When we can no longer count on normal: a sermon to myself, and maybe you too…

It’s a tough time to be reading Revelation, but here I am–at the last book in my two-year-journey through my journaling Bible–in December of 2020. These are some of the darkest days people here in ‘the new world’ have experienced in decades…Europeans were much more affected by World War II than we were, for it was fought in their own front and back yards. Our cities were not bombed or blitzed or darkened by black-outs; surely they must have thought the end of the world was imminent.

Not being brave enough to read Revelation without a commentary at hand (I’m using an older Layman’s Bible Commentary written by Julian Love) I underlined these words: (and shortened them here for clarity)

“Oftentimes when it looks as though God’s judgments must surely be spent…there is a prolonged period [that] seems to be unchanged awaiting some final decision. And in that waiting there is opportunity to look around and gain fresh understanding of what has been going on and especially what redeeming factors God has introduced, which men in their hurried and often frantic way of life, have not observed.”

As I’m writing these words two days before Christmas, the day is lightening. The hill and trees are as black shadows against a pale pink and ivory horizon. It is a subtle sun-rising that befits these days, yet still, it is a reminder of the light that always comes after darkness: morning after night; spring after winter; the cycles of life, ordained by God.

This pandemic time is already being called the great pause–an interlude–in which, if humans were so inclined, we would/could/should “look around and gain fresh understanding.” Indeed, what  redeeming factors has God introduced that in our frantic way of life we have not observed?

There are many obvious answers–physical, emotional, and spiritual–so I think we can be ‘wholistic’ when considering this question.

We all long for the return of normal; it seems everything in our lives has been either put on hold or turned upside down. But what if God is upending our normal for His own purposes? Our frenetic pace has been forcibly slowed. If your normal was go everywhere and do everything, you have been obliged to reconsider. Many rage against this, call it the taking away of freedom, and disregard the new restrictions (at a risk to society). God does not need to rain judgment on us; we bring it on ourselves through our own foolishness, selfishness, and pride.

No matter if one is averse to change or if one embraces it, no one likes to have change forced upon them. (We do like the illusion of our control, don’t we?) Our emotions spiral out of whack when it happens, as do the above triage of sins–selfishness, foolishness, and pride.

Consider that our spiritual lives are being upended too. It is as if God Himself is saying,

Be still and know that I am God.

Be still and know that my Son is born.

You have not listened to my still small voice,

so hear now the thunder and the storm.

We miss it now at peril to our lives and our souls…

I was going to end this sermon there for dramatic purposes, but I couldn’t.  Because there is always light after dark.

The darkness is given to us so that we understand light. Fear, grief, illness and death, instability–all things of the dark that have been so prevalent this year–are appointed to us so that when joy arrives, when our blessings are counted, when our hope wins, it can all be more glorious.  This year I wrote on Christmas cards a verse from the Gospel of John: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. — John 1:5, and this next one is like it:John 1:9

Jesus’ name is Emmanuel, God With Us. In the dark, as well as in the light. In this darkest of years, in this darkest of months, in these darkest of days, let’s not forget that He experienced the greatest darkness of all. So that we would not have to live in the darkness forever. So that we can have that great hope of joy even when the darkness threatens to overwhelm us.

So I ask us all to consider what it is that God is showing us through this time that we have not observed. It will be something different for us all, I think. But let’s not waste this time, and then automatically go back to normalcy when we can. This is a wake-up for the world, isn’t it?

A radical change is being called for; what will that look like for you?

 

Changing the Season of Darkness into the Season of Light…

When we lived in the city we had a strategy for homeless people or those on the sidewalks with signs. We carried gift cards for Subway and gave them out one or two at a time. It seemed mostly satisfactory, until one day a guy asked how much was it worth. Later that same week I discovered a “cash-in your gift cards here” machine in the local grocery store.

We have since moved to a small town/rural area, and the people with signs aren’t so frequent. I don’t carry gift cards any more, and I rarely have cash with me, so I mostly just feel bad when I see someone with a Need Help sign.

I was thinking this morning of something that happened last fall before 2020 happened: I had made an uncharacteristic stop at Walmart to get Burt’s Bees chapstick. While there, I bought a rotisserie chicken for dinner. As I was leaving the parking lot, there was an older man standing at the curb. I could barely read his sign; all I got was “Need Help, Lost Job…”

I drove by.

I had a twenty dollar bill in my purse and a chicken for dinner. Playing on the car audio system was “More Like You” by Scott Wesley Brown. If you don’t know that song, the chorus goes like this:

More like you, Jesus, More like you, Touch my lips with holy fire, and make me more like you.

At the bottom of the hill, I turned around and drove back to where he was standing. I gave him the twenty dollar bill and prayed that he would use it wisely. I don’t know. I’m not writing this for any praise from you because it wasn’t my first thought to be generous. It wasn’t even my second thought. And for all I know, he went out and bought drugs or whiskey with it. But the story that keeps coming to mind is from C.S. Lewis: he was walking with a friend and he gave a generous amount of money to a street person. The friend gently chided him, saying the standard remark, “You know, he’ll probably just drink it up.” To which Lewis replied, “Well, so would I.” (This is from a biography of Lewis by Owen Barfield — who actually was that friend…)

But there’s another quote that’s not so well known in Letters to an American Lady.  Lewis writes, “It will not bother me in the hour of death to reflect that I have been “had for a sucker” by any number of impostors; but it would be a torment to know that one had refused even one person in need.”

I’m not suggesting we give money to every homeless person; we all have to figure out  how to live generously and thankfully, and what that means is different for everyone. But the events of this year — from pandemics to hurricanes and wildfires to racial unrest to large scale economic upheaval — have left so many of us feeling overwhelmed by the need. And feeling overwhelmed, I am trying to figure out what I can do.

sunriseToday is the first Sunday in Advent. As we await the light coming in this dark year of dark years, I suggest we choose something to do about it. It could be giving anonymously to someone in need. It could be making a meal for someone who is alone. Maybe every Thursday in Advent, you call someone you’ve been thinking about. Yesterday I read a suggestion–that instead of buying Christmas presents this year, we all donate to food pantries or agencies that are struggling to help people in need. We’re considering this: I’m thinking about making cards to send to family members explaining our strategy. Now, more than ever, is a good time to reconsider our spending habits and instead of spending our money on Cyber Monday, let’s spend it on Giving Tuesday instead…

I’m interested to hear if you have any plans to make this Advent season of 2020 different. To bring joy. To bring light. To this hurting world.

 

Tikkun Olam: where would i begin?

Just this morning my Bible reading brought me to chapter one of 1 Peter, where two verses jumped out at me: Be holy because He is holy (1:16) and …love one another deeply, from the heart. (1:22) They loomed large because they feel so impossible for me these days. I confess to having difficulty in loving my neighbor–and I use the word neighbor loosely. Kind of like asking Jesus, Who is my neighbor? and getting the reply that you know, but you don’t want to hear… What! Those people who call themselves Christians, yet still voted for Trump? They are my neighbors? Yes. That’s really how I feel… (And that is, realistically, almost half this country???)

My ruminations led me to remember the book  Adopted by Kelley Nikondeha;  so I pulled it from my bookshelf and started paging through it again, a couple of years later, in this time of Covid-19 and anger and racial division and conspiracy theories and chaos.

It didn’t take long to find the chapter I remembered, “Repair.” She writes about a Jewish term, tikkun olam, which means “repair of the world.”  Tikkun olam calls us to do what we can to sacrificially act for the good of our neighbors, even if those neighbors might be our enemies. Even if those neighbors are belligerent about mask wearing; even if those neighbors have a nasty-language-sign in their yard; even if they somehow think the person in the White House is good for the country. How can I love them when I think what they believe is abhorrent? (For a Jewish discussion on the concept, you might enjoy this article from My Jewish Learning.)

Nikondeha then relates several stories of the Batwa tribe in Rwanda who, when faced with having their harvest of carrots stolen from their neighbors, gave them potatoes too. When they were falsely accused of stealing cabbages, they gave twice as many cabbages back. Can you hear in these stories of one of the most difficult messages from Jesus:

…But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. — Matthew 5:39-40

Perhaps we ignore this instruction because it is just too difficult to wrap our heads and hearts around? There are many difficult “red-letter” passages in the New Testament, but none so absolutely unachievable as this one. Don’t fight back, instead say yes, here, hit me again. Someone is suing you for $5,000? Give them $10,000. Your neighbor’s car just died? Give them your second car that you just finished paying off. Forgive the person who treated you so grievously a few years ago that you haven’t spoken to each other since. Wait; don’t just forgive them, invite them to a luxurious feast at your house…

It’s radical, this concept of tikkun olam. But just think of what needs repairing in this world. More accurately, in our own small worlds–our families and our communities.

I suggest that another reason we ignore the reparations that we need to make is because they are SO HUGE as to be daunting. This is not only Love your Neighbor (which is hard enough!) but this is Love your Enemy. How can we do this? Where could we start? The poet philosopher Lao Tzu wrote, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”

Yes, this is the road right outside my door…

Jesus’ version of this thought is recorded in the gospels of Luke and Matthew–the parable of the mustard seed: “For truly I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20) ESV

Although probably no one actually stole your carrot or cabbage crops, it is likely that someone stole your political yard sign. Or it is likely that your neighbor (or family member) voted for the other side. I suggest that to repair America, we need to take that first step toward tikkun olam. And the road begins right outside our door…