Who Closed the Church?

Today is Memorial Day here in the United States. I come from an extended family on my mom’s side that take seriously their commitment to decorate graves each year on this weekend. My grandpa served in World War II, my uncle during Vietnam. And while I don’t know all the stories, I’m pretty sure a great uncle and a great grandfather also served in the military. We’re fortunate as a family that everyone returned home physically intact, even if there were some dark places in their minds and hearts from the experience. While I am not gung ho in my support of countries and wars any more, I certainly respect those who served to protect the lives and rights of people whom they would never meet, people who would treat them disgracefully at times and seemingly waste the sacrifice these men and women made.

I wanted to include that prelude as I move toward the issue that is most on my mind today. As we continue in the season of COVID-19, the topic of “reopening” headlines the news and dominates conversations. Among those making the most noise are those demanding the “government reopen their churches.” I can almost hear one of my heroes, Inigo Montoya, saying “You keep saying those words. I do not think they mean what you think they mean.” Let’s be clear, my friends: No government has the power to close any church, nor did any government in this country attempt to close churches. So, protesters, you’re protesting the closing of buildings. With that in mind, let’s ask some questions.

  1. Did you stream any entertainment during the pandemic? If so, were you in the streets demanding the government reopen movie theaters?
  2. Did you have any virtual medical appointments during the pandemic? If so, were you in the streets angrily screaming at the government to reopen doctors’ offices?
  3. Were your children, grandchildren, nieces or nephews educated online during the pandemic? If so, did you insist the government reopen schools?
  4. Have you made online purchases during the pandemic? If so, are you carrying placards protesting the closure of shopping malls?

Going back to my family and decorating graves. Those graves do not contain the lives of our loved ones; they’re simply places we visit to be reminded of those lives. When I visit my hometown, I drive to the familiar places of my childhood to revisit the memories I have from being in those places with people who are important to me. The fact that I no longer have access to those places – someone else owns the farm, the house my other grandparents lived in when I was a kid no longer exists – in no way diminishes my relationship with those loved ones. My love for them goes far beyond any physical structure.

Our state leaders rightfully closed buildings where large groups gather to protect those most at risk. The least of these. You know, the ones Jesus was so committed to. They have no authority nor any means to close the church because the church is far more and far better than any building. But it seems American “Christians,” and especially Evangelicals (capital e), have some sort of persecution complex and actively seek ways to be offended. And when a wannabe Caesar transparently exploits this trait by playing to our worst instincts, the church shamefully misrepresents Christ and the unity he prayed for us, by shouting all the louder and actively flouting their disobedience the restrictions put into place to, again, protect the least of these. This is not a First Amendment issue; it is a Great Commandment issue.

I’ve intentionally mentioned the least of these. Jesus said, “Whatever you do for the least of these, my family, you do to me.” So when the current occupant of the White House mocks the poor, the disabled, racial minorities, women, he mocks Jesus. My friends, he does not have a pro-Christian agenda. He lives out the spirit of anti-Christ daily. He speaks to all of our worst instincts. The lifestyle he espouses doesn’t even qualify for being a decent human being outside of Jesus and his teachings. Yet many, far too many, who attempt to call themselves by the name of Jesus are out front leading the parade for the man who would be king. So, no, he’s not supporting your religious freedoms, he seeking to use you to exacerbate the divisions that exist in our country in an attempt to rile his base and attempt to maintain his power and somehow achieve reelection. Is this really what you want?

No government can ever close the church. Jesus promised that the gates of hell, of Sheol, could never stand against his church. No external force has that type of power. You know who can close the church? The church. When we choose to embrace the wicked power of empire and seek to label it, “Christian”, we close the church. And every minute spent in angry protest and every sign demanding our rights (you know, the rights Jesus never once mentions) brings us one step closer to being the ones who actually close the church.

Wake up.

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Step it up people!

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The stagecoach isn’t going to rob itself!

To be clear, I’m in favor of wearing masks to protect others who may be compromised or even simply afraid. But every time I wear a bandana to hit the park for a run or when I see someone else wearing one, I feel like I’m in an episode of Gunsmoke!

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The Eternal in the Midst of the Temporal

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“I do not want to complain about this passing world but to focus on the eternal that lights up in the midst of the temporal. I yearn to create space where it can be seen and celebrated.” Henri Nouwen, Sabbatical Journey

Creating space where the eternal can be seen and celebrated. What if we’re more than flesh and blood, more than here and now? What if we really are crafted by a mighty hand and intended to live in the realm of the eternal, even though for a season we sojourn in the temporal? What if there truly is a “thinness” between the now and the not yet? What if it is all connected, rather than existing as discrete and disparate realities?Hope comes in exactly those moments Nouwen describes, when the eternal lights up in the midst of the temporal; when the beautiful illuminates the mundane.

Nouwen wrote Sabbatical Journey as his journal during a sabbatical year from his work at L’Arche, a community that serves adults with developmental disabilities. About three weeks after completing this twelve month odyssey, Nouwen died quite suddenly. This journal, published as a book, was the final gift he left us. I bought the book as soon as it was published and read it immediately. It managed to leave me simultaneously heartsick and happy. While perusing some reader reviews today, I came across one that complained that reading the daily struggles of Nouwen tainted some of the hero perspective he had held for Father Henri; as if someone who wrote so profoundly (and might I add, so honestly) should never have questions or doubts, fears or anxieties. I think my fellow reader missed the point. It was precisely those daily struggles, mixed with the small victories, that drew my heart to this book. It was in those obscure moments, be they mountaintops or valley depths, that the eternal lit up in the midst of the temporal.

Among the highlights of this wonderful text is the placement of the Eucharist at the center of daily life. Nouwen prioritized not just the visits and the experiences, but the importance of living together in the sacrament. There is such amazing imagery, Henri creating physical, emotional, and spiritual space with his friends at each stop to share together in this coming together of heaven and earth. “The body of Christ, broken for you.” “The blood of Christ, shed for you.” It’s a tremendous loss, I think, for those who say they follow Christ but participate in Holy Communion only as an ordinance, taking the view that Jesus commanded it so we must do it. The Lord’s Table is a sacred space, where somehow the God of the universe desires and determines to meet us. If we are negligent, if we don’t show up, we miss so much. The life of God’s kingdom, in the here and now and in the age to come, is meant to be lived sacramentally.

While the different faces of the catholic Church recognize varying numbers of sacraments, two that are fairly universally acknowledged are baptism and Holy Communion. Most churches can agree on these and practice them in some form. Kind of a shame, practice. With Jesus, life is intended to be lived as a sacrament. When we’re paying attention, we can see the eternal along the way. When my two year old grandson runs down the sidewalk yelling, “Thanks for da do-nuts, Ba-po,” somehow the mundane becomes sacred. When I look from the back door toward this beautiful acre of land with its trees, flowers, and stream, there’s a faint recognition of a new earth, the perfection of this one. Eugene Peterson wrote, “Christ plays in ten thousand places.” The sacred is here, whispering our names, tugging at our sleeves. We can choose to ignore the holiness and insist on living on the surface, or we can create space for the eternal to light up in the midst of the temporal.

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Belovedness

NOTE: This is not my writing. This is a writing by Henri Nouwen, taken from the devotional book, You Are the Beloved: Daily Meditations for Spiritual Living, and entitled “Belovedness”.

You are not what you do, although you do a lot. You are not what you have collected in terms of friendships and connections, although you might have many. You are not the popularity that you have received. You are not the success of your work. You are not what people say about you, whether they speak well or whether they speak poorly about you. All these things that keep you quite busy, quite occupied, and often quite preoccupied are not telling the truth about who you are. I am here to remind you in the name of God that you are the Beloved Daughters and Sons of God, and that God says to you, “I have called you from all eternity and you are engraved from all eternity in the palms of my hands. You are mine. You belong to me, and I love you with an everlasting love.

May these words fill you today. Peace of Christ to you.

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To the Pain

Our culture has become most sophisticated in the avoidance of pain, not only our physical pain but our emotional and mental pain as well. We not only bury our dead as if they were still alive, but we also bury our pains as if they were not really there. We have become so used to this state of anesthesia that we panic when there is nothing or nobody left to distract us. When we have no project to finish, no friend to visit, no book to read, no television to watch, or no record to play, and when we are left all alone by ourselves, we are brought so close to the revelation of our basic human aloneness and are so afraid of experiencing an all-pervasive sense of loneliness that we will do anything to get busy again and continue the game that makes us believe that everything is fine after all. (Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out)

Henri Nouwen was a renowned Dutch priest who taught and ministered in Europe, Latin America, the United States, Canada, and in countless hearts the world over. I recently picked up, rather inadvertently, a devotional book by Nouwen. It wasn’t the book I intended to order but I didn’t realize it at the time I ordered it. When it arrived, since I have always loved Nouwen’s writing, I thought I would keep it and add it to my daily reading mix. I had been reading Nouwen’s work for a year or two when he died suddenly in 1996. Since then, I’ve read many more of his books. He never fails to lay my heart open and force me to encounter my feelings and thoughts at a deeper level.

Nouwen wrote these powerful words in 1975. Forty-five years later, about the only thing that has changed is the number of distractions available to us. We strive, it seems, to keep our minds and our hearts numb. Is it any surprise then that the current pandemic has led to such chaos? I understand the concern people have around the physical effects of this unknown strand of coronavirus; uncertainty is exhausting when it goes on for an extended period of time. That fear, while I don’t fully share it, is normal and can even be productive if it leads to behavior changes that contribute to the common good. (Let me clarify: I absolutely believe this virus is real and lethal and am doing what I can to ensure I’m following the guidelines our medical professionals recommend. The reason I don’t fully share the fear is I choose not to live my life in terror that I may die. I don’t particularly want to die, and the coward in me really doesn’t want to suffer, but I’m not cowering in a corner terrified of death.) I can sympathize with people who are feeling the harsh economic pain of this season of sequester. I had a lengthy season of unemployment and underemployment from about 2009 to 2012. Every time the car made a funny sound, I would tense up and feel physically sick as I knew we didn’t have the money to pay for repairs. We’re fortunate, then and now, to have an amazing support network of family and friends who helped us through and would never have let us live on the streets. Clearly, not everyone has that support. Economic fears are real and they are valid. I’m not attempting to point a finger at anyone who is experiencing these fears and anxiety.

Nouwen’s quote, I believe, speaks to our current situation best in light of the protests in various states demanding their governors ignore medical science and immediately “reopen the economy.” I would venture to guess, based simply on anecdotal observation of several of these protests, that many or most of the protesters aren’t living in extreme economic danger. I really wonder how many are living in economic fear as opposed to this fear of pain and loneliness Nouwen discusses. How many, perhaps even me, are averse to digging deep into their souls lest they find emptiness and darkness there. How many have reached their maximum Netflix capacity and now require something else to distract them from living in the type of solitude that might challenge their assumptions.

It isn’t difficult to understand the desire to run from that type of quiet, from that kind of isolation. It does, in my opinion, point to just how sick we are, that there are people saying out loud that we need to be willing to sacrifice human lives in order to “save our economy.” Economies can be reclaimed. Human lives can’t. So I ask those who are able to glibly make such a statement, who are you willing to sacrifice? Your spouse? Your children? Your grandchildren? Your aging parents? Go ahead, name the lives of the people closest to you that you’re willing to sacrifice. I’ll wait.

Perhaps instead of protesting we could reflect. Reflect on ourselves, the values we espouse that might be betrayed by the behaviors and the attitudes we display. Perhaps we can retreat from the streets and the steps of the various capitols back to our homes to begin to explore what the pain and loneliness inside tells us about ourselves. We, especially in this country, bury our dead and get back to life as quickly as possible so we don’t have to take the time and energy required to legitimately mourn. Maybe, if we took a breath, we could meaningfully mourn our losses in this season of COVID-19. And if we’re unwilling to do this, perhaps we could at least put our selfishness on pause for a period of time to increase the chances that others will not be infected. Even if I can’t reflect, maybe, just this once, I could be a decent human being.

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When Will It End?

When will it end? This question comes up with great frequency. Loved ones and acquaintances ask it, it appears in headlines in a variety of publications, it is all around us. When will it end? We want answers. We want a definite timeline. We want “normal.” We want, more than anything else, to be in control. This is America, for crying out loud! Freedom! Liberty! Capitalism! Individualism! Consumerism! We demand our rights! So we ask in varying tones, “When will it end?” The truth: It won’t.

Oh, the COVID-19 pandemic will eventually fade into our memories. Some will continue to try to make sense of it and explore how attitude and behavior changes can make a difference for us moving forward. Others will hold onto residual fear for a season, perhaps an extended season. However, most will prematurely rush back into normal, seemingly having learned nothing from this experience. We are a people notoriously short in reflection skills. We see discrete events, not a web of interconnectedness. We consider how what happens in the world impacts us, not how the ways we respond to the events in our world affect others. It’s kind of funny. We live our lives with a preferred sense of isolation yet feel bound up and anxious when isolating for the good of others is enforced in any way.

COVID-19 is destined to go away over the course of time. The next thing will come. The next thing always comes. After the initial stock market crash in 1929, severe drought and horrid farming practices led to nearly a decade of dust storms, some of which traveled hundreds of miles, reinforcing an initial recession into a decade long national economic depression. The 40s brought yet another world war; the 50s, the red scare and fear of nuclear devastation; the 60s, Vietnam and multiple high profile assassinations; the 70s, Watergate, an oil crisis, and the Iran hostage crisis; 00s, a terror attack unlike any we had known and the ongoing wars that ensued, the crash of the housing bubble and economic chaos; the 10s a growing sense of hatred among political opponents that has polarized the country in ways our grandparents could never have imagined. The truth is, it never ends. It takes on a different face, but it never ends.

It seems a good time to stop asking when it will end and start asking how I will use this time. In this time of worldwide quarantine, how will I challenge myself? How will I actively seek new perspectives? When I’m forced to isolate from people, friends and enemies alike, how might I intentionally create a path to reconciliation that begins now and can continue when distancing restrictions are lifted? Too many times, I live as if this life is MINE and all that matters is what I get out of it. So, I get annoyed at people and events that inconvenience ME. Maybe I could use this time out to more consider an OURS and WE mindset.

Our reality is, crises will continue. They don’t end, they simply change. We want to write happy endings to each one, but we can’t. We can only write the story we choose to live through the various events – serendipitous or catastrophic – that occur during our span on this soil. The bigger outcomes may be out of our hands but we can determine the outcome that will become our legacy. Will we shape these events with love, wisdom, patience, understanding or will we choose instead anger, anxiety, judgment, selfishness? These are the endings we can write ourselves.

While writing this I recalled the line, “It’s always something.” I did a little search as I couldn’t quite remember why it stood out to me. Of course, the search led quickly to Gilda Radner, one of the funniest and ultimately sweetest people of my lifetime. In the rabbit hole I followed was this quote from her autobiography. I think it is the best way for me to end today:

“I had wanted to wrap this book up in a neat little package about a girl who is a comedienne from Detroit, becomes famous in New York, with all the world coming her way, gets this horrible disease of cancer, is brave and fights it, learning all the skills she needs to get through it, and then, miraculously, things are neatly tied up and she gets well … I wanted a perfect ending, so I sat down to write the book with the ending in place before there even was an ending. Nov I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle and end. Like my life, this book has ambiguity. Like my life, this book is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious ambiguity.” (Gilda Radner, It’s Always Something)

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Learning and Turning

Day 21 of working from home. Four full weeks completed. The first couple were filled with frustration as my job and my work seemed nonessential and I struggled to find meaningful ways to contribute. Great anxiety mixed with an enormous wave of adrenaline swept across our campus as faculty took a crash course in moving from face to face teaching in a physical classroom to online teaching in a virtual, seemingly surreal world. Registration for Fall classes was about to begin so academic advisors pivoted quickly from in-office meetings to online meetings. Our retention manager converted the college’s academic study lab to a virtual tutoring center in the span of two days. The entire process, while frantic, was beautiful to observe. My stress level went through the roof though, as it seemed I was only able to observe. I hated being on the sidelines and offered repeatedly to help in any way I could. It was not a time for me to try to promote my career services offerings as the urgent demand was for students and faculty to adjust to the online setting with as little distraction as possible.

I work with really good people. They accepted me from the first day and go out of their way to acknowledge my efforts and highlight positive outcomes. Having been part of a team in Colorado in which there was genuine love and affection among us, it could have been a disaster, starting a new job in a new place. Instead, Salem Community College welcomed me like a member of the family. It has made the transition from what was familiar and beloved much easier. Moving into weeks three and four of working from home has eased some of my initial tension. Work is starting to come my way. I’m learning systems and contributing in ways that feel more substantial. This upheaval has given me clearer vision regarding what needs to be built out to attain my goal of a robust career services program for this particular college in this particular community at this particular point in time. I’m encouraged.

The events of these four weeks have also taught me something about myself that perhaps everyone else knew but about which I remained oblivious or in denial. I find more of my identity in my work than I ever knew. I’ve always heard that men do that and have done it for generations. Somehow, I thought I had missed out on that aspect of manhood. Feeling like I was suffocating because I couldn’t do good work has laid bare this trait in me. Honestly, it isn’t the worst discovery. I want to do excellent work, to be someone who makes the workplace better and creates opportunities for others to grow. It is my hope that when I leave a job, the organization is in a better place than when I arrived and that my coworkers genuinely mourn my leaving as I’ve contributed positively to their lives and work. However, I also want to find my truest identity in something that isn’t as fleeting as work. These weeks at home have allowed me to dig into where that identity is best found. It’s not my intention in this post to explore or explain it, just to acknowledge it. It’s a strange phenomenon, settling deeper into peace as the world becomes more tumultuous. It certainly is not familiar to my experience but what a journey it’s becoming.

That’s all for today.

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