“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
This is how Charles Dickens begins his historical novel The Tale of Two Cities. I am taken by his observation that, during that challenging time of history (the mid-1800s), the period was compared to other periods with superlatives only. It was not just a more difficult time than others - it was the worst of times. It was not just a more enlightened period than others - it was the age of wisdom. Some thought the period was the spring of hope, while others thought it was the winter of despair; few apparently, thought the period was somewhere in between.
If Dickens was writing today, I wonder if he would make the same observation. Are some calling this period the best of times and others calling it the worst of times? It is hard to imagine any calling this the best of times. People are rightfully afraid to venture out for fear of getting sick and possibly dying. There is mass unemployment and many businesses are going under. Church buildings are closed. Restaurants are shuttered. Social isolation is spirit-numbing. Even Pollyanna would have to be tipsy to claim that the times are the best they have ever been.
Some, for the reasons just stated and more may believe we are in the worst of times. It is an understandable claim, but dubious. Is this pandemic more destructive than the many other pandemics over the centuries? Is this the worst economy ever, worse even than the Great Depression? Were the years of the Civil War better than the present time? At any point in history, claiming that the present time is worse than any other time requires ignoring what happened in other times.
Superlatives should rarely be used. They are too easily proven wrong. Comparison, also, is seldom helpful. Does it matter if this time is better or worse than another time? If I have surgery, I do not need to know if I hurt more or less than others who have had the same surgery. What difference does that make? I just know I hurt. What I want to know is will I get better?
What is the prognosis? That is the question we are asking now? Whether or not this time is better or worse than another time is irrelevant. We know the situation we are in. We just want to know if it will get better. What is the prognosis?
The prognosis is good. It will get better.
I say this assuredly for two reasons. First, I have great confidence in human ingenuity and resiliency. Brilliant people worldwide are working on treatments and vaccines for COVID-19 and they will succeed. It almost certainly will not be as quickly as we all would like; it will happen, though. Business owners are showing tremendous creativity adapting both to the huge struggles of today and to preparing for what will be a new normal. Frankly, many of our churches are being more creative and forward thinking than they have been in years. Teachers and parents are finding ways to keep our children learning and growing. People are figuring out ways to connect to others when we have to be physically apart. Admittedly, I am an old goat when it comes to Facebook and much of the internet, but I have marveled at the posts and videos and blogs showing how people are finding a way forward through completely uncharted waters. It is inspiring.
There is no ‘getting back’ to the way things were. Much will be permanently changed. Some change will be for the better, some will come at a loss. Change is always neutral when it comes to better or worse. Whatever the new normal will be, however, we will embrace it and make it work. That is what people do. I tip my hat to those who will creatively lead us into this scary new world. By the way, they probably will not be elected leaders or self-declared experts. The guides on this journey will be small business owners and teachers and pastors and parents and workers and homemakers and entrepreneurs and nurses and scientists. They will be you and me.
The second reason I feel positive about the prognosis is the most important reason: God is with us yet. How many millions of Christians have said, “Yeah, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me?” Now is the time to stop reciting and start believing. I do not mean for us to go out indiscriminately, ignoring the virus, thinking we are immune. That is infantile Christianity. I mean believing, while we are yet in a dark valley, that God will lead us to green pastures and still waters.
Do we think this is the end of time because it is the worst of times? That is putting faith in superlatives and comparisons. It is not a better or worse time. It is a difficult time, yes, but not so difficult that God cannot lead us through. The coronavirus is a powerful, tenacious, and devastating virus. Healthy fear is appropriate. Really though, ultimately what chance does the virus have against the Lord God Almighty and all of the ingenious, resilient people God has created?
One day a Dickens type might write, “It was not the best or the worst of times. It was just a particularly challenging time. People, trusting in God to lead them through, were undaunted.” I look forward to reading that book.
Actions and Questions
1. How do you feel about these times? Are you prone to think of them as the best or worst of times? What makes you feel that way?
2. The reflection says there is no going back to the way things were. Do you agree? What things do you think will be permanently changed? What changes do you think will be for the better? What changes do you think of as loss?
3. Think about the actions that you have seen or have read about. Which of these have you found inspiring?
4. Have there been other times in your life when God has led you from the valley of the shadow of death to green pastures and still waters? If so, do those experiences give you hope now?
5. What creative thing have you done to adapt to what is happening now? What else might you do?
6. What is your biggest hope for the future?
7. The reflection offers a positive prognosis. What is your prognosis? Reflect on how your faith influences your prognosis.
8. Read and/or recite the 23rd Psalm. Let it bring you peace.
REFLECTION FOR THE
SIXTH WEEK OF EASTER
May 17-May 23, 2020
The Pine Tree
On my daily morning walk through the neighborhood, I noticed a large pine tree that had just been beautifully and abundantly mulched. This is not a particularly unusual sight this time of year. The reason that it caught my eye is that the tree is mostly dead. Except for a few feet at the top, the typically green tree is brown and needleless. No amount of mulch or fertilizer is going to help. While the tree technically still has a little life left in it, only time stands between the present reality and the inevitable.
Why would someone go to the time and expense to mulch such a tree? Perhaps the owners planted the tree upon moving in and watched it grow all of these years and now cannot bear to take it down. The tree stands directly in front of the house providing a screen. Maybe they think a dead screen is better than no screen. It could be that they hope that the tree will, despite all evidence, recover and live. They should not be faulted for that. After all, hope is related to faith. Still, it begs the question: Where on the continuum does faithfulness transition to foolishness? In other words, at what point does hope collide with reality? The tree is past life support and heroic measures. One day nature, which has not one sentimental bone in its body, will do what the owners refuse to do – topple the tree to the ground.
Of course, the decision to mulch the tree may not have anything to do with hope at all. It may be about how the tree and life itself are valued. My quick judgment that the tree should come down signaled two things. First, I was equating almost dead to being dead. Secondly, I did not value the tree. In my view, it is no longer useful. After all, it is not pretty to look at. It is not cleaning the air of carbon dioxide. It is not providing a home for birds. So I concluded it was time to turn it into firewood or, better yet, into mulch for other trees. Another tree can always be planted to take its place.
The owners obviously hold a different perspective. For whatever reason, the tree is important to them. Most of the tree is brown but there is yet some green and, in their minds, it deserves a chance. If nature topples it, so be it. That is nature’s prerogative. Who are we to decide when the end should be?
I am talking about a tree but thinking that the present pandemic has raised the same question, only this time in relation to people. Who are we to decide when the end should be for others?
This question is not hypothetical. It came to the fore early, as emergency hospitalizations of COVID-19 infected people were rapidly rising and there were not enough respirators or personal protective equipment for everyone. Medical personnel had the heart-wrenching task of developing protocols to determine who would have access to limited respirators and life-saving equipment in short supply. In real ways, the chosen protocols carried an implied decision about who would live and who would not, along with who would be put at greater risk and who would not. How do you value one life over another? Already there is discussion about similar protocols if remdesivir proves to be an effective treatment but is in limited supply, or if a vaccine is developed but is not widely available. Who gets treated and who does not?
We gain insight into who will get treated and who will not in the discussions about lifting restrictions and getting everything open again. Most who favor a full and rapid opening concede many more will die because of it. They call this lamentable but point out that people die every day and we have to get the economy going. What they do not say is just who it is that is likely to die as a result of lifting restrictions.
We know that answer. The most likely to die are the elderly and frail, followed by persons who do not have the luxury of working from home and are dependent on public transportation and live in more crowed and sometimes less sanitary conditions. These persons are, of course, the low-wage earners and the poor, a high percentage of whom are African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, and recent immigrants. It is true the virus has no boundaries - the affluent and powerful also have gotten sick and some have died. No one is immune. This does not change the fact that the elderly, poor, and people of color experience a disproportional amount of infection and death. We have to wonder if the discussion about lifting restrictions would be different if those most likely to die were white, young, and affluent. Maybe it has nothing to do with age or race or economic status. If that is the case, we have to ask ourselves who it is that we are willing to let die for the sake of the economy? Who is it we think is expendable?
We should be honest and name them. Let’s put it on the table. When not talking about Covid-19 deaths as being preventable, but instead saying they are lamentable, we are saying that some are expendable. This is exactly what I said about the pine tree with only a little green at the top.
In an earlier reflection, I played with the words essential and nonessential. I made the point that it is psychologically devastating to be labeled nonessential. Here we are not just calling people nonessential. We are calling people expendable. This brings us back to the question: Who are we to decide when the end should be for others?
I know that many are struggling with the restrictions, losing food and housing security, or seeing life savings wiped out. The hurt is real. Those struggling are certainly not expendable either, and should not to be valued less than anyone else. A way forward needs to be forged for all because everyone counts. The old woman in the nursing home, the C.E.O., the grocery store cashier, the meat processing plant worker, the professional athlete, the diabetic, the entrepreneur, and the minimum-wage worker all matter. Our question should not be who lives and who dies. Our question should be, how do we help each other. That question leads to positive solutions.
In retrospect, I am glad that my neighbor mulched that tree. I don’t know if the mulch will help it or not, but it helped me to see differently.
Actions and Questions
1. The tension between caring about and caring for those being devastated by restrictions and closures while wanting to protect as many people as possible from sickness and death creates an ethical dilemma. a. What do you believe is the best way forward?
b. Is your opinion shaped by knowing someone who is struggling (perhaps yourself) or knowing someone who has died (perhaps a loved one)?
c. Might your opinion change if you have a conversation with someone who is struggling or someone who has experienced a death?
2. Throughout history, the vulnerable have always suffered the most during a crisis. Who do you think are the vulnerable in our country today? How are they faring during this pandemic?
3. What Biblical teachings can you think of that can guide us in a way forward?
4. Write a protocol of distribution if a treatment or vaccine proves to be limited. Pay attention to what guides your thinking. Why do you think this person should receive it before that person? Be prepared to be frustrated - this is hard.
5. What can you do to help someone experiencing hard times right now? Do it.
6. Go outside and mulch a dying plant or tree.
REFLECTION FOR THE
FIFTH WEEK OF EASTER
May 10-May 16, 2020
I have been thinking about my father these past weeks. He has been gone for sixteen years, but he is never far from my mind. So many things happen that remind me of him. Social distancing is what has me thinking about him now. My father would hate it. He was not a hugger, or one to physically enter your personal space. He was, however, all about connecting with people. He kept up with people by phone and hand-written letters and cards, but mostly he stayed in touch by visiting. He was a born visitor.
My father grew up in a time when you could call the grocer, put in an order, and have your groceries delivered. (Apparently, home delivery is not such a new idea after all). The groceries were not delivered by truck, however. Instead, young boys would bring them – pulling a wagon, carrying them in a basket on their bicycles, maybe even pushing a wheelbarrow. My father was one of the delivery boys. He was almost fired for taking too long on his route. He was not slow because he got lost easily or was lazy. He took a long time because, after carrying the groceries into the kitchen, he would sit down and visit with whomever was there. For some elderly customers, that was the only visit they had all week. He did not get fired because, when word leaked out about his upcoming employment demise, customers called the grocer and, in unison, said, “Don’t you dare fire Doug Cooney. We look forward to his visits.”
My grandfather and aunt lived for years in Asbury Methodist Village. I would not go to visit them with my father. Do not misunderstand. I would visit, just not with him. The problem was that going with him took all day, because he would visit many others as well. If he heard someone had been sick, he would stop in to check on them. If someone was having a birthday or anniversary, he would stop by to congratulate them. If someone had experienced a loss, he would want to stop to comfort them. He knew many people and what was going on in their lives, and he could not resist visiting them. That was my father.
Dad would understand the need for social distancing now, in all of its ramifications. It would surely frustrate him, though. He was already saddened by what he perceived to be chosen social distancing. Two prime examples he liked to lift up as examples were houses built without front porches, and garage door openers. He recalled a time when all houses had a front porch and people would sit out on them. There was always neighborhood conversation as folks walked up and down the streets and chatted with those sitting out on their porches. He lamented the loss of those conversations. In his mind, garage door openers further contributed to neighborhood isolation. The door would go up and the neighbor would drive out and away. Upon return, the door would go up and the neighbor would return to the cocoon. “There is never a chance for people to see or talk with their neighbors,” he would sigh.
I tried to explain that times had changed. “Houses cost enough without adding the cost of a porch,” I told him. “You all sat on the porch because there was no air conditioning or television. Besides, how many people walk up and down the street now? Everyone drives.” I protested that while garage door openers are not as great as indoor plumbing, they are still pretty great. When it is raining or cold, you do not have to get out of the car, lift up a heavy door, and climb back into the car. You just press a button and the door goes up for you. (In full disclosure, my house has a small front porch, but it also has a deck in the back. I sit on the deck enjoying the peace and quiet. Also, a garage door opener is one of the first things I installed when moving into my home).
Dad did not agree. Why would he? He used email, but only if he could not reach someone by phone. If he had to write, he preferred a personal letter. He could never understand why he should text when he could call and talk personally to someone. He would have liked FaceTime, and maybe Facebook, although the trite and nonsensical would have frustrated him. Generally, he embraced the new, but when it came to connecting with people, he wanted to see and hear and be present with others. Often in stores or at events, he would just start chatting with strangers. I would just shake my head and laugh.
I am not laughing quite as much now. Now I sit alone on my deck, not because I enjoy the peace and quiet, but because I have to be alone. Others are not allowed. I go for groceries and everyone is wearing a mask, covering their faces. We move apart, fearing the other is a threat. It is surreal. I look at the faces of my children and grandchildren on a screen and long to hold them. I do not get together with friends. I Zoom with them. I am glad for that, but it is not the same. I text less and call more, thrilled to hear a live voice. The idea of visiting others when going to see my grandfather and aunt is suddenly appealing. Social distancing is far more than being six feet apart. It is distancing from human connection. It is distancing from that which, in a significant way, makes us human.
I don’t know. I doubt that all of the implications of social distancing have yet been grasped. What I do know is that my wife and I just bought two rocking chairs and put them on our front porch. We sit there instead of on the deck. As I rock I compose a mental list of those I want to visit just as soon as it is possible. I wave to passing drivers and call out to those walking to get some fresh air or to exercise or just to get out of the house. Every time I wave, or engage in a conversation across the expanse of the front lawn, I cannot help but think, maybe Dad was on to something. In fact, maybe I’ll start parking in the driveway and stay out of the garage.
Actions and Questions
1. The full ramifications of social distancing impact everyone. What ‘live contacts’ are you most missing?
2. How do you react to the sentences? Social distancing is far more than being six feet apart. It is distancing from human connection. It is distancing from that which, in a significant way, makes us human?
3. When was the last time you sent a personal, hand-written letter to someone? (Have you ever sent one?) When was the last time you received such a letter? (Have you ever received one?) If you have received such a letter, how did it make you feel?
4. Are there people you have been ‘meaning to visit’? Write their names down and visit when it is safe to do so.
5. Send a note or card to someone you have been thinking about. Give someone a call.
6. What is one way you can reduce the impact of social distancing for yourself or others during this time? Do it.
7. Who have been the ‘people connectors’ in your life?
REFLECTION FOR THE
FOURTH WEEK OF EASTER
May 3-May 9, 2020
I am getting cranky. I can feel it in my muscles and hear it in the tone of my voice. Home detention is impacting my mood. Technically, it is not detention. I am not being punished. It reminds me of my times in detention during my school days though. Not that I was in detention that often, mind you, and when I was, it was not because I was an unruly child. It was just that some teachers and administrators did not share my sense of humor. Ah, but that was long ago and the statutes of limitations have all expired. There are no hard feelings.
This does not change the fact that the whole ‘shelter at home for your protection’ scenario still feels like detention. When I was detained at school, or under house arrest at home (my parents called it grounding), I was limited in my movement. I certainly was not allowed to meet with friends, or go to fun events. I was allowed to leave my cell, I mean room, only for the absolutely necessary and essential reasons. Depending on the offense, the length of confinement was undetermined.
Doesn’t that sound a lot like what we are all going through now? It does to me, and it is making me cranky. Something has to change. I have always lived by the adage that when something has to change, it may be me. That holds true now. There is nothing I can do about the pandemic. I can do something about my attitude.
Attitude adjustment best starts with prayer. After all, prayer is not so much about beating a path to God’s door as it is about clearing the ways to our doors so that God can get in. Once we remove the debris of our lives and make way for God, everything changes for the better. So, this week I am offering what I call an attitude adjustment prayer. Honestly, I am writing it for myself and saying it myself. You are welcome to make it your prayer also if you feel the need for an attitude adjustment. It follows the pattern of complaint followed by praise found in many of the Biblical Psalms.
My Attitude Adjustment Prayer
O God, who moves through the entire universe, being confined to home has grown tiresome. I ache to get out and move freely about.
Thank you, Lord, that I have a house to shelter me. Thank you for the roof that keeps me dry, the walls that keep me warm, the rooms in which to work and play and rest, and the bed in which to sleep. I pray for those unable to stay safely home because they are providing services to fill my needs. Shield them from the virus. I pray for those who have no shelter and now fear staying at the available temporary shelters. Protect them.
Triune God, who dwells with the Son and Holy Spirit, I miss being with family and friends. I even miss gathering with strangers.
Thank you, dear God, that I have one who loves me dwelling with me so that I am not alone. Thank you for the technology that allows me to see faces and hear voices. I pray for those who are alone and have no face-to-face interaction. Be present with them.
Ruler of nature, it seems that every day it rains or is overcast and gray. It literally dampens my spirit. Where is the sun?
Thank you, Holy Provider, that we are not in a drought, adding insult to injury. Thank you for the grass and trees and flowers that are nourished by the rain and will burst forth in a panoply of color. Your spring will sing a resurrection song.
God of strength, it is debilitating being cramped up in a house. Physical laziness tempts my mind.
Thank you, Creator God, for the grass I have to mow and the gardens I have to tend and for a neighborhood in which it is safe to walk. I am able to breathe fresh air and exercise my body and enjoy your outdoors. I pray for those who cannot get outside or move about and have only inside walls at which to look. Make it possible that soon their doors can fling open and they can stand in the sunshine.
O Sacred Providence, getting even daily bread has become a chore and involves risk. It is frustrating and concerning. I am weary of it.
Thank you, Caregiver God, for the food that I do have to eat. Thank you for the resources that allow me to afford the food I have. Thank you for those who produce the food, and ship the food, and sell the food. Thank you for online delivery and curbside pick up and all of the conveniences precious few in this world have. I pray for those who have no food to eat and no money to buy food. I pray for the safety of all who are providing food in whatever capacity. May all of your children be fed.
Loving God, I have nothing about which to complain. I am healthy. Others are sick and dying. I have a comfortable house in which to live and a yard in which to play. Others are cramped or have no shelter at all. I have a spouse to care for me and friends who stay in touch with me. Others are alone. I have food to eat and needs that are met. Others are hungry and cannot get care. I have lost only entertainment opportunities. Others have lost jobs and businesses and houses. Some have lost their lives. Forgive my selfishness. Give me a heart that rejoices instead of a heart that complains. Touch this world with your healing hand and, in all things, be with us. In Christ’s name. Amen.
Actions and Questions
1. Make the Attitude Adjustment Prayer part of your prayers this week, or write an Attitude Adjustment Prayer specific to you.
2. Start keeping a Gratefulness Journal, writing each day three things for which you are thankful.
3. Think of one person negatively affected by the pandemic (alone, unable to shop, infected, job loss, etc.) What is one thing you can do to help? Do that.
4. Are you in need of an ‘attitude adjustment?’ What would help you to have a heart that rejoices instead of a heart that complains?
5. What in this time is causing you to struggle the most? What would help? Is that help available? Do not be afraid to reach out for the help you need.
6. Find something to make you laugh: a funny movie, the comics, a TV comedy, funny videos, a friend who brightens your spirit. Laughter is good for the soul
REFLECTION FOR THE
THIRD WEEK OF EASTER
April 26-May 2, 2020
I am feeling a bit melancholy this week because I have apparently been deemed nonessential. When stay-at-home orders were imposed, those obviously exempted were those deemed to be essential workers. This made sense. Clearly all of the valiant medical personnel staffing the hospitals were needed on the front lines. The same for first responders and those in foodservice and those keeping supply chains open. Trash still needed to be collected and prescriptions still needed to be filled and scientists had to keep working to discover a cure and a vaccine.
All of this I have understood and I have regularly prayed for those unable to avail themselves of the safety of their own homes. Over the weeks, however, I have had numerous conversations with persons going to work because they are all labeled essential. These workers have ranged from roofers to drywall installers to architects to office managers to mortgage brokers. Indeed, about the only other person, I have found not labeled essential is my barber, and, if the powers-that-be could see my hair, that would change. Now, these are all important jobs, mind you. That is not my point. It is just that if all of these people are essential, what am I? The only other option is nonessential.
This is a blow to the ego. I know what nonessential means. When I need to pack lightly for a trip, I take only essential items. By definition, then, everything I do not take is not truly needed. When I clean out closets I keep the essentials. Other items are not needed or wanted and get relegated to thrift stores or the dump. So, it stings a bit to be deemed nonessential. It feels a bit like it feels to be chosen last as a teammate in a neighborhood pick-up game.
Understand, I am saying this tongue-in-cheek. I do not feel unloved, unwanted, or unneeded, and I am truly grateful to all who are keeping our communities running, often at risk to themselves. But in a serious way, the parody of the essential versus the nonessential language of the day is a reminder of all of the ways we do segregate people into categories that somehow signal who counts and who does not. One scene in the movie Titanic has always stayed with me. As the ship was sinking, the observation was made that there were not enough lifeboats for all of the passengers. One of the privileged passengers responded by saying something along the line of, “There are enough for those who matter.”
Naturally, that was just a movie, but I do not doubt that very statement was said in some way by somebody. It is a painful reality that the nonessential tag has been and often is applied to people of color, women, immigrants, children, the aged, the homeless, the disabled, and the poor. In the divisive political rhetoric of the day, depending on whom is speaking, Democrats, Republicans, conservatives, liberals, evangelicals, progressives, workers, urban dwellers, and others are told they are not needed or wanted in America, essentially that they are nonessential.
This is not new, of course. Consider how often Paul had to write to the churches he founded to explain that everyone mattered. He wrote that It does not matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, a slave or a free person, a man or a woman. We are all equally saved and loved by Christ and that is all that matters. Elsewhere he said that one spiritual gift is not better than another and no role in the church is more important than another. We are all equally saved and loved by Christ and that is all that matters. He added that a hand is not better than a foot, an elbow is not better than a knee, and an eye is not better than a nose. Everybody part counts and we are the body of Christ. If Paul were still with us today, I fear he would be writing this same message. It is one we have trouble taking to heart.
It should not be lost on us that Jesus spent the vast majority of his time with those his society deemed nonessential. Crowds gathered everywhere he went, not just because his miracles were eye-popping but also because he said and demonstrated that everyone mattered, everyone counted, everyone, in God’s eyes, was essential. That was sweet music to the ears of many who had always been told differently.
It is still sweet music believers can sing today. I am weary of the put-downs that dominate dialogues nationally. Who is in a position to devalue even one of God’s children? Our words and actions and thoughts and yes, even our politics, should be influenced by Christ’s teaching that everyone matters. Just following that example of our Lord would completely change the tenor of our times.
For now, I am content to be designated nonessential. I understand it is a technical and even fluid designation. In general, though, I think this designation should be stripped from the Christian lexicon. After all, it is hard to imagine that it is a designation that our Lord would ever use. Why, then, should we?
Actions and Questions
1. Do you know someone who feels devalued, unneeded, or unwanted? Find a way to reach out to them to let them know that they matter.
2. Skim through the gospels looking for times when Jesus clashed with the ‘respectable people’ because of the time and attention he was giving to ‘outcasts and sinners.’ Do you see that clash
3. We often unknowingly communicate to another that they are ‘nonessential.’ It might be by the words we choose, the gestures we make, even the expressions on our faces. Reflect on your interactions with others. Are there habits or attitudes you want to change?
4. We are all equally saved and loved by Christ and that is all that matters. Do you agree with this? How does this shape how you think about others and how you act toward others?
5. Have you felt devalued, unneeded, or unwanted? What made you feel that way? Does it make a difference for you knowing that you matter in the eyes of God?
6. Commit this week to modeling positive and uplifting actions and interactions.
7. We are all part of the body and we all have a role. Is there something that you can do to help during this pandemic? Do not consider your role too inconsequential. Everyone matters.
8. Be sure to tell everyone you love how much you need them.
REFLECTION FOR THE
SECOND WEEK OF EASTER
April 19-25. 2020
Believing, But. . .
This week I am pondering the relationship between doubt and faith. It should not take too much pondering. It seems obvious that they are antithetical. Doubt is the handmaid of uncertainty. Doubt does not emphatically deny that something is true, but does leave open the possibility that it may not be true. The more one doubts, the more one is likely to think that something probably is not true. Faith, on the other hand, caters to certainty. Faith holds that something, even contrary to evidence, is true. Faith favors confidence. Doubt prefers ambiguity. Cleary faith and doubt are not related. One precludes the other. This is obvious.
I am always skeptical of the obvious, however, so I am not willing to stop pondering too quickly. This is my question:
Is it possible that faith and doubt, far from being antithetical, are actually symbiotic or, if not that cozy, at least needed foils for each other?
This is why I am asking. It is difficult to read the accounts of the resurrection and the resurrection appearances in the four gospels without noticing the prominent role played by doubt. Consider this.
In the original ending of Mark, the women who had gone to the tomb that early Sunday morning encountered an angel who told them that Jesus had been raised. The angel also told them to go and tell the disciples. Instead, they ran from the tomb in terror and told no one. They acted as if they had seen a ghost. (Mark 16:8) We are not told what they believed or did not believe. It is clear though, that they at least had some questions.
Luke tells us that the women did go and tell the disciples the news, but the disciples did not believe them. They discounted the women’s testimony as an “idle tale.” (Luke 24:11) Later in Luke, the two on the road to Emmaus met Jesus and recognized him in the breaking of the bread. They ran back to Jerusalem to tell the disciples about seeing Jesus. They learned that Jesus had also appeared to Simon. Nevertheless, while telling each other their stories, Jesus appeared. Far from Christ’s appearance confirming their belief, Luke tells us that they were, “startled, terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.” (Luke 24:37) Jesus showed them his hands and side, had them touch him, and ate something in their presence. This was strong evidence that Jesus was, indeed, alive. Yet we are told that, in their joy, they were still disbelieving and wondering. (Luke 24:41)
Thomas, who heard the testimony of the women returning from the tomb and the testimony of the other disciples to whom Jesus appeared while Thomas was out, still refused to believe. He doubted too much to even entertain belief without empirical evidence. (John 20:25) This forever earned him the nickname Doubting Thomas.
Then we have the account of the ascension as told by Matthew. In Matthew’s gospel, the disciples were instructed to go to Galilee. Jesus ascended from a mountaintop there. (In Acts, the disciples were instructed to remain in Jerusalem until they received the Holy Spirit. Jesus ascended from the Mt. of Olives). The disciples followed the instructions and met Jesus on the mountain in Galilee. Then we read, “When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.” (Matthew 28:17)
Throughout these resurrection accounts in the gospels we see the strange juxtaposition of joy and terror, believing and not believing, rejoicing and doubt. The common response expressed was a wonder, which could mean being full of wonder at the truth of the resurrection, or wondering about the truth of the resurrection. It appears that most wondered in both senses of the word.
I rather like this odd mixture of faith and doubt, for two reasons. One reason is that faith gives us the confidence and courage and conviction to live as disciples of the living Lord. If we do not believe that Christ lives and is with us guiding our steps and giving us words, then we are pitiful followers, indeed. Lack of faith is spiritually paralyzing and leads to inertia and do-nothingness. On the other hand, doubt tempers faith. Quite frankly, a lot of nonsense is spoken in the name of Jesus and on behalf of God. We should doubt, if not outright disregard, these things. Believing everything that has the name of Jesus attached to it is foolishness. God gave us hearts and also minds. It is useful to utilize both. Faith without doubt is folly. Doubt without faith is life-stealing. Does this make them symbiotic, or does it make them necessary foils of each other? You decide.
Secondly, wonder is perhaps the most appropriate response to the acts of God. Have you ever experienced something so amazing that you have said, “I can’t believe it”? This is not just an expression. You can believe it, of course, because you have experienced it. You know it is real. Still, you really cannot believe it is true, because it is so amazing. You are suspended in wonder, the meeting point of faith and doubt. I go back to Matthew. They worshipped him and doubted at the same time. Of course, they did! They were in the grip of wonder. So it is that I say, without apology, “I know that my redeemer lives - I can’t believe it.”
Actions and Questions
1. God’s work in our lives causes us to wonder. Meditate this week about what that means.
2. Did someone ever do something for you that was so amazing that you ‘could not believe it’? Write them a note and tell them how their action made you feel.
3. The reflection argues that faith and doubt are not antithetical, but rather symbiotic, or at least necessary foils for each other. Do you agree with this? Why or why not?
4. Have you experienced a time when doubt became an impediment to your faith? Has doubt ever strengthened your faith?
5. How do you respond to these sentences? Faith, without doubt, is folly. Doubt without faith is life-stealing.
6. If you had been present that first Easter morning, how do you think you would have responded to the news that Jesus was alive?
David S. Cooney
REFLECTION FOR THE
FIRST WEEK OF EASTER
April 12-18, 2020
Hoping for What?
In the late 7th century B.C., Babylon became the dominant Middle Eastern power. Nation after nation was defeated by the Babylonian army, including Judah. During the conquest, Jerusalem was destroyed and the people were deported to Babylon where they lived in exile for fifty years. Known as the Babylonian Captivity, this devastating experience became a hallmark of Old Testament history. Before, during, and after this soul-crushing event, three prophets offered words of hope.
Habakkuk watched as Babylon grew more and more powerful. He witnessed the brutality of the invading army. He wondered why God was not intervening. “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help and you will not listen? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?” (Hab. 1:2) The prophet queried God. “Why do you look on the treacherous, and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?” (Hab. 1:13) In full defiance, Habakkuk told God that he would station himself on a rampart and wait for an answer, and not come down until he got one. You have to admire him, even if you question his outspokenness. Most silently fume about God’s perceived absence or lack of action. Habakkuk stated his feelings out loud and put the onus on God to come up with an acceptable answer.
The prophet Habakkuk got his answer, which was essentially ‘things might look bad now, but this does not mean that God is not acting, and the time will come when Babylon will be subdued.’ Habakkuk, quite possibly a Levite partially responsible for worship in the temple, then ended his rant with a hymn. It includes the words: “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation.” (Hab. 3:17-18) This is the teaching that runs throughout scripture:
Even though things look bad now, wait for the Lord, it will be all right.
Habakkuk’s slightly younger contemporary Jeremiah was under house arrest because he told the king and the Judean troops that there was no reason to resist the Babylonians, for the people had been idolatrous and unfaithful, and God was not going to protect them.
The Babylonian army was getting closer and closer to Jerusalem. They leveled the buildings and burned the fields in each village through which they passed. The next village in their path was Anathoth, where Jeremiah’s cousin Hanamel lived. The cousin fled his home, as did most of the residents. He did not leave the area, however, before stopping in Jerusalem to get Jeremiah to buy his land. Laws had been devised to keep land within a family to try to prevent cycles of poverty. The prophet was apparently Hanamel’s closest relative, so Jeremiah had the ‘right’ of possession and redemption.
Bear in mind that Anathoth was about to be laid to waste. The property was worthless. Buying it would be like buying a lot on a toxic waste site. Jeremiah’s cousin was dumping this property on him so he could get some cash and get out of town. The imprisoned prophet should have told him to take a hike. Instead, he purchased the land at full price, made sure there were plenty of witnesses, and arranged for the deeds to be put in a safe place. Why? He did so as a sign to all that the devastation they were experiencing would not be forever. This is what he said. “For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” (Jer. 32:15).
The third prophet, Ezekiel, was a young priest in Babylon, one of the captives during the exile. He had a vision in which God showed him a valley of dry bones, bones most likely of fallen soldiers left to rot. The bones were broken, dry, and bleached in the hot sun. It was a vision of total death and destruction.
God asked Ezekiel if the bones could live. The obvious answer was no, but the prophet figured it was a trick question, so simply said that the Lord knew the answer. The answer proved to be yes, and the bones were brought back together and covered with sinew and flesh and given breath. God then said, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel.” (Ez. 37:11-12)
Three prophets, in dramatic fashion, delivered essentially the same message: even when all seems lost, even when your bones are all dried up, trust in God and do not lose hope, for God can and will restore life to the dead.
This is an important message, certainly now, but also at other points in our lives. There are times we want to climb a tower and shake our fists at God like Habakkuk or, like Hanamel, cut our losses and run. There are times when our bones are all dried up and we are so hopeless we might as well be dead. That is not how God sees it, however. When we look to the future as God looks to the future, we see something else entirely. The prophets help us to see as God sees and give us tremendous words of comfort and hope.
Jesus has given us a far better word, though. You see, it is fine to say we should hang in there because things will get better. The problem is that they will also get worse again. Yes, the tornado or flood or pandemic or economic downturn will pass and we can recover. Still, another tornado or flood or pandemic or economic downturn will come. The Babylonian Captivity was neither the first nor the last catastrophe to strike Israel. World War I, touted as the war to end all wars, did not. A vaccine for COVID-19 will be found, but it may do nothing to fight the next virus.
In other words, the message of hope all three prophets bring us is vitally important but temporary. Christ’s message, on the other hand, is eternal. Notice that Jesus did not speak to the people about a coming time when Rome would no longer rule over them. Instead, he spoke of a time when God’s reign would be fully realized on this earth. He spoke of a time when, as John of Patmos put it, “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” (Rev. 21:4)
This is the message of Easter. It is not just that things will get better. It is that things will get better forever. Christ did not come just to ‘fix’ that which is presently broken. The Lord came to bring a wholly new creation.
We need the message of the prophets: Fear not, this too shall pass. We ultimately need the message of Jesus: Rejoice, for the power of sin and death, has been conquered once and for all. Rejoice, for our God has come to save us. Now that is a message of hope.
Actions and Questions
1. If Habakkuk is new to you, consider reading it this week. It is just three short chapters. You might also choose to read the full account of the valley of the dry bones in Ezekiel, chapter 37.
2. Think about someone who is going through a hard time right now. What can you say or do that will give them some hope? Commit to do it.
3. Meditate on the proverb: A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones. (Prov. 17:22)
4. Do the words and actions of Habakkuk, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel give you greater hope and confidence? How? Does one of the prophets, in particular, speak to you?
5. What do you think about the audacity of Habakkuk confronting God? Is that something you would do? Is that something you have done?
6. What does it mean to you to say, “Even though _____(fill in the blank), I will trust in the Lord”? Is that something you can say? What is keeping or could keep you from saying it?
7. The prophets give us a needed temporary word of hope. Jesus gives us an eternal word of hope. Are you looking for the day when death and pain and suffering will be no more? Why or why not?