This week has been strange. I have felt out of sorts. Along with sadness and spikes of frustration, perhaps what has been most troubling is that it has taken me a few days to figure out what is going on. On a walk this morning, it hit me.
I like many of you have lost a lot of people in life. People that really mattered. My parents. Some friends. Relatives far and near. This aside from the countless folks I have had the privilege of walking alongside during the dying process. With each death, in varying degrees, has been grief. Sometimes profound. At other times moderated by things such as relief that suffering has ended or gratitude that a full life was lived.
Grief, while a different journey for every person, generally includes sadness, anger, a whole host of other emotions, feeling out of sorts, and a surreal disconnected feeling. It is this surreal disconnected feeling that I now realize I’ve been experiencing since the coronavirus has hit the world and turned most things upside down.
I recognize I’ve been having thoughts such as, “This isn’t real. This can’t be happening. I’ll wake up tomorrow and everything will be fine. I’ve never felt this way before. I feel separated from what I know. Where is Rod Serling?” The bottom line is that I’ve been grieving. Understanding this helps me know, at least in part, how to respond to the time we are in.
For me, when grieving, I know it is so critical to emote, pray, give myself space to do nothing, acknowledge what has been lost, and realize that some of what I feel at the moment will have at least a slightly different flavor down the road. I also know it is vital to be gentle with myself, forgiving, and to recognize I am doing the best I can in a tough circumstance. Sometimes it is ok not to be ok and often I need to cut myself some slack. I also know that grief happens despite and in the midst of having deep faith and a love of God. Again, while our journeys are unique to each of us, I invite you to consider some of these points in your own life as we go through this shared experience.
I believe God is fully present and in charge. I trust that we will get through this as God’s beloved human kind. There are great people doing amazing, astonishing things every day to deal with this crisis. We have much to be grateful for and many that need our appreciation. I also understand, however, that many of us are grieving and that while we may not be grieving continually throughout each day, grief makes sense and it is ok. God gave us our hearts to feel not only joy, but sadness.
I along with our entire Chapel team are here to be helpful to you. We love you and so does our loving, sustaining, healing God.
“What can I count on? What can I trust? What can I hold onto? What will be here tomorrow? How can I feel secure?” These and many other similar questions represent what I have been hearing from people over the last several weeks. To be honest, such questions have crossed my mind as well, because life as we have known it, in many respects, has been upended. While much of what it means to be alive remains in place, so much of what defines life in our culture has been significantly constrained.
As we remain in the season of Easter, I have been reflecting upon the Gospel descriptions of the morning Jesus rose from the dead. One of the most poignant stories is found in chapter 20 of John’s Gospel. Here, Mary Magdalene, whose life had been transformed by Jesus, stood weeping outside of the tomb. Consumed by grief, loss, and confusion, Jesus appears to her, although she does not recognize him at first. However, when Jesus says her name, Mary understands immediately that Jesus is before her. Jesus then says, “Mary, do not cling to me.” Or, “Mary do not hold onto me.”
Although Jesus then asks Mary to go to the disciples, I have to wonder what Mary thought at the moment Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me.” I can imagine Mary thinking thoughts such as, “OK Jesus, but what do I hold on to now? How can I let go of what I have come to trust?”
In reflecting upon this part of the story, I do not believe that Jesus was asking Mary to give up her relationship with Jesus. Nor was Jesus compelling Mary to no longer depend on Jesus. But I believe Jesus was asking Mary to let go of what she had known, what was familiar, in order to move forward in her life and in her relationship with Jesus.
It is as if Jesus was saying, “Mary, you have known me as I have been. But now it is time to let go so that your relationship with me will be even deeper, more profound, and even more life changing. You must let go of what has been familiar, in order for our relationship to be more than what it has been.”
At this time in life, when so much of what is familiar has been shaken, I have to wonder if Jesus is asking us some similar questions and in fact is inviting us to explore some things.
Is it possible, at this time in our lives, Jesus is saying things like the following. “I invite you to take a look at what has given you a sense of security in the past. To explore what you have counted upon. To look at what you have been holding onto.”
“Are there ways of being, thinking, and living you need to let go of to move into a deeper relationship with me? Could this time of grief and confusion and loss be an opportunity to re-evaluate what you have been counting on? Is this a chance to hold on to me in new ways, a chance to go deeper in our relationship, a relationship that will never go away despite circumstances?”
While we are not standing in front of Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning, all of us are standing next to the grave site of a former world. Although much will remain and many things will go on again as we have known them after this pandemic recedes, the world has been changed permanently, just as it has following other pandemics, wars, and world crises.
In the midst of it all, we have a grace-filled opportunity to let go of some things in order to move into a profoundly deeper relationship with God. Painful, hard, upsetting, discombobulating? Absolutely. Nevertheless, we have been given a profound opportunity to discover more of what God has in mind for each of us, which of course includes his boundless love.
The other evening I was playing a card game called Monopoly Deal with one of our daughters. It was a delightful time. As we played, I imagined the countless people worldwide who likely were doing something similar in this mandated downtime. I also thought about the massive numbers of people around the world who have no access to clean water, food, or any modicum of medical care as the virus spreads. This fact in combination with all the grief that is happening is soul crushing. All of this is agonizingly heartbreaking and I don’t know what I can do other than pray, pray, pray.
This is such a unique time, although there have been many similar times in history. There is no way to know what the future precisely holds or how things will play out. How things unfold in the immediate days ahead is unpredictable at best.
The other evening I needed a distraction so I played Yahtzee on a phone app. I’ve enjoyed the game for decades. It can be relatively mindless or it can bring back memories of studying probability theories in high school math classes so long ago. You may remember that the likelihood of rolling any one number on one die is 1 out of 6. The likelihood of rolling three dice and ending up with the same number on each is 1 out of 36. And the probability of rolling a Yahtzee in which all five dice match is 6 out of 7776.
The point of all of this is despite the uncertainty in the game of Yahtzee, at least you concretely know the likelihood of specific outcomes. With this virus we do not know with any certainty the probability of any exact outcome. Said another way, playing games in Las Vegas is clearer than the time we are in now, hence the angst I along with many others often feel.
Yet, in this tragic and very difficult time, we have a tremendous opportunity to work toward living as Jesus invites us to live and that is with a primary focus on the moment and the day at hand, rather than the uncertain future. In the midst of his talk known as the Sermon on the Mount, in chapter 6 of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus said, “So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” He said this in a broader discussion of worry.
His point. Focus on today. Pay attention to what needs to be dealt with today. Trust God and turn the future over to God. Easier said than done, you bet! Yet prayerfully I believe this is exactly what God is calling us to do, with God’s help. While this is much more challenging than the cliche of “stop and smell the roses,” the moment is where we live, where God is, and where life’s greatest joys are to be found.
Twenty years ago I was serving at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Concord, New Hampshire. It is a historic church that sits adjacent to the State House. St. Paul’s was a great church and one thing I enjoyed was the bell tower. At the top of the stairs of the tower, if my memory is correct, were 8 bells of various sizes. To ring the bells, there was a bank of wooden levers. By pushing a lever down, a particular bell would ring. I spent some time in the tower learning how to play hymns on the bells. To this day I cherish this experience.
One afternoon I was in the tower playing away when all of a sudden our parish administrator came running up the stairs. She said, “Robert. Robert. You need to stop. The Senate is in session and the bells are so loud they cannot deliberate. They just called. They asked who on earth was making all the racket. I did not tell them it was you.” I was certainly grateful for that especially as I knew the governor at the time.
Bells have been part of faith traditions for centuries. The use of bells by priests is found in the Book of Exodus. There we learn that Aaron wore bells whenever he was in a particular area of the Temple. In the Christian tradition, bells were introduced by an Italian Bishop in the 400’s. A Pope in 604 sanctioned bells for use in worship. Since that time, church bells have been used for worship, to announce the beginning of worship, special services, or simply for celebratory purposes.
Church bells can be small or quite large. One bell at the National Cathedral weighs over 3500 pounds. Other bells around the world are even larger. Regardless of bell size, there are few sounds as glorious as church bells ringing.
In Psalm 100 we find this verse. “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.” When we worship God, we are invited to do so with joy, even and perhaps especially in the midst of painful hard times. One way to do this is with bells. Also in Psalm 100 is this. “God made us and we are his. We are his people and the sheep of his pasture.” In other words, we worship God with joy because we are God’s. We belong to God through it all and nothing changes that.
This Sunday is Easter, the day we remember and celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus. It is the day humanity learned clearly that new life follows the life we have now and that death is a passage into something wonderfully and beautifully beyond description. Because of Jesus, we can trust eternal life is ahead and this changes everything, including how we live now each day.
To help us celebrate Easter with joy, let’s use some bells and connect ourselves with those who have worshipped God over many centuries. I invite each of you to join me, following our online live broadcast of our Easter service at 9AM, MDT, to go outside, wherever you are, and make a joyful noise unto the Lord. If you have bells of some kind, use them. Ring them with vigor to express your joy over Easter and Jesus’ resurrection. If you don’t have bells, I invite you to make a joyful racket unto the Lord. Use pots and pans, anything to express joy to God. And if you cannot join us at 9 MDT, sometime during Easter Sunday go out and make some joyful noise. You might just get somebody’s attention who needs a smile.
This time in all of our lives is so tough, hard, and unsettling, to say the least. The losses many are experiencing are massive. I believe it is during this time, we need a dose, even if just a small one, of joy. Joy over our Lord who is guiding us through this time. Joy over God who loves us without bounds. Joy over our Lord who promises us that when it is all said and done, all will be well. Happy Easter my friends.
Without a doubt, as I reflect upon my 60 years of life, I have learned the greatest lessons through pain, struggle and tough times. Often when in the midst of something difficult, however, it can be hard to find meaning or to gain insight into what can be taken from the experience. Sometimes the passage of time is required to gain perspective.
I suspect the global crisis we are in now, will one day prove to be a teacher to each of us if we are attentive, intentional and prayerful, today and in the future. Said another way, through the very significant hardships, fear, and up-ending consequences of this current time, we have been given the opportunity to reset various aspects of our lives, how we live them, and who we are down deep. When what we are accustomed to is stripped away, we can be forced to explore our values, priorities, and ultimately what matters not only the most, but at all.
While what we learn from this time will be unique to each of us, my hunch is that shared realizations may happen. Having said this, however, I pray that some specific lessons will come from this pandemic. Others likely will have very different hopes. That said, it is my prayer that these months will remind us of our utter dependency upon our loving Creator. That every day we wake up we will embrace the truth that any given moment we have is a gift from God, ripe with opportunities to serve and live selflessly.
After this crisis, I pray that we will embrace face to face relationships with people in person and understand that being in person with another is where true connection and intimacy happens. Perhaps we will learn to distance ourselves from uni-dimensional forms of communication and learn to pause to look into the eyes of the person in front of us.
I pray that we will get back to God’s understanding of the world. Borders, differences in languages, backgrounds, cultures, religions, and various ways of doing things does not mean we are not all God created human beings. All of us are on the same singular planet and hope resides in flipping the way we see others and how we approach global problems. Historically every great challenge that has arisen in human history comes from the distinctions we make, not God.
I pray that what gives us a sense of security and stability will move from that which is ephemeral to that which remains over time. Friendships, families, congregations, integrity, honesty, doing the right thing, empathy, lack of ego, and love, in my view, are where security for daily living comes. Stability arises when who we are in public aligns with who we are in private. Assets come and go. And while wealth can and has been used for great good, stability and security does not come from things temporary. What gives us a foundation is that which we take with us into eternity.
I pray over time that as a result of this crisis, our definition of success will broaden. That our tenderness toward others will increase. That our sense of who our neighbor is will reflect what Jesus taught us. That indeed we will treat every person as we wish to be treated. That we will embrace the truth that when one person hurts, we all hurt. That we will learn to seek joy, share it and laugh more. That we will learn to take what we do seriously, but not take ourselves too seriously. That stress will be embraced as a signal to turn in a different direction. That we will honor this planet as a spectacular gift from God and act accordingly.
While there is much more that I pray for, when it is all said and done, I pray for a dramatic resurgence in love. The love of God. The love of others. And loving compassion toward ourselves. As we say over and over and over at the Chapel, as God is love, the only thing that really matters is love and actions based on such love. I pray that through this time we learn most of all to celebrate, emulate, communicate, and live our lives based on love as our number one priority. Idealistic? Certainly, but we have chosen to follow Jesus who calls us to His ways, not ours.
Please know we are praying for you and we want to know how we can be helpful to you and those you love.