6 months, the mission hasn’t. For us, that’s to be the sacramental presence of Christ in our community. Keeping that in mind brings clarity to everything else. Remembering the mission can help us dream hopefully about what we’d like the future to look like. It can unleash the creativity and imagination that just might launch us into a new normal that helps people to see that though we might be experiencing loss, what comes next might be better than we could have imagined.

Margaret Wheatley writes, “The primary way to prepare for the unknown, is to attend to the quality of our relationships, to how well we know and trust one another.” In the end, Nancy’s anxiety and reactivity was softened, not because we convinced her that our strategy was the right strategy, but because she felt listened to and cared for. It’s all about the relationship. In times of change and loss, paying attention to relationship will always strengthen the mission.

“Nothing Has Prepared Us for This”

“Nothing has prepared us for this.”

It’s a refrain I’ve heard over and over from clergy colleagues and congregational leaders.

“This,” of course, is the pandemic and all the disruption it has caused, including how to do church and be church when so many things we have cherished, so many things that have been central to our practice of church are not possible right now. I’m sure I’ve said it to myself more than a few times.

And I’m starting to shift the narrative. What if, instead of “Nothing has prepared us for this,” we reframed it? “Everything has prepared us for this.”

Think about it like this. An accomplished jazz musician is able to improvise well only because she has practiced the rudiments of her instrument so long and so hard that they become second nature. She has practiced the scales so many times that she doesn’t even have to think about it. All those technical exercises she spent so many hours practicing now form the basis for an explosion of energetic creativity when in a performance, it’s time for her to take a chorus.

Fine art painters spend hours drawing and studying composition, design, perspective, and color. I had a friend in seminary who had been an art major and a painter. I relished our visits to the St. Louis Art Museum when he became teacher and I became student. We’d stand for 20 minutes in front of a painting as he broke it all down. The technical elements of an artist’s medium have been practiced for so long that they don’t even think anymore, using what they’ve internalized to create a visual painting that is a stunning expression of imagination and creativity.

What if everything we have done in parish ministry to this point – the so-called normal time of pre-Covid – has been practicing the technical aspects of ministry and church leadership? We’ve been practicing our scales for this moment of energetic creativity.

We all know that the mid-20th century way of doing church isn’t going to work into the future. We’ve been lamenting that the church has been slow to change, insisting on old patterns, even though the status quo isn’t working very well.

We believe that God is at work in and through the church, always bringing something new. We believe that the whoosh of the Spirit is a reminder that she is at work, sometimes a gentle breeze, sometimes a strong disruptive wind, always leading us into the future that God already inhabits.

I’m convinced that this is one of those moments of transition and rebirth. The status quo has been upended whether we like it or not. The only choice forward is to embrace the invitation to what’s next, to unleash our energy, imaginations, and creativity for the new birth. Rather than seeing this new normal as something to be lamented, something that we could never have seen coming and could never have prepared for, it just might be a gift, that moment that every other moment of ministry has been preparing us for.

I’ve always believed that was the case in my succession of calls in now 33 years of parish ministry. As I’ve embraced and lived into a new call in a new location with new people, new challenges, and new opportunities, what came before had prepared me for what’s next in ways that I could never have imagined or predicted.

If all this sounds a little too positive and perky for where you are today, I’ll own that. The truth is that some days I feel full of creative energy, ready to go out and meet this thing head on. And other days I feel exhausted and stuck. Still, I’ve found that a reframe to embrace this moment as gift is helping me move forward.

An aside. To embrace something new all alone is, of course, exhausting. When we all went under lockdown in March, there was a tremendous burst of creativity, imagination, and energy by clergy of all stripes. We were suddenly faced with having to figure things out with a blank piece of paper in front of us. We got by for a few weeks on adrenaline. I don’t think many of us expected that six months later, we’d still be operating under what we thought were very temporary conditions. That initial burst of energy has not been sustainable.

So, we’re learning all over again to let others share some of that burden and be part of the creative, imaginative process that will take us into the future. I have found an unexpected group of folks who love to talk about what’s next and what it might look like. For me, it’s not the actual office-holders of the church, though the leaders have been wonderfully supportive. We have a Sunday morning Zoom conversation that over time has decreased to about a dozen regular folks. The conversation is ostensibly supposed to be about their Sunday morning worship experience, but for the past couple of months it inevitably turns to matters of church and ministry and what the future might be like. They have become people who I can bounce ideas off of, folks who are trustworthy, supportive, positive, and have a playful spirit of creativity and imagination.

None of us have the experience to know what to do in a pandemic or in the post-pandemic future. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have what we need to carry us through. Maybe Wendell Berry said it best: “What we need is here.”

Forming Followers of Jesus

One of my favorite hikes here in Door County takes me alone the shoreline of Europe Lake and then heads east toward Lake Michigan. When the trail gets to Lake Michigan, there’s this gorgeous cut-out that the lake has carved out. I like to jump down to the water level and get out to the rocky beach that is comprised of thousands of rocks that over the centuries have been rounded by the action of the water. The constant action of the waves along with the sandy grit in the water have formed those rocks, eroding the harsh, sharp edges until they are smoothly rounded. 

This past weekend’s lessons have me thinking about how followers of Jesus are formed. We read the story on Sunday about Jesus prediction of his suffering and death and Peter’s not so helpful response. “No, not you, Jesus.” Jesus scolds Peter pretty harshly and then issues this charge. If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 16:24-25)

During childhood visits with my grandparents, I listened in on Grandma and Grandpa talking about churchly things at the dinner table. Grandpa was a pastor whose ministry was centered in the pastoral care of his people in a small congregation in rural Kansas. Grandpa would go on about the trials of someone he had visited the day, and often Grandma’s response was about what a hard or terrible or undeserved cross to bear. I grew up thinking that any kind of suffering was simply our cross to bear.

That’s not what Jesus was talking about. I think he was talking about the difficulty and challenge of living a life that is patterned after the life of Christ. And in case you’re wondering what that looks like, Jesus spent a long time and a lot of words in the beginning of Matthew describing what that life looks like. We call it the Sermon on the Mount. It’s in Matthew chapters 5 through 7. Go ahead and read it. I’ll wait. 

The ethics of the Sermon on the Mount are so counter-cultural. They don’t describe the life of most Americans, even most American Christians. They certainly don’t describe my life. They describe a life that is rooted in the virtues of love, grace, humility, honesty, patience, service. And they are always rooted in the care, love and service of the most vulnerable, the outsider, the stranger, even the enemy. 

One Sunday, I got some serious pushback when at the height of the war in Afghanistan, I prayed for the Taliban. On the very Sunday when we read the words from Matthew instructing us to pray for our enemies. Yeah. You can guess how that went over. Even when we had just read the words in that very service. 

And if you’re not convinced by the Sermon on the Mount, go to the latter sections of every last one of Paul’s letters when he starts talking about the ethical implications of the new life we have in Christ.

These are not only the pattern by which I seek to form my life (albeit, imperfectly), they are also the patterns around which, as a pastor, I seek to pattern the formation of a community of faith. This is what I believe the people of God, the body of Christ are intended to look like. 

Yet, I gotta tell you, it often feels like Sisyphus eternally rolling the rock up the hill. Even the most faithful people, I get for an hour a week; maybe an hour or so more for a handful of others who come for bible class or some other thing we do for faith formation. 

What chance do I have against so many other cultural forces? Corporate leaders are deeply formed by the corporate leadership culture 60 or so hours a week. That’s not the culture of the Sermon on the Mount. You almost can’t cast your gaze anywhere without a message from our consumer culture that teaches that we just need to purchase that one more thing that will be enough. I confess I have been formed pretty deeply by that idol. We are constantly bombarded by the myth of American exceptionalism, a false idol that suggests that American somehow has a privileged place in God’s economy. 

I think that right now, one of the big influences is political party affiliation. For so many of us, both on the right and on the left, the sensibilities of the political parties we affiliate with are more formative of our views about ethical matters than the scriptures. 

I get accused of being a shill for the Democratic party. I don’t accept that. What I will acknowledge is that as a pastor of the church, I’m trying to form followers of Jesus. If the Democrats right now seem to be more aligned with those sensibilities that the Republicans, then don’t come after me; go look at your bible and have the argument with your scriptures. I’m not a shill for partisan politics. I’m called and ordained to proclaim the Word. 

What I yearn for is a church where we understand that our primary citizenship is in the Kingdom of God. The kind of church where we can speak the truth to each other when it becomes clear that we are going after other idols, which I often do, and for which I desire my siblings to make me accountable. Give me a church that understands that any of the inevitable and multiple loyalties we claim have to take backseat to the loyalty to the baptismal covenant by which we declare death to the old self and a commitment to live in the freedom of a child of God. 

I’m not a huge fan of the Petrine letters, but I do find a strange attraction to this description of followers of Jesus in the world: “Beloved ones, I exhort you as sojourners and resident aliens to abstain from fleshly desires, which wage war against the soul, keeping your conduct comely when among the Gentiles so that. . .they might from the good deeds they have observed glorify God on a day of his visitation.”

Yeah. Resident aliens with competing loyalties that all take a back seat to our loyalty to the work that God is doing to restore the world. 

Dear Lord, let us be a church so formed. 

“To Think in a New Way”

One of the challenges of being a church leader in this time of pandemic is the constant change and uncertainty. Nagging at us are the questions about how permanent or temporary these changes will be and whether what we think is temporary will become permanent. This morning I was reading an entry from my journal, dated March 17. “On Saturday, we made the decision to close the church to in-person worship for the next 4 weeks.” Remember those days?

The near constant decision-making and uncertainty is a big part of what makes these times difficult and exhausting. We’re always trying to figure out something new. In our Zoom Sunday conversation yesterday, a few of our parishioners started talking about the importance of innovation and creativity. And it reminded me of a fascinating article in the July 20 issue of The New Yorker magazine. The article by staff writer Lawrence Wright is based on a series of interviews Wright conducted with Gianna Pomata, a retired professor at the Institute of the History of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University. Pomata points out that throughout history, pandemics have brought fundamental changes in society – economically, socially, culturally. Black Death marks the end of the Middle Ages; what came next was the Renaissance.  Towards the end of the Black Death in Italy, a middle class began to form when peasants – for reasons of safety – fled the feudal estates and found freedom when they entered the city walls of several city-states. Many of the peasants became artisans and merchants. That transition also fostered a fundamental change in the practice of medicine. Prior to the plague, medicine was an abstract discipline based on the study of ancient Greek and Roman practices, influenced also by astrology. After the pandemic, it began to be based on empirical evidence.

She said, “What I expect now is that something as dramatic is going to happen not so much in medicine, but in economy and culture. Because of danger, there’s this wonderful human response, which is to think in a new way.”

This pandemic has forced us to turn on a dime with regard to things that have been so central to our life together – gathering in our buildings for worship, singing, enjoying one another’s company complete with handshakes and hugs. I’ve seen enormous creativity and energy demonstrated by pastors and congregations that six months ago would never have imagined themselves doing on-line worship.

The irony is not lost on me that the one thing that we have spent so much money on and so much time and effort caring for – our buildings – are for the most part off limits to us right now. For so many of us, the beautiful pipe organs and grand pianos, sit silent, or if not silent, heard by most people only on a recording.

Some of the more dire predictions suggest that what we are viewing now as temporary may go on for much longer that we think. I read that some denominations are suggesting no in-person worship through 2021. If that’s the case, what will the church look like? To use Dr. Pomata’s language, what new ways of thinking will be required.

I’m pretty sure on-line worship is here to stay. Even if we begin to gather back in the sanctuary, until the risk is significantly lowered by a vaccine or some other means of mitigation, many in my congregation will not come back. They will continue to participate in worship remotely. Which means that even pastors and congregations who have resisted making a commitment to quality on-line ministry will be rethinking that and investing resources in strengthening and improving their on-line presence.

One of my hunches is that congregational ministry will end up much more decentralized. Rather than a single large gathering, we’ll be gathering in smaller groups where folks can feel a greater sense of safety with people they know will be compliant. David Fitch, author of Faithful Presence, has been advocating for this kind of church gathering long before the beginning of the pandemic, and now especially in these past 5 months.

I like the idea of it, but as I talk with my folks about it, the ones who don’t feel safe coming back into the building largely don’t feel safe in a smaller group either. For now we’re doing more gatherings outdoors, but in northern Wisconsin, that option will quickly disappear.

I’d love to think that we could figure out some way for smaller groups to meet in person. While on-line worship is meeting some need, as is the on-line meet ups we’re having using platforms like Zoom, they can’t deliver the physical presence that we are hard-wired to crave. We are embodied, enfleshed beings, and many of us miss being in each other’s presence as much as anything.

I think it would actually be kind of wonderful if small, intimate gatherings could become the major locus of congregational ministry and the big gathering in the building became secondary. It would actually give us a much better means to practice the neighborly love at the heart of our faith.

I’ve read way too many articles suggesting that thousands of congregations won’t survive this pandemic. I’m not smart enough to know whether that’s true or not. I do know that many are on life-support and this may be the event that leads to their demise. But I’m enough of a hopeful person to believe that the church itself is not going to die. The wisdom of the elders, including Gianna Pomata, suggests that crises provide opportunities to let things die and rise again. Which for Christians isn’t a foreign concept.

What do you think? I’d love to hear what you think the next several months will bring.

How to Listen to a Sermon

I don’t often post my weekly sermons to this blog. My sermons are written for and preached to a very specific congregation in a very specific context, not to mention that sermons are primarily for hearing and not for reading.

I’m going to break that rule this week. While the above caveats are also true of this sermon, I think it also raises an important issue for the larger church. How do we listen to preaching? It’s a particularly important question for this hyper-partisan, hyper-critical moment in time. What I’m suggesting is that just as Christians read the bible differently than other literature, we listen to preaching differently than other spoken discourse. And if you don’t want to read the whole sermon, here’s the short answer. We listen to preaching with a posture of humility, expecting to hear a word from God.

Oh, and by the way, the sermon is based on Sunday’s lesson, Jeremiah 28:5-9. It’s a bit obscure and hard to understand without the larger context, which I explain in the opening part of the sermon. 5 Then the prophet Jeremiah spoke to the prophet Hananiah in the presence of the priests and all the people who were standing in the house of the Lord; 6 and the prophet Jeremiah said, “Amen! May the Lord do so; may the Lord fulfill the words that you have prophesied, and bring back to this place from Babylon the vessels of the house of the Lord, and all the exiles. 7 But listen now to this word that I speak in your hearing and in the hearing of all the people. 8 The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. 9 As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.”

This morning I want to talk about how to listen to a sermon, or maybe more accurately, how not to listen to a sermon.

But first, I want to tell a story, the story that our first lesson is a part of. It’s a critical time in the political history of God’s chosen people, the nation Judah, about 600 years before Christ. There have been a series of pretty awful kings of Judah; now Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, is becoming more and more powerful. In 594, the armies of Babylon swept into Judah and deposed King Jehoiachin and carried him off to Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar replaced him with a 21-year-old, the son of a former king; he would be a puppet of Nebuchadnezzar. Things looked pretty precarious for this tiny nation. Jeremiah consistently preached the message to Judah that their hard times were a consequence of their unfaithfulness to God. The prophet Jeremiah was fond of using object lessons to accompany his preaching. So, he got a big wooden yoke and placed it on his shoulders and said to the king, the priests, and the other rulers, this yoke symbolizes how for the next 3 generations, you all – God’s people – will be under the yoke of the Babylonians. Certainly not the kind of news that any of the ruling class wanted to hear. So, in comes Hananiah, a rival prophet with a very different message. Hananiah told them, “Don’t worry. Within a few months, Nebuchadnezzar will be gone; his power is waning, and we’ll have nothing to worry about.” Now that was more like it. That’s what the people wanted to hear.

Of course, we know how the story turned out. We know that Jeremiah was precisely right. Within a decade, the Babylonian army would return and crush Judah, destroying the Temple, burning the city, and carrying the living inhabitants off to 3 generations of exile in Babylon. But at the time, no one knew who was right. Turns out the uncomfortable, challenging word of Jeremiah was the true word from the Lord, even though the people desperately wanted to believe the easier, comforting word from Hananiah.

Which brings me to wanting to talk to you about how to listen to a sermon. Most of us, and I would include me in that group, would rather hear a message of comfort and ease than a message of dire warning and challenge. When the world is falling in around us, we come to church to hear a word of comfort. The bible definitely offers that, and preaching definitely offers that. But not always. We all know there’s another side to the biblical message. If you read the bible in its totality you know that there’s also rebuke and challenge. There’s an awful lot in the bible that is uncomfortable, that demands a change in our lives, in our community, in the world. The bible recognizes that sin and evil and death are always trying to drag us away from God’s ways to our own selfish ways and the ways of the world.

Someone once told me, “Your job in preaching is to bring us comfort and strength.” I said, “Yes, and to challenge you.” And they replied, “yes, but more comfort.” You see the dilemma.

We believe that in both the bible and preaching, God speaks. Let’s consider the bible for a moment. We know that we don’t read the bible in the same way that we read other literature. We read the bible, not critically, but humbly, submitting ourselves to its authority, expecting as we read it, that we will hear a word from God. That’s how we listen to preaching. We don’t listen to a sermon the same way we listen to a speech or a news report. We listen to preaching expecting a word from God. We listen humbly, submitting ourselves to the authority of the Word. Not the authority of the preacher, but the authority of the spoken Word.

That’s hard to remember in such a hyper-partisan and hyper-critical moment in time. For many of us, our opinions about the way the world is ordered are set in stone and our kneejerk reaction to everything we hear is, “I agree,” or “I disagree.” But when we listen to preaching, our first response isn’t about whether we agree or disagree.

There are two important sets of questions that we should ask. The first set is:

  • What is God trying to say to me here?
  • Where is the good news of what God has done for me in Jesus?
  • What is God inviting me to be?
  • What is God empowering me to do?

The second question comes into play especially if we hear something that makes us uncomfortable. It’s important to sit in that place of discomfort, to linger there for a while.

  • Is there something in my life that needs to change?
  • Why does it make me uncomfortable?
  • Is there some long held belief that God is challenging?
  • Is this somehow related to my ego and to the idols that I set up in my life, those things that become hyper-important to me?
  • Is there something I’m trying to protect, something that maybe I cherish too much?

We don’t like to change and we don’t like to be changed. Yet our faith is based on the premise that God is always at work transforming us from the kingdom of the Enslaver to the reign of God. That means God is changing us.

I want to be clear. I’m not suggesting that everything I say is infallible. I am as capable of mistakes as anyone. I preach under the authority of the community and I’m accountable to the community for what I preach – this congregation, my bishop, my denomination. Instead, I’m suggesting that questions about agree or disagree are not the first questions we should be asking, and if we’re listening for a word from God, maybe we never even get around to those kinds of questions.

I want to talk about one more thing, and I realize it may be uncomfortable for some of us. One of the most common comments I receive about my preaching is that it is sometimes political. My gentle response is that if I’m going to be faithful to the gospel and my ordination vows, then my preaching has to be political. Did you hear our lesson for today? Jeremiah and his opponent are preaching in the middle of a geo-political crisis. They are speaking into the situation in which God’s people were living. They preach about where God is in that crisis and about seeing the situation as God sees it. Do you why preaching has to be political? Or maybe a better word is social? Because God cares about human communities. God cares about how we relate to each other, how we form ourselves socially, how we care for each other, and especially for the most vulnerable. Preaching calls us to consider the values of the kingdom of God and to call out our leaders and our policies that are in opposition to the values of the kingdom, regardless of who or what party is in power. The gospel is social because sin is social, systemic, and cultural. The gospel is personal because we as individuals are caught up in these social sins and must be saved out of them. This is what’s possible in Christ. This is what God does in us and through us.

Knowing God’s will and what the word is from God in real time can be tricky. Yet we believe that God is speaking. God has spoken primarily through God’s son, who in his death and resurrection has given us life with God. We live confidently from that promise; and we live humbly and expectantly, knowing that God is at work in us transforming us, and through us transforming the world. Listen. I listen. You listen. We listen together. God is speaking. Dear God, give us ears so we can hear.

“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.