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Musing 7.24.20

PASTOR JOHN’S MUSING 7.24.2020

God, I thought it would be over by now.
      In March, I thought we would be back in church,
               back in school,
               back at work,
               back in restaurants,
               back in stores,
               back with family and friends.
               back watching baseball and soccer in person.
       In March, I thought by now masks would be
                     only for goalies, catchers, and football players.
I thought “new normal” was a trendy phrase
                     and temporary plans were that:  temporary.
God, now I am not sure.
     This drags on and shows signs
                    not of waning, but of waxing.
God, it is not like a hurricane or tornado
      which in all its destruction is over
                   and  leaves us for our rebuilding.
God this is like a drought or famine, lingering.
      It is silent and just slowly grinds away
                    wears us down,
                    exhausts us.
We don’t know what rebuilding looks like.
We suffer a drought of physical presence,
                                     of touch,
                                     of community,
                                     of activity,
                        a famine of confidence,
                                     of hope.
God, at this time, I don’t know what to call you.
Titles feel like wishful thinking or clichés or schmoozing.
God of Love doesn’t quite work,
I like “God of Pandemic.”  As in,
“God of Pandemic, you didn’t cause this,
          but you are present in it.”
It acknowledges you and it.
God of Pandemic, we have tried Zoom.
           We have binged Netflix.
           We have gorged on MSNBC and FOX.
           They don’t satisfy.
Have we tried you, God of Pandemic?
We recall the stories of the Hebrews in the wilderness.
The story of their dying of thirst.
You instruct Moses to strike the rock.
Water flows from the rock.
The story of their dying of hunger.
You provide manna every morning.
These stories have been more metaphorical than literal.
Maybe that is not the point.
Maybe the point is turning to you.
Maybe the point is believing in Jesus
               as the Living Water and the Bread of Life.
I could not live in the despair of drought and famine.
I could live with manna, living water and bread.
God of Pandemic, your presence turns despair to hope.
God of Pandemic, I don’t know if this is a prayer.
It is more of a musing.
God of Pandemic, thanks for listening.
It makes a difference.
May it be so.
   

Musing 7.17.20

PASTOR JOHN’S MUSING 7.17.2020

One aspect of my life effected by the pandemic has been decision making.  I still make them; but in many cases, I lack certainty.  In the past I could assume what things would be like in six months so I could make a fairly informed decision.  I am used to a linear world.  There is a problem; there is a solution.  We move from point A to point B to fix it.  Fairly simple.  Today things are fluid.  We aren’t sure where or what point B is.   Regardless of research, thought, consultation, and planning, things can be easily undone through no fault of our own.  What made sense yesterday doesn’t today. 

Because situations change with such frequency, decisions are tentative.  When they are tentative, we know we lack control.  When we lack control, we are uncertain about our future.  We just don’t like being in a position of not knowing what to do about our future.  Circumstances make life unfamiliar.  We want to do what is right, and we often don’t know what that is.  We do the best we can with what we know at the time. I felt this as we talked about re-opening King Avenue for in-person worship.  I feel it now in the debate about re-opening schools.  It is not secure or comfortable place to be.  I don’t like prefacing thoughts with, “Who knows?”

When I prepare a group to go on a mission trip to the orphanage in Mexico, I tell them to expect the same answer to any question they ask me.  The answer will invariably be, “I don’t know.”   When is supper?  I don’t know.  Where is supper?  I don’t know.  What are we doing tomorrow?  I don’t know.  I can give tentative plans but not definite plans.  This is because our Mexican hosts control the agenda, not I.  Their plans change. One of the most important learnings of a mission trip is learning that we are not in control. We place our lives in the hands of another.  We can resist that in frustration and not experience what the children have to offer.  Or we can open ourselves to the not knowing and experience the spirit and love of the children.  Eventually the group gets accustomed to my stock response and rolls with it.  It is a healthy moment when members accept the lack of control and open up.  They open up to each other, the children, and God.  That is what makes the trips so rich.

What if we saw this time as a mission trip? We realize our sense of control has always been tentative.  We realize our lives are in God’s hands.    We know mission trips can be fearful, painful, challenging, unfamiliar, uncomfortable, and inconvenient.  They can also be transformative, expanding, spiritual, joyful, accepting, tolerant, forgiving, and maturing. We learn about ourselves, our neighbors, and God.  We learn our gifts, our neighbors’ gifts, and our need of each other.  We learn community.  In a sense the life of faith has always been a mission trip, hasn’t it?

This prayer from Henri Nouwen’s A Cry for Mercy gives me support. 

Dear Lord, today I thought of the words of Vincent van Gogh: “It is true there is an ebb and flow, but the sea remains the sea.”  You are the sea.  Although I experience many ups and downs in my emotions and often feel great shifts and changes in my inner life, you remain the same.  Your sameness is not the sameness of a rock, but the sameness of a faithful lover.  Out of your love I came to life; by your love I am sustained; and to your love I am always called back.  There are days of sadness and days of joy; there are feelings of guilt and feelings of gratitude; there are moments of failure and moments of success; but all of them are embraced by your unwavering love.

My only real temptation is to doubt in your love, to think of myself as beyond the reach of your love, to remove myself from the healing radiance of your love.  To do these things is to move into the darkness of despair.  

O Lord, sea of love and goodness, let me not fear too much the storms and winds of my daily life, and let me know that there is ebb and flow but that the seas remains the sea.  Amen.

Hope you are safe and well.

Musing 7.10.20


PASTOR JOHN’S MUSING 7.10.2020

I haven’t thought of Eric Schwartz for years, but lately he has been on my mind a lot. I’ll return to him later.

When I was growing up, I was a huge fan of Robert E. Lee. I am sure it had something to do with my father loving history. We visited almost every battlefield east of the Mississippi. We followed the lives of Lincoln, Lee, and Jackson from cradle to grave. I had the freedom to pick any hero I wanted, and I picked Lee. There was a small Confederate flag and picture of Lee on my bedroom bulletin board, I wore a Washington and Lee University sweatshirt. For the sixth-grade speech contest, I memorized his farewell address to his troops after the surrender at Appomattox Court House. I regretted that I was born in boring Ohio as opposed to vital Virginia. I rooted for the South. That was me at 12. While I would have considered myself a strong supporter of civil rights, I never reconsidered my hero worship of Lee.

Enter Eric Schwartz. I met Eric my senior year in college. He was from Los Angeles and held dual citizenship in the United States and France. His Jewish mother had fled France during the Nazi occupation. Eric was very smart and talented; I respected him. My favorite quotation of his was, “I like to say absurd things to see if we can whittle them down to something sane.” He went to Yale Law; I went to Yale Divinity. In the summer of 1974, we rented a beach house on Long Island Sound with several friends. It sounds more exotic than it was. One week some of his relatives visited from France. Of course, their English was much better than my French. On Saturday afternoon a handful of us were watching a PBS show on great American homes which featured Lee’s childhood home Stratford. Why were we watching TV at the beach on a Saturday? It must have been raining. One of our French visitors said he had never heard of Lee. Who was he? I was incredulous. How could anyone not know about the wonderful Lee? Simultaneously Eric and I answered the question. I said, “He was one of the greatest Americans.” Eric said, “He was one of America’s greatest traitors.” I realized that this was not Eric’s saying something absurd to be whittled to something sane. This was already sane. He had thought this through. I have since wondered if his mother’s experience gave him this clarity.

We looked at each other like we were nuts. I challenged him, and his answer was simple. “Lee defended slavery. Slavery is evil.” I was defenseless.

The scales fell from my eyes. I didn’t have to get rid of the picture and flag. Mom had thrown those out with my baseball cards when she converted my bedroom to a sewing room. I had outgrown the sweatshirt; it was by then a paint rag. I did re-examine history and knew that the story of the Lost Cause was a re-working of the real story of slavery, Northern and global economic complicity, Jim Crow, and the country’s sin of racism.

Does it matter to learn the real story? To quote William Faulkner, “The past is not dead. It is not even past.” That is still so true. We need to get the past straight so as not to continue the sins of the past. Our present arises from the past. Our future arises from the present. Learning the real story means I don’t have all the answers. It means I am not as smart as I think I am which means I am free of the burden of destructive arrogance. I would like to think that we can create a perfect future world. That is naïve, unrealistic, and harmful. Yet, we can work to create a better world. That is humbler and healthier. It acknowledges our fallibility and need of each other. Humility listens, grows, and betters itself and others.

I am thankful for Eric’s lesson in humility. He did whittle something absurd down until it was sane. Me.

Hope you are safe, well, and cool.

Musing 6.3.20

PASTOR JOHN’S MUSING 7.5.20

Let’s have a short musing. It is too hot, and it is a holiday weekend.  

Thank you very much for all the cards, videos, and emails you have sent acknowledging my 45 years in the ministry. Your comments have been humbling. I am always embarrassed by praise in that I feel the person has not said enough. Mark Twain said that, and I have always wanted to say it.  

You have said more than enough! Your kind words have been affirming, encouraging, thoughtful, and received with deep gratitude. When I was ordained, I had no timeline in mind. I was just worried about being appointed somewhere. I didn’t have an end date in mind. The time has gone quickly, and it has been a full and meaningful time. That is probably why it has gone quickly. 

When people ask me about King Avenue, I say it is the kind of church I dreamed of having in seminary but didn’t know existed. I thought if I was appointed to a church like King Avenue, I could be the kind of minister I dreamed of being. I could be myself. In November of 2005, I was introduced to the Staff/Pastor Parish Relations Committee as the new senior pastor. I was asked if I would be accepting of LGBT persons. I said I was. It was a question about grace.  Then I asked the members of the committee if they would be accepting of me. It was a question about grace. I think grace-full was the church I had in mind in seminary. Grace-full was the church that would allow me to be the kind of pastor I wanted to be. Grace-full would the church that tolerated a statement like the Mark Twain quotation. Yes, the committee said it would accept me.

Thank you so much for being the church of one’s dreams, the church that accepts people as they are, the church that is grace-full to all.

Hope you are safe and well.

Musing 6.26.20


PASTOR JOHN’S MUSING 6.26.2020
As has been the case for the past several months, there has been a lot in the news. What has, however, captured my attention this week has not been in the news. It has been in our backyard. It is the daylilies. All spring Susan has fought thistles. Last week the daylilies eclipsed the thistles. While we can see 13 recycling bins, 4 trash barrels, one mattress, and one dumpster from our back porch, it is the daylilies that occupy my thoughts. They are beautiful! It is a delight to walk through them to the porch.

When I walk through them, I realize that they won’t be there all summer. I realize that each one blossoms for a day and is done. It is their ephemerality which tells me to linger on the walkway and appreciate them while they last. Yet, as much as their beauty lifts me; I find it does not fill me. What the beauty does is stimulate an appetite deep within me which wants to connect to something beyond me. Beauty creates a yearning for something greater than I. Beauty also tells me that there is something greater than I.

Joan Chittister writes in Illuminated LIfe:
Beauty lifts life out of the anesthetizing cliches of the pedestrian. An encounter with the beautiful lifts our eyes beyond the commonplace and gives us a reason for going on, for ranging beyond the mundane, for endeavoring ourselves always to become more than we are. In the midst of struggle, in the depths of darkness, in the throes of ugliness, beauty brings with it a realization that the best in life is, whatever the cost, really possible.... To have seen a bit of Beauty out of which beauty comes is a deeply spiritual experience. It shouts to us always, “More. There is yet more.” Beauty tells me that creation and we are made from something more. It is almost a tease in pointing us to what is greater and foretelling that we will be part of that greater Beauty. Beauty is the call of God’s Spirit to the spirit within us. Frederick Buechner says that, “Beauty is to the spirit what food is to the flesh.” (Whistling in the Dark, p. 20). If we care about our spirit’s health, we might want to give beauty a thought.

In our world today we don’t hear about beauty. We hear about lots of other stuff repeatedly. Beauty not so much. It is not that it supplements our life. It sustains our life. Where have you been fed by beauty lately?

Musing 6.19.20

PASTOR JOHN’S MUSING 6.19.20

Several members have asked me how I feel about Monday’s Supreme Court ruling that LGBT people cannot be fired or otherwise discriminated against in their workplace because of their sexual orientation. I feel the same way about today’s DACA ruling which came down 15 minutes ago. Fantastic! The decisions are major steps in equality, justice, and human rights. They call to mind the beautiful language from the Social Principles of the 2016 Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church. I’ll quote all of paragraph 162.

"The rights and privileges a society bestows upon or withholds from those who comprise it indicate the relative esteem in which that society holds particular persons and groups of persons. We affirm all persons as equally valuable in the sight of God. We therefore work toward societies in which each person’s value is recognized, maintained, and strengthened. We support the basic rights of all persons to equal access to housing, education, communication, employment, medical care, legal redress for grievances, and physical protection. We deplore acts of hate or violence against groups or persons based on race, color, national origin, ethnicity, age, gender, disability, status, economic condition, sexual orientation, gender identity, or religious affiliation. Our respect for the inherent dignity of all persons leads us to call for the recognition, protection, and implementation of the principles of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights so that communities and individuals may claim and enjoy their universal, indivisible, and inalienable rights."

Such a paragraph makes us proud to be United Methodists. It appears that our country is catching up to our Social Principles. After people asked about Monday’s ruling on LGBT people, their next questions were, “Do you think this will affect the United Methodist Church? Do you think this will finally give LGBT persons full rights in the Church?” Ironic, isn’t it? What we ask of people outside the Church, we don’t practice inside the Church. A standard that the Church sets for society it doesn’t set for itself. The tables are turned. The Church needs to catch up to the country.

We have to confess that our country has not always lived up to its ideals. We have been reminded of that in the last month. Our Church has not always lived up to its ideals. King Avenue has not always lived up to its ideals. I have not always lived up to my ideals. All of our lives are ironic. I can pick almost any group in the cited paragraph and document where I have fallen short. We are sinners. Our common ground is not our perfection. Our common ground is our sinfulness. This says all of us are in need of Christ’s salvation. All of us, country, Church, church, and I, are trying to catch up to the ideals of Christ. After all, it is not what we think of other Christians that makes us Christian; it is what we think of Christ that makes us Christian.

With that I’ll answer the questions in the third paragraph. I am tremendously encouraged that 83% of Americans think it should be illegal to fire employees based on sexual orientation. Of course, I wish it were higher, but this is major tipping point. Our country is living up to its ideals. I am hopeful for our Church. Two weeks ago, I wrote that the protest marches were a sign that the Spirit is moving. The Supreme Court decisions of Monday and Thursday are also signs that the Spirit is moving. Praise God!

Musing 6.12.20

PASTOR JOHN’S MUSING 6.12.20

“I rejoiced when I heard them say:
‘Let us go to God’s house.’”

Psalm 122:1

During this stay-at-home time one of the most anticipated events in my life has been the lunch packing for the Open Shelter.  On three nights each month we make a total of 800 sack lunches containing a bologna and cheese sandwich, a package of cracker and cheese sandwiches, and a granola bar. I look forward to Tessa Carrel bringing the ingredients in the afternoon, Jack Rensch setting up the bags, and the crew of 8-10 assembling the sacks.  We wear masks and gloves.  It usually takes 45 minutes.  Another highlight is Trena Brown and Shawn Compton coming the next day to deliver the lunches to the shelter.

I have come to value the sense of community and presence we have on these nights.  What I look forward to are the people.  It is just good to be together physically.  The conversation is not profoundly spiritual, theological, or political.  It is generally updating on work, family, and Netflix.  It is just the enjoyment of real life, honest-to-God people.

When the staff began conversations about re-opening for worship, we certainly desired to ensure safety guidelines and protocols.  We wanted to model what a healthy gathering would look like.  We understood that meeting those standards would alter worship as usual.  Singing would be curtailed, seating would be separate, ushers would seat worshipers, offering plates would not be passed, children’s activities would not be offered, and speaker and singers would be behind a plexiglass panel.

So why re-open with these restrictions?  My thoughts kept returning to the pleasure of 10 people making bologna and cheese sandwiches three nights a month.   I wish I had a more profound rationale for re-opening, but I don’t.  I just missed you.  While Zoom has its benefits, it is not the real thing.  While my having the weekends off these past 12 weeks has been wonderful, it is not a satisfactory substitute for being present.

I know that many of our members are not ready to return.  Probably the majority of you don’t plan on coming back soon.  If you don’t feel safe yet, please do not come. No problem.  This is not a spiritual competition.  A fair number have told me that they intend to wait a few weeks or more;  that is fine.  King Avenue has always tried to present options for people in order to reach more.   Re-opening in this manner is simply an option for those who feel they are ready to come back. 

Recently I had a conversation with a young father in the neighborhood.  He told me that he, his wife, and young son were thinking of coming to King Avenue for worship.  They like the banner.  I inwardly groaned and listed the ways they would not experience the “real” King Avenue.  I stopped when I realized what a lousy evangelist I was.  Then I realized that whether one worships in person or online, one experiences the real King Avenue for it is the people who make it real.  Thank you for being you.

Musing 6.5.20

PASTOR JOHN’S MUSING 6.5.20

Last Sunday we celebrated miracle of Pentecost, the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2).  The disciples spoke in those jaw breaker languages:  Parthian, Pamphylian, Phrygian, Cretan, among others.   For that reason, the gift of the Holy Spirit is associated with speaking in tongues.  Unfortunately, that is sometimes its exclusive association.

Of course, if someone is speaking, someone else must listen.  What is noteworthy at Pentecost is that those who speak are the powerless, and those who listen are the powerful.  The disciples would have been the outsiders; they were the ones following the crucified, rejected Jesus.  They had no standing.  God empowered the powerless. Those listening were the ones with status and prominence.  What happens at Pentecost is a role reversal.  The social order has been turned upside down.  This causes chaos in the minds of the powerful.  This is why they try to dismiss it as drunkenness.  Pentecost is both a miracle of speaking and a miracle of listening.  It is a miracle of speaking with each other and listening to each other.   That is how the miracle of Pentecost is the miracle of community. 

How speaking and listening usually work is that those who speak have the power; they are in control.  What they say, goes.  Speakers give information and orders.   Speakers tend to be action oriented.  Those who listen are subordinate; they obey.  They receive information and follow orders.  They tend to be passive. They do what the speaker wants.  There is a power differential between those who speak and those who listen.  Those who speak are the subject.  Those who listen are the objects, the acted upon.  Speakers are invulnerable; listeners are vulnerable.  It is about who has rights, privilege, and entitlement.  

An unhealthy community does not allow the listeners to speak.  Speakers seek to dominate and silence listeners.  Speech is restricted in a variety of ways.  Sometimes speakers talk so much no one can get a word in.  Other times voting as a form of speech is curtailed.  Force may be implemented to keep the listeners silent.    If they do speak, they are not listened to.   It is repressive.  Silencing makes inequity, injustice, inequality, and discrimination possible.    In a healthy community there is a give and take, a mutuality, between speaking and listening.  People play both roles. People have a responsibility for both roles.  Everyone has a voice and is empowered by that voice.  Such a situation is just, inclusive, diverse, enriching and edifying.  

Who speaks and who listens is a function  or combination of race, economics, gender, orientation, nationality, language, ethnicity, education, geography, class, age, religion, politics, and more. When it effects all aspects of a group’s existence, we call it systemic.  In the end it is about power and its maintenance.  This is at the root of mansplaining.  I have been told more than once that straight, white males almost always speak first in a group. We expect to be heard.  It is that old joke, you can tell a Yale man but you can’t tell him much.  I discover I learn a lot when I don’t speak first.  

What happens when people can’t speak or aren’t listened to?  They stay silent and fester.  Or they speak louder; they gather; they protest; they act so that the speakers are forced to listen.  This is what happened last weekend.  On Pentecost weekend and this week the mute spoke.   It was a nationwide event of speaking and listening. There was a role reversal.  People claimed their voice and were empowered.  Traditional speakers saw disruption. As the week progressed, we witnessed the movement from violence to actual mutuality of speaking and listening.  Spirit is moving.   It is so hopeful to see the powerful and powerless cross lines, talk, link arms, and march together. It is so encouraging to see the diversity of the marchers.  It is the diversity of Pentecost (Acts 2:17-18).  We are seeing lots of miracles.  This is a great opportunity for our country to begin to come together.  As we tell our children, “use your words.”

There is no reason why Pentecost can’t happen again.  There is no reason why the Holy Spirit can’t visit the church and society to empower listening and speaking.  Come, Holy Spirit, inspire the hearts of your faithful that they may renew the face of the earth.  The Holy Spirit is alive and well amidst the chaos.

I hope you are safe and well.


 

Musing 5.29.20

PASTOR JOHN’S MUSING 5.29.20


A member of King Avenue’s Lit Club recommended that I read Albert Camus’ The Plague. The reasons are self-evident. While it was written in 1948, Camus’ observations about the emotions, passions, and feelings of the quarantined town of Oran on the Algerian coast are spot-on contemporary. “The first thing the plague brought to our town was exile...that irrational longing to hark back to the past or else to speed up the march of time.” A person may experience exile as a sense of separation, abandonment, suffering, complacency, or incarceration. Because of this experience one will not feel at home even when one is home. People will yearn for the exile to end so they can feel at home.

Since March, we have been in exile. We are certainly home but not at home. Our routines, schedules, relationships, mobility, interactions, income, shopping, recreation, worship, work have been altered. We want the exile to end. We want the sense of separation, abandonment, suffering, complacency, and incarceration to end. From the beginning of the stay-at-home order we have anticipated the end of exile. Like anyone in exile we imagined the end of exile.

From the beginning of this exile, our staff has thought of the end of the in-person exile from worship and community. We have never not thought of the end of exile. The discussion began as soon as we closed our building. I cannot think of a zoom staff meeting which didn’t discuss this at length. Even as we adjusted to exile, even as we learned how to zoom and realized some events are better on zoom, even as we got really good at online worship, we still desired the end of exile. We have been thorough in reading and research. We have had special staff meetings. Some days your question,” when will we be back?” reminded us of the desire.

We have decided to return slowly, safely, and carefully from exile to very modest in-person worship on June 14. The details have been emailed earlier this week. Click here to read the detailed plan regarding our return

In short, there will be three services:

  • 8am in the Sanctuary for persons of high risk (capacity of 80)
  • 9:30am in Fellowship Hall (capacity of 40)
  • 11am in the Sanctuary (capacity of 80)

Masks will be required. Hands will be sanitized upon entry. Physical distancing of six feet will be observed. Foot traffic and seating will be directed. As a church we have a mission to model how a group can gather in a healthy manner that is respectful of each other.

Online worship will continue but at 1pm. We know that not everyone is ready to worship in-person. Possibly the majority is not. That is perfectly fine; there is no spiritual merit badge for how and where one decides to worship God. For the past several years I have wanted us to offer the option of online worship in addition to in-person worship. It is now reversed. We are offering the option of in-person worship in addition to online worship. What is normal has changed in three months.

This Wednesday Colleen and I reviewed all the pros and cons and played devil’s advocate in an hour phone conversation. We took a break for her to call the board of health for the latest data. I felt at peace making the decision to re-open in this limited way on June 14. The Bible verse that kept going through my head was Isaiah 40:1-2,

“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her [exile] is ended.”

I know that our exile is not over. I know that we have a long way to go. I know that there will be frustrations and setbacks. I know things will be different. All is this was true for the Jews in exile in Babylon. Yet they took hope. This is what re-opening is for me: Hope. We are a sign of hope.

I hope you are safe and well.

Musing 5.15.20

This week one of you told me about the visitation for his great grandmother who lived and died in a small town in rural Ohio. Her body was shown on her dining room table. “That was how it was done in those days.” Friends and neighbors brought in food and gathered in the kitchen to eat and talk. Some of the crowd ate and conversed in the dining room. I asked how he reacted to all this at the age of four. Initially he had wondered how his great grandfather who was very tall would fit on the table. Also he concluded that death is part of living and is not frightening. It interested me that his choice of verbs in the present tense indicates he carries that conclusion about death and life into the present day.

Bodies are no longer laid out in dining rooms. Death is not seen as part of living. In most cases death and dying happen out of sight. As a society we deny death. It is not seen as a part of living and is regarded as frightening. Death is an unwelcome visitor which intrudes on our plans. It joins sex, religion, and politics as taboo topics. Despite the life-giving ministry of hospice, it is the elephant in the room. Then Death as Covid-19 enters the room. Now the news reports daily and to-date death tallies. We are very conscious of death. Yet, unlike the person of the opening story, we tend not to see death as part of living and are fearful.

This week I read and re-read “Learning in War-Time” a sermon by C.S. Lewis given in the fall of 1939, at the outbreak of World War II (C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1949). So much of what he writes of death and war is analogous to death and the pandemic. After all, the war analogy is used for the response to the pandemic. Where he writes of “war,” I’ll substitute “pandemic.” The section of the sermon from which I quote concerns fear. The pandemic does not make death more frequent: 100% of us die and the percentage cannot be increased. So it is ultimately not a question of death or life; it is only a question of which kind of death. Then Lewis writes, “Pandemic puts several deaths earlier; but I hardly suppose that that is what we fear. Certainly when the moment comes, it will make little difference how many years we have behind us.” Most of us will want more time to live. Further, the pandemic does not decrease our chances of dying at peace with God.

“Yet,” Lewis continues, “[pandemic] does do something to death. It forces us to remember it. The only reason why [the prospect of] cancer at sixty or the paralysis at seventy-five do not bother us is that we forget them. [Pandemic] makes death real to us: and that would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great Christians of the past. They thought it good for us to be always aware of our mortality. I am inclined to think they were right.”

I doubt he is calling war or pandemic a blessing. I hope not. He is calling our awareness of our mortality a blessing. This awareness tells us we are not God. It makes us realize that God made us; we didn’t make God. We are the sheep of God’s pasture. We live in God’s world (Psalm 100). It is an illusion to believe that we, not God, are the center of the universe; that illusion generates so much self-righteousness, arrogance, and destruction. It was that illusion that led to World War II and so much else that degrades people and nature.

It is humbling to admit our mortality. Yet, that admission is our hope. It is an admission that we need God. We can’t do it without God. Then we may place our lives in God’s hands. Then we may let God fill us with Godself. Remember “humble” comes from the word “humus”, good dirt. God’s gifts may grow in our humble dirt.

I am going out on a limb with this speculation. I doubt that no group of Christians was more aware of their mortality than the early Christians. They had much to remind them of it. Paul writes of tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril and sword. (Romans 8:35). Were he writing today, I bet he would add “pandemic.” Yet no group was more hopeful. They knew that they were in God’s hands. They were not left to themselves. They were not abandoned. “None of us lives to himself and none of us dies to himself (sic). If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:7-8). What an amazing confession of trust! They knew that Christ had conquered death.

I don’t know which comes first: awareness of mortality or living in God’s hands. Maybe they occur simultaneously. For me, mortal awareness came first. Whatever it is, these realities are the seeds of hope which overcome fear. It is this hope that allows us to address the elephant in the room. Mr. Rogers believed that, if we can name it, we can manage it. Then we live with confidence and freedom and love. In life, in death, in life beyond, God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.

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