Brief thoughts on COVID-19, Lent, Holy Week, suffering and more

Introduction

This has been an unpredictably strange Lent and now Holy Week for us Christians. As a faith that places high value in our collective identity—i.e. the communion of saints—we have been either legislated against gathering or strongly discouraged to gather together to worship during much of Lent and now Holy Week. Staying home, social distancing, quarantine and self-isolating have become the universally acceptable protocols.

Without question, the coronavirus—COVID-19—has changed the world for the worse; as well as in some respects for the better. It is a tragedy that COVID-19 has claimed the lives of so many people; and will continue to do so into at least the near future. My heart goes out to those who are suffering with the coronavirus; as well as those families who have lost loved ones.

In times of suffering, the worst in human beings comes out. The New Testament Passion narratives in all four Gospels bear this truth out. Humankind was, and still is way too capable of betrayals, denials, exploiting the weak and most vulnerable, wrongfully scapegoating and unjustly arresting, torturing and killing the innocent.

The media doesn’t always help in this regard. Sometimes they do not have the complete facts; distort and misunderstand and manipulate the facts to create fear among the general public; which can escalate into mass hysteria. For example, it is mass hysteria at work when people buy and horde as much toilet paper and hand sanitizer as possible—creating a shortage for others. Moreover, it is also a coldness of heart and intentional greed on the part of some to sell their surplus of these items for outrageously high prices.

Another example of people at their worst is expressed in antisemitism online—encouraging people with the coronavirus to deliberately go into Jewish synagogues and other places where Jews gather to spread COVID-19. Such actions, once again, confirm that sin and evil are alive among human beings in the world.

Suffering can be redemptive

On the other hand, suffering can be redemptive in that it has the potential to bring out the best in humankind. For instance, there are people like health-care workers, first responders, those in essential services like grocery store workers, truckers, etc., who willingly risk their lives for the common good of everyone. May God continue to bless them in their work!

During Lent and Holy Week, followers of Jesus are hopefully acutely aware of and appreciative for how suffering is redemptive by focussing on the Passion and Resurrection narratives of the Gospels. The suffering and death of Jesus on Good Friday was not the last word. By raising Jesus from the dead on that first Easter Sunday; God has assured us that suffering can be redemptive.

As we experience sufferings from COVID-19 I do not think that we should blame God for it. Rather, I believe that God is in solidarity with us and suffers with us and is even giving us the opportunity to turn to him for help and come to see that he is the Giver of life. By turning to God for help maybe we can learn some important lessons from our sufferings.

Sabbath

I am, in part, seeing this time as a Sabbath in that it affords us to stop; slow our life down; and reflect more deeply about the meaning of life and what is most important in life—i.e. God, faith, relationships, community, loving and serving our neighbours, especially those most needy.

By cultivating our relationships with God, spouse, children and others and slowing down and resting from work can improve our spiritual, mental and physical health. By not being so busy; by slowing down; God’s creation also benefits from Sabbath time. For example, it is being observed that in many of the world’s largest cities there is less air pollution.

Exile and Lament

I also think that this is a time of Exile and Lament. Someone has described this time of exile as similar to being under house arrest. Different countries have different laws in response to COVID-19. Some nations –again perhaps acting out of fear—have complete lockdowns, everyone has to stay home. If they go out, they may face fines or even go to prison. Other nations allow people to go out for walks as long as they remain two meters from each other. People are also allowed to go out for basic necessities such as food and medications.

Even so, it seems like living in exile since social gatherings are either not allowed or strongly discouraged. For those living alone, I think the sense of exile is likely even more pronounced—since we humans are social beings.

This sense of living in exile is closely related to the reality of lament. Those living alone lament for the days before COVID-19; when they were free to come and go and be with others. Many lament because they cannot go to work or may even have lost their jobs. Others lament not being able to be with a love one who is dying in the hospital. Those who are dying may be lamenting that they cannot say their final words in the presence of their loved ones. Those who have lost loved ones lament not being able to have a proper funeral service for their loved ones. Children may lament that they cannot attend school. People of faith lament because they are unable to gather and celebrate important festivals like Passover and Easter. They will have to celebrate at home; and for some, online—yet that is not the same as being physically present with one another.

I believe that exile and lament have the potential to give people of faith a greater appreciation for the Psalter. Many of the Psalms reflect the experiences of exile and lament. In such times once again we have the opportunity to turn to God for help and express all of our thoughts and emotions to him regarding our circumstances. In so doing, hopefully there can be strength to cope with the present situation and hope for the future.

Passover and Easter

Passover and Easter are festivals of hope and freedom. The Israelites celebrate Passover by remembering how God saved them from death and freed them from Egyptian slavery. Against all odds, as they wandered in the wilderness; God chose Moses to lead Israel to the promised land; God also gave them hope in the midst of their hardships in the wilderness that in the future they would live in freedom in the promised land.

Christians celebrate Easter as a festival of hope and freedom too. The suffering and death of Jesus on the cross was not the last word. On that first Easter Sunday—against the powers of sin, death and evil—God acted to raise Jesus from the dead. Easter is a celebration of hope in a new, resurrection life in the future. It’s also hope in the small resurrections in the here-and-now wherever faith, love, peace, goodness and justice prevail. Thanks to the saving work of Jesus through his suffering, death and resurrection; we are given a new freedom from the powers of sin, death and evil. That freedom is experienced in part now and permanently in the life to come.

In the case of both Jews and Christians, suffering can never defeat us by the circumstances of life—including the coronavirus. Why? Because we still have the freedom and the hope to respond to such circumstances in ways that are appropriate and life-giving. We can choose, by the grace of God, to love God and love our neighbours.

A Lectionary Reflection on Luke 13:31-35, Lent 2

Image Credit: Gospel Book of Otto III, flickriver.com

This week’s gospel begins with “some Pharisees” described in a more positive way by warning Jesus that Herod “that fox” (a predator, crafty animal that looks for chickens to kill and eat) wants to kill him. The phrase “some Pharisees” is a reminder to the readers of this gospel that not all Pharisees can easily be stereotyped, and that they were a diverse group of religious leaders—some of whom most likely did not oppose Jesus.

In contrast to this group of Pharisees, Herod is after Jesus’ blood, and wants him dead. Indeed, Herod was a treacherous man who had beheaded John the Baptizer.

In Jesus’ message to Herod via these Pharisees, he emphasized that his mission of ushering in God’s realm must continue—i.e., casting out demons and performing cures were signs of his messianic identity, and likely could be perceived as a threat to Herod, since people flocked to Jesus, and this had the potential to cause political unrest. Jesus’ words communicate courage and a single-mindedness in carrying out his messianic mission—that he was not about to be intimidated by Herod’s machinations.

Then Jesus goes on to lament over Jerusalem: “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it.” In this lament, one can sense how heart-breaking it was for Jesus to experience the rejection and hatred of people he came to love. The metaphor that he employs is the loving, brave and protecting hen that gathers her brood of chicks when there is danger. This image that Jesus associates himself and his messianic mission with is a message of encouragement and affirmation of the feminine.

The heart-breaking lament in response to rejection and hatred is a reminder to all of us of Jesus’ solidarity with members of the human race who lament because they are rejected and hated. There are far too many in the world today who are heart-broken and suffer untold pain because of being rejected and hated for the colour of their skin, being a different gender, or belonging to the wrong socio-economic, ethnic, linguistic or religious group. How can we see these folks as the presence of Jesus in our midst today and welcome them?

In the closing verse of our gospel, Jesus may be referring to his entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, when the crowds welcome him with these words that he quotes here from the last Hallel Psalm (Psalm 118:26), which was sung at the Jewish festivals, including after eating the Passover meal.

 

 

A Brief Lectionary Reflection on Deut. 26:1-11, Lent 1

Image credit: Yebin Mun

This pericope includes instructions to the Israelites when they began to settle in the Promised Land and survived via an agrarian way of life. They were to bring to the priest at the place of worship the first fruit of their harvest as an offering. This was a reminder to them of how the LORD God provided for them.

Included in the ceremony of giving the first fruit to the priest is a confession of faith beginning with the words: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor….” This ancestor, some scholars believe, was Jacob, who lived for many years in the land of Aram, modern day Syria.

The confession of faith goes on to emphasise the importance of remembering how the Israelites suffered as slaves in Egypt, and how the LORD God delivered them from slavery through the Exodus event, bringing them to and giving them “a land flowing with milk and honey.” In other words, God delivered them from an oppressive, poverty-stricken state of existence to a new life of freedom and opportunity to live a healthy lifestyle through the means of a fertile land.

This confession of faith connects with the gospel pericope in that it is by way of confessing one’s faith and remembering God through that act of confessing that is life-giving and helps one to depend on God for deliverance from temptation and oppression. The confession is then an act of expressing one’s ultimate loyalty to God.

Following the confession, the Levites, together with the people bringing their first fruits, along with “the aliens” celebrate the bounty provided by God. This is a beautiful picture emphasising the inclusive nature of new life in the Promised Land—implying that no one is left out, there is enough for everyone. A very pertinent message for the situation in many parts of the world today, where there is an ever-growing need to welcome and care for refugees.

This pericope has many preaching possibilities—everything from an emphasis on stewardship, giving God the first fruits NOT the leftovers, Thanksgiving, gratitude, to the importance of confessing our faith as an act of ultimate allegiance to God, to living out our faith by making our community, province, nation, world more welcome and inclusive.

Ash Wednesday

AshWednesdayCrossYesterday, Ash Wednesday, marked the beginning of the season of Lent. I participated in an ecumenical service last evening. I was designated to explain the meaning of the ashes and do the imposition of ashes on the clergy, as well as help administer the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. It was a wonderful service held at the local Anglican church, with clergy representing the Anglican, Church of God, Lutheran, United, and Ukrainian Catholic churches.

In dialogue with the Ukrainian Catholic priest prior to the service, I learned a couple of things that surprised me. First, they do not use ashes in their Ash Wednesday services—for them Lent actually begins on Monday two days prior to Ash Wednesday. Second, the colour for Lent in their tradition is not purple, but red, since the latter is regarded by them as a penitential colour.

Ashes in the Western churches are important, since they symbolize our mortality, as well as combined with sackcloth, were associated with repentance in biblical times.

We were blessed and privileged to hear God’s Word read and proclaimed and all baptised Christians were welcome to partake of the Lord’s Supper.

The Anglican priest lead us in the beautiful Ash Wednesday penitential liturgy and he, along with two other clergy—one Lutheran, one Anglican, a visible sign of our full communion—were co-presiders at the Lord’s Table. The Church of God pastor began with an opening introduction, highlighting God’s mercy, and sharing information on a Canadian Food Grains project which our community supports. The United Church minister led us in the offertory prayer. The Ukrainian Catholic priest offered the closing benediction.

It was a very moving and humbling experience to have been there and help with administering the sacrament. It was also a small sign of the unity of Christ’s Body expressed in the rich diversity of our respective denominations.

As the World Council of Churches emphasized years ago, “doctrine divides, service unites,” so in our community, we joined together contributing our offering to the Canadian Food Grains Bank in service of those in need.

We left the worship service in silence; recipients of God’s mercy and grace, and given new opportunities to share the love of Jesus in thought, word and deed with those in need in our community and around the globe.

On observing Lent

Christians around the globe are now in the season of Lent. The word Lent may have Anglo-Saxon origins, meaning to lengthen, as in referring to the longer days in the season of spring. Over the centuries, Christians have developed several traditions to assist them in their 40 day (not counting Sundays) preparation for the celebration of Easter Sunday, and the resurrection of Jesus. Here are a few of them:

  • Preaching, reading, studying, praying, and focussing on the New Testament Passion Narratives, which highlight the last days of Jesus’ earthly ministry; along with his journey to Jerusalem, his arrest, trial, sentence, crucifixion, suffering and death.
  • Worship Services that communicate a more reflective, sombre mood by omitting (in some denominations liturgically burying) the singing or saying of hallelujah and alleluia; as well as singing hymns with tunes in the minor key, which are often inspired by and based on the Passion Narratives. In Lutheran tradition, it has been (perhaps more so in previous generations than today) common to listen to J.S. Bach’s Passion of St Matthew and Passion of St John during the Lenten season. Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Palm-Passion Sunday, and Good Friday Worship Services are especially designed to engage worshippers in acts of sincere confession and repentance of sin—both personal and collective; remembering with humility our mortality and hence our utter dependence on God; and the desire to journey with Jesus in the way of the cross.
  • The practice of giving something up in a sacrificial way for Lent in order to be in solidarity with Christ and the world’s poor. In our part of the world, that might include no television, no movies, or no Internet during Lent. The operative principle for giving something up in a sacrificial way during Lent is that it needs to be sacrificial; i.e. something that you value and takes up much of your time, energy and resources. For example, it is pointless to give up chocolate for Lent if you do not eat chocolate.
  • The practice of taking something extra on for Lent. For example, you may wish to spend extra time in prayer, meditation or study. Many churches offer their parishioners special mid-week Lenten Worship Services or Study opportunities or social justice projects that connect us with the world’s poor through benevolent organisations like Canadian Lutheran World Relief<www.clwr.org>.

   The Lenten season has inspired poets, musicians and artists alike down through the ages. Here is the first of 21 stanzas, (divided up into 7 parts to coincide with the Good Friday Tenebrae Service on the 7 last words of Jesus on the cross) one of my favourites, by the nineteenth century hymn writer, Thomas B. Pollock: “Jesus in thy dying woes, even while thy life-blood flows, craving pardon for thy foes: Hear us holy Jesus.” One of my favourite works of art is Salvador Dali’s 1951 painting, “Christ of St John of the Cross.

Christ of St John of the Cross by Salvador Dali

  

   Whatever you do to observe Lent, may you find meaning and purpose in it to enrich, inspire and deepen you in your faith journey. I invite readers of this post to make a comment and share how you observe Lent.  A blessed Lent to you.

Evelyn Underhill’s letter to a friend

In our devotional reading this morning from Lent With Evelyn Underhill: Selections from her writings, the following bits of advice from a letter to a friend are rather arresting and honest, telling it like it is, letting the chips fall where they may:

All this preoccupation with your own imperfection is not humility, but an insidious form of spiritual pride. What do you expect to be? A saint? There are desperately few of them: and even they found their faults, which are the raw material of sanctity remember, take a desperate lot of working up. The object of your salvation is God’s Glory, not your happiness. Remember it is all one to the angels whether you or another give Him the holiness He demands.

So, be content to help on His kingdom, remaining yourself in the lowest place. You have tied yourself up so tight in that accursed individualism of yours—the source of all your difficulties—that it is a marvel you can breathe at all.

As to the last crime on your list, however, ‘dislike of pain’….Even the martyrs, it has been said, had ‘less joy of their triumph because of the pain they endured.’ They did not want the lions: but they knew how to ‘endure the Cross’ when it came. Do not worry your head about such things as this: but trust God and live your life bit by bit as it comes. There. God bless you.

I find Underhill’s words to be rather more like accusatory law than grace-filled gospel. She seems to me so “in your face,” yet there is perhaps a bit of humour and tongue-in-cheek here, is there not? What do you think? If you were Evelyn’s friend and received such a letter, how would you respond?

Inspiration from Evelyn Underhill

Inspiration from Evelyn Underhill

For our Lenten devotions this year, we’re reading Lent With Evelyn Underhill: Selections from her writings, edited by G.P. Mellick Belshaw. Here’s what Underhill has to say for the first Sunday in Lent devotion:

God, as Brother Giles said, is a great mountain of corn from which [hu]man[ity], like a sparrow, takes a grain of wheat: yet even that grain of wheat, which is as much as we can carry away, contains all the essentials of our life. We are to carry it carefully and eat it gratefully: remembering with awe the majesty of the mountain from which it comes.

The first thing this vast sense of God does for us, is to deliver us from the imbecilities of religious self-love and self-assurance; and sink our little souls in the great life of the race, in and upon which this One God in His mysterious independence is always working, whether we notice it or not. When that sense of His unique reality gets dim and stodgy, we must go back and begin there once more; saying with the Psalmist, ‘All my fresh springs are in thee.’ [Hu]Man[ity], said Christ, is nourished by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God. Not the words we expect, or persuade ourselves that we have heard; but those unexpected words He really utters, sometimes by the mouths of the most unsuitable people, sometimes through apparently unspiritual events, sometimes secretly within the soul. (pp. 22-23)

How beautiful and mysterious is the grace of God!

Fasting anyone?

Fasting anyone?

From time immemorial, human beings have, for a host of reasons, engaged in fasting. In Judaism and Christianity, people of faith like Moses and Jesus fasted to communicate more closely with the divine.

Yet, in both faiths, fasting has been a mixed blessing. This is clear from the following biblical texts of Isaiah 58:3-7 and Matthew 6:16-18.

“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you seek the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

In other words, fasting is not a public display of piety by abstinence from food or drink and wearing sackcloth and ashes (traditionally the clothing associated with fasting, mourning and repentance) as it is more engaging in acts of justice, mercy and kindness.

In Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches: “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

Again, according to Jesus here, fasting is not about public displays of piety—rather, it is to be done privately, without anyone but God knowing about it. The reference to the hypocrites and those who engage in public displays of piety may not necessarily be exclusively Jews who practice Judaism, but may also include followers of Jesus (Matthew’s community, Jewish Christians) who were prone to public displays of piety.

Down through the centuries, fasting was associated with the season of Lent and combined with prayer, the imposition of ashes, repentance, and almsgiving. I find it rather ironic that the very teaching of Jesus in Matthew, which is read on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, is precisely what Christians today are guilty of in worship services—i.e. public displays of piety.

In our contemporary times, fasting has all but fallen by the wayside in the Western Church at least. There may be a few folks who engage in fasting, but in the churches I’ve served, it has been very rare—unless, of course, they are actually practicing Jesus’ Matthean teaching, which I highly doubt. In a culture of unprecedented affluence, food is all around us. Most people find it extremely difficult to abstain and fast. Furthermore, when folks are busy as Neil Postman once said, “amusing themselves to death,” it is not likely that they shall be too interested in the Isaiah 58 kind of fast!

What about you? Do you fast? Have you ever fasted? If so, for what reason(s)? If not, why not?

Challenge for our Lenten journey

Challenge for our Lenten journey

I came across this challenge in Morten Kelsey’s Healing & Christianity, which he was given at a conference on healing by someone who did not know the name of the author. I have been unable to locate the author too. So from the wise and loving author Anonymous, here is a worthy Lenten challenge for us all:

 

To laugh is to risk appearing the fool.

To weep is to risk appearing sentimental.

To reach out for another is to risk involvement.

To expose feelings is to risk exposing your true self.

To place your ideas, your dreams, before a crowd is to risk their loss.

To love is to risk not being loved in return.

To live is to risk dying.

To hope is to risk despair.

To try to heal is to risk failure.

But risks must be taken, because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing.

The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, and is nothing.

They may avoid suffering and sorrow, but they cannot learn, feel, change, grow, love, live.

Chained by their attitudes, they are a slave, they have forfeited their freedom.

Only a person who risks is free.

 

Lord have mercy.

Martin Luther on The Cross is good for us

This year, one of the devotional books I’m reading is a collection of Martin Luther’s writings: Day By Day We Magnify Thee: Readings for the Church Year Selected from the Writings of Martin Luther (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982). Once again, I am appreciative of Luther’s deep, insightful theology of the cross, evident here in this devotion based on Psalm 94:12. His phrase “snore in our security” is, I think, an apt description of many folk in the affluent world today. His remark on obligations is similar to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer described as “cheap grace.”

 

It is highly necessary that we should suffer, not only that God may thereby prove His honour, might, and strength against the devil, but also because the great and precious treasure which we have, if it were given unto us without such suffering and affliction would make us snore in our security. And we can see—unfortunately it is a general thing—that many abuse the Holy Gospel, behaving as if they were freed from all obligations through the Gospel and that there is nothing more they need do, or give or suffer. This is a sin and a shame.

 

The only way our God can check such evil is through the cross. He must so discipline us that our faith increases and grows stronger, and thus draw the Saviour all the deeper into our soul. For we can no more grow strong without suffering and temptation than we can without eating and drinking.