Today is Good Friday. It was a surreal day - another in this surreal week - and it sure didn't have the aura of holy exhaustion that Holy Week usually brings. With no liturgical responsibilities today, I had time to run errands - carefully, of course. I wore the mask given to me by a coworker, and I only went where I absolutely needed to go.
One of my stops was to pick up an online order at a home improvement store. After waiting for the non-masked employee to summon me over, I gave her my order number. She asked for a picture ID and I made a bad joke about her checking my picture ID against my eyes - all that's visible when I have the mask on. I told her it felt comical. Her response: "Well, you sound like a Kathi..." Ah...ok.
One of my stops was the grocery store. I went to the small store near our home, mask on, happy to see that they weren't overrun by people trying to buy eggs. I worked my way through my list, pleased that I found asparagus and my favorite dinner rolls for Easter dinner; amazed that people aren't hoarding ice cream. I saw a lot of people wearing masks. Everyone seemed to be keeping careful space; one lady in the Easter candy aisle waited for another person to make her selection before moving to the same area.
I finished my shopping and went to the register. The cashiers and baggers now stand behind hastily-erected plexiglass shields. Between the masks we were all wearing and the plexiglass, communication was ridiculous. I kept thinking, "Even with all the masks (and others wearing gloves), and these shields, there's so much touching of stuff. I've handled products touched by how many people? They're now handling products touched by me and how many people?"
I left through the designated exit - the door furthest from my car, of course. As I headed across the parking lot, I thought I saw some parishioners loading groceries into their car. I almost wept for joy.
Then, I realized - Nope. Not who I thought it was. These people were strangers.
I went to my car, and as I was putting the bags into my car, I began to weep. I finished loading, began my drive home, and allowed my tears to flow freely. My heart hurt - in a different way than it's been hurting all week - all Holy Week - in which I've been missing our gathering for ritual, prayer, Sacrament, and song. Today, my heart hurt because I miss my people.
The last time I saw some of them was March 15. That was the last Sunday we carefully held worship at Zion, and our attendance that day was way down (appropriately so). So, it's fully been a month since I've seen most of them.
And it's been a month in which I've been slammed with ministry of a different sort - digital ministry. Now, I've been involved in digital ministry for quite a while now. But the last month has meant learning new software, having some things fail, having many things work (hooray!), and working with a small team selected just for our current work of live-streaming worship. It has been exhausting. It has been occasionally joyous. But mostly it's been stretching every single part of me beyond where I ever thought my limits were.
Turns out, there's always room to stretch.
I drove home, weeping for the short drive. I got home and wanted to linger in my car and cry. But the reality of melting ice cream in the car got me going. I unloaded the car. I ended up sitting in the front room, watching the fading Good Friday sunlight through the trees. My heart was so very heavy.
Yes, Easter is coming. And hallelujah for that because this Holy Week is sitting differently than any other has, differently than any ever will. I am claiming moments of joy when they come. I scrubbed our front door this morning - the site of so many deliveries now, and no guests. I cleaned the whole area, made it extra pretty, and then I put out a cute bunny. Because...why not?
I'm weary. My colleagues are weary. The world is weary, it seems, too. So - find joy where you can. It might be hard to find, and that's OK, too. As Psalm 30 says: "Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning." Maybe not tomorrow morning, or even the morning after that - but joy will come some morning.
Pr. Kathi Johnson
Associate Pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in San Antonio, Founder and Curator of Digital Gathering
by Pr. Kathi Johnson
Associate Pastor at Zion Lutheran Church in San Antonio, Texas, and the founder and curator of Digital Gathering.
Below is the text from the homily I preached on the first Sunday we live-streamed our worship without a congregation present. My text was primarily Psalm 13, with a reference to Romans 8.
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How long, O Lord? the psalmist cries. And I’ve cried this, too, so many times in my life. I’ve cried out – I’ve even screamed: How long, O Lord? in my times of deepest distress and sadness, in times when I was walking in the valley of the shadow of death.
How long, O Lord? the psalmist cries. She feels…forgotten by God. She feels as though God is hiding from her. She is enduring pain and sorrow day after day. She is weary of her enemies always having the upper hand. How long, O Lord? she asks – look on me, answer me. Where are you?
How long, O Lord? the psalmist cries, and this is our cry, too: especially now. How long will we have to live like this? How long will we face fear and sadness each day, every day – fear and sadness so close that we could kiss them – if it weren’t for social distancing. How long, O Lord? How long will we be in our homes and not in our churches, our workplaces, our schools, our restaurants and bars, our other public spaces, our gatherings larger than ten? It feels like this might last…forever.
How long, O Lord? the psalmist cries, and this is our cry, too.
We don’t know the answer. We have projections from health professionals and government officials and all kinds of people on the internet, but we don’t know the answer.
And so, we do what people of faith have done for millenia. We do what we can to live our daily lives as faithfully as we can – and in our time and place, that looks different than it has before. In our time and place, faithful living means keeping space – keeping distance – so that we can protect others. In our time and place, faithful living means paying more attention to keeping things clean. In our time and place, faithful living means that we give up normalcy to embrace a new normal: one that feels strange and feels distant but that will give us the greatest chance to get through this somehow. To me, anyway - it feels like damage control.
In this psalm of lament, like the other psalms of lament, the writer struggles with what feels like God’s absence. And in these times of lament, it can feel as though the absence of God will continue on…indefinitely. How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? To the psalmist, this time of deep distress and pain feels like it is going to last an eternity.
The thing about the psalms of lament is that they reach a critical point, eventually. They reach a point where the psalmist remembers God’s faithfulness. You can almost see them turn a corner in the psalm, and the mood of the psalm changes:
How long, O Lord? I don’t know, but I put my trust in your mercy.
How long, O Lord? I don’t know, but my heart rejoices in your saving help.
How long, O Lord? I don’t know, but in the meantime, I’m going to sing and praise…
Because the goodness of God isn’t dependent upon how I’m feeling. And the love of God isn’t, either. The goodness and love of God just…are. Which is why Paul’s words to the church in Rome are so very important for us to hear and remember right now, in this time of global crisis:
I am convinced – Paul writes – that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
And so, my friends, right now may be a struggle, it may be deeply challenging to us as individuals and to us as a society. We may have to draw upon strength we don’t even know we have not only to care for ourselves but especially to care for others. We don’t know exactly what lies ahead.
Thank God, then, that God’s love doesn’t depend on us. Thank God that God’s love doesn’t depend on how we’re feeling, or what we read in the news. Thank God that – even in this time of distancing, this time of separation – thank God that there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
In this time, and in whatever place you find yourself – God loves you. For how long? Forever.
I was doing OK when we started worship on Sunday morning, even after worse-than-usual insomnia kept me up for hours in the early morning. I was doing OK, even during more discussions about CoVid-19 with our senior pastor and others. I was doing just fine, thank you very much, until I started to lead worship.
I began with some weird announcements - basically explaining that the morning would feel strange in this strange time, but here we were, anyway. Then, just like that, we slammed into our Lenten liturgy, slammed right into the Confession and Forgiveness. I had the congregation stand and off we went...
I even held it together then, even as I felt like I could hardly read the words on the page in front of me, inviting the people into our time of confession..."If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us..." And then came the part where I started to fall apart - I got to the words I've heard so many times before, and said so many times before, and my voice started to crack, and I knew, "Oh shit...this is not going to be easy..."
"Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts and minds, so that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy name, through Christ our Lord. Amen."
My voice cracked, but I held things together. The liturgy, as it does, kept moving me along, moving me along through the hymns, through the readings, through the sermon and the creed and the prayers. We carefully and distantly greeted each other at the Peace, and then began the Communion portion of our liturgy. And that was where I stopped the liturgy in its tracks.
I chanted at first, and all went well. I kept getting hung up in my head on certain words and phrases, like God calling us to prepare with joy for the paschal (Easter) feast. That messed me up because I was wondering when we would be celebrating that feast. "Will the church doors even be open that day?" I thought as I kept going. I held together during the Sanctus, singing with the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.
Then I began the Thanksgiving at the Table, tracing through the stories of grace shown by God to God's people through every age. My voice caught in my throat again, but I kept going. I got through the Words of Institution, telling the story again of Jesus instituting His Supper. I looked people in the eye, as I always do. And it was OK.
Until my eyes fell onto the next words, there in black and white:
"For as often as we eat of this bread, and drink from this cup, we proclaim the Lord's death until he comes."
And I couldn't speak. I stared at the words. I couldn't stop staring at them, even as I thought - no, that's wrong - even as I inwardly cried out, "But when? When will we eat of this bread and drink from this cup again?" I choked back a sob as I finally said the words out loud. The congregation's response was a relief so I could catch a quick breath:
Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.
And in those few short phrases, the people preached to me, and to each other: "Christ will come again."
I served Communion with tears streaming down my face. I couldn't wipe them away, dammit, because we're not supposed to touch our faces. And so I stood there, handing out the Body of Christ, broken for you, with tears and mascara running down my wet cheeks.
There is much that is uncertain in this new, strange time. We don't know when the calendar will fill back up with Bible studies and quilters and crafters and people sharing stories and sharing lives and sharing laughs and tears and hugs. We don't really know when our music groups will get back to their important work. We don't really know when we will worship together again, letting the light coming in the stained glass window blind us in its morning shine. We don't know when our "non-essential gatherings" - which really are quite essential, as it turns out - will resume.
And so, in the meantime, we will find that Christ is present with us in other ways. We will gather online, we will talk on the phone, we will write encouraging texts or emails, we will carefully and distantly meet in groups smaller than ten. We will keep on being The Church, living through this time of exile. We may cry out, "How long, O Lord?" like the psalmist did, and we may not get an answer.
But we also know and trust that "suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us" (Romans 5:3-5).
Amen. Come, Holy Spirit.
Over the past week, I've heard this term thrown around - "social distancing" - in reference to the physical separation that public health officials are encouraging us to keep in this age of Covid-19 (the new strain of coronavirus). The basic idea is that maintaining more physical distance between ourselves and others helps to slow the spread of illnesses.
This concept of distancing can be challenging for people in religious communities, including the church I'm currently serving. Whether we are gathering for worship on Sundays (or Wednesdays) or gathering for fellowship events or Bible study, we often greet with handshakes and hugs - the very opposite of social distancing. And, for many Christians anyway, these handshakes and hugs are given in the name of love. So now religious leaders (and others) are grappling with what to do in this age of social distancing - in this age where contact as simple as a handshake can pass along a virus that (similar to other illnesses, like the flu) can wreak havoc on some bodies. As leaders, we ourselves may be frustrated by the various forms of social distancing, and we also hear from our people that they don't see where the harm is in a simple handshake or hug.
We are creatures of habit, you and I. We all have our "things" - our go-to routines that we follow daily, weekly, monthly, etc. I'll give you an example of one of mine: on weekday mornings, I get up in the morning, I do yoga, I eat breakfast, and then I get ready for my day. When I can follow this routine, my life feels more settled - it actually seems easier. But whenever I am moved out of this simple sequence for whatever reason - look out! I can feel out of sorts because my comfortable routine has been disturbed, and this feeling can affect my mood and my ability to focus later on in the day.
So it is when we have someone else telling us to change our patterns of greeting others. "I'm only trying to be loving," we might think. "One little hug won't do any harm..." "It's just a handshake..." We might feel hurt when someone doesn't want to be hugged or touched, and that hurt settles into our hearts.
But consider this: what if - at certain times, especially - the loving action is to maintain distance?
Think about it - you may be healthy (or think you are healthy!). But not everyone around you is. Not everyone around you has a strong immune system. Quite simply put: some bodies can better fight off illness than other bodies. And in loving communities, we are called to think about The Other, even ahead of ourselves. Throughout the gospels, Jesus lifts up the ancient commandments to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
And that means that sometimes, the most loving action we can take is to allow for distance - to give some space - so that others can have a better chance of remaining healthy.
It also means that, at times, we will be inconvenienced in how we change our activities to move into new patterns of all kinds. It means we might feel a little weird as we bow to our friends instead of hugging. It means the pastor might give you a fist bump at the church door instead of a handshake. It means paying more attention to hand washing as we handle elements for Holy Communion. It means all kinds of adjustments to the actions we routinely take for granted.
And the more I think about all this, the more I wonder if some of this, at least, should become a new normal for us in the Church. Maybe this age of social distancing can also be an age of learning how we can better love our neighbors - with intentionality.
* Note: I am a pastor - not a doctor, scientist, or public health official. For more information about Covid-19 and other contagious illnesses, one resource is the CDC's website.
With this week comes another Ash Wednesday. For Lutheran Christians (and others), this is a day wherein our worship includes something called the Imposition of Ashes: time in our service to receive the sign of the cross on our foreheads, marked with ashes. It is a somber time, a time which - for me, anyway - always causes deep reflection on sin and death. For us, the ashes are symbolic of grief and pain.
It may seem strange to reflect deeply on sin and death, but they are ever with us. Our own sin chases us around as we deal with its consequences daily. The sin of others affects us, too, as we are hurt by those we love - but also, we observe the sin of others in our frantic news cycles: who has killed whom today? Who has robbed another today? Whose violation of another person is in the headlines today? I have gotten to a point in my life where I avoid watching or reading news too late in the evening because often it's just too much to process right before sleeping.
On Ash Wednesday, I sit in the ashes of grief and pain awhile. As I think about and then confess my own sins, I am humbled to realize that I cannot stand in judgment of those whose sin I want to judge. I also consider the pain that I have caused and how I might avoid causing harm in the future. And I grieve the presence of so much hurt in our world. At its core, Ash Wednesday causes us to think about these things, even as we hear the words spoken over us: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
In a world that tries to avoid pondering too deeply about sin and death, the ashes of Ash Wednesday call us out of our avoidance. We will ponder sin, and grieve about its consequences, and yet we will also give thanks to God for God's great love for us, shown most fully in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
"...the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever." (Ps. 117:2)
Summer was a blur, y'all. For me, anyway, gone are the days of quieter, slower summers. For many other people I know, too. So now we've slam dunked into Fall and the calendar pages keep on turning.
Last week (which was particular wackadoodle), I was thinking about my last post, about prayer. I realized with horror that, ever since I made that post, I think I've written my prayer list down maybe one or two times. Not that I haven't been praying - I have been! - but my prayers have been quick snatches the last few weeks. Maybe you can relate...?
Over the years of my faith life, I've come to realize that some seasons are just...busier...than others. Long ago, I began to adapt my prayer life during those seasons, so that it's not that I don't pray at all - it's just that my practice of prayer looks different.
This is life sometimes. So - here are Six Tips for Busy Pray-ers:
For people of faith, prayer is important time. Prayer helps connect us to God - it strengthens that relationship just as spending time with friends or family builds those relationships. Prayer can help us remain mindful of other people, and thankful for our own lives. If you're struggling to find time and energy to pray, I hope one or more of these tips will help.
What tips can you share?
How do you keep track of your prayers for others? I'm really curious to hear your ideas!
As a pastor, I have some requests that I won't write down because of privacy concerns. However, I have other prayer needs for friends, family members, or other situations that I like to keep in front of me. At some point, I began to write a list in my paper-and-pen planner. I'm in my planner every day, and so what I write there is in my vision (and therefore, in my heart) pretty often. I'm also a visual person, so writing and seeing the names on a regular basis helps me remember them when I don't have my planner in front of me. If privacy is ever a concern, I write something else to help me remember - maybe the person's initial or some kind of code word.
This practice has helped me focus my prayers for those in my life who ask me to keep them in prayer. It also helps me keep in touch with those who might need a follow-up conversation to find out how things are going.
What about you? Do you have a similar process? Post a comment here or on our Facebook post!
I'm not sure we're always very good at helping each other with burdens. Sure, we might help a friend move or help a spouse carry stuff in from the car. This is help that is almost a given, help that is expected in these types of relationships.
But what about helping those with greater burdens than an oversized couch or a heavy grocery bag? What if the burden involves helping those we don't know, or those whom we feel don't deserve our help?
But who are we to judge? I mean - really - who are we to judge that one person over another deserves our help? It is Fear who lies to us. Fear is the one who implants this idea that some people aren't deserving of help. Fear is the one who dehumanizes The Other - who turns them into monsters who are here to destroy us.
Can we really not see that help isn't really something that someone earns. Help is a gift received.
Help is also a gift given. And if we are truly going to be helpful, then carrying the burdens of others shouldn't be tied to someone deserving help. For Christians, helping should be connected to living out our baptized lives in Christ, sharing the love of God with all people. For all of us, though, helping should be connected to our very humanity - the humanity that says, "This is someone in need and I can help them, and so I will help them."
It's called having a heart. It's called living with love
As much as I love to write, there are times when the writing is difficult. There are times when putting words into coherent sentences takes more energy than I seem to have. There are times when a deadline is pressing and the block in my head (or is it my heart?) keeps the words from flowing freely.
When the writing is difficult, help me to persevere. When my words don't make sense, help me find clarity. When time is pressing down on me, help me relax my mind, and give my heart inspiration.
Also, help me to know when to stop...when to walk away...when to rest...when to rest my eyes...when to let my brain deflate...when to turn to you in times of prayer. And then, grant me the mental space and available time to return to writing again.
I love you, O Lord, my strength.
I pulled this old book off my bookshelf yesterday. Published in the late 1800's, it belonged to my great-grandmother Sara. At some point, it passed into my maternal grandmother's hands, and then into mine.
This side of my family has been integral in teaching me about faith. Reflecting on this, I began to think about all those who - throughout my life and to this day - teach me about faith. Some of them teach me through their own faithful living. Some teach me through how the preach or pray or talk about humanity.
Who has taught you about faith? Who teaches you still?