Yesterday, January 6, was the twelfth and final day of Christmas. In the Christian calendar, it’s commemorated as the Feast of the Epiphany, marking the visit of the Magi to honor and worship the baby Jesus. Accordingly, our clothespin nativity now includes three richly dressed figures, accompanied by a fluffy and festively adorned camel. The biblical account reveals little about the identity of these visitors. They’re described as “wise men from the East,” likely astrologers, as they were led by a star to Bethlehem and the home of the holy family (Matthew 2:1-12). Their offerings of gold, frankincense and myrrh attest to their substantial wealth. Because of their Eastern origins, they were probably not Jews. Some sources suggest that they could have been priests of the Zoroastrian religion, widely practiced throughout Persia. Their inclusion in the nativity story serves to demonstrate that the baby Jesus was sent by God to be a savior not only for the Hebrew people, but for all nations. The first to arrive on the scene of the holy birth could not have been more different from the Magi. They were the shepherds, lowly Jewish locals who received a direct invitation from an angel. Thus, the message is clear: the divine child was sent for the good of every one of us. For people of all societal levels, poor and rich, servant and king, near and far. May those of us who profess to be Christians do our best to extend the message of Epiphany, and the message of God’s love, to all our brothers and sisters.
This post was delayed by a day because yesterday I was transfixed, like people the world over, by images of a mob storming our nation’s Capitol. Ironically, this attempt to subvert our democratic process was carried out by supporters directly incited by the “Law and Order” president. A pastor friend of mine has referred to the calamitous events of the day as the “Epiphany Riots.” I join her in hoping that the sight of these disturbing images might prompt at least some Americans toward an epiphany* of their own.
*According to the Mirriam-Webster dictionary, an epiphany is a “usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something.”
In the absence of a live nativity at our church this Christmas Eve in the time of Covid, I cannot offer my usual photos of curious onlookers mingling happily with the sweet-tempered camels Samson or Delilah. Or with their other charming cohorts, the brown burro, the velvet-coated humpback ox, the several sheep or goats.
Here instead is this little clothespin nativity that my daughter and I made together many years ago. Simple and humble, made from materials we already had, it seems especially appropriate this Christmas Eve. It points toward what’s important, what’s essential, on this night and every night. The message of Christmas is, in one word, love. Love embodied in a baby. A baby sent by God to grow up and model love not only to his human contemporaries, but to all future generations. The message is so powerful that it remains as vital today as it was 2,000 years ago.
It’s the love that mingles the divine and the human. It’s the love that shines in the darkness. And the darkness, including the darkness of a pandemic, will not overcome it.
In 2013 I wrote a post about decorating the tree stump at the edge of our front yard with a Christmas wreath. In the course of seven years, the stump has changed substantially, as most of us have. I didn’t hang the wreath the past two years, but this year it seemed fitting to do so. The original post appears immediately below, followed by the current update.
Deck the Tree Stump (2013)
This December, we hung a big wreath on the craggy silver maple stump in front of our house. It seemed like an interesting, if unexpected, spot for a wreath. And by decorating the tree, we could send a message to those who might see it as a business opportunity, as well as to those who think the stump is unsightly and wonder why we leave it standing. The wreath says, We love this old tree trunk, and we’re letting nature take its course.
Then I thought a little more about it, and the pairing struck me as even more appropriate in its juxtaposition of life and death. The stump is the opposite of the traditional evergreen Christmas tree. Firs and spruces, retaining the appearance of vitality through the winter, get the privilege of being cut down, hauled into our homes, strung with lights and ornaments, and left to wither and die. It’s tough work, being a symbol. Our maple, though, would be in no such danger. If intact, it would be gray-brown and leafless by now, like its neighbors in our yard. But of course, it’s a stump, a snag, and already dead. Yet it harbors vast, unseen colonies of creatures that go about the business of breaking down lifeless material. It won’t be long before nature’s course is run. The stump may not be here next year; its center is soft. All the more reason to decorate it this year.
My husband and daughter hung the wreath one weekend afternoon, as I was napping, trying to get over a persistent cold. When I trudged out to the road to see their handiwork, a new insight hit me.
I like to think that God works with us for good, despite ourselves, despite our selfish intentions and our vanity. I initially wanted to decorate the tree because I thought it would look pretty, if a bit odd. In truth, it was a way of declaring a certain pride in being different, in having the ability to see beauty where others see ugliness.
But once up, the wreath reminded me of a greater truth, of the essence of my Christian faith. Out of death comes new, transformed life. How better to say it than in the words of John 3: 16:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
And then the snow settled beautifully on the wreath and the tree, on the green and the gray, on the quick and the dead, like a blessing from above.
Update: The Remains of the Stump (2020)
The stump lasted far longer than I expected. But nature, human error, and cars have taken their toll. It’s in a vulnerable spot, close to the narrow road, on a particularly sharp turn that’s proven problematic for drivers time and time again. Several years ago one May morning we were awakened around dawn by a policeman at our door. He asked if that was our vehicle outside. “What vehicle?,” I heard my husband ask in a confused tone, after he’d finally made his way downstairs to the door.
“The one in the tree.”
And sure enough, it appeared that a dark minivan had merged with the tree. While most of the stump remained, it must have been considerably weakened, as its decline soon accelerated.
Two summers ago while we were away on vacation, a little red Honda found its way quite forcefully into the stump, demolishing half of it. The section that remained no longer looked much like a tree, or even a stump. When that final piece gradually eased to the ground one day this fall, we barely noticed. Why not, one might ask, remove it, at this point? One answer is that, even as a pile of debris, it serves as a barrier for future wayward vehicles.
Last week, returning from a walk with the dog, I surveyed the battered remains of the once mighty silver maple. It, with five others, was planted the same year that our house was built, in 1920. (See The Silver Maples Say Welcome Home, April 2012.) Several large patches of ruffled pale green lichen had sprouted from the decaying wood. Even in its final stages, the tree continues to serve as evidence of the circle of life. (See Underfoot, and Easily Overlooked. . . October 18, 2013.) I thought of the big wreath hanging neglected behind the hockey nets in the garage. Why not, during this Covid Christmas season, decorate the vestiges of the tree as it’s in the process of transformation? The wreath on the ruins is, to me, a reminder that hope does indeed remain. We can have hope in human ingenuity and resilience during the darkest of times, proof of which is offered by, among other achievements, the development of highly effective Covid vaccines in record time. We can have hope in a divine and loving parent, who created not only maple tree and lichen, but also each one of us human children, unique in our blend of talents, strengths, weaknesses and inconsistencies. We were created for a life that increases in abundance as we love one another and rejoice in our differences. We were created for an abundant life that transcends the boundaries of this flawed and fantastic earthly realm.
. . .and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured out on us through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.
Due to the pandemic, our church has not held in-person worship since mid-February. Back then, we thought we’d be gathering again in our sanctuary after a few months, at the most. Certainly by the summer. Now, nearly ten months later, weekly worship continues online. Thanks to dedicated, tech-savvy staff and volunteers, the quality improves weekly. We’ve had several drive-in services, with the pastor and music leaders outside, distanced from one another, and congregants in their cars. Our only inside events have been a few small memorial services. As I said in an earlier post (I Wanna be Sedated, October 21, 2020), our congregation has suffered some tragically sudden and unexpected losses this year. At these indoor services, health protocols mandated by our bishop are followed diligently. Attendance is limited to twenty-five, and seating is distanced, with every other pew marked off with blue tape. Masks, of course, are required.
When I recently accompanied my daughter to record her scripture reading and advent candle lighting for an upcoming virtual service, it was our first time inside the church in months. I hadn’t much thought about what I expected our sanctuary, set up for distanced seating, to look like. So I was surprised when we found ourselves laughing.
Every blue-taped pew bore a sign that gently and humorously declared it to be off-limits.
This one might be especially appreciated by our Jewish friends.
I’m glad to be part of a church that finds a thoughtful way to take a light-hearted approach to a serious situation. I’m grateful that my church is taping off pews and modeling the importance of masking. I’m thankful to belong to a congregation that understands and values this vitally important truth: in keeping our distance and wearing a mask, we’re showing love to our neighbors during these anxious and uncertain days.
As we prepare for Christmas, let’s remember that in living out God’s love, a different set of rules applies in this most unusual of Advent seasons. We church folks have often heard fellow congregants, when faced with the prospect of change, make this protest: But we’ve always done it this way! In 2020, and well into 2021, as the vaccine roll-out progresses, we’re called to do things differently. God is calling us to do so. Let’s keep the faith, and not only talk the talk, but walk the walk.
Redeemer, come, with us abide; our hearts to thee we open wide;
let us thy inner presence feel; thy grace and love in us reveal.
–Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates
Words: Georg Weissel, 1642; trans. by Catherine Winkworth, 1855 (Psalm 24)
If, in the unlikely event that you have not yet voted, and have not yet decided how to vote, here is some last-minute food for thought.
One candidate’s modus operandi can be boiled down to a familiar childhood taunt, based on the lie. The blatant, aggressive, unyielding lie. We’ve all heard it: I’m not. You are! For example: I’m not a cheater. You are! There’s also this variation: I didn’t do it. You did! As in: I didn’t kick the dog. You did! The pronoun “you” is replaced as needed.
For most of us, the ridiculousness of this tactic is readily apparent. We know we’d be called out immediately as a liar and a fraud. But for bullies, who wield power through fear, and never, never, back down from the lie, it’s highly effective.
It has proven to be a surprisingly successful strategy for a president surrounded by a cadre of sycophants. He uses it to shirk responsibility and to deflect blame. It works well when the only objectives are self-preservation and self-aggrandizement. In his words and actions, this president demonstrates, repeatedly, that he cares only for himself. Not for his fellow Americans or the fate of our country. This is especially apparent in his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. And now that he, thanks to health care largely unavailable to the typical American, has survived the coronavirus, he feels more powerful than ever. He uses our Department of Justice to fight his own personal battles, and he seeks revenge on those who have crossed him. Another formidable weapon that works to his advantage is the rabid eagerness of loyal media allies to sow and nurture seeds of disinformation. I had hoped Donald Trump’s election to the presidency would prompt him to rise to the level of the office. It didn’t. Instead, he threatens the very future of our democracy. Think what he might do, unchecked, in a second term.
The other candidate is another human person, who has his flaws, as humans do. He’s been known to misspeak, as humans do. Traces occasionally remain of the childhood stutter he worked hard to overcome. But he is most certainly not a bully seeking to be a demagogue. He is an honorable, capable, experienced, compassionate public servant. Those last two words are very important. Unlike our current president, his goal is serving the U.S. and his fellow citizens. He has done so, for years, as a Senator and as a two-term Vice President. He has a proven record. He pledges to continue to do his best to improve the lot of working Americans, and he will put actual plans in place to do so.
And finally, for my friends who identify as Christian, there’s this warning from 2 Timothy 3: 2- 5:
For people will love only themselves and their money. They will be boastful and proud, scoffing at God, disobedient to their parents, and ungrateful. They will consider nothing sacred. They will be unloving and unforgiving; they will slander others and have no self-control. They will be cruel and hate what is good. They will betray their friends, be reckless, be puffed up with pride, and love pleasure rather than God. They will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly. Stay away from people like that!
Which of the two presidential candidates best fits this description?
I make this modest proposal: Why not follow biblical advice to avoid the candidate so perfectly described here, and vote for the other guy?
Is anyone else yearning for a safe place to hide from the ongoing malaise that is 2020? There is so much from which to seek refuge: covid-related illness, anxiety, depression and deaths (221,000 as of today in the U.S. and 1,126,000 worldwide). There are the ongoing climate disasters, including fires, floods, droughts, scorching heat, and even plagues of locusts. Tornadoes, derechos of intense ferocity, and so many hurricanes that we’ve started through the alphabet again for storm names. Then there is all the conflict, free-floating anger and polarization. Extreme economic disparity. Drastically contrasting perspectives on issues of race and class. Weighing heavily on my heart and those of my immediate family is the mind-boggling range of opinions among fellow humans on some of life’s essential questions. On the meaning of decency and morality, on American ideals and what our country stands for, on what it means to call oneself a Christian, what it means to love one’s neighbor. Even on the meaning of truth itself. How can there be such pronounced and heated disagreement? How can some view such questions merely as issues of politics?
But wait. There’s more. Or is it just my dreary outlook that makes me see the world as a meaner, sadder, more dangerous place than usual in other ways, as well? Is it that the high points that typically offset the to-be-expected bad stuff are rarer these days?
I’m not sure. But among my interconnected circles of friends, sudden, non-covid related severe illnesses and frightening medical diagnoses seem to be popping up with alarming frequency. For some, it’s that health conditions, previously under control, have taken a sharp turn for the worse. What was expected to be a short hospital visit turns, on a dime, into hospice care. Or the typically healthy member of a couple, the long-time caregiver for a chronically suffering spouse, abruptly falls ill and succumbs. A friend’s husband complained of back pain, and three weeks later, he was dead. Another friend, the beautiful image of health and fitness, simply did not wake up one recent morning. A promising high school senior in our neighborhood took his own life on a lovely June afternoon. The sign in front of our church frequently honors the memory of another brother or sister “called home.” Never before have I been so constantly aware of the wispy, gossamer-thread fragility that separates life from death. And never before has this earthly realm seemed so inhospitable.
I see my mood reflected in the behavior of the creatures around me. When I find my elderly dog curled up and surrounded by stuffed animals in our daughter’s shaggy beanbag chair, I tiptoe away quietly. I hope his old bones are finding the comfort and consolation they need. I wish I could join him, but he wouldn’t allow it. My perfect pandemic dog is a social distance snuggler, unless there’s a chance of thunder.
When I discovered a tiny frog sheltering in a bright yellow chrysanthemum on our front porch steps, I tried not to disturb the little fellow. As I spotted him beneath a bloom while watering the plant, he opened one eye cautiously but remained perfectly still. I checked again later, quietly, and saw that he appeared to be asleep again. I hope he was able to enjoy his leafy nest for as long as he liked. And when I see the blue-tailed skinks basking on the warm flagstone of our patio, I tread lightly. These little lizards need their place in the sun, just as we all do.
As this year remains mired in the messy muck of tragedy, I long to cocoon myself in a cozy refuge. To hibernate for as long as necessary. At least until mid-November. And dream of emerging into the light of a more hopeful world.
The Ramones said it well:
Nothing to do, nowhere to go, oh
Bam-bam-bambam bambam-bam-bambam, I wanna be sedated.
With the passing of the Honorable Ruth Bader Ginsburg last Friday, this world has lost a tenacious and tireless advocate in the cause of justice for all. The second woman elected to the Supreme Court, she served for twenty-seven years, rarely missing a day despite recurring cancer treatments in later life. Last week she lay in state at the U.S. Capitol, the first woman, and the first person of Jewish faith, to do so.
The woman who would become known as the Notorious RBG was born Joan Ruth Bader in working class Flatbush Brooklyn in 1933. Her father, a furrier, had come to the U.S. from Russia at thirteen. Her mother was born in America to parents who had recently emigrated from Austria. She was the second of the couple’s two children. Her older sister Marilyn died of meningitis at age six, when Ruth was just over a year old. Once she reached school age, there were several girls named Joan in her elementary school class, and it was decided that she would use her middle name.
Ruth’s mother, Celia, was a powerful influence on her only surviving daughter. Celia was highly intelligent, inquisitive, and hard working. She graduated from high school at age fifteen, but limited resources prevented her from enrolling in college. Instead, she went to work at a garment factory to help pay for her brother’s education at Cornell. Celia was determined that Ruth pursue the educational path that had been denied her. She secretly put aside money each week in a college fund. Happily, Ruth, like her mother, excelled academically. Celia was diagnosed with cervical cancer when Ruth started high school. Surgeries and radiation treatments prolonged her life for four years, but she died the day before her daughter’s graduation. Ruth was valedictorian of her class, but she missed Commencement to mourn at home with her father. Celia’s college fund had grown to $8,000 by that time, but Ruth gave most of it to her father. She didn’t need it for her education, because she’d earned a full scholarship to Cornell.
At the university, Ruth Bader met fellow student Martin Ginsburg, whom she described as “the only young man I dated who cared that I had a brain.” Outgoing, jovial, and the life of the party, Marty was a foil to Ruth’s more serious, quiet personality. They married in 1954, shortly after graduation. Marty was drafted into the Army, and their first child, Jane, was born before long. After two years in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, they moved back east, and both enrolled in Harvard Law School. Ruth was one of nine women out of a class of five hundred. Coping with adversity and maintaining an academic focus while dealing with the illness of a loved one were skills that Ruth had mastered as a girl. They came in handy during her early married life when Marty was diagnosed with cancer. Ruth managed, somehow, to maintain excellence in her demanding studies, help her husband stay afloat with his, all the while caring for him and their daughter.
Marty made a complete recovery, graduated, and took a job at a New York law firm. Another year of law school remained for Ruth, so she transferred to Columbia and continued her studies. She made Law Review at both Harvard and Columbia. In 1959, despite graduating first in her class (she tied with a male student), and the glowing recommendations she received from her professors, she found it difficult to find employment. She’d had a summer job at one of New York’s premier law firms, but no permanent offer was forthcoming after graduation, from that firm or the other twelve with which she interviewed. After several rejections for clerkships, also because of her gender, she attained a position as a law clerk at the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of New York. Facing the fact that the doors of major law firms remained closed to women through the 1960s and 70s, Ruth’s career path turned toward teaching. She taught first at Rutgers and then at Columbia, where she became the first woman to earn tenure.
Along with her academic responsibilities, Ginsburg began to litigate gender discrimination cases referred to her by the American Civil Liberties Union. She co-founded the ACLU Women’s Rights Project in 1972, which was created with the goal of removing impediments toward equal opportunity, such as those she had experienced herself. During the 1970s, she argued six pivotal gender equality cases before the Supreme Court. She won five. One of these involved a male plaintiff, a widower who had not been awarded the Social Security benefits to which a widow was entitled. One of Ginsburg’s most fiercely held convictions was that neither women, nor men, should be held to narrow, confining gender stereotypes. Her husband agreed, and their loving fifty-six year marriage was marked by the sharing of household duties and the raising of their two children. (Their son, James, was born in 1965.) When President Jimmy Carter appointed Ruth to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 1980, Marty quit his prestigious and highly paid job as a tax lawyer in New York to become a professor at Georgetown University Law School. Marty, by all accounts, was Ruth’s most dedicated supporter and ardent cheerleader.
When President Bill Clinton nominated Ginsburg to the Supreme Court in 1993, she was easily confirmed by the Senate, in those less partisan days, by a vote of 96-3. During her nearly three-decades long tenure at the high court, she became known for her powerfully and beautifully worded dissents, which Justice Ginsburg regarded as “appealing to the intelligence of a future day.” With the passage of time, the minority opinion (as, for example, in the cases of slavery, civil and voting rights), is likely to become the prevailing one. In the words of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”*
Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt’s eulogy at Friday’s memorial service for Justice Ginsburg focused on a phrase from the Torah featured in a framed artwork in the judge’s chambers. One of the core tenets of Judaism, from Deuteronomy 16: 20, it reads: “Justice, justice, you shall pursue.” The repetition of the word “justice” emphasizes its significance. The verse makes clear for Jews that one cannot be in right relationship with God while mistreating fellow humans, including the widow, the orphan, the servant, the immigrant, the least and the lost. For the Honorable Ruth Bader Ginsburg, her life’s goal and guiding light was the meticulous perseverance, step by step, case by case, in the pursuit of justice, justice, for all people. May her legacy live on. And may the “intelligence of that future day” be quick in coming.
*King’s words condense and paraphrase a passage written in an 1853 sermon by the Unitarian minister and abolitionist Theodore Parker.
Many thanks to my friend, the Reverend Dawn-Marie, for providing the beautiful photos documenting the honoring of Justice Ginsburg in Washington, D.C on September 25.
Debate, often heated, continues on the subject of if, when and how churches should open during the Coronavirus pandemic.
Such talk is misleading.
If you typically attend a church that now refers to itself as “closed,” you may not really have been attending church at all.
Because churches, the real ones, have never “closed.” While congregations have not been gathering in their accustomed sanctuaries, the true and vital work of the church continues.
Let me speak for my own United Methodist church.
Communal worship has moved online. On the first Sunday of the lockdown, our minister simply delivered her sermon live on Facebook. Thanks to teamwork and tech-savvy volunteers, the quality and richness of our services, now accessible on YouTube from our website, improve week by week. Those lacking computer access may call the church office and listen to a recording of the sermon. Small group studies and fellowship for adults, youth and children continue on Zoom and by phone. Attendance at Church Council, Staff-Parish and other committee meetings has never been higher, thanks to Zoom and the lack of any other place to go. We can’t get together physically with our church family, but we’re looking out for one another. Volunteers quickly mobilized to run essential errands for the elderly and the sick. We exchange emails, texts, phone calls and handwritten notes. We certainly miss welcoming any newcomers who might drop by. It’s therefore crucial that we use our online resources to share the hope and joy that comes with knowing Christ.
Perhaps most importantly, our missions continue. Throughout his ministry, Jesus emphasized the sacred importance of feeding the poor and sharing our material wealth. Before his betrayal and arrest, Jesus told his disciple Simon Peter three times: If you love me, take care of my sheep (John 21:15-17). We’re trying. Our Administrator and Director of Christian Education is at the church every weekday morning, just as she was before the pandemic. Among her duties, she deals with a wide variety of requests for financial assistance. The Covid-19 crisis has made such needs more desperate. Our funds are limited, but we do what we can. We no longer meet in person with the elementary school children we mentored in our Homework Club. But through an ongoing collection, we’re providing some support to their families, many of whom have been adversely affected by the pandemic. And as always, of the money we pledge to the church, a substantial portion goes to both local and global needs.
Following the guidelines established by our bishop, we’re beginning to consider the process, not of “opening,” but of moving toward in-person worship. For the well-being of our congregation and those with whom they interact, we will take things slowly. We will not return to our sanctuary with boasts that God will protect us, or bold declarations of “If God says it’s my time, it’s my time.” When I hear such claims, I think, It’s not only about you. ‘Your time’ may not be your mother’s, or your father’s, or your friend’s time. Our church members do not speak of feeling victimized by our county and state government’s banning of in-person worship during the pandemic. I’ve heard no one in our congregation wondering why churches have been “closed” but grocery and liquor stores remain open. I cannot remember a time when I sat shoulder to shoulder with other patrons for an hour or more, singing and being sung to, while doing my grocery or liquor shopping. A friendly, crowded sanctuary is simply an ideal environment for the exchange of germs.
Later this month, our congregation will bid goodbye to our dear friend and current pastor of eight years without being able to meet together. We will welcome a new minister in the same way. For the next couple of months, at the very least, there will be no after-church receptions, no pot lucks, no hugs or shaking of hands. But we will continue to care for one another. We will continue to feed the sheep. And we will persist in reaching out to those seeking answers to life’s difficult questions during these especially difficult days.
As if the Covid-19 pandemic were not sufficient trial by fire for our nation, the situation has become considerably more painful in the last week. The Memorial Day murder of George Floyd, the most recent in a series of deaths of black Americans at the hands of police or self-deputized white citizens, has served as a tipping point. The brutal death of this unarmed, handcuffed man took place in public view, in daylight, on a Minneapolis street. While one police officer slowly asphyxiated Mr. Floyd, his knee pressing into his neck, three others watched and did nothing, despite pleas from bystanders. And despite the repeated words of Mr. Floyd: I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. What atrocities might such police commit in the shadows, when no one is looking, one shudders to imagine. Spurred on by righteous and justifiable anger, protests are occurring from coast to coast. Most are intended as peaceful, yet a large crowd is a volatile, fragile corporate entity, easily hijacked by those of malicious intent. And there are always some small-minded people who seize on a crisis for their own personal gain. Our nation may be more angst-ridden, enraged and polarized than in any period in recent memory.
For nearly twenty years, the United Methodist Church has used this phrase in our outreach material: Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors. Precisely because we love one another, our doors must be temporarily closed, yet our hearts and minds are open, as always. We will not allow the message of God’s grace to shelter quietly, hidden away and gathering dust. Neither will we brandish a Bible, unopened and unread, at best like a symbol, at worst like a weapon, while speaking and acting in an absolutely unchristlike manner. Instead, we will double down on our efforts to extend an invitation to all to open the holy text and learn about the teachings of Jesus, who came to be Immanuel, which means God with us.
And God is with us and among us, even though some say he is absent. Isn’t it up to churches, in these days of closed doors, to open our hearts and minds even more generously to our hurting world? To show what it means to walk humbly with our God and to live in love? To lead the way towards healing and unity?
If you’re looking for a trusted and efficient organization that helps the most vulnerable in this and any crisis, consider donating to the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR).100% of your donation will go to your intended mission project. See https://advance.umcor.org/.
What I missed most, this Easter during Covid-19 isolation, was singing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” among my fellow worshipers at my home church. I missed looking around during the joyful song, exchanging smiles with friends who have become family over the past twenty years. I missed seeing our modest, pleasant sanctuary nearly full for a change. (As in most mid-sized churches in our area, attendance declines yearly.) Charles Wesley’s majestic hymn, the words written in 1739, remains the quintessential anthem of Easter triumph. Our talented organist knows how to do it justice. I can hear the music resounding beyond the church walls. I can imagine that those walking by outside wonder, momentarily at least, if they’re missing something worthwhile. My favorite verses are the second and third:
Love’s redeeming work is done, Alleluia!
Fought the fight, the battle won, Alleluia!
Death in vain forbids him rise, Alleluia!
Christ has opened paradise, Alleluia!
Lives again our glorious King, Alleluia!
Where, O death, is now thy sting? Alleluia!
Once he died, our souls to save, Alleluia!
Where’s thy victory, boasting grave? Alleluia!
This Easter Sunday, during Covid-19 isolation, our family didn’t go to church, of course. Instead, church came to us. My husband, our daughter, my mother and I gathered in front of the TV for our local church’s online worship service. After that, we joined former neighbors remotely for the service from the Atlanta church I grew up in. We got a special treat when the pastor made a tour of our old Morningside neighborhood, the familiar parks and streets of my childhood quiet and uncrowded during this unprecedented time. We felt a renewed connection to dear friends, and to a place we called home, which we haven’t seen since my mother’s relocation to Virginia nearly three years ago. We heard two pastors speak movingly of the renewing, life-giving power of God’s love.
Across the country, ministers, church staff and dedicated volunteers have been scrambling to “do church” in a social distancing world, and it’s a challenging work in progress. But by its very nature, online worship, extending any local church’s reach far beyond the boundaries of any brick-and-mortar sanctuary, should send this emphatic message: If God’s love can’t reach across the miles and over the ages to warm cold hearts, change attitudes and offer hope, then what can? In the words of the classic children’s song: The church is not a building. It’s certainly not supposed to be a cushy clubhouse for an exclusive clique of like-minded, self-congratulatory, dogmatic ideologues. Yet that is the impression that some of the loudest voices identifying as Christian are spreading, if perhaps sometimes unwittingly. What church-goer has not heard the criticism of Christians as judgmental hypocrites? What church-goer can wholeheartedly profess that such a criticism is unwarranted? Can we seize the moment and actively work to chip away at this image? Could it be that the new reality of Covid-19 is the prompt, the burr under the saddle, that will get us moving to change this perception?
The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted an uncomfortable truth that most of us would prefer to ignore: health and long life are not guaranteed, not even to the youthful and hearty. Confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the US have exceeded one million. Nearly 62,000 Americans have died from the virus. While some people may feel a sense of security because their community, far from Covid hot spots, has remained relatively untouched, this could change. The safety net, if not illusory, is fragile and easily torn. Death is no longer the rare visitor, as we like to pretend. Instead, it lurks nearby, sometimes brushing elbows with us when we least expect it. Many people are alone, and lonely. Some struggle with despair and depression. Others are sharing uncomfortably close quarters, and nerves are fraying. Some may be justifiably fearful, as domestic violence is on the rise. Many are plagued by financial insecurity made extreme by sudden job loss. Thirty million people filed for unemployment in the last six weeks. Others, still employed, risk their own health daily as they perform their “essential” but poorly paid tasks. The mood of anxiety is not likely to lessen as states open or prepare to do so. It will not be “business as usual” for a long time.
If only the sad and the hurting could receive a message of love, of assurance, of hope. If only there were some group of unique individuals who might send out such a message, to help transmit rays of much-needed light and comforting warmth when they are so badly needed.
If only churches and those who used to find themselves regularly in church on Sunday mornings could rise to the challenge.
Let’s give it a try.
Let’s emulate the example of Jesus in our words and actions. Like the friend, brother, teacher and savior we honor in our name as Christians, let’s live by the words of the prophet Micah (6:8), and “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.” Let’s embody kindness, empathy and compassion. Let’s leave aside our tendencies to debate the fine points of theology, and maybe even our determination to prove that the Bible (and therefore “we” as opposed to “them”) are “right.” Let’s refrain from referring to people with whom we disagree as “Godless.” Let’s try, even when it makes us squirm as we abandon our customary high ground, to leave the judgement to God. And let’s ensure that our church’s online presence is in sync with our actions. That it emphasizes forgiveness, inclusiveness, and transformative love.
May we “church folks” be a light in the darkness as we share the hope that springs from the certainty of God’s abiding love and saving grace for us, his flawed, often flailing, and all too human children. Who knows how many worried and sorrowful hearts we might touch?
At noon, darkness fell across the whole land until three o’clock. Then at three o’clock Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
Some of the bystanders misunderstood and thought he was calling for the prophet Elijah. One of them ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, holding it up to him on a reed stick so he could drink. “Wait!” he said. “Let’s see whether Elijah comes to take him down!”
Then Jesus uttered another loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain in the sanctuary of the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.
When the Roman officer who stood facing him saw how he had died, he exclaimed, “This man truly was the Son of God!”