Just more than a month ago with the feel of ashes placed on our foreheads, we began this Lenten journey into the wilderness. Time has passed. In many ways it feels like a lifetime has passed. And now many of us find ourselves sheltering in place. It's really hard to get my head around what has changed so quickly for all of us. What was to have been a path in and through the wilderness, has brought us now to a time of foreign words like “social isolating,” “social distancing.”
For me it's an emotional dance to pay attention to how I am navigating my way with this universal ordering of alone time. It's that differentiating between being alone and being lonely. The quiet can be an intentional time for reflection or it can slide into a time of emptiness and loneliness. When I'm scared or lonesome it's easy for me to lose my compass, my north star. It's easy for me to get either ramped up or find myself shutting down. It’s easy to feel completely lost in this new wilderness.
So, for right now I'm closing my eyes and remembering back to that Ash Wednesday night when this wilderness journey began. During the worship service that night when it came time for the ashes, we lined up and walked down the center aisle to receive them. The practice at our church is that after you receive your ashes, you turn and put the ashes on the one coming next. Person-to-person. In receiving the ashes, we are told, "from dust you have come, to dust you shall return." And now just these few weeks have passed, and these words feel stitched across my heart, "dust to dust." With those words echoing in my ears, and the ashes on my forehead, I/we began this Lenten journey.
Journaling. Sketching. Doodling. Stretching. Praying. Listening. These are words that speak to intention. These are words that invite the `fulness' words to companion: Mindfulness. Faithfulness. Prayerfulness. Fearfulness. Tearfulness. Trustfulness. Gracefulness. Gratefulness.
Each day, sometimes each hour of each day I am aware of breathing - in and out, in and out. Most every time, I find it helpful to try to slow breathing down, expanding what is going out and what is coming in. If I can slow down the rushing and scurrying, slow down the thoughts that get trapped in an endless loop, if I can slow all that down and come back to my breath -- then – then I feel reconnected to my compass.
These are days that we never in our wildest dreams would have thought we would be living in. These are days that feel like they are both too much and not enough at the very same time. It matters to me to not lose sight of the beginning of this Lenten journey. It matters to remember the night when we began, when we first stepped out. When I remember that service on that last Wednesday night in February, my heart holds the tenderness of the words as my sister, Claudia placed the ashes on my forehead. I am remembering the love I saw in the eyes of my friend, Kent as she received her ashes from me, “From dust you have come to dust you will return.” That is how I am now mindful of this journey’s intention. I am mindful of the loving eyes of those two dear souls who blessed this journey for me. They could have never imagined what was ahead for us, for all of us. What they knew in those moments of beginning was that God would be with us each step of the way. Left foot, right foot.
The stairs looked daunting. I’ll confess, my mind quickly shifts into overdrive when it comes to second-guessing what my body 1) would enjoy doing and 2) is capable of doing. So, when the boys and I were on a walk last Friday night and I saw those stairs, I immediately came up with a Plan B. Out of the blue, I said to them, “OK, here’s the deal: We take each step one at a time, and for each step we say one thing we love.” And they did. And we did.
One of the marvelous things about parenting is that kids so often think you know what you’re doing. My parenting style has always been and appears to still be – making things up. And what I love about these two young men is that they trust me (most times) enough to go along and to enter into what will be next for us.
And so, we slowed everything down and opened our hearts and told one another all the things – for that one moment in time – all the things we loved. We talked about possessions and authors, about singers and food. It was slow. It was listening. And together we made a moment. We made it up all those stairs. Together.
We are now in new days. We are in days that we've read about in futuristic books or utopian movies. But here's the deal for me - I put down those books; I have been known to walk out of those movies. Give me a Louise Penny or Meryl Streep and I'll see it through to the end. But the truth is - these are our days. Sometimes it's all we can do to keep track of numbers and graphs, let alone stop to think about the human lives that make up these statistics. Empty chairs and empty tables. We need our souls to make it through this. We need our hearts to keep beating. And for me, and maybe for you as well, to do that I am doing my best to be mindful of the moments that continue to bring joy and hope - and hold on to them for dear life.
It’s these kinds of things that are keeping me going on this Lenten journey. These kinds of moments that are holding time and holding me. They matter. Pieced together these kinds of moments are creating the pathway through these days. Sometimes it feels like it’s one step, then another and another. But/and it’s steps. And I’m taking them. And Friday, the boys and I took them together.
The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them,
they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us
to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them,
“Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” (John 8: 3-11)
Claude Temple was my grandma Bobbee's older brother. He was a district superintendent in the Methodist Church in Central Illinois. He was kind and smart. He was faithful and thoughtful. He loved to read and loved to talk with people, all ages, most all topics. He loved a good story and a good laugh. And oh, that man could pray. He used to say this phrase withholding judgment, pending investigation all the time. I am going to be mindful of this phrase as I make my way through this day and this coming week.
Yesterday was the first day that I realized that my patience may be wearing thin. Two encounters happened back-to-back as I began my day. First, there was a woman who was just flat-out rude. After a couple attempts at bridge-building, I realized I was talking in ways that were not very helpful. Even in the midst of our talking, I was aware of how quickly our conversation went downhill. A switch was flipped. I apologized to her and said I couldn’t talk anymore and walked away from her. Soon after this, while waiting at a red light the guy in the car ahead of me threw his Chick-Fil-A cup out of his window. I blew long on my horn and he showed me one of his fingers. And there we were. Two people in a pandemic, waiting on a red light.
One of my dear professors at Candler, Richard Bondi had Leonard Cohen’s famous quote on his door the whole time I was in seminary: Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering. There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in. There’s a crack in everything. In everything. In everyone. Those who are afraid and those who are in deep denial. Those who are trying to keep working and those who may have just lost their job. Those who go home to families and those who go home alone. Everyone.
Maybe this message fits for Jesus’ challenge, “whoever is without sin cast the first stone.” It’s in everyone of us. This crack that shows itself in small or great ways. Testing days come. Challenging days come. If I find myself stumbling and bumbling through them and encounter some situation that stomps on my last nerve, I hope that I can take a breath. I hope that in the time that it takes to catch that breath, I can remember. We all bring our foibles. We all bring our broken, cracked places. These days are bringing stressors new each morning. And morning by morning we are also given mercies. These stressors are in no way all of who we are and what we are made of. Is it possible in that instant that it takes to draw that one breath, is it possible to look for a light, some light that is shining? Can it be possible to withhold judgment just long enough to let the light in me shine as well?
You know how sometimes you know what something means because you are certain of what it does not mean? God's gonna trouble the waters. That's one of those `wonder what that means' phrases for me.
Late one Monday night, a couple of weeks ago I was the last person to swim in the East Lake YMCA pool. When I went over to thank the lifeguard for being there, she told me that the Y would be closing indefinitely the next day. I was bummed when I went into the locker room to get dressed. Probably not in my best emotional place, when the only other person in the locker room started up a conversation. At first, we were just talking about the virus and how odd everything felt. Then she said, "You know God sent this virus to purify the world." Nope. Nope. Nope. I didn't get into an argument, but I did tell her that I didn't believe a word she was saying.
I knew what I believed because I didn't believe that. Soon after that “Wade in the Water” started singing over and over in my head. Slow and steady, deep and sure, God’s gonna trouble the waters.
Last night I was zooming with my buddies in Booth 25 and I talked to them about the song. Theological scholar, Susie (AKA, “let me google that”) came up with two ideas about what God’s troubling could mean. The first was from the story in the gospel of John chapter 5. Here we meet a blind man waiting to enter the water at the healing pool at Bethesda. The story said that healing happened when the water was stirred. “From time to time an angel of the Lord would come down and stir up the waters. The first one into the pool after each such disturbance would be cured of whatever disease s/he had. (5:4)” Susie’s second explanation was that as African American slaves were escaping, they would run to the nearest creek or river and walk across. By doing this, with God’s troubling the water, the dogs who were chasing them would lose their scents in the water.
The entire world has been weeping for weeks now and is weeping still. We are a shared community in ways we never would have imagined. For the first time in the history of the planet, we are now together weeping for those taken too soon – the oldest ones, the vulnerable ones, and now also the younger ones as well. Mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, our world is feeling the tearing of our spirits and our hearts.
I cannot and will not make this about God’s righting of wrongs, or purging the world for some kind of sanctifying. Instead I am leaning into the One who created and creates new each day. I am leaning into the One who has promised to be with us. I pray with my whole heart that as these waters are stirred there will come life for us in the midst of so much pain and loss and death.
When I’m humming this song while waiting on the dawn to come or saying my prayers at night, I’m reminded of God’s activity in the world. I’m reminded when I see moving water, swirling water, stirred up water that there is a presence greater than me. And thank God for that. It’s way too early to speak of healing from these days. Way too early to think of freedom from fear of what may be next. But this song comes to my heart at just the right time to hear words that speak to God’s loving presence here in the midst of us.
There was a blood drive at the hospital yesterday morning. I saw a cardiac ICU doc coming out of the donation room and a cardiac acute care nurse walking in. One was starting her day, the other ending hers. Of course they were giving blood. Here they are, hour after hour working with patients and families who are going through possibly the hardest moments of their lives here at the hospital, and these two are stopping to give blood. Of course they did. Throughout the day, I saw other colleagues who had “stopped by ‘cause I had a minute. At least it’s something I can do.” That’s who they are. That’s who we are.
There is great power that comes to our lives when we say “yes.”
“Yes” to sheltering in place. “Yes” to 6 feet shared now in everyday interactions. “Yes” to phone calls to folks who are by themselves and may be feeling lonely. “Yes” to picking up groceries for neighbors. “Yes” to looking folks in the eye - `You are not invisible. I see you.’ Practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty. Anne Herbert invited the world into this generous thinking way back in 1982 when she was said to have written the phrase on a placemat in Sausalito, CA. Do you suppose it’s been knitted there all along on our hearts so that we would pull it out, dust off the cobwebs and use it now? Now, these many years later, perhaps this can be our north star to guide our days.
Truly, these feel like walking-on-eggshell days. Sometimes I feel like I’m stretching minutes into hours struggling to put together a long, long day. Sometimes I feel like I’m watching a movie that I’m not at all enjoying and think it’s just about time to get up and leave the theater. "The only way out is through," Robert Frost wrote this years ago and it still rings true. How, then are we to make our way through? Robotically? Defiantly? Timidly? Who are we in the midst of this storm? Who will we be, do you suppose when we come out on the other side?
Is it possible to borrow strength from those around us? Can we step out past our fearful, paralyzed places and walk in the steps of those who are going before? It’s like walking through a knee-deep snowstorm and we’re already weary from the journey. And because so often grace abounds, if we are paying attention, there are footprints in the snow already carved out in front of us. Someone has gone on up ahead and made a way for us. These snow steps will serve to guide our path and at the same time, make our steps easier.
My knowing of that 20-something nurse who was walking in to give blood yesterday morning is that she is good at what she does. She is conscientious and efficient. She’s a good communicator and advocate. I’ve seen her go the extra mile time and again on the CACU. And yesterday, after working 12+ hours with cardiac patients she stopped to give blood on her way home. Are we gonna make it through this time of COVID-19? Yes. Will it push us beyond where we thought we would ever go? Yes. Will we be changed by it? Yes. Changed for the better? – Well, the jury’s out but I’ve got a pretty good hunch.
Precious son Sam sent this picture and remarkable quote to me yesterday. The picture and then the words stopped me, right on the spot. As I was reading, the noises of the world around me went silent. As I read these words, they made their way directly to my heart. These words are daunting and haunting. These words feel powerful and overwhelming and inspiring and true. These words feel like a warm blanket placed around my shoulders after walking through a bitter wind AND at the very same time, they make me want to weep. These words speak to the breadth and depth of what these days will most likely bring. They acknowledge that storms demand a cost. It’s foreboding to hear these words in what we are being told is so early in the pandemic. And still - important words for me for today, and perhaps for you as well.
In so many new and vulnerable ways this pandemic is shaking up just about everything. Not just those I hold dear, but this virus is shaking us all up - everyone and everything on the planet. At the end of the day I feel like I’ve been taking whirling dervish lessons and my soul is spinning.
One of the truths that seem to be facing us is that soon and very soon we will start losing many things. It’s unnerving to have no idea today what we may lose tomorrow. Change is surely coming. I’m not a fan of change. So much of my life I have pushed against change, trying to hold back the river. Change is coming with this, and there is no way out but through. As we go through these coming days, we will be asked to let go of many of the things that bring our lives comfort and strength. Because we have no idea what’s coming with the storm, it is impossible to prepare. It is impossible to guard our hearts in ways that will help us through. But nonetheless we can do our best to name and claim what holds us in place, what is our core foundation.
When I was in college one of my part-time jobs was coaching an eighth-grade girls Catholic basketball team. When I signed up to coach, I had such dreams for what we would do with our season. The girls were smart, and go-getters and a couple of them were even a little bit athletic. They were excited about playing basketball and they were excited about being on the team together. Secretly in my heart of hearts I had hopes of going to the state finals my first year of coaching. Imagine my surprise when we slumped our way into the locker room at the halftime of our first game. Not only were we behind 28-0, but we hadn’t once gotten the ball across half court. I remember thinking of all the halftime speeches I had practiced for that day. And I remember looking into the broken-hearted faces of those girls. What to say? How in the world did this happened? How had everything gone so wrong so quickly? How in the world could we walk out of the locker room and play the rest of the game?
This storm feels a little bit like that first basketball game of the season. What I thought would be fun and easy and memorable, turned out to be a gut-punch. For some reason my heart is remembering that walk back into the gym after halftime. For some reason re-playing that terrible day feels like my spirit is preparing me for what may come. That season taught me about not quitting. That season taught me about finding joy in unexpected places. That season taught me about the strength of 14-year-old girls. That season taught me that there are times to get out of the way, let go of what was supposed to happen. I had to let go of the dream team that season and there have been many lessons since. These letting go stories and memories gave me the strength to not quit and show up for what was coming next throughout my life.
At some point this storm will pass. At some point, the dust will settle. Sometime off in the future, we will share stories of great sheroisms and heroisms. We will tell one another stories of miracles and amazing feats. What I have learned from my past, what brings me strength and courage as I look at this picture from Sam is that life has taught me that I don’t quit. I pray that that will continue to be my story. I learned about not quitting from those eighth-grade girls walking back out to the gym all those years and years ago. And I’ve learned it many times along the way since. Maybe this can be our gift to one another, to be a shelter in the storm, and to remind one another that we are strong enough for this. That we do not quit. Alone. Together. It is in us.
mysterium tremendum et fascinas
Now we see in a mirror dimly, then we will see face-to-face. (1 Corinthians 13:12)
Growing up in central Illinois in the Methodist Church, we were taught to trust the scriptures. For years I was raised with the understanding that if there was a question, the answer would be in the Bible. Whatever my question was, the answer would be there. With that as my foundation from Sunday School's teachings, I entered into the world. When I went away to college, I came to see the first paradox of many: The Scriptures hold words about our faith. Faith. Faith is believing yet not knowing. Faith is living in the in-between. Faith is seeing in the dark. Faith is not giving up looking into the mirror, even when at first it feels too dark to see.
These days might be the most not-knowing, not-having-the-answer days of my life. You talk about seeing in a mirror dimly. It’s hard for me to sit in times of not-knowing. It’s hard to lean in, when I don’t know how far that leaning will go. Will I just tip over and fall to the ground?
I've heard it said time and again that "our lives are a mystery," but in just a matter of months for the world, weeks for many of us, we are truly living into a mystery now. "Life as we know it to be, know it to count on" is in the rearview mirror. What we face now is a curvy road, that appears to start with a pretty good-sized hill. There's no going back, our lives have taught us that. We live our lives moving forward. But to what? To where? We have no way of knowing. NO ONE on the planet knows the answer to our questions. "Now we see in a mirror dimly." I wonder what was happening when these words were first written. We are told this letter to the people of Corinth was in the time of the early church. No one alive had known Christ. They had only heard stories, only known through passed down lessons how to make their way on their faith path. Left foot, right foot.
At Candler they taught us to pay attention to the context. It's hard to understand one thing without remembering that it comes connected to something else. And what is the context of this verse? What is connected before and after this verse? Before this verse, we are told, "If I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels but have not love..." then "Love is patient and love is kind, love doesn't insist upon its own way." Following after the mirror words is this verse: "Now faith, hope and love remain, these three and the greatest of these is...
...love." Love is holding us, these days. Love is surely holding me. I know it with my breathing in and breathing out. Love is holding us in the moments when we are afraid and unsure and unknowing. Love is holding us – until we can take the next steps, do the next thing. Love is in us – each one. Always has been. And now, more than ever before, we know, you and I – always has been, always will be.
Now we see in a mirror dimly is where we are, love is holding us all along the way as we are journeying on to what is next for me and you and all of us.
“Imagine that the world is a circle, that God is the center,
and that the radii are the different ways human beings live.
When those who wish to come closer to God walk towards the center of the circle,
they come closer to one another at the same time as to God.
The closer they come to God,
the closer they come to one another.
And the closer they come to one another,
the closer they come to God.”
(Instructions VI.) ~ Dorothea of Gaza
“Holding on for dear life.” Have these words ever been more true?
Uncharted days for us. How is it possible to hold on to what matters most without touching someone or something? How is it possible to stay tethered and connected without feeling another’s hand or arms? How are we to make our way in these days of holding on and letting go?
We began this Lenten journey in late February. Here in Atlanta it was cold and rainy, a troubling foreboding for the beginning steps of a long journey. And still, we persisted. We stepped out into this journey that promised to walk us through the wilderness. Left foot, right foot. Along the way the moon has just about come full circle, and we continue. The world has been turned on her head, and still we continue. Left foot, right foot.
Is it possible to hold on to one another and not touch those we love? Perhaps our best way of holding on is to move from trying to grasp on to everything and move toward seeing the world bigger. Instead move to seeing ourselves in the world. Seeing beyond my struggles, my challenges, and taking a greater view, a worldview.
If we are all in this together, then love is truly greater than fear. If I am mindful and prayerful for my brothers and sisters I may never meet, then love is greater than fear. If the thoughts that drive my day are for those around me and not only for me, then love is greater than fear.
Moments seem to matter more to me in these days. A bird’s singing in the early morning, the kindness in a stranger’s eye, an unexpected grace. Moments that might have been missed earlier, but not now. Now I feel my heart wrapping herself around so many moments that come my way. Zooming with family and friends. Prayerful silence. Holding on to so much. Holding on to story, to connections, to hope.
We are not near finished with this Lenten journey. There is more yet ahead. We all feel this in our bones. If, in fact, we are holding on for dear life, then let us be prayerful and mindful about it. Let us keep our focus on what called us to take our beginning steps way back in February. Then we believed that we were on a spiritual journey to draw closer to God. This has not changed. Our world has truly changed, but not what blessed our stepping-out. We are seeking to draw closer to God.
Dorothea of Gaza would say that as we grow closer to God, to the center, we grow closer to one another. So here we are in these days of social distancing, and I feel closer to sisters and brothers – closer to family and friends, closer to strangers who seem to seek kindness just as I know I do. Our Lenten journey continues and so, sisters and brothers do we. Left foot, right foot.
(picture is from our Sunday School class this week at NDPC)
Though the doors were locked,
Jesus came and stood among them
and said, “Peace be with you!”
John 20: 24b
The closest thing I've experienced to what I've been feeling in the past couple of days is the first part of a triathlon. We swim. Hundreds of us. Together. In all three of the tris I've participated in have been lake swimming. Truly I can't imagine an ocean. We take-off in human waves. 25 or 50 souls. Really it doesn't much matter. It's a gaggle. We all hit the water at about the same time. And bam. Three times out of three times, I've panicked. Full-on panicked. Folks who have been doing tris for years call it the fight/flight thing. It's real. It takes your breath away. What I've learned is the importance of gathering myself. Slowing down. And focusing on just the next thing.
Perhaps my fear is partially rooted in haste. Perhaps I am caught up in all the uncertainty and unknowing, and so much of my life experience has been to hurry and scurry and figure "it" out. Whatever "it" is - figure it out. No matter how big and looming and impossibly complicated - do something. There is a madness in this, a breath-taking energy-suck that leads to run full out in a random direction heading for an unestablished finish line.
Or perhaps my fear is that so much is unknown. It's hard to order my life these days. Plans I was counting on are being changed with no clear notion of how anything can be rescheduled. Not being with the people I'm used to seeing, people I love is heartbreaking.
I’m drawn to this text because Jesus’ friends are in a locked room. I’m there. I know for me what that might have felt like for them. It is that running down the steps into the storm shelter before the winds blow through and life as you know it is changed forever. It is that kind of locked room. Many of us are in that kind of space and place these days. The life that his friends had known, the world as-they-knew-it was changed forever. It is in that room and that moment. And Jesus enters. “Peace be with you.”
Perhaps what makes these words so very powerful to me is that he knew. Somehow, he knew the words that could melt their worst fears, could dry their fresh tears, could enter into their hearts in both the gentlest and strongest way – Peace be with you.
It is to this time and to this place that these words come today. Not as a declaration, “all manner of things will be well.” Or, “be not afraid.” Or “don’t worry, be happy.” Instead, it is as simple and as full as this: “peace be with you.” Somehow the locked door is no longer locked, I am no longer holding my breath, I am no longer curling myself inward until there is little left of me. Instead, I turn and return to the one who lived his life to teach us the one thing that can get us through the darkest night of the soul: Peace be with you. Emmanuel. “I am here, right here with you. You are not alone.”
These words don’t fix it. These words don’t cure the pandemic or our unknowing or these unexpected, uncharted, social distancing days. They just don’t. But for me, there is now a beginning place for the peace that passesth understanding to enter is and find a place in my head and in my heart. Thank God, I am no longer alone. Thank God, peace is being offered in a way that has never meant more to me than it does this day.