The View from Above: The Corn Maze (Part Three)

Passage: Ecclesiastes 3: 1-13 (New King James Version)

3 To everything there is a season,
A time for every purpose under heaven:
2 A time to be born, and a time to die;
A time to plant, and a time to pluck what is planted;
3 A time to kill, and a time to heal;
A time to break down, and a time to build up;
4 A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5 A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones;
A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
6 A time to gain, and a time to lose;
A time to keep, and a time to throw away;
7 A time to tear, and a time to sew;
A time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
8 A time to love, and a time to hate;
A time of war, and a time of peace.

9 What profit has the worker from that in which he labors? 10 I have seen the God-given task with which the sons of men are to be occupied. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, He has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end. 12 I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; 13 moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.

As noted in the last devotional, taking on the corn maze from the inside can be challenging, even maddening. Worst case scenario, one continues to walk around, repeating the same mistakes, never finding the path out. The inside perspective of our passage from Ecclesiastes was similarly confounding, reminding us that amidst the complicated lives we lead, we should not overlook but the simple, good gifts God offers daily. Our third run at this passage, presents the outlook from above, a transcendent perspective, directing us to this passage’s truth within the full message of the Gospel. Like the view of the cornfield from overhead in Google Earth, we can see the entirety of the complex patterns of our journey – the turns, forks, junctions, and dead-ends we must encounter – and discern the true path through.

In the first chapter of Ecclesiastes, the Teacher speaks to the challenges of finding meaning in our lives. “It is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.” The writer is at times mired in the endless striving which fills up his days. A confession: I have already acknowledged (in a previous devotional) that “life is hard”. One of my reasons for choosing this text from Ecclesiastes is that the Teacher voices the outlook that, on our bad days, on most days for some folks, resonates within our souls. “All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

Perhaps we are in a difficult relationship. Maybe our jobs have become rote and lack significance. Possibly, our caretaking of another person feels more like obligation and burden, than a labor of love and meaning. Maybe our age leaves our days full of repetitive tasks to fill our time but devoid of the joy we once experienced. I remember a time in my life when I could not imagine that life held any new wonder or surprise. Thoreau voiced the same sentiment when he said, ““The mass of [humans] lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation … A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of [hu]mankind.” His words encapsulate the outlook often articulated by the writer of Ecclesiastes.

But in today’s passage, the Teacher opens a window in the skies, to a view from above. “I have seen the God-given task with which the sons of men are to be occupied. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, He has put eternity in their hearts.” From that position God’s presence can be recognized within the whole of our lives. We gain the perspective that the good news of Christ reveals. We can see God making everything beautiful in its time. We see God setting eternity in our hearts. What can that mean – “eternity in their hearts”— except that we are created to yearn for something from above, something more than our present ticks of the clock and cycles of the seasons? We are made to be in communion with the One who came to our world, but conveyed truth and meaning that transcends the truths offered by the world.

In the Gospel of John, we hear Jesus proclaiming this message: “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. If you do not believe that I am He, you will indeed die.” God entered time and broke its cycle of meaninglessness by doing a completely new thing through the cross and resurrection. Through our own dying with Christ and taking on of a new life in him, we can find the “view from above” for our lives. And this perspective enables us to bear through the hard times, to discover meaning in our struggles (perhaps like those of the present), even to find peace and joy among the simple gifts we are given during this time. This is the “eternity in our hearts” created in each of us, which was made wholly known in the person of Jesus. This is our new life in the Spirit breathed into us when we trust in the Risen One. This is the new life in Christ we can proclaim this Easter season.

Prayer: Lord Christ, be in our hearts that we might know of your presence. Be in our minds that we might see your purpose. Be in our actions that others who don’t know you might glimpse your goodness and mercy. Amen

Musical Offering
Benedictus by Karl Jenkins

At 3:45 of the video the choir joins the orchestra singing the text below. At 5:20 the chorus erupts into a gorgeous proclamation fit for the empty tomb on Easter morning. (The images shown at 4:20 of the video are of a huge star-forming region in space, known as “The Pillars of Creation.” Heartfelt thanks to my friend, Jim Richardson, who has been such a special companion along the way this year. I know you will enjoy this.)

Musical Text

Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini.
Hosanna in excelsis

(translation)

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest

All Is Hevel: The Corn Maze (Part Two)

Passage: Ecclesiastes 3: 1-13 (New King James Version)

3 To everything there is a season,
A time for every purpose under heaven:
2 A time to be born, and a time to die;
A time to plant, and a time to pluck what is planted;
3 A time to kill, and a time to heal;
A time to break down, and a time to build up;
4 A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5 A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones;
A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
6 A time to gain, and a time to lose;
A time to keep, and a time to throw away;
7 A time to tear, and a time to sew;
A time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
8 A time to love, and a time to hate;
A time of war, and a time of peace.

9 What profit has the worker from that in which he labors? 10 I have seen the God-given task with which the sons of men are to be occupied. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, He has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end. 12 I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; 13 moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.

In the previous devotional, I mentioned three different perspectives gleaned from three different locations when encountering a corn maze and engaging this passage from the pithy book of Ecclesiastes – a positive perspective from the outside, a more questioning view from the inside, and a transcendent outlook from above. Today’s view of the passage will access its message from an internal perspective, attempting to extract its meaning from the context of Ecclesiastes as a whole. Part of the Bible’s wisdom literature, this particular book is often referred to as “Skeptical Wisdom” or “Dissenting Wisdom”. The author of Ecclesiastes, the Teacher, is a sage who has lived long and has grown weary of life’s uncertainties and absurdities. “The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem,” the book begins.

2 Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
3 What do people gain from all the toil
at which they toil under the sun? …

8 All things are wearisome;
more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
or the ear filled with hearing.
9 What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun …

12 I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, 13 applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. 14 I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.

Such words are a recurring sentiment throughout the book of Ecclesiastes, with our passage from the third chapter being something of a respite from this jarring perspective. The Hebrew word hevel, which is translated “vanity” or “meaningless” in various translations, is used thirty-eight times within the book. It’s fair to say that the author is not all “kittens and rainbows” in his outlook on life. The Teacher explains that he has set out to investigate and understand life, so that he might live it wisely. He is trying to avoid, as someone once put it: “getting A’s in all my subjects, but ending up flunking life.” So, he explores every avenue for happiness, meaning, and self-gratification available. Everything people say makes life meaningful. The Teacher comes to a conclusion similar to that offered by actor Jim Carrey once in an interview: “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.”

If there’s any point this time of the coronavirus has made obvious, it’s that seeking meaning and happiness by indulging ourselves in the “American lifestyle” is a fruitless and empty endeavor. It can ultimately provide neither satisfaction nor security. Martin Luther once wrote of such misplaced expectations, explaining what Ecclesiastes seeks to address:

What is being condemned in this book, therefore, is not the creatures [i.e. the things God has created] but the depraved affection and desire of us, who are not content with the [created gifts] of God that we have and with their use, but are always anxious and concerned to accumulate riches, honors, glory, and fame, as though we were going to live here forever; and meanwhile we become bored with the things that are present and continually yearn for other things, and then still others.

Luther’s description of humanity must be timeless and universal, as it fits our culture as well, perhaps better, than the society of 16th century Europe. What culture, with all its time-saving devices, has ever scurried through its days with more frenzy and less contentment than our own, trying to wring out as many pleasures and experiences, as possible? Ecclesiastes seeks to address such soul-sickness with a reality check. However, the knowledge that life is hevel (fleeting) should not lead us to an empty pessimism. It should lead, instead, to humility and to a proper delight in the gifts of God.

Our present situation has forcibly shed many of the trappings and accessories of our normally, complicated lifestyles. In doing so, it may have given us the chance to appreciate the simple gifts that adorn our days and so often go unnoticed. “He has made everything beautiful in its time … I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.” There is now a season to look forward to my daily walk with Michelle. It is a time I can relish phone calls from friends out of the blue (thanks Cynthia, Judi, and others), and to talk often with my dad. There is a time to savor a well-cooked meal, and to fully appreciate the companionship of our dogs. This is a season when I can properly anticipate the opportunity to meet with my brothers and sisters in Christ for our Bible-study and choir gatherings using Zoom. In this time of the coronavirus, I don’t overlook the beauty of the forsythias, azaleas, and dogwoods, nor the good fortune that I have clean water and electricity during this emergency.

Ultimately, the picture of life the Teacher paints is incomplete, lacking the hope and wholeness the Gospel breathes into our lives. However, if we live our life with God on the periphery instead of at the center, the Teacher’s assessment may well be true. And this wise instructor from Ecclesiastes does remind us that, even in the most difficult of times, there is a time for us to work, laugh, be thankful, and delight in the gifts we have from the One “in whom we live and move and have our being.”

Prayer: Gracious Lord, thank you for our daily bread. Amen

Musical Offering:
Ralph Vaughan Williams – Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (excerpt)

There Is a Season: The Corn Maze (Part One)

Passage: Ecclesiastes 3: 1-11

3 To everything there is a season,
A time for every purpose under heaven:
2 A time to be born, and a time to die;
A time to plant, and a time to pluck what is planted;
3 A time to kill, and a time to heal;
A time to break down, and a time to build up;
4 A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5 A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones;
A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
6 A time to gain, and a time to lose;
A time to keep, and a time to throw away;
7 A time to tear, and a time to sew;
A time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
8 A time to love, and a time to hate;
A time of war, and a time of peace.

9 What profit has the worker from that in which he labors? 10 I have seen the God-given task with which the sons of men are to be occupied. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, He has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end. 12 I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; 13 moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.

 

Ever spent time at a corn maze? Looking at it from the outside, the maze looks just like any other corn field, pretty perhaps with the lush green stalks and golden tassels atop. It’s very different, however, when viewed from the middle, on the inside, struggling with myriad turns and blind alleys, trying to find your way through to the opening. All the stalked paths look the same. After a while, you aren’t sure if you are on a new, potentially right path or one you walked before to a dead-end. Both of these outlooks are different than the view from above, perhaps as seen through a helicopter ride or accessed by an aerial image from Google Earth. From this perspective, one could see the entire pattern cut in the field and quickly find the true path out of the maze.

Three different locations lead to three different perspectives. This idea of three different outlooks could be helpful when approaching today’s famous passage from Ecclesiastes. In order to fully appreciate the wisdom of the “Teacher” in this book from the Bible’s wisdom literature, we might do well to spend time with each of these perspectives – an optimistic and common sense perspective looking from the outside, an inside view that is blunt and less hopeful, and a look from up above for an ultimate perspective.

This first devotional in a group of three will look at the text from that outside position. From this vantage point, just taking the text at face value – without getting deeper into its context – everything looks pretty safe. You might even find yourself humming the popular tune from the sixties, Turn! Turn! Turn! (if you’re of the right age). From this perspective the passage offers the basic but sound advice that there are appropriate times for the different experiences of our lives. If we, as Christians, ponder this outside perspective, we acknowledge the wisdom of these different times. We rightly challenge the assumption that if we are spiritual enough, we ought to be happy and laughing all the time, realizing instead if we’ve lost someone – to divorce or dementia or a death – it is the appropriate time to weep.

In this singular moment in history, we’ve found some new occasions to be timely during this pandemic. We realize that there’s a time to love (the ones we long for that we can only enjoy online or by phone, as well as those nearest to us each day); and there is a time to hate (the coronavirus and partisan squabbling). We should recognize that this is the time for us to embrace political cooperation and compromise, such that we are effective in dealing with the necessities of this emergency; and a time where we refrain from embracing, taking seriously the calls for social-distancing and self-isolation. We have found the right time for war, with all world’s nations’ scientific resources united in our fight against this deadly disease; and we have found an unusual occasion for peace, as the virus has driven warring factions in Yemen to declare a ceasefire, and possibly now in Syria, too. What if this disease delayed our animosities long enough that we considered options for sorting out our grievances other than military action?

The Greek language has two separate words for time. The first, “chronos” refers to the measuring of time, in days, hours, minutes, and seconds. The second word, “kairos” denotes the idea of time we are addressing in the passage today, the timeliness of our actions, that certain moments call persons to respond with certain behaviors. As Christians, we might even say kairos is the time God has intended for particular events and actions. In this singular moment of our world’s history, so many of us are reevaluating the priorities and values we’ve used to arrange our lives. I can’t say what is timely for each of you. The words urgency and purpose come to mind for me. That I must be about things that count. While most of us try not to think about it constantly, we wonder (and worry) whether our span of time, and the time of those we love, will be long or short. And I think many of us have determined that this time (however much there is) must mean something. Certainly, this period of global emergency will eventually end. My prayer is that those who continue gathering as our community of faith will remember how much we need each other, and how much the world needs us. “To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven.” There is a time for every matter which God has purposed under heaven.

Prayer: Gracious Christ, who has known our concerns, our anguish, and our sorrows, even before you have heard it in our prayers, comfort those who are sick or lonely, anxious or grieving. Help us to find time for the purposes you have summoned us to during this season. Help us to go forth from this season with a calling to be about your kingdom. Amen

Musical Offering:

For those who were longing to hear it, “Turn! Turn! Turn!”. Not the version you’re most familiar with by the Byrds, but my favorite rendering sung by Judy Collins. It’s really worth the listen, and makes the passage above come alive.

A Comforting Confession

Passage: Philippians 2:5-11

5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

One of the guest lecturers while I was in theology school, a minister famous for his effective preaching, memorably asserted, “Preaching is either confession, or it’s arrogance, or both.” Either we open up our own lives and share how faith has been worked out in our own story, or we think others need to be informed about the great truths we’ve gleaned for the betterment of their lives, what some folks just call “meddlin’”. Or maybe, even at its best, preaching is some of both. Recently the validity of this statement has been born out in the process of my writing devotionals. This lectionary passage selected for the last week in Lent has left me feeling more confessional than most.

Maybe it rings true to you and maybe it doesn’t, but for me life is all about relationships. While I love music, enjoy exercising, watching British detective dramas with Michelle, and working in the yard, these are more like the decorations or novel patterns sewn onto the fabric of my life, which is the relationships I have with those I love. I believe this to be true for all persons, Christian or other. For me, no matter how wealthy, successful, learned, or skilled we are, without the relationships which connect and bind us to others, life has little meaning.

Consistent with this assertion is my belief that Christian faith is also primarily concerned with how we live our lives in relationship, how we form more of these connections, how we can make them deeper, more meaningful and life-giving, and how we can create a place for others to have that same opportunity. “The way” that Jesus revealed through his preaching and living, is focused on how we can create a community of folks whose interactions are shaped and informed by love, a kingdom of God on earth, as it already is in heaven. In his response to the question about what was the most important commandment, Jesus gave this brief summary of his good news: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Life is about our relationship to God, our relationships with others – Jesus has summarized it as simply as that.

The “life in Christ” which Paul outlined in his writings is also primarily concerned about living in community. While giving us wonderful insights into sorting out our individual issues, Paul’s letters were aimed at binding churches together into the “body of Christ”. Paul’s chief concern was building communities of believers in which all individuals may celebrate their specific gifts, but realize that those are subordinate to the service and benefit of the collective whole.

In light of these affirmations, this passage, as much as any in scripture, comforts me and confirms my faith. What it tells me is both simple and profound. The God who created the heavens and the earth, who scattered a hundred billion billion stars and their planetary systems into the universe, who gave rise to the myriad life forms inhabiting just this one planet (who knows how many others?), this God chose to come to earth to relate with me and all persons, not in God’s strength or power, but in the vulnerable and accessible form of God’s humanity. “Jesus … though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.” Not only did God take on our flesh in Jesus, but let himself be brought to the lowest point in human experience, so that he might enable relationship with any of us. Jesus’ willingness to accept abandonment by those to whom he had opened up his life, his rejection by those he had come to save, his death among criminals, was so that the weakest, the vilest, the most broken among us might feel comfortable in God’s presence.

Moreover, to declare that this is God’s essential identity, revealed to us in a human life that we could comprehend, that this is how God most fundamentally wants to interact with us, is the most reassuring and encouraging news I could hope to receive. If the primary revelation of God’s identity had been God’s strength, if we were cowed by God’s authority, how would there have been hope of real relationship? This truth not only enables my relationship with God, but guides all my relationships with others, as well. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” For what characterizes the deepest unions we form with those we love? Openness, humility, honesty, equality.

In this time of great fear and uncertainty, with ourselves and those we love feeling so vulnerable, I find this passage to be incredibly comforting. It reminds me of God’s great love for us all. It demonstrates God’s connectedness with our difficulties and distress, as one acquainted with suffering and sorrow through Jesus. It helps us remember that God’s intent for us is joy and peace, rather than the anxiety and harm many of us are experiencing.

The final affirmation of this passage is most striking. It is not in spite of this weakness, this humility, this brokenness, which Jesus shares in common with humanity, that he is elevated, to be revered and praised; rather, it is exactly because of it. This is the great paradox, that in his utter humanity, he is most divine! “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” This is the image of God in which we were created, that each of us may still embrace.

Prayer: Lord, thank you for coming to us in a way that we could understand and to which we can relate. Thank you for venturing all the way to where we exist, so that we could truly know you. Grant that we might discover ways to hold firm in this knowledge, such that we might find peace and comfort during times of difficulty and distress. Amen.

Some music for reflection:

  • The Swan by Camille Saint-Saëns, performed by Yo-Yo Ma
  • Laudate Dominum sung by boy soprano Aksel Rykkvin (13 years)

Translation of song’s text:

Praise the Lord, all nations;
Praise Him, all people.
For He has bestowed
His mercy upon us,
And the truth of the Lord endures forever.

Two Ways of Seeing

2 Corinthians 5:20b – 6:5, 6:8b – 6:10

20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
6 As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. 2 For he says,

“At an acceptable time I have listened to you,
and on a day of salvation I have helped you.”

See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! 3 We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, 4 but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, 5 beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger … We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; 9 as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; 10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.


“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way, …”

Many will recognize these lines from the opening of the Dickens’ classic, A Tale of Two Cities. Whenever I got my essays back from my high school English teachers, all bloodied with red ink marking my sentence fragments, comma splices, and run-on sentences, I desperately wanted to plop this sentence down in front of them and proclaim something about their stifling my creative juices with all their strict grammatical boundaries. Thankfully, my respect for (fear of) these teachers kept me from comparing my sophomoric musings to these masterful lines.

I cannot imagine words more appropriate in describing the complex nature of this era in which we live — a time rich with opportunity and full of new tools to diminish the world’s suffering, yet fraught with so many complicated challenges like global warming and our present health crisis; a time when we see real progress in many areas of society, yet worry that its underlying fabric is disintegrating beneath us due to political pettiness and the valuing of individual self-interest at the expense of group compromise and cooperation.  

Paul also was writing to a community that was complex and challenging, and his relationship with the Corinthians appears to have had its ups and downs. First, century Corinth was a cultural crossroads, having both strong Greek and Roman underpinnings, and bearing the religious practices tied to these cultural backgrounds. Prominent was the worship of traditional gods and goddesses from Greek and Roman religions, along with their local deities and heroes, as well. Roman cults were especially important to the city’s elite, and the imperial cult — in which the Emperor, his ancestors, and his family were venerated — formed an important part of religious and political life. In other words, Paul had his work cut out for him in attempting to spread the gospel message into this diverse and sophisticated society. The Church’s challenge in our time is not unlike the one Paul faced in Corinth. His cultural jumble sounds rather familiar doesn’t it?

Paul’s words to the church in Corinth reflect some of the challenges and hardships he and the church had faced bearing the Gospel into this diverse milieu. “[B]ut as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger.” Yet, in the midst of all these difficulties his words contain a hope that grasps a second reality which transcended the challenges of his day to day life in the world, one that somehow saw beyond the grave circumstances he and the church faced daily.

The cross of Christ is an acknowledgement that the world can inflict its brokenness on us, challenging our psyches with the uncertainties of this time in which we live.    But the empty tomb is God’s answer, that even in the midst of the distress we experience, we can celebrate that our faithfulness promises a new day, one full of hope because we are united in Christ’s victory over the world. 

Paul’s words of hope to the Corinthian community seem remarkably similar to the comparative phrasing Dickens used above, expressing two divergent perceptions of our existence.  “We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” Paul’s words remind us that there are two realities available, by which we can perceive our existence. One is viewed through the grimy lens by which world sees. The other is a perspective enlivened by hope, gained through embracing both Christ’s cross and his resurrection.

 Not too long after penning his letter to Corinth, Paul went on to Rome and his death. It’s not hard to imagine that he embraced his own execution with such peaceful words on his lips — consoling words by which we could perceive our own faith:

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known.” -Last line of A Tale of Two Cities

Prayer:

Gracious God, help us to see with eyes of faith. Let the hope that your resurrection bestows, inspire us to believe that our work in the world and our efforts to bring the kingdom are meaningful and effective. Grant us that peace which trusting in You imparts. Amen.

Musical Selection

Overcoming Our Fears

Passage: Psalm 23

1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me;
your rod and your staff — they comfort me. 5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

Even though we walk through the darkest valley – yes, this is definitely one of those moments in human history, one that immediately draws us to this passage. Fitting that it appears in the lectionary this Lent. Not since World War II, when many folks were caught up in a conflict to determine if evil would take control of the globe, has there been such a cloud of fear and uncertainty over humankind. Many of these fears are reasonable. We’re anxious about our own health, knowing now the seriousness of this disease. We worry about the health of our loved ones, especially those who are more vulnerable to infection, as well as those who work in places that are more at risk, like our health-care workers, grocery-store employees, etc. I’m anxious about my daughter Anna who is a nurse at a hospital which now has a patient infected with COVID-19. She’s alarmed, as the hospital has already started rationing their use of masks and gowns, protective equipment that prevents the spread of the disease to others. She’s concerned for herself and the children she treats. She is also afraid to spend time with us now, worried that she could bring the virus into our house. And for all these reasons, we fear for her physical and emotional health.

If we don’t know someone who has been sickened or whose health is directly threatened by the disease, we worry about the damage the pandemic is doing to the economy, whether we will have jobs when this is all over, whether our savings will hold up until the virus runs its course, whether our retirement investments will be all gone with the plummet of the stock market. And although the most reliable sources reassure us that it’s unwarranted, many still fret about the availability of food and supplies that we need to get by. Beyond these tangible concerns we experience, the terrible uncertainty of this time may create the most fear.

Fear is a terrible thing. It can dominate our lives, crippling our ability to use reason in solving the difficult challenges facing us. It can make us selfish, tribal, only concerned for ourselves and our own folks. I’m ashamed to acknowledge that while shopping the other day, I caught myself being pleased at figuring out that there were protective gloves in the paint aisle, thinking that I’d found supplies that others might have missed. Suddenly I remembered that others needed gloves as badly as I did.

And to these fears come the familiar words of the psalmist. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” What is in the heart of the writer as he expresses these comforting words? Is he telling us that those who believe in his God have nothing to fear? Is he indicating that life for the faithful is always about “green pastures” and “still waters”? Viewing the span of writings in the Book of Psalms as whole, one would argue, on the contrary, that the writers were quite realistic about the difficulties they faced, we face, in their/our lives. Among the psalms, today’s heartening words are a minority sentiment compared to the words of lament and disenchant-ment. Of the five main categories of psalms, laments (68 of them) far outnumber the next highest category, thanksgivings (34 of them).

What is in our own hearts as we avidly embrace these sentiments? Skeptics might offer that we are attempting to put on a brave face, struggling to be hopeful about our lives and our faith in the midst of the distressing times we’re experiencing. Could there have been moments amid my own struggles of faith when I claimed these words because I needed them to be true? In all honesty, I acknowledge the answer would likely be yes. However, there are other times when the words of this psalm simply emanate from our hearts as we reflect on the support and comfort that our life in Christ provides – at the most challenging of times and in moments of feeling most blessed. Not that it erases the difficulties in our lives we experience, but that it expresses what we have glimpsed, here and there, of a truth that transcends the concerns of this world, a reality that is safe, comforting, and full of blessing.

In a somewhat inverted order, the psalmist first proclaims how it will be when all is right, when God’s kingdom is finally realized. “He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.” It is life as it should be, life as it will be, some fine day. Whatever life beyond this world may be, I wouldn’t complain if it were much like this.

What the psalmist next expresses is that God’s presence is here, ever-present, even in the reality of these darker days, this Lenten time of ominous events and experiences, before His kingdom is realized. And with this hope of future fulfillment, and a trust engendered by our here and there, now and then moments of clear seeing of God’s presence in our past, we find the courage and conviction to walk confidently, even during the daunting moments of our present days. “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff — they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”

Each Lenten season calls us to pick up our cross and follow Jesus. However, the cross of Christ is not only a calling to a life of sacrifice. It is our comfort too. For our God is not just the powerful One who created the earth and set it in motion. He is also the One who came to earth wearing our flesh. Jesus took on the suffering of our flesh not only to show us he would suffer for us, to save us from all the brokenness of this world; but also that he would suffer with us, that he is one with all our trials and the dreads we will face until he comes again. That even as we walk through these perilous times, we have nothing to fear. That even if our table has fewer persons gathered around it these days, our cup of blessing remains full – until that final banquet when we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Prayer: God of those who suffer, despair, worry, grieve, we trust in your steadfast love, and hope for the joy we have experienced in your presence before. Remind us, even when our strength and resolve grow weak, and fear threatens to overtake us, that we are never alone in our struggle, that You came to suffer with us. Amen.

Today’s musical offering: Ladies in Lavender by Joshua Bell

Faith in the Time of the Coronavirus

Faith in the Time of Coronavirus

Passage: Exodus 17: 1-7

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2 The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” 3 But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” 4 So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” 5 The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6 I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7 He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

I’ve been asked to reflect a bit on our time as a community of faith during this global emergency with the coronavirus; and it calls to mind the season of Lent in which we find ourselves. Like last year, I’ll be using passages from the Common Lectionary, which most mainline Protestant churches employ for their scripture readings during each season of the liturgical (worship) year. I’ll utilize these biblical passages, because assuredly I would quickly run out of any personal wisdom I might have to add pertaining to this crisis, thinking it much wiser to draw my thoughts from a much deeper source of wisdom. Since we are just now realizing how life-changing this world-wide sickness will be, I thought I should just pick right up with this reading from the third week of Lent, one that definitely reveals the difficulties of the people of God.

Our passage today is taken from one of the stories most central to the Old Testament, the Exodus. Having finally been freed from the hard heart of Pharaoh, the people of Israel must pass through the desert to reach the homeland which God had promised them, “a land flowing with milk and honey”. Now in the midst of the wilderness, the people of Israel have started to argue and groan about their hardships, previously hunger, now in our story, thirst. Moses even assigns this location two names “Massah” (deriving from quarrel) and “Meribah” (originating from complain) to attest to the people’s contentious nature.

Yahweh’s people are out wandering in the “wilderness of Sin”— just the name generates a powerful image. “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst,” they press Moses. Remember, Egypt – where they had been living in suffering and servitude under the thumb of the Pharaoh? They do seem to have quickly forgotten the miserable existence they had been experiencing. I guess their thinking is that at least it was an evil they were familiar with. Or perhaps their first experience of freedom and deliverance at the Red Sea gave them the wrong impression, that life under Yahweh’s leadership was going to proceed from victory to victory, a time of constant “milk and honey”.

And here we are all wandering in our own wilderness, far from the places familiar to us, far from a way of going about our lives that is in any way recognizable. Some of us may be in difficult financial situations, with the effects of the pandemic crushing the part of the economy on which our jobs depend. My daughter had to lay off around twenty employees today – twenty real persons with lives and families of their own – because the activity at her place of business has all but stopped during this crisis. Others of us are lonely, as the present predicament keeps us housebound, without the support and comfort we typically gain from friends at church and work. My Dad who lives in an assisted living center in Tennessee, is not just quarantined at his location, but has now been asked to stay in his apartment and have his meals delivered there. And all of us are anxious that life as we know it has been threatened in a real and undeniable way, with no certainty when the situation will be rectified. Some of us may be wondering like the children of Israel complained above, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

A repetitive theme appears throughout this entire narrative of the Israelites’ journey to the Promised Land. The people encounter difficulties. God is faithful and provides comfort and assistance. The people are briefly happy. Then they encounter another problem, and the people forget all that God has done for them. They experience consternation and frustration at each obstacle, complaining their lives are too hard. It would be easy to laugh and poke fun at the people of Israel, if it weren’t for the fact that they so resemble folks very close to us. Certainly not ourselves, of course.

Perhaps we are wondering about God’s presence during this time of difficulty for us and the life of our church community at Zoar. Weren’t matters already challenging enough with our diminishing size and financial struggles? Considering all this, I am reminded of the first few lines from a helpful book I read years ago, The Road Less Travelled, by M. Scott Peck. “Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this, … we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult — once we truly understand and accept it — then life is no longer as difficult.” Those of us who are more seasoned (i.e. older) can no longer deny the truth that life is hard and brings challenges and sorrow to us all, no matter how we approach it.

While not immune from the struggles all are facing during this grim and trying time, we don’t have to let our concerns overwhelm us. As those of faith, we know in Whom our security lies. We don’t have to become cynical or live without hope. If we attend to these hardships with a “faith memory”, with the ability to recall the history of God’s ongoing presence in our lives, we find that much can be gained, much learning can be gleaned, while undergoing these difficult times. Sustained by our continued relationship with the One who is always constant, faith provides us a way through rather than just a way out.

This time of struggle in the wilderness was not simply a learning experience for the people of Israel. The relationship of trust in God built through Israel’s forty years of struggle, became central to their identity, to their faith history, as a community of believers, beyond those years of testing. God did not immediately deliver His people out of their troubles. He sustained his people through their times of trial. On the far end of trying times with my own health and living through a divorce, interpreted through the eyes of my faith, I find that I have discovered much more about myself. More significantly, my faith is stronger, having developed new compacities for understanding, gratitude, and compassion. The faith in Christ, through which I searched and found great comfort during those times, is now more central to every part of my life.

As we consider our responses to this crisis, both as individuals and as a community of faith, let us remember our own faith histories, our own stories of how Christ has been present in the joys and challenges of our lives. Let us continue to conduct our days in ways that befit this faith relationship that has sustained us. Let us continue to reach out – by phone, email, pen and paper, and by whatever other means we discover possible – to embrace our church family and to aid those who need our help. In doing so, I believe we will find Christ present in our actions, present for others, present for ourselves. And isn’t that what we are looking for in our time of need?

Prayer: Patient Lord, why is it that our first impulse is to complain rather than to trust in you, when adversity blocks our way forward and threatens to drive out the joy in our living? Help us to remember the history of our life together and depend on your continued faithfulness; and in so doing will our bond with you grow ever stronger. Amen

Author’s Note:

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