Sunday, May 31, 2020

I Can't Breathe: Pentecost in the Pandemic

We're on fire in America. In Minneapolis. Nashville. Washington, DC. We're on fire. 

On Pentecost, the story is that the Holy Spirit arrived in the Upper Room in Jersusalem in a rush of wind and settled on each of the people in that room with "tongues of fire." That fire gave them the burning energy to proclaim to the world the glory of God and the story of Jesus and his ministry. That fire drove them out into the world that was no less dangerous for them than it was before the mighty wind gust blew open the windows and doors of their hearts and minds. With that powerful spirit inside them, surrounding them, lighting them up...they went out into the streets, into the countryside, off to distant lands to bring a new way of relating to the God of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, Rachel and Leah. They were on fire.

Fire has the ability to rage. It burns. It destroys buildings. 

Fire has the ability also to purify. A welder's fire brings metal to metal to form a bond. The heat of a fire on a stove can melt butter, sizzle oil, boil the water. 

Right now in our country, with a deadly pandemic showing no mercy to anyone and disproportionally taking out those who cannot afford to stay home, we have fires burning inside and out. They are both the fires of destruction and the fires of purification. And they stem from a spark lit in Minneapolis with a white cop kneeling on the neck of a black man in handcuffs. George Floyd was pleading, "I can't breathe." And those were the words of his dying breath. That breath of spirit leaving him has lit up this nation and revived a part of the "normal" in America that I had prayed would not come back.

This spark, this ember, has been burning and igniting fires for centuries in this country...all the way back to colonial Virginia when wealthy landowners figured out that they needed to sow seeds of distrust between indentured whites and African slaves. Bacon's Rebellion of 1676, which burned Jamestown to the ground, was the beginning of the move for the white ruling class to set up legal distinctions between "white" and "black" people. By giving "white" indentured servants land and convincing them that they really had more in common with the ruling class than their fellow poor Africans, they were able to divide and conquer more easily. Aside: Nathaniel Bacon was no hero either as his motive to make a militia of black and white servants was motivated by hatred of the indigenous tribes of Virginia and a power struggle with his wealthy white relative who was Governor at the time. A hundred years later, a Revolution, and a nation was born...but the fire of racism was, and still is, burning.

This new fire...fueled by the taking of George Floyd's destroying buildings. And it is having the power to purify. I am witnessing an awakening of some of my fellow white people to realize that we have always had one advantage: we aren't black. We aren't immediately deemed "suspect" when we walk into a store. We can drive, walk, jog, check out things in our neighborhood without having to worry that there will be some misunderstanding or misread about us. It is a sobering realization. But it is one that, once that fire is lit within, can help to purify the soul to do the work of repairing the breach. 

The Holy Spirit is often represented as the wind or the breath of our souls and bodies. And as long as the George Floyds of America gasp that they cannot breathe and have their breaths taken away, none of us can breathe freely. Time to let that other image of the Holy Spirit...that fiery on white America to call out for an end to this madness of our own making, acknowledge the cries of the unheard, and purify the soul of this country. May I have the courage to do this work.  

Friday, May 22, 2020

Caesar and the Church

I have already written on the issue of opening the church prematurely during a pandemic. But today the president decided to announce that churches and other faith spaces are "essential services"; hence they need to open right now. And if any Governor attempts to stop a religious group from gathering, he would personally see to it to override the gubernatorial authority and order the buildings open.

Needless to say, I used a string of words that I promise I will ask God to forgive me for uttering before I go to sleep tonight.

This is an outrage and overreach by the president. He has no right to demand this of any Governor, and he has absolutely no authority to declare any religious entity open its doors for a worship service. The churches, the synagogues, the mosques, the temples....none of them have been "closed" during this pandemic. We have not been meeting in person. We are keeping socially-distant when we do, and usually no more than two or three. Most of us have learned to navigate our way into the world of online worship, and we're doing it warts and all every week, with services that are reaching people who otherwise might not walk through our doors. And, the last time I checked, God was not limited to a building anyway. For Christians, the "church" is the people, not the space. And God can be praised anywhere, any time. 

The reason we are not meeting, and why most religious leaders have been discouraging gathering in our buildings, is simply because there is no way to keep the most vulnerable members safe, or keep the communities we live in safe if we should meet and someone in our midst be a carrier of COVID-19. Remember, it is the asymptomatic carriers who put everyone within their radius unintentionally at risk. This is why wearing a mask in public is necessary. But never mind that: most of the people demanding that churches meet are also the ones walking around their local Publix without a mask. Following Christ requires us to "love God, love your neighbor as yourself." That means thinking about more than just our own needs and wants and considering others. 

This is why pushing to bring us all together into our buildings for an hour on a Sunday morning...or into a mosque or synagogue on a Friday or asking us to turn our worship spaces into a petri dish of highly-contagious viral infection. And this is, in my opinion, demonic. Only the powers of Satan would want to encourage people to gather during the height of a pandemic into a space dedicated to worshipping God and call it an "essential service." What a perfect scenario for the satanic work of driving people away from God: get them or their loved ones seriously ill, possibly kill them, for coming to worship together. Already, I am seeing posts on Facebook from atheist friends who are touting, "See: I told you!" For them, this confirms Christianity is a "death cult." 

Yesterday, we marked the ascension of Jesus into heaven to prepare the way for the incoming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Jesus left his disciples with a road map to follow to know how to live and take care of one another. We shouldn't let his ascension be a chance for us to lose our minds and retreat inward into selfishness. 

Frankly, the president can say whatever he wants about people heading back to their worship spaces. I will render to Caesar what is Caesar's. The church, in my context, is governed by the orders of the bishop. And we'll be doing services in my diocese online this Sunday. All are welcome...even in your pajamas.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

What is "Normal"?

Once you were not a people,
but now you are God's people;
once you had not received mercy, 
but now you have received mercy.

--1 Peter 2:10

I have been thinking a lot about the re-opening of states during this pandemic. Not that states were ever really “closed.” Some things were, and still are, being put on hold. Opportunities for large gatherings—sporting events, church services—are still not considered safe enough to reopen, really. But restaurants and some retail have been told they can operate in a modified fashion. Some are taking the steps they need to keep customers safe. Some are finding it challenging to strike the balance between being in the service industry and needing to limit how many can be served at one time. In other words, it’s still a bumpy ride.

All this effort seems geared toward attempting to get the economy going again and returning to “normal.”

And that’s an odd thing…in my opinion…for us to be striving to achieve.

See: “normal” and getting wheels grinding for our economy are not necessarily the lessons I would have hoped we would have gained in this time of pandemic time-out. In fact, there is a whole lot of what had been considered “normal” that I do not think we should accept as “normal.” 

·       Should white vigilante justice be “normal,” allowing white people to shoot black people because we think they might be criminals?

·       Should we want to rush back into the “normal” of school shootings and gang violence taking out young people in the beginning of their lives?

·       Should we accept a healthcare system that lacks proper personal protection equipment for doctors, nurses, and EMTs?

·       Should we be OK with large meat processing plants that have allowed infection to spread among the workers not to mention the many reports over the years of unsanitary conditions for the animals leading to food-borne illnesses?

·       Should we consider normal pollution that has been choking rivers and streams and causing us to have days where it was considered unsafe for some to step outside and breathe the supposedly fresh air?

These are just some of the “normal” that I think have been accepted for far too long, and we should not be in a rush to go back to this. In fact, I think it might be nice to consider how we move away from this type of people that we have been and look to being made more into God’s people. A people that takes to heart that love of God is expressed by loving each other, caring for each other, valuing each other, and recognizing that those things that attack and destroy the creatures of God are the very things we are pledged to stand against.

My prayer for this time continues to be that we rediscover what we have lost along the way of being such a productive people. For far too long we have labored for the purposes of an economy that lives on the gold standard and not the God standard. Let’s begin to recognize in this pandemic that we are a people more connected than we might have otherwise thought. And let us rediscover an old way and turn our attention toward caring for each other and all of creation…animal, vegetable, and mineral.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

They Will Know I Am Christian By My Mask

Those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.--Acts 2:42-47

When I contemplate the above passage, one of the assigned readings for this Fourth Sunday of Easter, I am aware of the growing irritation and anger that is in the country right now as governors announce they are lifting restrictions on businesses and allowing them to reopen. People have been anxious and afraid of COVID-19, and rightly so: it has killed close to 60,000 people since the end of February. At the same time, the social-distancing has meant that we don't get to spend time with each other...including in our churches...and for many that leads to a lot of heartache. We humans are social animals, and as we see in this reading from Acts, Christianity is a social religion. 

But the way the anger has spilled over is not good, in my opinion. Gangs, and that's what I call them, of people have been storming state capitol buildings with automatic rifles slung across their bodies to protest the government orders to stay at home. They are being egged on by those who have seen their stock portfolios tanking during this pandemic (see, businesses forced to close cannot make money for the CEOs). These hooligans are attacking the health care workers and first responders and now even the grocery store workers who are wearing masks. In one video that was circulating on Twitter, a woman is screaming at another woman wearing a mask that by covering her chin, mouth and nose,"you're frightening people!" 

"....with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all people..."

When I see masked workers, I see something completely different. They do not frighten me. In fact, they make me feel safer. When I see a store demanding that I, as a shopper, also wear a mask to cover my chin, mouth and nose, I am not offended. I am happy to take on that inconvenience because it tells me this business owner cares not only about the safety of their employees but also the safety of the other customers. The key to the passage from this Sunday's lesson from the Acts of the Apostles is that the apostles' hearts were glad and generous because they held all things in common....most especially the common good and the healing of all people. The whole reason we have had these stay-at-home orders, this social distancing, the wearing of masks is to starve COVID-19 of its ability to pass from one person to another and overwhelm our hospitals. This is about protecting the common wealth of all people against a deadly virus. The temple that we are being asked to spend time with is the temple of our own body, in our own home, and breaking bread with our own family. For those who are alone, this is a time of difficulty. And yet the phone (mobile and landline) still exists for everyone, even when there is no internet to allow for Skype, or Zoom, or Google hangouts, or FaceTime. 

Wearing a mask, for me, is probably the most outward and visible sign of God's love that I can show another person. It is my signal to others that I care enough about the interconnectedness of humanity that I don't want to put you or anyone at risk of illness. In turn, I see your mask as extending that same love toward me. 

"And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved."

Please: if we want to save the human race, please: wear a mask in public. Wash your hands. Stop screaming at our emergency and essential workers.