Friday, March 27, 2020

Stout, Willing, Believing... and Churchilling

I am Churchilling this morning. My term. A new spiritual practice.  

For those of you who saw Darkest Hour, a scene you may have forgotten resonated deeply with me then and stays with me even now: Churchill working in bed. Bedclothes on, covers pulled-up, a lap desk, papers and books, a cigar, of course, and a secretary taking his dictations (“Double-spaced!” he growls).
Brilliant! I can be like Churchill in that if in no real other. And only like him, meaning I have no secretary or secretary in here or cigar—and he had no computer!—but I have a lap desk and books and notes strewn about, and stiff pillows behind me to support my scoliosis (the chair is not a friend, and yesterday I was in it for about 9 hours; Churchilling is both respite and kind of energizing). My hair, such as I have, looks like a balding old white man’s version of Cam Newton, but no matter.

My brain and heart have been busy as my hair is unkempt, allowing me two-thirds of the Body, Mind, Spirit triad of integration and balance. I will get to my Body later, or maybe resting my body is tending to the Body. Whatever.
But today… praying and thinking. 

This morning, I have noticed how John Baillie, may his name be blessed, returns again and again to the theme of Jesus’ Passion and Cross: “…give me through this day’s life the remembrance of the sufferings and death of Jesus Christ my Lord.” Earlier in the book he did a good Calvinist rendition of the “stations” of the Cross, inviting us to consider the many moments, each with their own significance, that comprise that blessed horror (Sixteenth Day, Evening).

He is also inclined to ponder Jesus’s sayings (Eighth Day, Morning; Eighteenth Day, morning). He is not opposed to citing saints and spiritual writers, and often quotes other scriptures at length. Additionally, he regularly meditates on the life, ministry and what we might call the psychology of Jesus—one example being Sixth Day, Morning.

In sum, all through his own thinking and praying he follows the traditional triad of considering Jesus: whose story from the start was told this same way: how he died, what he said and how he lived.

Jesus’s suffering is the touchstone for our own. Today, when he gives thanks “for all suffering freely chosen for noble ends, pain bravely endured, and temporal sorrows that have been used for the building-up of eternal joys,” I nodded and got a little teary. Not because I think my own little loneliness or temporal disappointments merit any claim of nobility, at all, but just because I am thankful for the freely-chosen suffering of others (not least doctors and nurses and others right now) and hope I can be both more sensitive to it—and also more measured and humble when I am tempted to get too interested in my own.

Indeed, I too am praying for “grace to understand the meaning of such afflictions and disappointments as I myself am called on to endure.” If Baillie’s Calvinism might say that even those sufferings are gifts, or sent, at least, by God, I am more inclined to say with other Wesleyans that sufferings comes, the world being what it is—and by grace we can discern meaning or  learn lessons from them, but not because they were sent for that purpose.

Either way his conclusion—“Give me a stout heart to bear my own burdens. Give me a willing heart to bear the burdens of others. Give me a believing heart to cast all burdens on Thee”—is a great, great prayer. Worth praying every morning. Even before getting out of bed

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Flatten the Curve, Spike the Concern

Trying to think of all the things that fall flat right now… like the “influencers” who are doing ridiculous things: fashion updates, horrible bikinis with surgical masks (where did they even get them? Oh, yeah, they don’t need them in Russia), licking toilet seats in airplanes. I think I speak for everyone when I say, “Ewwwwww!”

I get it that ESPN needs something to report these days, but can I just say that I am SO not into Tom Brady’s new contract, or Cam’s pique at being released or whatever… I mean, I am worried about my waiter the other day at Thomas Street Tavern. I had gone there the afternoon of Governor Cooper’s 5 p.m. shutdown, thinking it may be a while before I got to sit down in an eat-out place, and wondering what that place should be, and so I decided on
Thomas Street. Decided on a corned-beef Reuben and tots, only to discover they had run out of corned beef (others must have had the same thought). Okay, a club, but only two pieces of toasted wheat bread… and then when the food came I talked with the waiter. Things were already slowing way down (I got there about 3).
“What are you going to do?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he replied. “The owner told us it might be May before we work again.”
“I’ll be fine. I don’t need a lot. More worried about my dog. He needs special food.”
I left an over-large tip, hoping to help feed the dog if not the waiter.

So forgive me if I am not really concerned about Tom’s millions, or Cam’s aggrievements. Or a host of other things that about 10 days ago may have been of at last passing interest. Now, they just seem silly. The “drama” seems wildly dissonant to the actual challenges of how many people are going to survive it.

So, today, I actually encouraged a roster of people to cancel a trip they had planned with me in October, to fly into Rome, get on a cruise ship, go to Malta, then to Santorini and Mykonos, to Athens, Ephesus, Corinth… I was so looking forward to retracing some of the journeys of St. Paul! But, A) Rome?
Maybe by October, but the docs say the virus may be with us at least one more and possibly two more seasons. B) A cruise ship? So many people stranded right now on cruise ships and we have all heard the stories. By October all of that may be a memory, but it will be a fresh memory nonetheless and the psychology of it—after fear has been so deeply injected into our minds, it will be hard to purge—makes having a good time, even in Santorini, hard. C) Some of those who were going this time: and some of them more at risk than others might be. I am worried about them, and just as worried about all the people whose lives and livelihoods will be affected by the decision. I have a friend who is a travel agent in St. Pete. She predicts that the travel industry as a whole will be decimated by COVID-19—is already on life support, as it were (I mean do disrespect to anyone for using the metaphor). She thinks fully half of all agencies will shutter for good; but that those that do survive will partner with cruise lines and others to offer great deals when travel is possible again and fun. I have not listed that as “D,” because even considering that feels a little vulture-ish to me, except I am not trying to take advantage. Not even really thinking about the next trip. Just taking it one day at a time, as it were, Sweet Jesus. That’s all I ask for me or my people.

FYI… we getting ready to start a new “Prayers for the Day,” or some such. About 10 minutes of prayer and devotion at noon for the duration. I have just recorded the one for tomorrow. We will be posting it on our webpage and FB page. I hope you will join us.

Prayer is one of the things that does NOT fall flat. Does not land with a thud, at all. In fact, in you are praying along with us in A Diary of Private Prayer, you have noticed how relevant, how timely, how eerie, really, are the intersections between our daily situation and Dr. Baillie’s prayers. 

He did not claim special visions, nor did he portend prognostications (heard enough of that yesterday); he was just spiritually adept, prayed about the perennial matters of soul and life that nest in almost every day’s circumstances.
Prayer, Bible—again, I hope you are reading your text. And especially the stories of displacement and relocation which seem, to my heart at least, so relevant and applicable right now.
Prayer, Bible, the Spirit—and songs, hymns and spiritual songs evidence of the Spirit’s presence. Get your hymnal, sing (or at least read, rhythmically) the words that give a door to the Spirit and at the same time express the emboldening Spirit to a fearful word. Post hymns on FB, if you are still on FB.

Get off Facebook, too, at least for a good while every day. Most all of THAT falls flat, too.

Prayer, Bible, Spirit/song, community—we cannot go it alone. So thank God for technology. (This morning, we had our staff meeting on Zoom. Six of us, and we looked for all the world like The Brady Bunch). Keep reaching out. Call and check on folk. Let us know if anyone needs food or medicine.

Flatten the curve but Spike the concern. 

Monday, March 23, 2020

Mind the Gap, and Fear Not


Is this the Zombie Apocalypse? I think not.

Is it the End of Days?

Sylvia Browne, who died in 2013 (I wonder if she foresaw her own death?) wrote this book in 2008, predicting (as I read yesterday on CNN (see link below) that  around 2020, a pneumonia-like virus that would sweep the world, disappear as quickly as it appeared, reappear 10 years later, and then… something. I read about what she said but lost interest. No, I don’t think it is the end of days. Who needs her when we have Nostradamus? That said, this thing is “flying off the shelves,” as it were, in audio form. The actual book is almost as rare as Pappy, and going for hundreds of dollars. If I am spending that kind of money on something to make me crazy, I am going for the Pappy.

Now, if you are interested in an interesting book, and like Steven King (who is an agnostic Methodist, as I understand it. Like many others, it would seem)—I recommend The Stand. It is a 1978 book about a pandemic caused by a weaponized virus that very nearly wipes out the world—but only to the stage for the Final battle between good and evil (Browne meets Nostradamus). A little old woman, African-American, sitting in a rocking chair on the porch of her cabin in a Nebraska cornfield, I believe it was (I haven’t read it since seminary), represents God against the Devil’s urban, sophisticated Las Vegas guy. Now that was pretty interesting, but I don’t consider it prophecy. Nor was the mini-series that got made of it (in 1994) very enjoyable.

I have been reading that a lot of people have been watching Contagion, a 2011 movie starring the Goop lady herself, the internet influencer and weird-wannabe of rich mothers everywhere, Gwyneth Paltrow. For that reason alone I have no interest (though I do like her Pepper Potts to Robert Downey’s Iron Man, but that has far more to do with Marvel than Goop. Maybe I will get around to it, after I catch-up on Westworld, The Marvelous Ms. Maisle, Picard, and finally, finally, watch The Mandalorian. I subscribed to Disney Plus six weeks ago for that reason, and I have not watched a thing.

For my part, last night, I watched Daniel Craig’s James Bond in both Casino Royale (2006) and Spectre. The first is a great movie, the second…not quite so great. BUT, when Madeleine Swan asks him in the dining car, “Why, with every other option, would anyone choose ‘paid assassin’?” Bond: “Well, it was either that or the priesthood.” Yeah, that is the way I saw it too… but I chose the priesthood, as it were, and not only because I am deaf, have bad joints, terrible reflexes, hate violence [except in Bond movies], look terrible in a bathing but because I have somewhat of a moral center based around “love your enemies.” That said, I really do like James Bond. Eager to see No Time to Die, especially as it is Craig’s last turn at it.

I guess what interests me most is the fascination some seem to have with The End. Some pastors—to my mind unscrupulous and irresponsible ones (as irresponsible as the scams promising you a corona-resistant face mask)—are using the sickness and suffering now gripping the planet to stoke fear of God’s judgment and wrath. Mix three measures of self-righteousness with one of anger, a half-understanding of Bible, shake it together till it’s ice cold and add a thin peel of fruitiness… Oh, wait. That sounds a little like Bond’s Vesper (which you can’t make anymore)…  If this is the signal for Jesus' return, "Lord, haste the day." But our thinking about the Day is a matter of hope, not anger; results in joy, not fear.   

All of us are trying to “mind the gap,” as it, were.
Whether the gap is in our schedule or between our ears, among separated families or in our hearts, all of us are working to fill the emptiness with something. Some will fill it with fear, with conspiracy theories and outlandish predictions. As to Ms. Browne’s “prophecies,” well, I am reminded of the Ancient Alien theorists who lead with, “Could it be…?” Well, yes, I guess it could be almost anything. Could. Be. Whatever. OH, NO!!

Better, I think, to fill the gap with prayer and faith, with Bible and trust, with entertainment that you know is in fact entertainment and inspiration or strategy. Or fortune-telling.

What was it the comedian said? “I will take the Psychic Friends seriously when they call me.” Nor does God have to eliminate the population for a showdown between Good and Evil. Heck, that happens in every heart, every day—though a season of fear amplifies the battle. Maybe COVID-19 will just disappear (I have heard that from other loons beside Ms. Browne). Maybe it is here to stay or will reappear. Who knows but God.

All I will say is that Jesus, while reminding his disciples that they lived in dangerous times, said, “Fear not.” Over and over again, “Fear not.” Which is why the old hymn, so comforting, takes on a far more credible “prophetic” meaning than any of the doomsday predictions:

          This is my Father’s world. Oh, let me ne’er forget, 
          that though the wrong seems oft so strong God is the ruler yet. 
          This is my Father’s world. Why should my heart be sad? 
          The Lord is king, let the nations sings. God reigns, let the earth be glad.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Verses, Verses Everywhere... but the stories are even better.

I have been reminded of late of good King Josiah, who was 8 (read :EIGHT) years old when he took over for his assassinated father, Ammon, who succeeded the disastrous rom King Manasseh. Josiah, however "did was was right in the eyes of the Lord." After he was older, one of the things Josiah did "right" was to repair, refurbish, and otherwise restore the Temple that King Solomon had built a couple of hundred years before.  

Image result for king josiahDuring that project--and I hope you remember this story from Sunday School--a copy of "the Book of the Law"was found under the Temple's clutter. Upon reading it, and realizing how unfaithful the people of Israel had been (not least during the reigns of his father and grandfather), Josiah tore his clothes (as sign of great grief and repentance), and commanded that the people hear again God's word and renew their covenant to live faithfully as God's people. 

It is one of the great stories in all the Bible--and one with shockingly enduring applicability: how the Bible is often lost or buried, even in the Church: is hidden under the clutter of so many other things. How many of God's own people--people who claim God, anyway--disregard the Word that gives Life, and that abundantly. How even the priests and rulers among us do not remember or know the ways and will of God.  

That is a sermon for another time. 

But there come moments, don't there, when we turn again to the text: we lose the job, get the diagnosis, watch the marriage or finances disintegrate. We have nowhere else to turn and so we turn to the Bible, though sometimes we are unsure where to look or what to look for; bu there is a sense we all of us have that here, here, is what we really need. We desire to read and listen and draw comfort (but leave the challenge till later). 

Now is one of those times, of course. And so many people are busing finding a verse here, a verse there, verses...verses, verses read, and to offer as balm, as comfort, to frightened souls in this weird, wilderness time. And good for you. Keep looking. Keep reading.

All I will say is that for me, isolated verses do not bring as much comfort as the themes, the narrative arcs—what scholars sometimes call “typologies.”

Which is why I am encouraged, cheered, to remember that the story of God’s people is very often a story of displacement, of one form or the other—of exile from the places and things that have given identity, but don’t anymore. Displacement, which calls for even greater reliance on God.

Image result for abram's journey from Ur
For example, do you remember how God called Abram and Sara to leave the carapace of Ur in the Chaldees and go to a new land? Away from Abram’s father’s land and people, and everything that was part and parcel of his old life. That theme carries on…

When the people of Israel were Exiled from Jerusalem, away from the Temple and its priests, its worship and customs, traditions and songs--and BACK to Babylon. It is almost as if they were reversing Father Abraham's course.  

As surely as we are exiled, too, away from here from our place, our people, our songs and rituals. We can almost begin to sense, in the least wee sense, that since of displacement that caused the Psalmist to lament: 

“By the waters of Babylon, there we hung up our lyres and wept when we remembered Jerusalem. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange Land?" 

That is the question for us, even now, isn’t it?

Displacement. I remembered how Jesus called the disciples away from everything that was familiar: the water, their hometown, home synagogue; their family, work, routine…call it social distancing.

I have even thought about the Exodus: how slavery had been a horrible, but familiar carapace or cocoon: a kind of unsafe, safe harbor. And once they were free of it the people did not know what to do.

Like we do not know what to do, now that we, like they—and like the disciples were—are displaced from our offices and routines and our extended families; from our work, some of us, and our ways of working, others of us.

For forty years, those ex-slaves had to depend on God day-by-day to provide what they needed to survive and learn and be the people of God in the wilderness…

And in this wilderness, the wilderness we are now in, thank God for the day-to-day gift of Bible, and prayer, and hymns and songs and spiritual songs… yes, yes, of course.

Bible. Spirit. Prayer. Those basic things, left to us through the centuries when our own Temple has been cleansed, restored, repaired, renewed. For all we have thrown away of the church as it was (so many gilded ossifications and leaden overlays as to render the Church itself, much of it, a kind of carapace that needed discarding) we have never abandoned Bible, Prayer, Spirit. And we need them more than ever even now.     
Image result for holy communion
But if we are not careful, will take those comforts to our own soul--make our personal manna a private meal; our individual salvation private. 

But in fact, in the stories, every instance the Bible’s people were displaced, they were still together. In families—Abram and Sarah; among the Exiles, marching along their own Trail of Tears to Babylon; the first disciples—Jesus’ call never left anyone alone: they had to be in the group; even the people in the wilderness: they were in the wilderness together. 

Over and over again they ate together: Passover, Seder, Table Fellowship, Eucharist--all, quite literally, a fore-taste of the Glory Divine. 

Paul was never alone, either, even in jail!

Which is why we, too, have to find ways to keep connected. With Bibles and hymnals and prayer books in hand, of course--but looking for others to read with, pray with, sing with, because our faith is a corporate thing. 

Personal, but never private. So thank God for technology, and phones, and emails… all are crucial.

But keep looking for even other ways to connect and stay connected.
Whatever we are forced to give up in this displaced and displacing time, let us never give up on the hope and need to be together again.   

Friday, March 20, 2020

John Baillie, Gandalf the Grey and Albert Camus

Image result for a diary of private prayer
No offense to Susanna Wright, at all. In fact I am pleased she has made A Diary of Private Prayer available and accessible once again to
a new generation of believers. Indeed, the language and rhythms of the original--so Scottish, so Calvinist, so stately--can be off-putting to some folk (I once gave a paperback of the classic to a friend named Celeste who scanned a page or two and handed it back to me: "I don't talk like that!"

I told her that was the power of it, or part of the power: to make your mouth say words they don't always say, in an order and cadence that is more like music than banter. Like the Psalms, I said. She was uninterested. It was oasis to me, but some people find it dry and gritty. So, thanks, Susana. Tell Tom I said "hello."

That said, this morning's prayer loses something in her translation from the original to the updated.

In the newer rendering:

"Almighty God, in your infinite wisdom you have sent my life with the narrow bounds of time and circumstance..." 

In the copy I have, which has almost not survived my praying of it through many long years and many dark nights, the prayer begins this way:

"Almighty God, who on Thine infinite wisdom hast ordained that I should live my life within these narrow bounds of time and circumstance, let me now go forth into the world with a brave and trustful heart." 

No, Celeste, I don't talk that way, either, but I surely wish I did. So, I guess this morning I let Dr. Baillie speak for me as well as pray for me.

"These narrow bounds of time and circumstance." And today, of course that takes on new meanings as we continue to get the numbers on COVID-19... and people are going crazy.

Not that there are riots or anything.... but you have senators betraying the public trust, apparently, greedily using dire information that have heard in classified briefings to protect their portfolios... at least that is the allegation. You have people in Kansas and Louisianna and cyperspace denying, doubting, entertaining the wildest kind of conspiricy theories...and it all is a hoax, right? An international collusion of financial markets, health officials, even hospitals and morgues that are running out of room--oh, yeah, and "the media," as it that is one monolithic thing--to besmirch the President. Who is now telling people not to sit so close together, so I guess he's now in on it.

Crazy times. Interesting times, at the very least, which is the old Sufi curse: "May you live in interesting times."

Praying Dr. Baillie this morning--these narrow bounds of time and circumstance"--I was reminded of the conversation between Gandalf and Frodo, as they sat in the mausoleum-like gloom of Moria, contemplating the evil and darkness that had overtaken Middle Earth: "I wish it need not have happened in my time," said Frodo. "So do I," said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for us to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that it given to us."

What resource do we have? Where do we find wisdom and strength? Dr. Baillie prays for us, and this morning I pray with him and many others who are using this prayer book for Lent:

"It has pleased Thee to withhold from me a perfect knowledge; therefore deny me not the grace of faith by which I may lay hold of things unseen" (Wright: "It has pleased you to hold back from me a knowledge of everything; therefore give me the grace of faith so that I may grasp what I cannot see.")

Thou has given me little power to mould things to my own desire; therefore use Thine own omnipotence to bring Thy desire to pass within me: (Wright: "You have given me little power to shape things to my own desires; therefore use you own great power to make what you desire happen within me.")

Thou has willed it that through labour and pain I should walk the upward way; be Thou then my fellow traveler as I go" (Wright: "It is your will that through hard work and suffering I should walk the upward road; so be my fellow traveler as I go").  

"Let me face what Thou does send with the strength Thou dose supply... does that part of it need translation?

I, like Frodo, wish "this" need not have happened in my time. Like Gandalf, I remind myself and others that no one likes it, but what we do now reveals much about our faith and our understanding of God's call and claim on our lives. Like John Baillie, I pray for us all that When (God ) callest us to go through the dark valley, we will not persuade ourselves that we know a way around, whether iby unethical stock deals, hoarding of supplies, irresponsible gatherings, or denial.

+ + +

One more literary reference:  Really interesting article in the NYT yesterday: "Camus on the Corona Virus":

Thursday, March 19, 2020

I have been thinking about Pompeii. About Hiroshima and Nagasaki. About those pictures we have all of us seen--and what some have seen up close--about the moment disaster struck: People caught in the middle of some activity and just... frozen. In mid-jump or whatever.

Image result for pompeii
I have been thinking about that because it seems to me that that is what has happened to us, in a way. Not as dramatically, localized or instantaneously--and certainly not as catastrophically, at least so far--but perhaps as arrestingly: we were going about our lives, our business, church, more or less normally, and now we are stunned, stopped, trying to climb out from under it.

The guy to the left here speaks to me like sad poetry. And even if he should escape the wrath of Vesuvius, which of course he did not, what will his life, or the life of Pompeii, be like on the other side of it? 

Image result for hiroshima shadows
from Pinterest
The child to the right, mined from Pinterest, looks too "perfect," though I have not been able to find any indication that it is inauthentic. Even if it were staged or photo-shopped, the truth is beyond dispute (and what was it Picasso said? That art is a lie that helps us see the truth? I suspect the reverse is a good way to describe the gospel: the Truth that helps us see the lie of the world and its values). In any case, comes a moment that forever divides things into before and after, and we must try to cross the Rubicon of that moment and live into the new reality it signals.      

So, what will our lives be like on the other side of COVID-19? Who but God knows? But surely there will be some of what we learn and experience, even if most of if will fade.  

Those of you who are familiar with The Hunger Games, either the books or the movie, will remember that moment when Haymitch reads to Katniss the letter from Plutarch: "The war is over. We're in that sweet period where everyone agrees not to repeat the recent horrors. Of course, we're stupid, fickle human beings with poor memories and a great gift for self-destruction. Although, who knows? Maybe this time we will learn." 

Image result for haymitch reads to Katniss
I would like to think this time we will learn, though the track record is not great. I remember that sweet moment after the terrible horror of 9/11. I remember people being nice to each other, patient on the highways, going back to church and praying, rallying around brothers and sisters. Of course, it did not last, except for the kind of "never forget" prejudice that has spawned untold atrocities and still incites death and destruction. For Christians, forgiveness is a kind of forgetting and our desire is never to judge whole groups of people by their worst examples. THAT is part of what I wish we could learn, and remember, and keep before us...

What else would I like for us to learn? That we really do need each other. We are not islands. Either as individuals, ethnic groups, or nations. We cannot wall ourselves off from others, nor should we want to. If, on the negative side, the virus proves how interrelated and fragile (and global!) we are--where strangers can infect strangers and no barrier is effective against sickness and death (all the neighborhoods in Pompeii, rich and poor were equally destroyed)--on the positive side, the ways we cooperate prove the same thing to the positive. We prove, together, how strong we can be. Strangers can help strangers; nothing can stop the love and sharing and service once it begins to spread.

I also hope we learn again how crucial church is. Not just going to church, but faith, hope and love. Being a part of the Body of Christ, where together we learn who our neighbor is and why we love them (because Jesus loved and died for all of us; no one of us, but all of us are his favorites). 

Where we are given both the reason and the example to "make ourselves useful," as our moms used to say when we were bored. If there are many who will gladly self-quarantine and safe-harbor in order to stay away from people (and certainly we each and all need to be responsible, for ourselves and others), there are also people who are so much self-quarantined but cut-off from support or help; many who are not only safe-harboring, but dangerously isolated. It is our duty and joy to learn from Jesus, and in this wilderness determine how to come away from our willful isolation in order to make ourselves useful to our neighbors by loving them for God's sake. 

We may learn more yet about what the Church will be or look like after COVID-19. I will speak to that more tomorrow. 

Yes, we have been stopped in our tracks, as it were. But Jesus calls us to follow him to the other side where even now we can prove to be his disciples.    

Stout, Willing, Believing... and Churchilling

I am Churchilling this morning. My term. A new spiritual practice.     For those of you who saw Darkest Hour , a scene you may have f...