Holy, holy, holy God, we place ourselves in your presence; we rest in the promise of your grace. Our minds and our spirits are cluttered with many thoughts and feelings that threaten to pull our attention away from you. Let us unclench our fists and release these things: We release all that we have done today–whether for good or for ill.
We release all that we feel like we should have done today, but did not do.
We release all that we need to do tomorrow.
We release our fear. We release our anxiety. We release our impatience. We release our pride.
All of the thoughts, all of the feelings that pull us away from you, O God, we release.
Fill us now with the joy and the peace of your deep, abiding presence.
We offer all of ourselves to you, our One God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Amen
The playwright Eugene Ionesco once wrote, “ideologies separate us. Dreams and anguish bring us together.” In reflecting on the overwhelming sense of division in our country, I am deeply aware of how politics, race, religion, and nationalism, often divide us from one another. How often have we heard that you can’t discuss politics or religion at the dinner table? We find ourselves in our respective corners, ready to come out fighting, convinced we are right!
But then, we are suddenly reminded of our common humanity: a child is born and our hopes for that child soar; a loved one dies, or a serious diagnosis is received, and our agendas are pushed aside; a flood, or a fire like the one that ravaged two Boonton homes last week, intrude on our daily lives, and a community responds, together, in solidarity. This is why the church, and what we stand for, what we believe, and what happens among us, is so important: to touch what is deepest in ourselves, what is already in our hearts, and to realize again that in those hopes and dreams, and in our suffering and anguish, we are all alike. We are all children of the one God, and sisters and brothers of one another. Is that Pollyannaish, ridiculously naïve? Maybe so, but I believe in the essential goodness of people and in our potential to be better than we are. So let’s not be defined by our “isms”, political or religious, but let’s be willing to reach across what seems right now to be a vast chasm, to touch the world with love and hope–never needed more than at this moment! As Jen said in her sermon on Sunday, “God commits to the things that we can only dream of,” and that includes the dream of reaching across chasms of hate and anguish and disagreement,to bring a new, richer culture of love, understanding, graciousness, and peace.
This pandemic has turned some of the ways we look at work, whether our own or that of others, upside down. In conversations with family members and friends I’ve become aware of the challenges facing us, in a variety of ways. Some have told me they are working harder than ever. Looking for a change of pace, some are trying to figure out how and when to get away. But some are not working at all and some are living on less because of pay cuts. For some, work has sped up and for others it has ground to a halt. For many, work has suffered a rupture that is desperately in need of repair. Working from home might provide flexibility but is often disrupted and interrupted, causing loss of focus and concentration, and mounting stress. For some, a feeling of repetition and monotony hangs over each day. There is no minimizing the hardships that arise beyond our control, especially when we have others to care for.
Perhaps this time of change and turmoil is offering us a chance for renewal, perhaps an opportunity to rethink our sense of vocation and what it means. To be sure, our economic employment is one facet of our vocations as our work has helped to define who we are. But at a deeper level we can understand and appreciate the concept of vocation as more than just about how we make our living. It’s about how God works through human beings to care for God’s creation. It’s about loving and serving our neighbors in our multiple stations of life. It’s about human flourishing. So if we think of work as vocation, a word that comes from the Latin word for calling, work should be something that calls to us as something we want to do, something that gives voice to who we are and what we want to say to the world.
Yes, vocation is about our spiritual yearning to be connected to something larger and truer than our own egos. It is relational. To do this we can ask ourselves what it is we like best about our work and how these practices/activities are expressions of our soul. In this deeper sense, vocation is not a goal to be achieved but a gift to be received.
I love this gift of blessing from poet, author, and former priest John O’Donohue:
“May the light of your soul bless your work with love and warmth of heart. May you see in what you do the beauty of your soul.”
We face many mysteries in this world over the course of a lifetime. Many are left unsolved or unresolved in our hearts and minds. COVID-19 is one such mystery.
Parenting in this mysterious time can be challenging. Being a parent means many things, but one aspect or topic that a parenting book does not prepare you for is explaining what has been going on currently in the world and in our local communities with social distancing post the onset of the coronavirus. It has become necessary to teach science lessons about germs and the difference between good and bad germs, explain why we cannot be at daycare or church among our friends, and emphasize the increased necessity of frequent hand-washing. It has become a new part of daily dressing to learn how and why to properly put on and wear a protective mask.
I realize not only three-year-olds but all of us have questions or present with inquisitive minds as our sense of security and normalcy is stretched and tested. However, it may be helpful to take a moment to reflect on the positive experiences happening in our lives: perhaps your knowledge and use of technology are expanding; perhaps you are enjoying increased quality time spent in your homes with those you love; perhaps you have been able to enjoy taking a nature walk you did not have time for three months ago; perhaps you have been able to enjoy the fulfillment of making new or uncovering old recipes; maybe you have dusted off and enjoyed board and card games; maybe you have even organized a closet or two.
This time away from our previous routines has reinforced the fact that we all can still learn to make changes at any stage of our lives, learn from the heavenly Father and believe in His master plan for each and every one of us. As stated in one of my most cherished anthems, “God of the Deep” by Dan Forrest, “When simple explanations lie too deep for me to find, I rest in God who holds the whole creation in His mind. I hope in Him whose skill and wisdom far exceed my own. The secrets of the hidden depths belong to God alone.”
May you find peace, comfort, solace, and hope in the coming days and weeks ahead.
Musically yours in Christ,
“God of the Deep” -arr. Dan Forrest
Each time I stand and wonder at the vastness of the sea, I know that there are mysteries too great and deep for me. The wide expanse of water reaches far beyond my sight, And yet I know the One to whom its depths are full of light.
The mighty waves roll in to shore and break upon the sand, Compelled by unseen forces that I cannot understand. The currents run beneath the waves in perfect, charted paths; A skillful hand directs their courses, as it ever has.
The ocean teems with living things who never see the sun, And yet there is an eye who sees and knows them, every one; And that same eye has fathomed all the myst’ries of my days; When tears have dimmed my sight, a heart of Love still charts my ways.
When simple explanations lie too deep for me to find, I rest in God who holds the whole creation in His mind. I hope in Him whose skill and wisdom far exceed my own. The secrets of the hidden depths belong to God alone.
Are you as disheartened as I am, after two weeks of chaos, violence and death? My head is spinning as I have moved from an awareness of how connected we all are (“we’re in this together”) because of the coronavirus which is affecting the whole world, to how disconnected we all are from one another because of the racism, anger and rage we have seen. The layers of pain which have been exposed, the language of “domination,” “thugs,” and “battle space” which we have heard, and the violence we have witnessed all too clearly, have stunned, enraged, and frightened us.
Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer distinguished between “cheap grace” and “costly grace,” the difference between preaching “love” (cheap) and living love (costly). More is demanded of God’s people than living a comfortable life and being a good person, and I find myself wondering how much of our passive acceptance of the status quo regarding race has contributed to where we are now. What happened to us? Have we become satisfied with cheap grace, knowing the high price of costly grace?
So much is just plain wrong. Racism in all its manifestations is wrong. Violence, in ourselves and in others, is wrong. Domination– of protestors, of different races or religions, of women, of the earth and all of life–is wrong. And we need to speak out and condemn these dark stains on our corporate life.
But more than that—we need to do something—like taking a look at our own racism and all the assumptions we hold on to as people of privilege, like sitting down with our black and brown brothers and sisters as equals to hear their stories, their frustrations, their hopes and dreams—their reality. And maybe we need to begin by having in depth conversations with one another, here in the church, about our fears, our hesitancies, our personal anxieties—all those inner feelings about race that we find so hard to talk about, or to face in ourselves.
We are hoping to create opportunities for just that kind of dialogue in the near future. Stay tuned. And meanwhile, may the disturbing spirit of God, who has unsettled so many of us in the last couple of weeks, help us to embrace what is costly.
We are in a time of turmoil and it’s sending some of us to our knees ( at least those of us who can get up again): the death toll now over 100,000 , unemployment reaching staggering numbers, a death resulting from police brutality and protests in our streets.
What to pray? How to pray? Where is God in all this?
During Lent we focused on God’s promise in Jeremiah: …”when you call upon me and come and pray to me I will hear you.” And now we’ve arrived at Pentecost, unable to gather together in our sanctuary and pray together. Assembled in our sanctuary we prayed first the Prayer of Connection, a prayer to open our worship experience praising God. Then a Prayer Seeking God’s Grace, admitting to God whatever it is that separates us from God. The Prayer for Illumination helped to focus our listening as scripture is read and explained. Then we prayed together our Lord’s Prayer following the Prayers of Thanksgiving, Intercession and Petition.
Oh but there’s more prayer in our service, right? Yes, much more. These are just the ones we pray in unison, together in one voice. And that’s what we’re missing. Praying together is sharing our common experience, our common longing and desires, expressing our relationship with one another and with God. That’s what it means to be a praying community of faith.
So, now we’re on our own and need to turn to scripture and the Holy Spirit to lead us and guide us in the way of prayer, perhaps following the advice of Paul to the Thessalonians: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances (I Thess.5:16-18). While we are away from one another, “If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. God’s Spirit does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans.” (Romans 8:26 , The Message)
While we are separated from one another, how do we experience God? How do we allow ourselves to be led into the loving, healing presence of God? I am finding, in this time of crisis, that an old familiar prayer keeps me grounded. Known as the Serenity prayer it is attributed to theologian Reinhold Niebuhr during another time of American exigency, the Great Depression and World War II:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
We are called to remain faithful while enduring this strange world of sheltering in place, social distancing (for some: complete cutoff) and gathering via computers and phones for worship and fellowship. The longer this goes on, the harder it gets for most everyone, save extreme introverts.
My idea for offering some Words of Wisdom this week was to strongly encourage you to take just 5-10 minutes and turn to scripture, where wisdom, comfort and hope abound. Many of us as kids (or maybe even as adults) may have experimented with the “close your eyes and open the bible” method. Wherever your eyes landed, in whatever book you opened to, that was to be “God’s message” to you; to be accepted and heeded. Sometimes it did work. But when it didn’t? Start the process all over again!
Today I thought I’d narrow that exercise for you, by limiting the exercise to the Psalms, and recording each text I landed on, to demonstrate how apt and helpful the Psalms can be. But as I sat down with my bible to start the exercise, I lost my grip on it and it opened all on its own…to Habakkuk. Yup, that’s right, a tiny little 3-chapter book near the end of the Old Testament.
Habakkuk is known as a (very) minor prophet. There is little to no info about who he was, and Jewish and Christian writers place his authorship in a myriad of historical times and places. So nah, maybe another time… or… should I trust in “God’s message” to me this day? I read a little further in the introductory section and there it was. The Scholar, Marvin Sweeney writes: “Despite its small size, Habakkuk plays important roles in Judaism and Christianity…In modern times, Habakkuk’s address to the Lord raises the question of divine absence in relation to the Shoah (Holocaust) and other atrocities”. Boom. How incredibly timely this tiny book is again now, even though it only 3 chapters and written roughly 2500 years ago.
Scripture has a powerful and singularly unique way of speaking our thoughts when yet they are still unformed and voicing the laments we are unable to cry, out loud. It also gives guidance as to how to trust and pray to God, who is in fact not divinely absent but actually completely and utterly present, especially in this time of grief, fear, isolation and wobbly faith.
How does the book end? Well… it’s only 3 chapters. Why not take the time and read it for yourself and come share your insights on our Zoom call tonight? Or just come as you are and learn, share and be fed.
Well, it’s been over two months of sheltering in place, social distancing, wearing masks, and avoiding gatherings. So how are you dealing with it? I’ve heard a variety of reactions to this whole situation. There’s anger, frustration, loneliness, fear, acceptance; there are beautiful examples of how people have used their creativity to bring something new to a bad situation. There are moving stories of people helping other people, like the wonderful volunteers at our own Loaves and Fishes Food Pantry. So life goes on, however changed and changing it may be.
One thing I’ve heard from time to time is how lonely, or alone, people feel. One psychologist has said that loneliness is a feeling of being alone against your will. She said that you can be alone and not be lonely, or you can be lonely even if you are surrounded by people. But human beings need social interaction, physically and spiritually. We crave being connected to others. So the new normal, thanks to Covid-19, presents us with the tricky situation where we need to try to remain socially and spiritually connected, while being physically distant.
But how do you do that? Well, first of all let’s take a look at what our faith tells us. First, it says that you are NOT alone. God is with you. You can depend on that. As the benediction from our last service said, “God goes before you to guide you, beside you to be your best friend, behind you to protect you, beneath you to support you, and above you to give you vision and courage and hope.” That’s a given! And secondly, our faith says that we are part of a community, a loving and faithful community of God’s people. In this community, the church, we are called to help and support one another, to be the “support community” for each other. The question is, what does that mean in the face of this pandemic? How can we live that out, in real time, as we follow all the guidelines? That’s what we need to be figuring out, and some of you have. But it’s not easy! And yet it’s necessary; it’s a part of our calling, as Christians, in this moment in history.
Let me close with an image that has helped clarify my own thinking about the Christian life. The image is the cross. We have a vertical relationship with God, and we have a horizontal relationship with one another and with our world. Together, they form the cross, and, for a full and meaningful Christian life, you can’t have one without the other. We need both relationships for our wholeness. May we discover how to make that happen in these difficult and challenging times.
“I have been thinking, as doubtless you have all been, of these calamitous weeks through which we have been passing—thinking of the large numbers that have been sick— the large numbers that have died, the many, many homes that have been made desolate—the many, many bleeding, sorrowing hearts that have been left behind, and I have been asking myself the question, What is the meaning of it all ?”
This was the Reverend Francis James Grimke, an African American Presbyterian pastor in a sermon of November, 1918 on the devastation caused by the Spanish Flu pandemic that had raged in the spring and again in the fall. (What Pastor Grimke couldn’t have known was that a few months later there would be a third deadly wave.) When the congregation gathered for corporate worship again he raised these questions. “Surely God has a purpose in it”, he said, “and it is our duty to find out what that purpose is.” He goes on to reflect on another question, of why some are stricken and others not.” He raised similar questions to ours today. Why are some asymptomatic and yet spreading the corona virus? Why are some testing positive and enduring only mild symptoms? And why are some dying within 2 days of contracting covid 19?
A new frontier, a challenge, and a time that demands courage. We are on new ground, in the strange land of social distancing and face masks. Everything that once seemed so secure, so certain, so steady and reliable has become fragile and we have become susceptible, and vulnerable. But we are still here and it’s time to begin asking God what God is calling us to now. Yes, we are still here trying to find a natural courage that casts out fear. Yes, still here and looking for patience in the crisis, trusting that Christ is working to transform even this cross into resurrected glory. Perhaps it’s time to reassess, to once again discern our gifts, seeking transformation.
Grimke turned to Psalm 91: “You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress; my God in whom I trust” For He will deliver you…from the deadly pestilence…” Trusting in God in similar distressing circumstances, he said “it is a good time for those of us who are Christians to examine ourselves to see whether our faith is really resting upon Christ, the solid Rock.”
So what is the next step? We are challenged now to renew our trust in God who is always with us, especially in our unknown future, calling us forth into something new and perhaps strange, but with the assurance that God will bless us always with visible signs of invisible grace. We just need to trust.
You may have seen this interesting story on MSN.com or Facebook about a Singaporean man, Wong Tetchoong, 59, who embarked on his sailing adventure from Singapore on his ‘Ximula 3’ yacht on February 2, 2020. He had plans to travel across the Pacific Ocean, with two of his friends from Indonesia. He had no idea what awaited him during his journey by sea. The two friends who were accompanying him had to cut their trip short and return to their homeland before their borders closed as Covid-19 began to spread.
Mr. Wong sailed from port to port throughout the South Pacific looking for a place to land for safety and supplies. He was rejected from returning to Indonesia as well as Papua New Guinea, Tuvalu, and the Solomon Islands because of fears of virus spread. Wong was forced to be at sea for over 60 days, enduring heavy seas/winds with a damaged auto-pilot before the Fijian Navy and Government agreed to assist him out at sea after being stranded for almost two months.
We too have been ‘stranded’ for about 6 weeks (and under alert/virus worry for probably 60 days). And, as of today Gov. Murphy, has ordered another 30 days of staying in our home port. So very many things that have always anchored us, are still unavailable and even the best and most treasured relationships in our lives, are being put to the test.
The longer this goes on, the more difficult it will be to keep ourselves from going adrift; physically, mentally, emotionally, and for sure, spiritually. I have been thinking about what Mr. Wong was doing when he has without a port and without his family. While sitting on a yacht in the South Pacific sounds delightful for a few weeks, I imagine, there was waaaaay too much down/alone time. What did he do? Did he journal? Did he sing childhood or family or native songs? Did he pray? Besides pondering life, missing his family and friends, and returning to a pescatarian diet (which we may all be doing short-term), how did he find his bearings without his auto-pilot? How did he anchor his soul?
Perhaps we are all finding out what anchors our souls what things and experiences send us feeling adrift. Perhaps if we take the time to listen to the still waters, the birds of air, the winds and the tides, we will hear God’s voice in some or all of these ways. Some of you may already know that most early American churches were built with an interior architecture/infrastructure to resemble the inside of a boat. (You’ve got time, look it up!)
I pray we only have 30 more days of being at sea. I pray you don’t feel adrift, but if you do, I hope you are or will become anchored by our weekly worship. I hope you’re praying more often, separately and together. The best way to get anchored is to seek the One who can still the storms, be our protector in midst of 40 days and 40 nights and who can walk on water to meet us, when we are adrift and seeking a safe and open harbor.