“What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.” -- Ecclesiastes 1:9
Several months ago, I was listening to a light-hearted commentary about current events relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. The person speaking was a comedian, and one of the gifts of a comic is to notice the things in life that often go unnoticed by the rest of us. In this instance, the comedian noted a word that keeps coming up in the reporting about the pandemic. That word is “unprecedented.” To back up his point, clips from various forms of news media – newspapers, television, radio, etc. – were displayed. And sure enough, the word “unprecedented” was being used over and over to describe the current events of the unfolding pandemic. It clearly demonstrated the unprecedented use of the word unprecedented!
Just recently, a friend reminded me of a book that I read years ago, Gilead by the acclaimed novelist Marilynne Robinson. The book was first published in 2004, and it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005. Gilead is a short novel, but it is not a page-turner. Robinson’s prose has been described as “gravely measured and thoughtful,” and I remember lingering longer over certain passages, with a hope that the extra time would allow me to apprehend some of the depths of her reflections on life. Robinson grew up in the Presbyterian Church, and later became a member of a Congregationalist church. Although she is a teacher of writing by profession, Robinson has an interest in theology, particularly the works of John Calvin.
Gilead is a series of fictional autobiographical reflections written by the Rev. John Ames to his young son. The year is 1956. Reverend Ames, an aging Congregationalist minister who lives in rural Gilead, Iowa, is nearing the end of his life. He wants to record some of his family history and life learnings for his son, who at the time is too young to appreciate what his father wants to share.
I am not going to give a “book report” here, in case you have not read the novel. I do want to share a portion of it, two paragraphs. It is interesting to note the things we gloss over in literature on one reading, but those same overlooked details seem to be highlighted on another reading. Here is Reverend Ames writing:
People don’t talk much now about the Spanish influenza, but that was a terrible thing, and it struck just at the time of the Great War, just when we were getting involved in it. It killed the soldiers by the thousands, healthy men in the prime of life, and then it spread into the rest of the population. It was like a war, it really was. One funeral after another, right here in Iowa. We lost so many of the young people. And we got off pretty lightly. People came to church wearing masks, if they came at all. They’d sit as far from each other as they could. There was talk that the Germans had caused it with some sort of secret weapon, and I think people wanted to believe that, because it saved them from reflecting on what other meaning it might have. (Page 41)
It is hard to understand another time. You would never have imagined that almost empty sanctuary, just a few women there with heavy veils on to try to hide the masks they were wearing, and two or three men. I preached with a scarf around my mouth for more than a year. Everyone smelled like onions, because word went around that flu germs were killed by onions. People rubbed themselves down with tobacco leaves. (Page 43)
So, are our times truly “unprecedented” – or is “there nothing new under the sun?” I do not know when Marilynne Robinson started writing Gilead, but it was written at least seventeen years ago. The conditions during the time of Spanish influenza sound very much like the conditions of our present reality with COVID-19. We are spread out and in masks. Like then, there are speculative theories today about who might be behind the virus, and there are various proposed remedies and cures. The times are unprecedented for us, but they are not unprecedented in the broad scope of human history.
We do well to remember the words of Genesis 3:16: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We are finite, mortal creatures in a vast universe, and there are forces of nature great and small that regularly remind us of our finitude. Unlike the people living during the Spanish influenza pandemic, we have a century of medical advances behind us that significantly increase the likelihood of survival. But, nothing is guaranteed. We lock our doors, fasten seatbelts… wear face masks and socially distance. We do what we can to be sensible and safe; but in the end, we can’t save ourselves. We can only trust the One who can save us, realizing from history and the passage of time that we will make it through.
For the last few months, our news has been saturated with stories related to the Coronavirus, COVID-19. If you watch the news, read the news, follow the posts on various social media outlets as they discuss news about the virus, it is hard not to be anxious. The impact of this virus has been felt worldwide, and our collective response has had a ripple effect through nearly every area of our collective existence. It seems like we are all living in a nightmare from which we hope one day to wake up. And that day can’t come soon enough! We’re all praying for this COVID cloud of gloom and doom to lift.
In the First Letter of Peter (5:7), we have these words of encouragement: “Cast all your anxiety on [God], because he cares for you.” The congregation to whom Peter was writing was not living under a COVID cloud. They were anxious about something else – namely, religious persecution. The earliest Christians made a radical declaration: Jesus is Lord. This declaration about the lordship of Jesus put Christians at odds with the culture around them; because in the Roman Empire, Caesar was considered lord. In some instances, we know that faith in Jesus Christ caused family strife. We also know from history that people could be harassed, threatened, abused, even killed for making the claim that Jesus is Lord. That is why Peter says (4:12 &14), “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you…” and “If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed…”
Religious persecution and a global health pandemic are not the same thing. But, what the two realities have in common is that the people living through them are dealing with the threat of forces larger than themselves. We like to feel as though we have some control over our lives, that we can shape reality solely through our choices. But, we cannot always control how people respond to us, nor can we control a virus. What we can do is adapt our behaviors in response to the circumstances around us, with the hope of mitigating the worst outcomes. In order to offer a faithful response, we must turn to God. Just before Peter tells us to cast our anxieties on God, we have these words (vs. 6): “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time.” A faithful response always begins with humility. We do not have all of the answers, but we do know the One who does.
Casting your burdens on the Lord is not the equivalent of pressing a magic erase button on life’s troubles. Jesus, himself, suffered in his body on the cross. (1 Peter 4:1) If you skim over Chapters 4 & 5 of 1stPeter, you will note that the sufferings of Christ are mentioned at least three times. When we cast our cares on the Lord, we are inviting God to transform us through our experiences of life’s problems and hardships and burdens. Remaining steadfast in our faith during times of suffering helps mold and conform us to the image of Christ, as we are joined to his sufferings.
We’re all going through different struggles. What would it look like – what it would mean – if we truly cast our cares on the Lord. …if we humbled ourselves and said, “I can’t do this on my own.” What if, in our hearts, we asked Jesus to bear our burdens? 1 Peter 5:10 says, “After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.”
When the holy days of the Christian year are over – Christmas and Easter – most of us, who have been moving at a frenetic pace for several weeks, breathe a sigh of relief and delight in going back to business as usual. So far for 2020, things have been anything but normal! With the suspension of in-person church activities in mid-March, our Lenten journey to Holy Week and Easter felt truncated. For the first time since I was in grade school, I missed in-person worship services for both Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday. Even though it did not “feel” quite right, the occasion is still marked with the passing of time. Not even the Coronavirus, COVID-19 can stop Easter!
We persist in the celebration of these holidays with the expectation that, in some way, they make a difference in our lives. Easter Sunday has passed for this year, but we are now in Eastertide – the 50 days between Easter Sunday and Pentecost. We stretch out the celebration of Easter as a
reminder that the reality of Easter is indispensable for Christianity. As the Apostle Paul put it: “if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless…” (1 Corinthians 15:17). And none of us wants a useless faith!
What, then, might we say constitutes a useful faith? The word that comes to mind most often in conjunction with Easter is hope. Peter says, “By [God’s] great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1Peter 1:3). At the crucifixion of Jesus, the disciples were immediately met with hopelessness. Their high hopes in his messianic powers were dashed, dead. But as our PC(USA) A Brief Statement of Faith so eloquently puts it: “God raised Jesus from the dead, vindicating his sinless life, breaking the power of sin and evil, delivering us from death to life eternal.” God broke through the hopelessness of Good Friday and brought forth a hopeful future on Easter Sunday.
We don’t have to look far to find the hopelessness of our world. All you have to do is turn on the news, or read the newspaper... or look in the mirror! We face so many challenges at the moment that it is possible to become paralyzed by fear. It seems tempting to gravitate toward the negative, to dwell on worst-case scenarios presented by media headlines. It is worth remembering that we are not the best at predicting the future, and no one but God knows exactly what is going to happen next. Our mental and spiritual outlook often affects our response to challenges in life.
If you want to see hope, then with the eyes of faith, look at the empty cross. Jesus is not there. He is not in the tomb, either. God raised him from the dead, thereby infusing our world and our lives with a living hope. Although we do not know exactly what shape that will take in our lives, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God promises us a future with hope. If we take that message to heart, then we will be taking Easter with us into tomorrow.
He is risen! Alleluia!
Time seems to pass so quickly. It feels like it was just yesterday when we were getting ourselves ready for Advent and Christmas. Now, with Mardi Gras behind us, we are beginning our Lenten journey, making our way with Jesus to the Cross on Good Friday. From the early days of the church, there was a season set aside so that Christians would be properly prepared for a meaningful celebration of Easter. It is tempting to fast forward to the Easter portion of the story of our faith. After all, it is the best part! But, without Good Friday, Easter does not make sense. We cannot skip the Cross of Jesus.
People have them in their homes or wear them as jewelry or put them on their vehicles. They can be reminders of faith, of salvation, of discipleship. Someone once commented that they can be magnificent works of art, or they can be mere trinkets, fashion statements, bling. Crosses.
There is a story told about Clarence Jordan, author of the Cotton Patch New Testament translations and founder of the Koinonia community in Georgia. A friend of his, who was pastor of a large congregation, was showing Jordan his congregation’s newly built sanctuary. It featured pews made of imported wood, beautiful stained glass, a grand pipe organ and other elegant finishes. Stepping outside, he pointed to the steeple, where a spotlight illuminated a large gold cross. “‘Dr. Jordan, that cross alone cost us $10,000.’” Jordan looked up at the cross, looked back at his host, and said, “‘You know, my friend, there was a time when crosses were free.’”
Someone presented to a group of us a compelling image of the Gospel as it relates to the cross. We were asked to imagine two cliffs separated by a great chasm. On one side was written “humanity”; on the other was written “God”. The space, the chasm between God and humanity was labeled sin, because it is our sin that separates us from God. (Remember, sin speaks of our human condition. We commit sinful actions because we are sinners. And it is our sinful human condition that separates us from God.) Over the eons, we have tried any number of ways to bridge the gap between God and ourselves. Some of the ways include religion, with specific acts of devotion or piety or ritual. Other bridges go by the name “Good Works.” The one thing these bridges have in common is that they ultimately can’t bridge the chasm. All of these bridges of our own making ultimately fall short.
The Good News in all of this is that we have nothing to prove to God. You see, it is not our bridges that bridge the chasm between God and us – it is the cross of Christ. The final image was of a cross bridging the chasm. “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” Paul asks the Corinthians….that a cross, this instrument of death, would be transformed by God into a means of giving life and hope to the world. As we make our Lenten journey over these next forty days, I would encourage you to pause and reflect upon the power of the cross.
So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross, Till my trophies at last I lay down; I will cling to the old rugged cross, And exchange it some day for a crown.
We’re all about to that point in the New Year where, if we made resolutions, we’re beginning to wonder whether they’re worth keeping. After all, that piece of chocolate cake is awfully tempting, or that extra glass of wine, or the new gadget that we desperately need – even though it doesn’t fit into our savings plan. Life presents us with so many temptations, and sadly, in their face, our resolve quickly melts like snow on a warm day. And once we’ve given up and given in, things go back to the way they were. We make peace with our problems and nothing changes. Perhaps we’re a bit disappointed, but the familiar ruts – even the unhealthy ones – are strangely reassuring. We’ve been here before; we know the terrain all too well.
At our recent Session planning and training retreat, I shared an excerpt from the book, Spiritual Leadership for Church Officers, by Joan Gray. She writes as a Presbyterian for Presbyterians, pointing out that the way our church is structured, we tend to run things with business-like efficiency, often at the expense of our deeper spiritual responsibilities. Gray invites us to imagine the church as a boat. Using this metaphor, she asks, “Are we a rowboat or are we a sailboat?” When we function as a rowboat, we are responsible for the power to get things accomplished. A sailboat, on the other hand, opens its sails to be moved by the power of the wind (wind/breath = Holy Spirit). In both examples – sailing and rowing – there are essential tasks and responsibilities for the vessel to move in the desired direction. The difference comes down to the source of the power to move: we’re either trusting in ourselves and in our power to accomplish things, or we’re open to the leading and the power of God.
Like all metaphors, there are limits when pushed too far. But maybe we do need some spiritual sailing lessons! Initial conceptual enthusiasm is quickly met with the reality that rowing in our ruts is much easier, because we know them so well. But as we are honest about the diminishing availability of resources, we become all the more aware of our need for trusting God to guide and empower us. So, my encouragement to everyone is this: “give sailing a chance.” Instead of letting this idea become like the latest resolution to be quickly forgotten, I hope everyone will ask at their committee meetings, “Are we rowing, or are we sailing?” In other words, “Are we doing this on our own, or have we really turned this over to God?” Is this just “business as usual,” or are we grasping the full spiritual dimension of our actions and commitments? And hold your leaders accountable! Like anything worth doing, it’s going to be hard at times. There will be false starts, and sometimes we might even get knocked off the boat. And in those moments, we will be tempted to reach for the oars. But I hope that we will keep each other from doing that, and instead open our sails again to the power of the Holy Spirit, who will move us into the future of God’s own imagining.
Rev. Barrett Ingram