Responding to COVID-19

CDC-stop-spread-of-germs_english

I encounter many different people in my daily workaday world as both a church pastor and hospital chaplain.  Perhaps it goes without saying that this rapidly changing environment of taking precautions with the COVID-19 virus has us all stressed, me included.  From my vantage of daily spiritual ministry with both parishioners and patients, it is important and necessary to take the coronavirus seriously without panicking.  Here’s what I see works and what doesn’t work when it comes to the pandemic.

What works is taking the situation seriously.  Last year 32 million people contracted the flu in this country.  Yes, every year people die from the flu.  What’s different about COVID-19 is that, thus far, 1% of everyone who has the virus died.  Stick with me here.  If there were no precautions, no social distancing, and business as usual, it is likely that tens of millions of people would get the virus.  With a 1% death rate, 320,000 Americans would die.  Ignorance really does kill people.

  • Getting your information from reputable sources works.  It is available.  Use it.  The Center for Disease Control keeps its website updated with an abundance of helpful information.  And, if you think you may have symptoms of the virus or have been exposed, please, don’t go to your local hospital’s ED.  Call the COVID-19 HOTLINE at 866-443-2584.  You will likely need to wait, so, please, be patient.
  • Social distancing works.  If I can stop the spread of the virus through canceling church services for a while and speaking with patients on the phone instead of in person, then I’ll do it.  If my actions prevent the immunocompromised people I love and even the ones I will never meet to live, then this is not even a question about whether I’ll practice social distancing, or not.
  • Practicing self-care works.  It does neither me nor anyone else any good if we constantly give without receiving. Healthy relationships have a healthy rhythm of both giving and receiving.  Taking the time to do what makes your soul happy is vital.  I am presently being stretched in new and different ways.  Handling two jobs isn’t easy to begin with.  Under these present conditions, it could be a crushing load – that is, if I neglect caring for myself.

What doesn’t work is being in panic mode.  80% of the people who contract the virus will be just fine, if they care for themselves, stay home, and get better.  Yes, we don’t have a choice whether to go to the gym or eat out at a restaurant.  There are things we can’t do, whether it is going to our jobs or our schools.  The pandemic is straining our economy and personal finances.  That doesn’t mean the sky is falling.

  • Practicing the age-old sin of avarice through hoarding doesn’t work.  Folks panicking through inordinate stocking of meds, goods and services are needlessly and wantonly stretching the healthcare and service systems which are trying to help.  We do not live in a culture of scarcity.  Hoarding helps no one.
  • Brazenly telling people to get a grip doesn’t work.  Within the same conversation I have heard individuals express things like “It’s all a conspiracy,” to the other extreme of “What are you even doing here? Trying to get me sick?” and overreacting in fear.  If I am honest with myself, I sometimes do the same thing in my own head.  One minute I want to enter patient rooms and parishioner homes, wanting to help any way I can in a precautions-be-damned sort of mode.  The next minute I’m pondering going full Grizzly Adams, secluding myself in the Northwoods and befriending a bear – all in the concern for not passing on the virus to people I care about.  All these words and thoughts are windows into people’s grief over the significant losses and changes thrust upon them.  They need to express their grief without flippantly being told they need to get a hold of themselves.  This is a time for patient listening and basic kindness toward our fellow humanity so that we all get through this experience. It doesn’t work to frame the situation as God’s judgment or people’s lack of faith.  Even if that were so, we still need to exercise grace and compassion in a time of need.  I invite you to interpret another’s complaining and/or quarreling as a window into their grief of the changes they are experiencing.
  • Making a joke of the current COVID-19 doesn’t work.  Although wise and well-timed levity and laughter can aid in coping within all the brevity, misplaced humor can be cruel and damaging.  Those who know me expect funny stuff from me.  Yet, there’s nothing funny about a virus going around that could do some real harm to the immunocompromised people that I love and care for.  I would suggest this rule of thumb: If making jokes is a way of avoiding your own emotions and feeling the sadness and heaviness of the circumstance, then don’t make jokes; and, if the meme or joke is thoughtful and could lighten people’s load a bit, then, yes, thank you of thinking of others.

There is for us a unique opportunity in this season of Lent.  For many Christians, each year during these weeks becomes a focus on solitude, silence, fasting, prayer, spiritual reading, repentance and other disciplines of faith.  We seek to journey with Jesus in the desert, following him in his ways.  Whether we like it, or not, solitude has been forced upon us.  We have the chance to come face to face with our own inner selves; to check-in on our elderly neighbors; to connect with our family; to creatively find new green pastures; to pay attention to the values which are most important to us.  We can bless small business owners with our patronage.  We can find ways to bless the world.

May the Lord bless you and protect you.

May the LORD make his face shine on you and be gracious to you.

May the Lord lift-up his face to you and grant you peace.  Amen.

John 12:20-33 – What It Means to Follow Christ

dying to self

“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.” (NRSV)

The fifth Sunday in Lent is now here.  We are quickly approaching Jerusalem.  Holy Week will be here before you know it.  Why is this all significant?  Because Jesus is important.  When we take advantage of Lent with its focus on spiritual discipline, prayer, and repentance, we come face-to-face with the shadowy parts of our selves.  We discover that within us there is the pull to hold-on to unhealthy rhythms and habits of life, as well as a push to arrange our lives with the fragmentation of disordered love.

Perhaps our reflexive response to things we do not like about ourselves is to either use sheer willpower to change or try to somehow manage our brokenness, as if we could boss our way out of darkness.  The problem and the solution are much more radical than we often would like to admit.

We must die.  Yes, this is the teaching of the Lord Jesus.  That is, we need to die to ourselves.  Sin cannot be managed or willed away – it must be eradicated and completely cut out, like the cancer it is.  Transformation can only occur through death.  Jesus uses the familiar example of a seed to communicate his point.  A tiny little seed can grow, break the ground, and develop into something which provides sustenance for others.  It does no good to remain a seed in the ground.

Jesus did not tell others to do with what he himself does not do.  Christ is the ultimate example of the one who died to himself and literally died for us.  Only through suffering and death did he secure deliverance for us.  Through his wounds we are healed.  Through his tortuous death a resurrection became possible – and we must always remember that there must be a death if there is to be a resurrection.  Death always comes before there is life.  There must be suffering before there is glory.

Only through dying to self and following Jesus will there be the kind of transformative change which the world so desperately needs.  If we persist in making puny attempts at trying to straddle the fence in dual/rival kingdoms, we will be spiritually schizophrenic and left with a divided soul.

Following Jesus, leaving all to walk with him, is true repentance and authentic discipleship.  The act of journeying with Christ is the means to having a new life.  Change only happens when we allow Jesus Christ to be the center from which all our life springs.

Maybe you think I’m being too forceful, too insistent about this Jesus stuff.  Yes, you have perceived well.  I am being quite single-minded about the need to die to self and live for Christ.  Somehow, within many corners of Christianity, this wrongheaded notion that suffering is not God’s will has made it into the life of the church.  But I’m here to say, on the authority of God’s Holy Word, that dying to ourselves is necessary and it hurts like hell.  The epistle reading for today bears this out:

“In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.  Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” (Hebrews 5:7-9, NRSV)

We are not above our Master.  Even Christ’s life on this earth, before his death and resurrection, was marked with suffering.  Even Jesus learned obedience through struggle and adversity.  Our Lord himself did what he is now asking us to do.  He gave himself up to do the Father’s will.  We must give up ourselves to submit to King Jesus.  Jesus offered loud cries and tears and submitted to what the Father wanted.  We must do no less.  We don’t get to choose which parts of Christ’s life and teaching we will adhere to and which ones we don’t need to, as if Jesus were some spiritual buffet line.  All who live for Jesus will follow him into the path of suffering, of death to self, and of new life through the power of his resurrection.  In Christ’s own words: “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

So, then, how do we follow Jesus through dying to self?  What does that mean for you and me on a practical daily basis?

Thanks for asking.

Surrender

Every moment of every day we can give up ourselves to Jesus.  We have hundreds, maybe thousands of small decisions every day with the use of our time, our money, our energy, and our relationships.  If we have tried to fix what is broken inside of us, we will likely just try to hastily fix the problems and the people in our lives and move on with getting things done on our to do list.  Instead, we need to surrender.  We need to create the sacred space for solitude and silence, prayer and repentance.  Take the time to sit with a person in pain and listen.  Reflect on how to use your money in a way which mirrors kingdom values.  Begin to see your life as a holy rhythm of hearing God and responding to what he says.  It takes intentional surrender to do that.

Sacrifice

Holding-on to our precious stuff and time is the opposite of sacrifice.  Are we truly willing to give-up everything to follow Jesus?  It is more than true that we are not Jesus.  Our sacrifice and suffering are not efficacious, that is, it doesn’t deliver other people from sin.  Only Christ’s death does that.  Yet, we are still called to sacrifice.  The Apostle Paul understood this:

“I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” (Colossians 1:24, NRSV)

I’m just going to let you wrestle with that verse and mull it over without comment on my part.

We were not placed on this earth only to strive for happiness.  Our lives are not meant to be lived for ourselves. Jesus has called us to see our places, communities, neighborhoods, and families as our mission field of grace to a world who needs him.  This takes sacrificial love on our part.

Christianity is not really a religion that is for people who have put together neat theological answers and tidy packaged certainties to all of life’s questions.  Rather, Christianity is a dynamic religion of learning to follow Jesus, discovering how to die to self, and struggling to put Christ’s teaching and example into practice.

Those who don’t struggle are in big trouble.  But those who go through the pain of dying to themselves for the sake of their Lord, find that the fruit they end up bearing leads to eternal life.

May you struggle well, my friend.

It’s Time to Forgive

20180223_123757

God is in the forgiveness business.  It’s a big deal to him.

If you and I want to be content in this life, we need to let Christ’s instruction to practice forgiveness sink down deep into our souls.  Jesus said it about as clear as anybody could say it when he taught us how to pray:

“Forgive us as we forgive everyone else.” (God’s Word Translation)

Yet, many people live with discontentment because they think to themselves: “I will not forget what you did, and I will not forgive.”  Persistent thoughts of revenge only serve as a cancer that destroys the mind’s thoughts, erodes the soul, and hinders the heart’s ability to love.  But people who practice forgiveness are much less likely to be hateful, hostile, and belligerent toward others.  They are healthier and happier, and more at peace.

I have had people tell me, “But you don’t know what I’ve been through.”  My typical response is: “You don’t know what I’ve been through, either.  You may not even believe some of the things I have experienced, and some of the things that have happened to me and were said to me.  So, can I tell you what I have done to forgive those who have sinned against me?”

1. When I am trying to forgive someone, I pray for them.

It’s hard to keep resenting someone and wish them ill-will when you are praying for them on a regular basis.  In the book of Genesis, Joseph was the victim of his brothers’ abuse.  If there was ever a dysfunctional family to grow up in, it was Joseph’s.  Being sold into slavery by your own brothers and being the target of their derision would cause anyone to be upset.  But, many years later, Joseph chose to forgive his brothers.  He acted with their best interests at mind.  He prayed for them and did not actively work against them.  What’s more, he eventually came to see the hand of God in it all.  Joseph said to his brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20).

2. I write a letter of forgiveness (which I may or may not send).

In the letter I write in full detail how the person hurt me.  I leave nothing out.  I express exactly how it made me feel, and how it affected my life.  Then, I express forgiveness and say that I will not hold the offense over their head.  Here is a five-step process for forgiving others using the acrostic REACH which helps shape how I write:

Recall 

That is, name the hurt.  Name it squarely.  Don’t fudge on it by saying it’s not that bad, or as bad as others have experienced.  Call it what it is: deceit; stealing; harassment; assault; abuse; adultery; verbal shaming; or even, murder.  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa after apartheid was based on providing full disclosure of all crimes.  Those that stepped forward to do so would be offered a full pardon.  Desmond Tutu, who led the commission, was most struck by how many people wanted to hear what had happened to their loved ones from the perpetrators themselves so that they could know whom to forgive.  Methinks we have much learn from our African brothers and sisters.

Empathize

Try and see the offense from the other person’s perspective.  Attempt to put yourself in the other’s shoes.  This does not mean we paper over the offense; it just means we don’t demonize another as a monster.  That only feeds and fuels our own lack of forgiveness.  When we view others as non-human, then we feel no responsibility to forgive.

Altruistic

Choose to do the right thing and treat the other person well, not because they deserve it, but because it is within your control to extend grace.  Again, this is what Joseph chose to do with his brothers: “So then, don’t be afraid.  I will provide for you and your children.”  And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them (Genesis 50:21).

Commit

Commit to practice forgiveness.  Make the decision to do it.  Don’t wait too long for your feelings to catch up to you.  “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another.  Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13).

Hold

Hold-on to your forgiveness.  Just because you make the decision to forgive does not mean you’ll never have to do it again.  Once you have forgiven, let it be a stake in the ground in which you look back to it again and again.  “I forgave him/her, and I will not let the enemy of my soul keep trying to make me bitter about it all over again.”  One of the reasons we repeat the Lord’s Prayer Sunday after Sunday in my church is to keep forgiving those who have sinned against us.

3. I talk to a trusted friend, mentor, or counselor about my effort to forgive.

Many people get stuck in discontentment.  They have an inability to forgive because they don’t seek a wise person to help them walk through the process of forgiving.  The easy path is to complain about the offense to someone we know will react with the same level of disgust and spirit of revenge that we ourselves have in our hearts.  But that only reinforces bitterness.  We need someone who can offer us what we need to hear, and not what we want to hear.

Forgiveness is at the heart of the gospel, and, so, ought to be at the core of a healthy Christian life.  The Christian season of Lent is designed for repentance, grace, and forgiveness to shape our lives.  There is no better time than now to deliberately engage forgiveness.

A Tongue-in-Cheek Peek into Lent

sock monkey

Lent.  The word itself sounds downright unsavory.  Who in the world would want something in their life that reminds them of something like toe jam or junior high boys who forget that a belly button is an orifice to be cleaned?

Lent might seem gross, but it’s really an important season in the Christian Year.  Every year, in the doldrums of late winter when other folks are off either escaping to Florida or scrambling to find light like it’s the last french-fry in the bottom of the bag (o where o where did I put that box that shines the crazy bright light…?), Christians around the world are entering a time of spiritual athleticism in abstinence, giving, and prayer.  They call it “Lent.”

The word “Lent” is simply an old English word for “Spring” – not spring training (get baseball and Florida out of your mind… by the way, have you seen my light box?).  Lent for the Christian and for the church is a 40-day, six-week season each year leading up to Easter and the celebration of Christ’s resurrection.  Just as Jesus spent 40 days in the desert to prepare himself for his coming ministry, so his followers have the privilege and opportunity to identify with him.  It’s a special time to connect in a unique and meaningful way with God – but without the chocolate.

For many people, Lent is associated with giving up something for the six-week season.  But Lent, and the entire Christian life, is made up of much more than giving up things.  We let go of something so that we can pick up something else.  We really can do that.  After all, we aren’t like those stupid monkeys who stick their hand in a trap to grab a banana and can’t get it out unless they drop it.

monkey-trap

Nope, we are more evolved.  We can learn to exchange one practice for another.  We can lay aside some old way of living and take on a new way of life. We can stop dreaming about all the great stuff we could sell to American Pickers (maybe Frank would find my dang light box) and start thinking about giving away all the stuff in our closets and rooms that somebody else could use… wait, I still have a t-shirt from 1994 that I haven’t worn since the remake of Planet of the Apes!?

There are three Christian practices which make observing the season of Lent worth the effort. They relate to each other.  Each practice alone is a powerful antidote to our narcissistic cravings for attention and bananas.  Yet, together they are an atomic bomb of grace exploding on a world in need of Christ’s light and deliverance (oh, man, did I lend my light box to Jesus?).

Fasting

I’m not talking about giving up vegetables for fast food.  Fasting simply means not eating.  I haven’t lost you yet, have I? (of course not, your grimy hand is still holding on to that banana). Food is necessary, but it can so easily shape our lives to the point that we let chips, soda, and breakfast burritos call the shots on our time and desires, not to mention our bathroom habits.  Setting aside food for one day a week or letting go of a certain precious item (bye-bye brownies) is designed to do something more than just point to our growling empty guts: We let the hunger pangs for food remind us of a much greater hunger to know and love Jesus, the Bread of Life.

sock monkey eating candy

Giving

Less food in your belly and fewer trips to Aldi for those Ferrero Rocher dark chocolates provides the chance to give the money you would have spent on yourself for someone in need of real food.  Stop eating. Start giving.  Put down the double stuff Oreo you were going to dip into that chocolate eau claire and think about someone who is hungry, for real.  An important dimension to stopping an activity is thinking of another person and doing for them instead of yourself.  I see you.  Nice try on thinking you’ll bake chocolate chip cookies for a group of the homeless hungry.  Like a beach full of baby turtles hatching who never make it to the ocean, you and I know all those cookies will never make it from the wax paper to the cookie tin.  Just walk away from the kitchen, my friend.

 

Praying

It takes time to make your way to the bottom of a pint of Ben & Jerry’s chocolate chunk fudge brownie ice cream.  Now that you’ve sent Ben & Jerry packing to the curb, what will you do with the time?  Pray.  Pray for the people for whom you’re giving your food and money.  Pray for the hungry on this earth who don’t know where their next meal is coming from.  Pray for the great hunger of the world for spiritual sustenance and satisfaction.  Pray that you won’t fall into the temptation of turning your remaining kitchen ingredients into some super moist chocolate cake creation.

sock monkey praying

I’ve got to level with you.  Lent isn’t easy.  I really wanted to say it was, but it just isn’t.  I like my bananas just as much as the next guy.  I’ve got enough hoodies in one closet of my place to outfit all the monkeys at the Milwaukee Zoo.  Sometimes I secretly tell Little Debbie I wish she were my sister.  I have some money in accounts and investments, and it makes me feel sort of secure and somewhat like a big shot. The thought of letting go of anything feels like inviting someone to give me a wax peel-off of my chest hair just for kicks – it just seems weird.

I’ve been observing Lent for years and I wish I could tell you it gets easier.  It doesn’t.  It’s still hard.  But I keep coming back to it every year, even looking forward to it a little more each time – not because I’m a masochist who enjoys wax peels, but because I have come to embrace the value of stripping away anything that’s an obstacle to me knowing Jesus.

When Easter arrives every Spring I often wonder why I thought I needed that banana, that brownie, or that light box.  Turns out that Jesus, the Light of the World, provided so much of an experience in discovering him that my petty attempts at holding-on were just that – really, really, petty.  Lent is something like a detox for the soul.  It helps me to feel love again and to function like a civil human being.  At the beginning of Lent, I just feel hungry.  Well, I still feel hungry weeks later, too, but I get used to the empty stomach.  Like Jesus rising to new life from an empty tomb my emptiness turns to joy, not frustration.

monkey sun

I have an admission to make (fyi: I didn’t give up honesty for Lent): I can’t stand Christians who tell me Lent is optional; that I’m only making an ash of myself on the first Wednesday of Lent because it’s a Catholic thing; and, that seasonal rituals are unspiritual.

Last I checked (neither did I give up sarcasm for Lent) walking in the way of Jesus was a good thing; Catholics are our spiritual ancestors (whether you like it, or not); and, most people just finished ritualistically observing Valentine’s Day, like they do every year with the liturgical giving and receiving of flowers.

Lent might sound unsavory; it may be hard, especially in taking a hard look at yourself.  But you see Jesus, even without a light box.  And that’s a treasure Little Debbie can’t touch.