My Whole Life Long

I shall dwell in the house … my whole life long

Psalm 23:6, partial

When I posted a reflection on the 23rd Psalm for the 4th Sunday of Lent, I could not picture what life would be like as we approached the 4th Sunday of Easter. Here we are, still, at home for what may feel like our whole lives long. Depending on where we live, we may be considering when and how to bring congregations together in person once again. At my house, we have noted the number of advertisements featuring evocative music in a minor key, used to illustrate how we are all in this together, though most fail to note the racial and economic inequities at play. 

At the same time, demonstrations against stay at home orders have taken place. 

“Sacrifice the weak” read one sign demanding businesses be reopened.

That particular sign was seen in Tennessee, but I fear the sentiment underlies much of the thinking of those agitating to reopen. Many in the U.S. have been taught to think of freedom in individual terms. I understand the feeling of economic anxiety and psycho-spiritual restlessness that stay at home orders cause, but as Christians, our frame of reference – ideally, anyway – is not just personal, but collective. Not only did Jesus stress that we will show we are his disciples by our love for one another, but the earliest expression of church set a communal example for us. 

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. (Acts 2:44-45)

It’s a timely message for this Good Shepherd Sunday, a reminder that what’s good for you or me must not outweigh what is good for people on the margins, whether because of their race, their immigration status, their underlying health conditions, or their economic situation. What drives how we form opinions and make decisions? Whose health and safety will matter to us? “If today’s economic debates about who is worthy and unworthy seem like theological debates, it’s because originally, they were,” writes Daniel José Camacho in an essay for Sojourners that helped me brush up on Malthus: On “Sacrificing the Weak” and these Malthusian Times. “Malthus’s economic framing took on the shape of a religious conviction about who deserves to eat and who deserves to starve.” It’s neither new nor news that some Christians value the economy over the common good, whether justified by “trickle down” theories or, as in Malthus’s thinking, a broad categorization of the poor as undeserving and plagues as God’s and nature’s way of right-sizing the population. 

What means do we have to encourage a different kind of conversation about who matters in God’s economy? We have scripture, and we have an interpretive lens, and an opportunity to share a message of God’s love and care expressed in community streamed or Zoomed into people’s homes. We have stories of people in our congregations and our neighborhoods who are making sure others have what they need, whether it’s packets of yeast left on the front porch for frustrated bakers, or handmade masks dropped off by the back door, or church donation drive-ups for food packs to be distributed by the school system. Those are three stories from my house and my town; I know you have more. This is the time for a personal message, a contextual message, a reminder that there are signs of God’s goodness and care in the world, and that we are called to manifest them our whole lives long.

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Solvitur loquitur

The two preachers at my house walk around the same few blocks in our neighborhood a lot. There is something soothing in walking past the same yards, knowing which will have daffodils in due season, waving to the neighbors who take such good care of their convertible and their lawn, and half-voicing our perpetual complaint about the other neighbors whose trash always ends up enticing our dogs toward the gutter. 

While we walk, we talk. We play out our sermon ideas or writing blocks. We consider and reconsider parenting strategies. We wonder when and whether things in the world will get better. From time to time, we despair. And while we cannot solve the world, more often than not we push through the hitch in our thinking and arrive home ready to write the next paragraph or offer the appropriate suggestion or move on to whatever needs to be next, both of us having had the chance to talk and the privilege to listen. 

Whether Cleopas was walking with a buddy or, as some scholars suggest, his spouse, both were eager to tell the stranger who fell in beside them about the situation in which they found themselves. Here is what happened, and here is what our friends saw, and this is how people were feeling, and how are we to make sense of any of this? 

I first heard the phrase “solvitur ambulando” in seminary, attributed to St. Augustine, and used to emphasize walking as a devotional practice. Despite my physical limitations, and particularly in this season when my house is very full all the time, even a short walk seems to help in working out whatever thoughts or feelings are stuck and need motion to be freed. Whether the conversation is with another person or I simply give my mind room to wander and talk to myself as I pass familiar scenes, something … happens. 

The losses in this season of shock and grief are both small and large, from routines and reservations, to proms and confirmations, to paychecks and lives. We need comfort. We also need perspective. We could all use a walk with Jesus. Who wouldn’t love a savior who listens? He is blunt with Cleopas and companion; sometimes we need someone to be frank with us, to make the connections and draw the inferences we have missed. While we might pull back when someone calls us foolish or slow of heart, tells us that we just don’t get it, I know that such conversations have at times been uncomfortable yet needed gifts for me. Certainly, Mr. and Mrs. Cleopas do not want their talk to end when the walk is over. 

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”

At home in Emmaus, they find clarity. The puzzle has been solved by walking and talking until we arrive at the place where suddenly everything makes sense, at the table with the One who gave everything for us and came back to be sure we understood. 

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Hunkered down

By Easter Monday, my family had been hunkered down for a month. Long before our governor declared a statewide “Stay at Home” order, we leaned into the recommendation to keep ourselves and others safe by reducing our contact with the outside world. We occupied ourselves much the same way you probably have, learning how to order groceries online, making sure our prescriptions were filled, realizing the church my wife serves needed a more powerful laptop in someone’s hands to edit the videos being created on iPhones and iPads. I’ve been baking (so much), and I picked up a knitting project to make something in a cheery yarn, and even finished it.

The pattern is The Sunlight Shawl for Sad People, by Sylvia McFadden. The yarn came in a Craftivist Club collection from Lady Dye Yarns

The adrenaline of getting ready for Easter helped some, too.

But Monday, we felt deflated, faced with whatever indefinite period of this continuing, non-ordinary, “new abnormal” time may lie ahead. I found myself thinking about the disciples, hunkered down in the Upper Room for a long Sunday afternoon, wondering what to think. They had by then heard a testimony of hope from Mary Magdalene, but from where they were sitting, it must have been hard to believe it could be true. 

Our Monday afternoon felt much the same, and Tuesday, and Wednesday, so far. We have a testimony of hope, but from where we are sitting, it may be hard to believe it can be true. I sit in the suburbs of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, reasonably safe and secure, with prescriptions filled and plenty of toilet paper, but I read the news of increased domestic violence, and terrible conditions on the U.S. border with Mexico, and the strain on migrants elsewhere, and the racial disparity in who is dying in the U.S. 

I wonder whether we will see a typical low Sunday compared to Easter when churches count up Zoom attendance or Facebook views this weekend? I tend to think we will not, because we are all waiting out a long Sunday afternoon, wondering what will happen next, questioning whether we can believe the snippets of good news we might hear, and bearing a collective grief, if we have any moral conscience at all.  

As we live through this unfolding public health crisis, with its economic and political ramifications, the lectionary texts give us what we need this week, in the words of a psalmist who asks for protection and in an epistle written to believers who endured unnamed trials.

In this you rejoice,
even if now for a little while
you have had to suffer various trials…
(1 Peter 1:6)

It’s almost better that we don’t know to whom 1 Peter was written as we inhabit the first half of the first verse of the gospel lesson from John, locked away with a reasonable fear of the virus in our case, the authorities in theirs. I hope in worship, whatever form it takes, we can find a space, through word and liturgy, which allows us to hunker down with the full range of feelings we and they may have: grief for all the losses suffered, gratitude for healthcare professionals, frustration or even fury over the way some things are being handled. We need to make room for existential and spiritual questions about why it happened and where God is in all this.

It’s a hard place to be, and it was a hard place to be for the people closest to Jesus. We’re waiting just as they were, and it’s been Sunday afternoon for 2000 years. The good news this week is that, like them, we are not alone. We have each other, however we are connecting, and we have God. 

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