Thursday, March 26, 2020

Emotions and Deep Breaths


The "haaa...mmmm...maaaaah" exercise, designed to bring up sound from the diaphragm and awaken all the muscles in speaking,  is one of the staples at Virginia Theological Seminary as they prepare us for preaching or leading worship. With this recent pandemic, it has been a way for me to self-monitor my breath.

Am I drawing my breath deeply?

Am I feeling any tension in my body as I breathe?

Do I feel that I need to cough?

No? OK, good. I think I'm still good.

This has been an almost daily exercise for me since I left campus on March 12th. Not because I am going to be doing any liturgical work. But because I need to know that my body is still OK.

The news about COVID-19 keeps getting worse. New York City's hospitals are overrun, healthcare workers are ill-equipped with not enough masks or ventilators. The number of infected people is climbing rapidly every day to the point that we are now leading the world in the number of coronavirus cases.

This is not an area where we should be celebrating that we are number one.

Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

I had my Embodying the Sermon class today, a course that was to engage our whole bodies in preaching. But now it's an online Zoom course, and we are learning the art of how to connect with a camera, imagining it to be a person (I confess: this is hard and brings back memories of my awkwardness as a morning TV news anchor on KOMU-TV in Columbia, MO). As we checked into our bodies, minds, and souls...we were asked to choose three words for how we were feeling, and do an action to illustrate that feeling.

"I am warm," I said, wiping my brow. The office where I was doing the class gets a lot of afternoon sun.

"I am relaxed," came with dropping my shoulders and opening my hands, feeling loose in my wrists and lower arms.

Then, I clenched my fist and slammed it into my other hand.

"I am pissed!!!"

Pissed because people are dying. Pissed that the warnings signs were there that this pandemic was coming, and our president kept calling it "a hoax." Pissed that millions of people are losing their jobs. Pissed that we can no longer gather with each other and when we do, we have to stay "physically distant" by six or more feet. Pissed that some spring breakers didn't care and are now infecting other people. Pissed that every day, I am having to work harder at concentrating on assignments for classes and I'm losing that battle. Pissed that all the courses, the plans, the conferences I had been excited for this summer have now evaporated with this virus. Pissed that I had to deliver another heartbreak to my dorm residents back in Virginia that the refectory is being treated as a restaurant by the Commonwealth of Virginia; hence they could no longer gather...even six-feet apart to share a meal.

This after having spent half-the-year eating in a giant wedding tent waiting for the refectory to be remodeled.

Dean Ian Markham, the president of the seminary, started the year with a sermon in which he noted that "we are under construction".  Now, it seems, we are "under disruption."  These times are dangerous and we don't know when it will end.

I have had a lot of biblical metaphors crop up in my head for this time. My exit from VTS two weeks ago felt as if I was one of the Israelites running away from Egypt. I didn't have time to stop and do my laundry. I wanted to get home quickly, so I had left my car and took public transit to the airport. Definitely no time for the bread to rise with me! I have described this time as like being in the wilderness, wandering, with no signs pointing the way forward and only trusting that God will live up to the promise to be with us always to the end of the age.

Perhaps there is a new age that will emerge out of this one. When all is said and done, maybe we will realize that we are more interconnected--believer and non-believer, Christian and Jew and Muslim and Buddhist and Pagan--than  we dared to think before. Perhaps we will see that our care of creation--all of it and not just a piece of it--is the covenant we have with God, and that when God called it "good" we were to treat it with the same respect and awe.

Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Connected and Moments of Gratitude

The usual pattern of VTS life: Coffee. Chapel. Class. Lunch.

In this pandemic wilderness moment, where I am joining my seminary community via Zoom and FB Live, I could have coffee AND chapel at the same time. Small pleasures, but a pleasure nonetheless.

It is weird to be doing this work from home in Tallahassee. But I am grateful to be here and am thankful that the sometimes isolating and silo-forming nature of the internet is serving its other function: bringing me together with people I know who are 800 miles away. I have accepted this new reality, and am dedicating myself to find the ways that these lemons can be made into lemonade.

I'm grateful that I have a spouse, a cat, and a house. As I remarked in an exchange with a couple of dorm proctors, doing seminary being separated from my family has been hard. If I had attempted to be at VTS when everything is online and still separated from my home, it would have been untenable. It has been hard enough to concentrate as COVID-19 has taken over every conversation and news program. Being able to be at home has helped to lower my blood pressure.

It's also created some new opportunities. My wife has done her Saturday morning worship and I've been able to listen in with her to her rabbi. In turn, she gets to leave her state job (yes, the state of Florida is still making her come into the office!) and eat lunch with me and share in my studying and eye-rolling at having to read David Hume. Aside: I thought Hume and other "Age of Reason" philosophers were deadly boring when I had to read them as an undergrad 30 years ago. They have not improved with my age.

I have picked up more worship with my community by joining in on the "Quarantine Compline" service in the evenings offered by some of my fellow seminarians.

I am also learning how to host Zoom meet-ups myself. I've setting up my phone in front of the television set on weeknights to host "Zooming Jeopardy!" with my dormmates who would normally gather in our common room for a half-hour of game show watching.

I'm very grateful for my friends. The woman who lives across the hall from me was able to get me my computer and notebook that I had hastily left behind at spring break. One of my friends has agreed to drive my car while it sits in Virginia waiting for my return. And still other friends have kept connection through texts and FB messages over a myriad of topics as we navigate our new normal.

Yes, things are strange. Yes, things are uncertain. And yet, it is in these moments that are broken where the light shines in...even through a computer screen. Now...back to reading.

Thanks be to God!

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Formation from Afar

About this time a month ago, Virginia Theological Seminary had just wrapped up another Spring Visit Weekend. People discerning a call to ministry had met students, sat in on classes, ate with us in our refurbished refectory. 

It was also my birthday weekend, and I had gone off campus to find a hole-in-the-wall sushi bar in Springfield, VA. I was settling into the rhythm of the Spring semester with a new systematic theology class, poking and prodding at our faith in a Triune God. I was also taking a little time each day with the Gospel text for the First Sunday of Lent, Matthew 4:1-11, which would be the first of four scheduled sermons at my contextual ministry site. And I was getting together again with friends at our campus pub, eating the delicious CafĂ© Burger with or without an adult beverage. 

Many of us in the Middler Class had been going home to our dioceses for our candidacy interviews...the next step forward toward the day we hope to reach: our ordination to the transitional diaconate and then (God willing and the people consenting) the sacred order of priests. 

Life was busy, full, and what I call "seminary" normal.

But outside the relative safety of VTS campus life, I was aware of the news that there was a virus in China that had caused an entire region to go into quarantine. Bizarre, but not beyond Wuhan....oh, wait: now there are cases in Iran. Then South Korea. Then Italy. A cruise ship in Japan. And then Washington State?! 

Yeah, but it's only seeming to affect people over 60 or with chronic health problems. Geez, what are the symptoms? Will anyone tell us what the symptoms are of this virus?

An email. 

The proctors of the residence halls and apartments, all six of us, were asked to join a Zoom call with the Dean of Student Life. A case of this coronavirus, now named COVID-19, had affected members of our community through a church in Washington, DC. 

That was on March 8th. 

Then we learned that there was a person who had tested positive and had had close contact with members of the seminary choir. Soon, another case was confirmed. And the job of delivering three meals to the dorm residents asked to self-isolate went from five people to fourteen. Suddenly, classes were going to Zoom only. The Episcopal dioceses of DC and Virginia closed all their churches to public worship until March 28 (DC has since extended this to May 16). Questions were abounding, anxiety was rising, and the answers were largely only best guesses because nobody knew anything about this new virus. 

We still don't know a lot. And what we do know is that it is not a simple flu, at least not for anyone with any kind of immune weaknesses. 

I was scheduled to come home for spring break. I wondered, "Should I leave?" Friends told me emphatically, "Yes!" 

 I threw books in my bag that I needed for a couple of classes, but in my rush to pack, I missed my notebook. I made a strategic choice not to take my clunky laptop that stays in my room. I mean, worst case scenario, I might have to stay home an extra week, but will be back before the end of the month.

Now, it seems, I won't be back before May.

I struggled with the decision to stay put in Florida. VTS is my community, people who are swimming in a similar wild and wacky stream of discernment that I am. These are the people with whom I do the routine, "Coffee, Chapel, Class, Lunch" every day for weeks on end. 

I am a dorm proctor, meaning that I care for the lives of thirteen other adults and am the builiding super, making sure that maintenance requests go in and doing follow up to make sure repairs happen. I have friends I won't be seeing except via Zoom. I won't be interacting in quick casual conversations with faculty or staff as I go to get my mail. If there was ever time when I am feeling what it is to be "in the wilderness" this is it!

Which brings me back to the scene of my sermon on 1 Lent where Jesus is in a dialogue with the Tempter. My sermon focused on how Jesus was in a very vulnerable place. He had been out in the wilderness with nothing to eat or drink for forty days and forty nights and "afterwards he was famished." Instead of falling into the traps of the ego that the Tempter was putting before him, Jesus summons his strength from his source: the words of Scripture that point to faith and trust in God. When all else is failing him, Jesus turns to God to stave off the Satan who tempts him. In the end, Satan leaves, and "suddenly angels came and waited on him." 

This wilderness and temptation scene with Jesus feels like a formation experience for him. He's being tested and tried and he prevails against Satan's efforts to pull him away from God. On the contrary, the temptation moves him closer to his source. This will all become even more important as he goes forward with his ministry and mission of calling his community back to the basics of the Shema: Love God with all your heart, soul and strength while also loving neighbor as yourself. This time in the wilderness will prepare him for another famished moment as he hangs on a cross at Calvary with only the words of the psalmist to help him as he calls to God for strength in his agony.

Formation from afar will not be as dramatic as either of these moments when Jesus was alone and facing the forces of evil. But this is wilderness time for me. This is the test of faith and reliance upon God as the source for strength in this moment of great uncertainty. This is the time for drawing closer to God when I am feeling in the most remote place and being starved of community.

Perhaps there is much to be gained in this experience. 


Sunday, March 1, 2020

"Famished": A Sermon for 1 Lent Year A

Sermon for 1 Lent

St. Monica and St. James

March 1, 2020

Matthew 4:1-11

“…and afterward he was famished.” It’s when we are at our lowest, weakest, most vulnerable moments that our faith in God helps us to overcome the forces that would destroy us. We can know this through the Scriptures.

Prayer: 8am simple doxology.

11am: Let us pray: All the faithful make their prayers to you, O God, in times of trouble. May your calming presence be felt in our hearts and your Word spoken in truth and love from my lips. Let this be an acceptable offering in your Holy Name. Amen.

I don’t think it’s an accident that our Gospel today is focused on temptation.

Lent has started and presumably we have all made some sort of commitment to either give up a habit, take on a new life-affirming one, or otherwise make an effort to walk more humbly with our God. We hear that Jesus spent forty days and forty nights in the wilderness…so even Jesus is in a Lenten period.

Matthew’s account of Jesus’ temptation paints a vivid picture of the struggle with his accuser (fun fact: Satan is the Hebrew for accuser or adversary). If we enter deeply into this Gospel narrative…we might find ourselves being able to see the stones and feel that ache in the stomach that says, “if only these rocks could become bread.” 

Perhaps we can imagine being at the highest point of the temple with the wind whipping around us. We might be filled with a daredevil impulse beckoning us to let ourselves go without worrying if we’d crash land. Remember: angels will catch us! 

Or possibly we can visualize being on top of that mountain surveying all the land and wealth in the valleys below. What would it be like to not just be the one-percent…but even richer than a Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet combined?

I imagine that if Jesus was facing off with the accuser in the wilderness on his best day, when he was feeling fit and healthy, he probably would have run logic circles around Satan and twisted him up into a pretzel with a parable of some kind.

But Matthew doesn’t present us a Jesus on his most robust day. Hear the words again: “He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was famished.”

Famished. Not simply hungry or-as the Brits might say—peckish.

Famished is more than that. Jesus is weak, dizzy, parched throat, low blood sugar, starving. 

He is completely vulnerable, and he is alone. What a perfect entry point for the tempter to come in and whisper: “you’re the Son of God…go ahead: turn those stones into bread so you can eat.”

And yet…even in this diminished state, Jesus goes back to the Hebrew Scriptures…noting that “one does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Not only has he said, “Not today, Satan!”; he returns to the God known through the Scriptures to summon the strength to resist temptation. And as this scene progresses…and the pull toward a narcissistic self-obsession…”All these I will give you if you fall down and worship me!”…the greater the enticements to turn away God, the more this weakened Jesus was turning back to the One who knew him best…relying on the word from Scripture to feed him.

I think that’s the real message for us. During those times when we are feeling tried and tested, and at our greatest moments of insecurity that’s when the ego will tempt us to believe that we are invincible, that we don’t need any help, that we have everything under control.

Think about the destructive and bad theology behind the message: “God helps those who help themselves”

Really? I don’t think that is what Jesus was saying in this dialogue with the devil.

 “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.”

No, sometimes the things before us…whether a personal crisis or ones of a more global nature…are truly more than we can handle. Certainly, there is a lot in our world that is more than we can individually handle! Our egos are too frail to sustain us.

What I believe Jesus is showing us about God is that it’s not our selves and centering on our self that feeds us, keep us safe in times of trouble, and makes us rich. It is our realization that our strength, our life, our breath is dependent upon God.  And it is God who is love and loves us dearly in those times when we are at our weakest, most vulnerable and completely famished.

How can we know this is true? Well, for me…at the moments when I have been the most challenged and even in times when I am feeling that spring of joy in my step…I have turned to the words of the psalmist, who seems to be the best Biblical poet and captures the ups and downs of what it is to be human.

Whether it is phrases such as

“Restore us, O God of Hosts, show us the light of your countenance and we shall be saved” (Ps.80) or

“Taste and see that the Lord is good,”(Ps.34) 

Reading and sitting with those words have been the necessary touchstones and the gentle reminders that I am not alone and that God is with me and isn’t absent from our world.

As we journey through this season of Lent, we will no doubt face temptation and our egos will prick at us and persuade us to forget about God and become so self-absorbed as to believe that we don’t need anybody else. I don’t know what Lenten discipline you’ve adopted…or if you’ve even thought about adopting one. But I would encourage us to consider finding a phrase or a line of Scripture that speaks to our soul and feed on that for these forty days. Keep it somewhere where you can read it and meditate on it daily. In these troubled times of pandemics and politics…see how feasting on the Word might give you the strength to carry on.