As the story goes (Read Jeremiah 28), the Israelites are being held captive in Babylon where a wannabe prophet named Hananiah claimed their life would be back to normal within two years. The problem is, that’s not what God had in mind.
Instead, (Read Jeremiah 29) God told the prophet Jeremiah to write a letter to the captives and tell them it would be 70 years before relief would come. He instructed God’s people to settle in for the long haul – find work, buy houses, get married and buried there.
In other words, “Buckle up, it’s going to be a long and bumpy ride.”
That’s not what any of us want to hear -especially not with what we’re going through right now. We want God to get rid of this pandemic quickly, so we can get back to doing what we’ve always done. We wanted corona will be a beer again. In his letter, Jeremiah adds these words of encouragement that we can take to heart. Words that will help us cling to hope when those emotions of hopelessness come around.
How many times have you been faced with a bleak situation and someone tells you, “This must be part of God’s plan”? And how many times have you heard it and wanted to punch them in the throat for saying it... or scream B.S.?
This is not to say there isn’t hope in these words, there are. God’s not going to leave us out to dry. But when God’s plans doesn’t aligned with ours – who gets blamed? God does.
Nobody plans for a life altering pandemic any more than one pencils in their own funeral on a calendar. We plan weddings, vacations, graduations and holiday festivities. But things happen. Couples break up. Hurricanes close airports. And pandemics cancel important events. Are we to believe that this all part of God’s great plan?
It seem out of character for a loving God to have a “plan” that involves wiping out tens of thousands of people with a brutal virus. That’s Old Testament God, the one who killed first born males, and made it rain locus and fire. Maybe God had reasons for a massive flood, but it’s hard to believe it involved my brother in law getting cancer, or for a child to experience trauma and abuse. I once read “If every life event is being directed and controlled by God, then God is really bad at making plans.” (Cory 2016)
I do believe something bigger is going on. Whatever it is we just need to buckle up and be ready wherever we are. Jeremiah says hope is coming, but it’s not always going to come easy. God makes a promise for our welfare, but nowhere does the prophet say it will be comfortable all the time.
Is suffering part of the plan? Is that what God wants from us?
As Israel’s story reminds us, real hope often comes through a tremendous amount of pain and suffering; the hardest part of our faith. Maybe God planned it that way so we could experience life fully, ...with all the highs and lows and everything in between. I can’t pretend to know why there is suffering in our world. But I do know that our greatest strengths are often birthed from our darkest days.
Even when I can’t see it, I believe hope exists, living in the tension between my plans and God’s purpose for me. And I say God’s purpose because to be honest, I don’t see any of this as “a plan” per se. It’s way too messy and unpredictable. I think God has more of a desire and will for us then a plan. A way for everyone to live in the beauty of God’s grace and love.
Chris Blumhofer reminds us, “Whatever God wills and desires to bring into reality, is always beautiful.” Which tells me we need to look at the beauty of what’s happening in our live instead of looking for blame. So perhaps it’s not that we need to escape our suffering, but learn to search for God’s beauty in the midst of whatever it is we are going through.
What does God’s desire and will for us look like?
I think it’s safe to say it is to live in God’s love, and to be the love of God in the world. When we love others like God loves us then we don’t hoard toilet paper. Love is a great equalizer. A kind of virus that affects us all, and does not discriminate. It’s something none of should fear but should all catch.
But just because we have love us doesn’t mean our life will be absent of suffering. Whenever we love deeply, we will also suffer deeply because of that love. No one knows this better than Jesus, the perfect manifestation of God’s love in the world. For him to do God’s will would cost him his life. Yet, ironically, it is what gives us new life, new hope.
I’ll admit that this doesn’t explain why suffering is essential or necessary. But if we look to Jesus as our example, then we know we’re given the assurance that God does not abandon us in our suffering, but instead God’s love remains with us, in the tension, making the experience beautiful.
watch the message here
So next time you’re tempted to tell someone who’s experiencing a great loss that this is God’s plan, think about this:
When you render someone’s suffering to a platitude that sounds good in a greeting card, you aren’t lessening their pain, you are merely diminishing the truth that our most fruitful growth comes while persevering through trials, not escaping them.
As Jesus demonstrated, real joy and peace can never be reached while bypassing suffering and death, but only by going right through them. Before the wondrous beauty of the resurrection there was the horrific brutality of the cross. In spite of all the darkness in our lives, we must never lose sight of that light of hope and bright future that shines far beyond the parameters of this life.
God is not winging it or making it up on the fly. The resurrection was not an afterthought, but was intentionally created for us, so that we could have hope in good times and bad. Yes, God is up to something, hard at work making life and love one in the same.
"This was the entire mission of Christ," writes Richard Rohr, “life morphing into love” until they become one with the One who gave us eternal life out of great love for us. To be in and like Christ is God’s purpose for us. Christ is the One through which God revealed the blueprint of all life, where hope and grace and love were already included.
In the ancient book of Lamentations, it’s written, "Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning" (Lam. 3:21-23).
When everything is dark, and life seems hopeless or fearful, we can look to Christ and find salvation in God’s love which sustains us. We may not know when hope will come or how? But we can turn our eyes to the Cross of Christ and know what it looks like.
As the Christ, Jesus lived into love by submitting his will to do God’s will. His purpose was to show us the way to live into love faithfully and fearlessly; in times of certainty and uncertainty, through joy and through suffering, in life and in death. In Christ we come to see and realize that “love is who we are and who we are still becoming” (Rohr).
If God has a plan for us, I think it’s for love and life to become one with God. Love is the beginning and the end, the Alpha and Omega and everything in between. So buckle up and settle in. Life is going to be bumpy. And that you can plan on.
Bible: Jeremiah 29:10-14 (New Revised Standard Version).
Blumhofer, Chris. relevantmagazine.com. December 10, 2010. (accessed October 13, 2016).
Cory, Benjamin. patheos.com. May 24, 2016. (accessed October 13, 2016).
DeMuth, Mary. www.marydemuth.com . Sept 10, 2015. (accessed Oct 13, 2016).
Rohr, Richard. Yes, And. (Cincinnati: Franciscan, 2013 ) p. 128.
On Thursday, Henry Freeman, who serves on the board of the Henri Nouwen Society sent out an email and asked us to share it if we’d like. I have been wondering if I should or not. Then I met my neighbor in the alley behind our house and he was beaming. I asked him what he was smiling about, and he said, “I have forgotten how beautiful our neighborhood is.”
JB works two jobs in two separate areas of Los Angeles. If he’s not working, he’s commuting back and forth or sleeping in between shifts. Most of the conversations we have had over the years have been via text – with me often asking if he will return the basketball that always finds its way into his yard every time my kids shoot hoops.
JB’s comment, and really his smile, is a perfect reminder of how much beauty there is in our world, not just in the physical landscapes but also in the people we share this space with. For far too long we have been divided and angry at one another – we’ve pushed people out of our lives because they don’t think or speak or look like we do.
This virus has been a great equalizer, tearing down the walls we’ve built around ourselves. Now we find ourselves shut out from the world. It’s like God or Mother Earth has put us time out. We probably deserve this time out, and most likely we need it. We’ve wasted too much time focusing on ourselves that we have missed the beauty that is right there in front of us. Part of that beauty is connecting authentically with others, learning from our differences and finding solidarity in our suffering. Which is why I have decided to share Mr. Freeman’s email with you. He writes,
Both Mr. Nouwen and Mr. Freeman’s words hit home. Many of us have been in self-isolation long before the corona virus began. And most of us have forgotten how to “be with” ourselves, muchless another person. We fear being authentic, intimate and vulnerable. We can’t let our guard down and let people in, because we have been self-centered for so long that we’ve forgotten how to be hospitable.
So God gives us a time out. A time to stop and see the beauty that is in you and all around you in others. A time to reach out to others whom you miss, or have pushed away. Maybe there is someone you know who is alone, or who you need to make amends with. Maybe you can do something nice for a co-worker or a neighbor that might brighten up their day. I would encourage you to use this time during the pandemic not just to see the beauty around you, but to be a part of that beauty for others to see.
This addition to yesterday's post on prayer comes from one of my favorite writers and theologians, Fr. Richard Rohr. (He's a pretty awesome Fransican priest as well.) His work is vast and worth your time for sure. His book, Yes, And is a collection of his work that has been gathered and adapted into an amazing book of daily mediations. Today, under the same title as this post, Rohr writes,
Mary's understanding and full acceptance of her nothingness, is also saying somethign about all of us. Our worthiness is also and always given. It is not attained. It is God in your searching for God. It is God in you that believes and hopes and cares and loves. And there is nothing that you can take credit for. It is something you just thank God for!
When your house is on fire, the recommendation is often to get out, not pray. First move your ass to safety, then offer up some words of gratitude if and when you get out. Thats pretty much how it works. That’s not what I did. My mind is wired and conditioned differently now. Prayer not panic. It’s my idea of the evolutionary concept of fight or flight.
Prayer was my first instinct because I had woken up panicked way too many times and I was tired of feeling that way. So I worked hard to change that about myself. Now instead of myself get panicky, I just talk or listen or focus on God (whatever that looks like in that moment). I would try to breathe slowly and purposefully. Eventually the panic disappears, but not without doing the work. Now whenever I feel it return my first instinct is to realign my focus onto God. It’s a spiritual practice that nearly every religion uses, because it really works.
You might be in a place of panic right now. Your job has been shuttered, your investments have sunk, and you’ve been sequestered in your home with nothing but news of things getting worse before they can get better. You read social commentary that freak you out even more and pretty soon your panic become its own pandemic.
My suggestion? Pray. Say something to God, or if that’s not what you believe in say something to the air, the sky, the ground, or your dog. (We can debate later whether or not God is present in all those things). Just pray. Open your heart and begin the conversation. Call up what you’re feeling and have a chat with it. Let it know how you feel, or what you want. Talk to it instead of running away from it. I call this prayer, you might call it therapy. It doesn’t matter what it’s called as long as you do it. Trust me, it works.
What I have learned is this: prayer takes my focus off my fear and moves it towards my faith. I don’t pretend that this is some magical remedy, just a way to recalibrate and realign my head and heart to the place of peace I desire and deserve. It’s a spiritual practice that takes time to become instinctual. Well, you have the time!
I don’t want to get your blood pressure boiling but in California we’re in lockdown mode and will be for at least another 40 days. There’s a lot you can do to change the way you think in that time.
Maybe it's not such a surprise that this pandemic hit at a time when Christian churches are celebrating the sacred season of Lent. A holy time before Easter when believers are called to give up something for 40 days as a way to commemorate the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness overcoming temptation and discovering his truth as the Son of God. Lent is a time to “fast” from something that will challenge, push, and bring you closer to God. What better time to work on something positive and life changing than today.
I have written extensively on this Lenten practice and why it is also important to “feast” on something as well to help celebrate the coming closer to God. As I like to remind people, Lent is a time when it’s okay to fail. In fact it’s necessary. That goes against all that we have been taught. When most people fail with their fast, they give up or abandon it altogether. I say instead of giving up remind yourself what you’re feasting on.
For example if I am fasting from judging others, I will feast on excepting all people. Therefore, when I judge someone, I quickly think about excepting them. I repeat this action as necessary. In fact, this particular one I had to repeat over and over in every minute of my awake stage. I'm all but positive I also did it in my sleep. Behavioral Psychologists believe that most behavioral changes can be made in 40 days if you put in the effort to make those changes. You might have done this with a 40 day diet, or 40 days to a better body. In 40 days we can change our eating habits, and have an exercise routine that sticks. Same is true about prayer. No surprise then that in the Bible the number 40 is significant (look it up here).
Jesus took 40 days of fasting, having had nothing to eat or drink. He not only survived the wilderness and tempation by being in prayer, but he also was enlightened to what he was being called to do in the world and how to do it. Or take Gandhi who made fasting a huge part of his philosophy of Ahimsa or Non Violence. During these fast, he focused his attention on the kind of meditation and prayer that would inspire changein himself and in others. This practice helped India reclaim their freedom from British colonist.
I would incurage you to take the next 40 days to rewire your thinking by keeping your eye not on the fast but on the very thing you want to feast upon. You will fail, but not really. Because each time you mess up you are reminded of how you are to succeed.
Think of a scale where there is a bucket full of fear weighing down one side, and an empty bucket of faith on the other one. It could be buckets of panic and peace if you want. The point is, each time you fail with fear or panic, remind yourself of your faith or the peace you desire. And each time you do that...take a little from the fast bucket and put it in the feast bucket. Before you know it, the scale begins to balance out. And then they begin to tilt in favor of where your head and heart desire and deserve to be.
You can use this time to panic or learn how to be at peace. You can spend the time in flailing in fear or practice ways to fortify your faith. It’s up to you to decide what you want to get out of your life and what you want to put into your life.
Not sure what that is?
May I suggest you don’t panic but take a deep breath and pray on it. Talk to your heart. The answer is already in you.
Imagine for a moment the Spirit of God carrying you to a place where the land is withered and the air is dead. There are no trees, no shrubs, no signs of water or life anywhere, except for a life that once was. All around you are piles of dried up tibias and fibulas, rib cages, skulls, and vertebras. Bones upon bones, as if giants had fed on smaller humans and tossed the remnants to the ground like a bunch of chewed up hot wings.
If that’s not weird enough, God tells you to prophecy over the bones. Convince them to take a deep breath and get up because God’s going to do something really cool, and they won’t want to miss it.
It’s one thing to talk to the dead. But commanding them to rise up is a whole other thing. It’s clear Ezekiel has never seen Night of the Living Dead, or any Rob Zombie movie, because like any prophet worth his salt, Ezekiel does what God asks his to do.
He begins to preach. And preach he does. As the words pour out of his mouth, the bones began to rattle and lock together; their muscle and flesh and skin returned as they once were. And the breath of God sweeps over them and resuscitates an entire valley of naked zombies.
The author of this story lets us know this is a metaphorical tale – a story of God’s promise to breath life back into the people of Israel who were being held captive in Babylon. After all those years imprisoned in a foreign land God’s people were spiritually dried up and parched like a desert wasteland. They felt as lifeless as dead bones.
But here’s the thing, God hears their cries, just as God hears ours. In one grace filled breath their hope returns, and so will ours. Just as God resurrects the life of his people, so too does God resurrect our lives even when the odds of that happening are stacked against us.
As we progress through this pandemic, we will be faced with new and difficult challenges. We too will have to find a way to put life back together again. Especially when we feel as lifeless as a pile of old bones.
As daunting and overwhelming as life might seem right now, must not lose hope. But be on guard because it’s in these moments doubt, depression, fear and anxiety sneak in and drag us away to a dry wilderness of hopelessness and despair. Just as God didn’t give up on Israel, God does not give up on you or me.
I recently read a pneumonic for the word faith that I think is worth sharing. It goes like this: Feeling Afraid I Trust Him. Ezekiel trusted God. Even when all the things that he loved the most were taken from him, he still believed the bones could rise again.
In the season of Lent, we are called into the wilderness not to wither and die, but to lean on God, to inhale the very breath of God deep into our soul. Wherever you are right now, faithful or faithless, God is asking you “Can these bones live?” In other words, do you believe God can restore us back together again? Our hope lies in the answer.
If I am to believe Jesus then I believe God’s promise of restoration is real. This life, with all its unknowns, pain, and suffering, is not the end of the story. God hears our cries and comes to us, to breath new life in us.
If I believe in the incarnation, the very breath of God becoming flesh and bone in the man Jesus, then I can believe in his resurrection, and the new life that comes through him because of it.
If you believe that God’s promise is real, that these bones can live again, then you will find your hope – hope that will grow your faith and bring you closer to the very heartbeat of God’s love for you. But if you believe these bones will live, then you must ask yourself, what am I going do with my bones today? Will I raise the dead? Make the blind see and the deaf hear?
If that seem impossible, remember it was Jesus who said, the person who believes will not only do what he did but even greater things.
In both Hebrew and Greek, the word for breath is also the word for spirit. God’s spirit is breathed into you for a purpose, not just so we can have life, but so we can live life abundantly, fearlessly, graciously – as one united people.
Jesus gave us his final breath, the very Spirit of God, so that we could proclaim the truth of God’s love for all things. Like him, we are to take that Spirit and be the miracle God wants us to be.
With a single breath, we can heal the sick with compassion and care. We can feed thousands of people by sharing our resources with one another. We can forgive sins and bless people no matter what. With God’s breath, we can resurrect the dead by being resurrection people.
God is calling us to prophecy to others by being people who show compassion and seek those who have been pushed out to the fringes and love them back into society.
This is what Jesus' miracles were all about… returning people back to God where we all belong. This is what resurrection looks like. This is how our dry bones come back together, how we as a community and as a human race come back stronger and healthier than ever before.
As we walk and live amid the painful and death-dealing realities that plague God’s creation, let us not lose the hope that God calls us out to the wilderness, just like Jesus was called out from the grave, to bring new life to those whose spirits are withered and dead.
And so I ask you, “Can these bones live?” If so, then let them know.
I wrote, “Life is a river you have to jump into. There’s no getting around it. It’s there and if you stand in one place too long, it’s going to rise around you. So you might as well jump.
Today is that day. It’s a day you have to believe that your faith can trust the river, to trust its flow and its movement. You don’t have to change the water, or coerce its currents, or try to improve its direction. You just have to jump in and enter the flow. Be one with the water, one that rises and falls. And rises again.
Richard Rohr writes, "You can trust the river because the River is God who flows unguarded." God is the water, not pulling you down but moving you with ease and flow. Just allow the flow to flow, not merely around you but through you as well. Become part of the river. Become a part of the flow.
This will take immense faith and confidence in God’s goodness, especially when you are unsure or afraid. When I feel myself get panicky, I try to take control. I try to quickly make things right. But on my terms. And I lose my ability to be present. I spin out in the past and freak out over what’s to come. The problems right now, are right now. In the present, where the River flows. This is where we meet God, or where God meets us.
Once you’re in the water it’s hard to swim upstream and return to your past. And it’s difficult to see what’s downstream at the surprises that await. If your past has taught you anything, it’s that there will be surprises to come. Thus, jump into the river. Be in the water and stay focused on navigating the currents with ease and flow.
You have to enter the river. You will see that sometimes it will be turbulent, sometimes it will be calm, but all times you will be moving and flowing to exactly where you need to go. God is the River. Trust the flow, be present in the movement, and know that anything unexpected is still part of God.
Do not fear. Do not worry. Do not be afraid. These are some of the most common and most prolific phrases in Scripture. They sound nice and look good in needlepoint. But let’s be real. You will be afraid, and you will fear...we all do. But in our fear and worry, God is with us there too. With a contingency plan. It’s all part of the river of life.
Jesus said, “Anyone who is thirsty come to me and let the one who believes in me drink. As the Scripture has said, out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”
So don’t lose what little or great faith you might have. Instead jump into it. The overwhelming feelings you have in your stomach, the unbearable weight that sits on your heart, and the noisy confusion in your head, they are all part of the river. They are ways God is trying to speak to you, to help you navigate.
In this madness promise me you will take some time to stop, breathe, and listen to what God is trying to say to you, and see where you are being directed to go. As you do, don’t forget to look at all that’s around you and see its beauty. For it’s there you will find your peace, your joy, and your faith...all splashing together in one endless flow of love.
In the book of Philippians, it says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Phil. 4:6).
To an ancient prophet, God tells Jeremiah, “Call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you” (Jer. 29:12). “Call to me and I will answer you, and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know” (Jer. 33:3).
As we celebrate Lent, we are reminded of the words of Jesus, who spent forty days in the wilderness praying. He said, “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:24).
Of course, prayer is more than making a wish list for God to fulfill. God is not Santa or an ATM machine. God is better than that; calling us into a relationship where our hearts are emptied out only to be filled with more than we ever thought possible.
Every major religion includes prayers as part of their practice. So that tells us it’s an important ritual. I look to Jesus as my example. He certainly prayed a lot. There are six references in the gospels that he spoke in prayer, and one instance where he directly gives us the words to pray. We know he prayed in the morning and at night, and before or after something big happened. It wasn’t unlike him to skip off from the crowds to pray alone.
In prayer Jesus kept a channel open to God. Like the red phone on the presidents desk that whenever you pick it up there is someone waiting on the other end ready to get you your Diet Coke. But like all conversation, prayer is a dialog not a monologue. We might have a lot to say, but we need to keep our spiritual ears and hearts open to hear what God has to say to move our hearts Godward.
People who are new to faith often ask me if there’s a particular way to pray. I tell them it’s no different than having a conversation with someone. Sure there are prayers that walk you through stuff you might be dealing with. I have a stack of books filled with prayers that are offered for birth to praying over the dead to everything in between.
My mom’s the type of person who doesn’t like to read prayers. She hates it when everyone prays the same thing. She says she prays from her heart. That’s not to say other religious people don’t do the same, but I like to remind her about the power that is lifted up with 100,000,000 voices singing the same prayer to God’s ears.
If you ask me, the only thing that matters is that we begin the conversation. This can happen using a rote prayer from a book, or just by simply saying, “Hey God. What’s up? It’s me. Can we talk?” I like the prayer Nadia Bolz-Weber says every morning when she wakes up, “Lord help me not to be an asshole today. Amen.” It’s not your typical prayer, but it’s a prayer that reaches God’s ears.
In Christianity there are different types of prayers. The four most common are confession, contrition, petition, and adoration.
Confession is just that, naming your wrongdoing. Contrition is a prayer that asks God for forgiveness. Petition is asking God for a favor. Adoration is simply praising God, or showing your gratitude. You can pray one or all four or something you want. Meister Ekheart is to have said, “If the only prayer you say is ‘Thank you’ then that would suffice.” It doesn’t matter what you say or how you say it as long as the conversation is happening.
When I am called to pray over the sick and dying, I use Psalm 51 as my template because it covers all four types of prayers in one beautiful poem. Let’s read it.
Paul writes, “May the mind that is in Christ Jesus also be in you” (Philippians 2:5). This is the truest depth of our Christian tradition, what it truly means to be a disciple of Jesus. We are called to recognize, surrender to, and ultimately be identified with the mystery of God utterly beyond all concepts, all words, and all designations. This is our destiny. —James Finley
Jesus started his life like all of us, as a vulnerable baby. He, like you and me, had to learn how to trust. Trust his mother and father, his community and peers. His God. This trust led him to be able to surrender. It allowed him to give over his self, to shed his ego, and be totally one with God. As James Finley states, “This is our destiny.”
A goal we must all strive for as we strive to be more like Christ and less like ourselves is to trust God enough to surrender our will to God. This requires entering into your vulnerability, as you did as a child. What can you practice today that will help you understand, and ultimately (and faithfully) trust God in the process? What fears do you need to let go of in your life to move into this mystery of God’s truest love?
If you’ve had the pleasure of going into a supermarket recently you might have noticed what fear looks like. Empty shelves and carts overflowing with toilet paper. Someone recently did a little math on how much toilet paper a person uses in a normal period. Let’s just say it doesn’t merit two shopping carts full.
I met a woman yesterday who actually ran out of TP and went to the store to buy some. This is normal behavior. But when she got to CVS, there was none to be found. The shelves were empty. She went to other stores and discovered the same thing. Apparently, she was unaware that people thought toilet paper, and not soap, was the best way to combat Covid-19. Like any decent human being would, I offered her a roll or two. She, being human too, she graciously declined.
I’ve been to different countries all over the world, and trust me toilet paper is a luxury. But it’s not gold. It’s not worth hoarding it hoping to corner the market and get rich by selling it in the black market. And it doesn’t stop the spread of viruses or kill them like washing your hands can.
As we stood in a line to get into Trader Joe’s, there was a sense of calm and peace that was present with our group. Yet there was also an uneasy air of panic and fear floating about. It ranged from “Don’t touch me” to “Oh man, I have an itch on my nose but I’m afraid to scratch it because what if they think I’m sick and won’t let me in the store. I need buttermilk, damnit!”
I watched people push carts past my line packed with reusable bags that were filled with food and I began to fear the worst. What if there were no buttermilk? What would be the purpose for standing in line with all these potential sick people if my wife could make Irish soda bread for a St. Patrick’s Day party that we had to cancel?
(On a side note: we did make multiple trips to the supermarket to stock up on corned beef. Now that there’s no party we should be fine with meat for a year. Having said this, let’s not negate what I am writing. Seriously, let’s just forget I said anything about the 45 pounds of corned beef that is taking up valuable buttermilk space in the fridge.)
As I stood there, watching people shuffle out of the store with what you would have thought were bags of money, I had a sense of calm in me because I knew that the last thing people run out to buy during a pandemic is buttermilk. That calm, however, lasted only until my group was allowed to go inside the store and saw all the empty shelves.
I hurried to the dairy section, which was like carefully crossing a mine field while sneezy, snot-dripping snipers try to take you out. The section wasn’t as bad as the rest of the store. It was filled with perishables whose shelf life was quickly ticking away. I felt some relief when I saw that there was sill chocolate milk, coconut milk, silk milk, and even half and half. But as my eyes glanced over all the different containers, my heart began to palpitate. There was no buttermilk. Are you kidding me?
I stood there quivering and shaking, unsure of what I would do or what I would tell my wife or the doctor who would have to eventually break the bad news to my family that I would have to be sequestered for two weeks in my own private room and bath. Yet, as I stood there among the people scavenging for the last soy sausages, something wonderful happened. Right where the buttermilk should have been, two people reached for the same thing at the exact same time. Their hands collided but the world didn’t end. And what was it that they were reaching for? Unsalted butter. Yuck.
In the pandemonium of a pandemic we must set our priorities right. Life is too short for unsalted butter. Life is also too short to allow fear to take over control of who you are. Both of these people, two strangers whose hands have touched, stopped dead in their tracks to acknowledge the other and exchange apologies.
For just a moment, there was a bit of human decency in the chaos. While others were grabbing what they could get their hands on, these two just graciously offered the last remaining box of unsalted butter to the other. Yes, it was unsalted butter, but it was also a commodity that meant something to them both, but it wasn’t going to define who they were. They were human beings who chose to behave like human beings.
Their action reminded me of something I had recently read in Leviticus. Among the many words pertaining to the way we ought to conduct ourselves during holy festivals is a great little verse about sharing our resources with others. “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 23:22).
The gist of the passage is this: don’t hoard, even what is rightfully yours to hoard. Leave a little something for those who are hungry - specifically the poor, and those without a family or community to help out in hard times. They need to eat too. Even though most of us are not farmers, I think this passage speaks to us today; especially in this trying and testing time.
When you’re shopping during a pandemic, don’t go in full-blown fear mode or worry that you won’t have enough. Just buy what you need and leave the rest for others. This takes faith and trust, I know. It’s easy to fear and harder to trust - not only God but each other. But I recently read that the most used one liner in the Bible is “Do not fear” which I think puts our tendency to hoard toilet paper (and corned beef) in perspective. Do not fear but leave some for those who need it.
Jesus often taught us how to share the blessings we have. Think about the miracle of the fish and the loaves that’s found in the gospels. We can debate whether it was a miracle or not. Did Jesus say some holy words and suddenly the few pieces of fish and bread that they took from a small boy produced enough food to feed thousands of hungry people? It’s possible. Or were the hearts of those gathered there that day changed when they saw a small child share all that he had so people could eat? That possible too. Either way, Jesus and the boy shared what they had with those who were there.
In this story, like so many others, Jesus blessed the food not only with words, but with action too. He took what he had and gave it to those who had none. I like to think those who watched Jesus and the little boy do this had a change of heart. Instead of hoarding their food for themselves, they took what they needed then passed the meats and cheeses to those around them. And soon, the great feast began to spread like the joy and well-being that followed. The kingdom of heaven is like a great banquet, a marvelous feast where everyone is invited to the table.
This is important to note because later on Jesus will quote from Leviticus when he reminds his disciples that “the poor will always be among us.” This is true for those who are financially poor as well as those who are poor in spirit. Where there is poverty, fear will always be present. It creeps in wherever a person’s faith is impoverished, or emotional support is empty, or when joy is diminished. Jesus reminds us that it is imperative that we share what we have to those who have none.
If we can learn anything from this pandemic, might it be this. Viruses spread from person to person which can have a major impact on an individual as well as a community, a country, and the world at large. Fear also has the ability to do the same. But just as there is an antidote to counter a virus and diminish its powers, there is also an antidote to stopping fear in its tracks. It’s called love.
Instead of spreading fear, let us focus on spreading love like a virus. Let us go and infect the world with forgiveness, mercy, grace and joy. Let us offer the hand of peace so we can pass it to on one another.
I suspect people wouldn’t mind catching a little love and peace and joy in their lives. In fact, I doubt anyone would mind standing in line for it. The blessings we are given cost us nothing. But more importantly, supplies of it will never run out as long as we stay calm and love one another.
I like to think this is how God sees us. Not blurry, but all the same. I like to think God sees us perfectly, in sharp focus, and thinks about how beautiful we are. Each one different, and yet all the same.
Every now and then I like to remind myself of why I started this blog in the first place, or why I named it Jesus, not Jesús. Yes, the name is weird and it starts a good conversation with people, but that’s not the reason I began this journey to see Christ in the face of strangers. In fact, it was to be able to see Christ, in perfect focus, in all people equally. Just the way God sees us.
This has not be easy to do. I have learned that it will take the rest of my life to fail at this if I am going to truly succeed (it’s Lent after all). But I have made it a life goal to see life through the eyes of Jesus, who had no home or place to lay his head. He lived on the mercy of others, but gave generously to those who needed. He saw people with the same tenderness and kindness of God, who sees us all equally. No amount of grease, dirt, smudge, or fingerprints will distort the way God sees you or me. But is that how you see God?
Jesus teaches us to see through his eyes, which helps us see the circular love of God at work. That is to say we will see how to receive and how to give - how to allow God to flow to you and through you. This helps us when we are having trouble seeing people for who they really are - not as mean, or ugly, or as strangers with different color skin or smells, but as children of a God who clearly loves us just as we are.
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”