All throughout the Lenten season, we follow Jesus as he moves closer and closer to Jerusalem. He knows what is coming; and just before he and his disciples arrive, he shares with them his human destiny. “Look!” he says. “We’re going up to Jerusalem. The Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the legal experts. They will condemn him to death and hand him over to the Gentiles. They will ridicule him, spit on him, torture him, and kill him. After three days, he will rise up.” (Mark 10:32-34, CEB)
What would I have thought had I been sitting there? The disciples know who he is! Jesus is the One the Jews have anticipated for generations! To hear him talk like this surely doesn’t make sense. The Messiah is supposed to rule the world, and that means take over the government, right? We are heading into a huge uprising that is going to free us from corrupt rulers. Jesus is going to be in charge from now on. What’s all this about spit and torture and death? And what does “rise up” mean? Rise up after three days? From what? DEATH? Yeah, that’s not likely. I think I might have been just as confused as they were. What does it mean?
The next few sentences in the Gospel of Mark describe how James and John ask to be important when Jesus comes into power. “When you come into your glory, will you let us sit at your right and at your left?” When someone is in charge, sitting beside him is a position of honor. These guys want to be key players in these coming days when Jesus is king over everything. Jesus knows they have no idea what they are talking about. Being in charge isn’t the goal here. Becoming king over the land is not what’s happening. Overthrowing the government isn’t even close to the objective. Being of service to others is the point. Taking care of others is the place of honor. “The Son of Man didn’t come to be served,” he says, “but rather to serve and to give his life to liberate many people.” Talk about confusing! I can imagine the disciples looking at each other and saying, “This is more of that first-is-last, last-is-first stuff he keeps talking about. What does it mean?”
With the cross and resurrection still ahead of them, and not yet having reached Jerusalem, this is bound to be baffling. They are bound to have questions just as I have questions running laps in my head. If the disciples had known everything Jesus knew, and understood what was to come in the next few days, would they have tried to change anything? Would they have been waving to the cheering crowds in Jerusalem if they had known those same people would get Jesus killed? Would they have fought off anyone who tried to get too close? Would they have said this was too hard and gone home? Would they have continued right by his side? Would I?
Of course, those are rhetorical questions, and there is no way to know any answers. Thinking it through is an exercise in understanding the struggle – and, for me, that always makes the gift of Jesus even more precious. As we move through Holy Week beginning with tomorrow’s Palm Sunday, I’m sure we will experience all kinds of emotions. With us being separated by sickness this year, those emotions may run a little deeper for some. My prayer is that we spend the time in reflection and thanksgiving, that we continually reach out to one another in service and support, and that we come out the other side fully engaged as resurrection people!
What does it mean? It means that even though the road ahead is likely to be filled with sorrow and struggle, we never lose sight of our purpose. We are servants of Jesus Christ, and Easter is coming!
In Christ’s service,
When I was a child, we had a neighbor who worked in her yard and garden constantly – even on Sundays. I was taught that Sunday was a day of rest, and my parents never worked on that one day of the week. I asked her one time why she worked on Sunday. Her response was that she enjoyed it and, to her thinking, it wasn’t work. When the garden needed weeding or the plants needed water, it didn’t feel like chores to her. Actually, it was kind of exciting work. She felt like the effort was important, and she preferred to push through the week. There were tomatoes to pick, and work to be done. This was not the time to take a day off!
As an adult, I usually take Fridays off, but today didn’t feel like a good day to do that. Today felt like a day to keep pushing through. This Sunday is Palm Sunday, next week is Holy Week complete with Good Friday, and the following Sunday is Easter. This is the time of year the Church is super busy with upcoming worship services and caring for others. This is when we journey through the cross and into the resurrection together. This is the most exciting time in the life of the Church! We are preparing for a special time of remembering Jesus’ sacrifice for us and that Christ is risen! To my thinking, this far outweighs the task of tomato picking. This is not the time to take a day off!
I need to be reaching out to folks. I have sermons to prepare, emails to send, letters to write, plans to make. There’s work to be done! In addition to the normal busyness of Holy Week, I’m still trying to navigate how all this online stuff works. Creating and posting blogs and videos is not my forte, and I’m learning new things about doing this better… but it takes time. Creating takes time, writing takes time, study takes time, and recording takes hours. Not only am I slow in my work, but uploading videos and such is not a quick event. And since we are unable to be together right now, these time-consuming efforts are crucial. This is no time for a day off!
Here’s the surprise: Even though the demands of the work can be intense, even though there aren’t enough hours in most days, even when I don’t think this is a good time to take a day off, I do find that this is a very nourishing time. It’s not really like “work.” Yes, I have those life-draining moments when I’m just ready for it to all be over. When things get tough, spending eternity with Jesus sure does call to my heart. I can’t wait to enjoy the company of the Savior! However…
While my goal and desire is to live with Jesus (eventually), I find that continuing my work here is life-giving. Paul said “living is Christ and dying is gain” and he did not know which he preferred. I get that. Paul knew he wanted nothing more than to depart this life and be with Jesus, but he felt his work continued to be necessary for a time. I get that, too. (Philippians 1:21-30, NRSV)
Somehow, I don’t think Paul took that many days off. I don’t think of him as a workaholic, though. I think of him more as passionate, committed, and filled with the desire to share Jesus as much as possible. That’s a pretty good role model to follow, I think. With Holy Week quickly approaching, I’d better get back to my chores.
Ahhhh. Do you hear that? It’s the satisfying sound of accomplishment! Finished projects! Things I’ve longed to complete for days, weeks, months, even years are coming together. My holly trees in the front yard are trimmed and shaped, and the hosta bed behind the house is fully lined in bricks. My bed of daylilies is weeded and fresh, every single birdfeeder is filled to the brim, and all my spring decorations are on the mantle.
Did I do all that work myself? Of course not! I helped (a little) but my family all pitched in to get things done together over the past few days. We may not be able to go out into the world in our usual ways, but we are finding ways to manage our time and do things together. I think that made it even more fulfilling. To see each one lend willing hands to the good of the whole warms my heart, and throughout the summer as I look on each project I will remember how we shared the tasks.
Paul felt much that way about the people living in Philippi. “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.” When they all shared the tasks and spread the work of the Church among all the people, Paul was overwhelmed with gratitude for them. They were working together when he was with them, and they were working together when he was confined in prison – all for the glory of God. He was grateful they held him in prayer, and he wished he could be with them. (Philippians 1:3-11, NRSV)
I know that feeling, and it moves me beyond my small family circle. Oh, how I wish I could be with you! However, as our confinement continues, I am reminded more and more how you are working for the glory of God and the good of God’s Church – the Body of Christ. You are checking on one another, providing for one another, and offering to help as we care for and pray for one another. Obviously, I am not doing all the work of the Church by myself, and watching you love one another is fulfilling in a way that warms my heart. Each time I hear that you have talked with a neighbor, or supported someone with a meal, or run an errand to the grocery, I remember how we share in the projects as the hands and feet of Christ. I am grateful that you are holding me in prayer, and I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you.
My imagination can be vivid at times, but never has it entered into my thinking that I’d live through a global pandemic of this magnitude. Never did I envision being away from family and friends while being restricted at home. Never did I foresee that every single pollen-driven sneeze would have me reaching for a thermometer. I was working in the infectious disease department of a city hospital during the 1980s but was never afraid for my friends who were on the front lines of patient contact. Everyone was able to use appropriate precautions, make smart decisions, and be at minimal risk.
COVID-19 is different. I’m older than I’d like to be and have lousy lungs even on a good day. This virus makes me feel like I’m on the rabbit end of a hawk hunt. The tension is palpable, the predator is airborne, I’m vulnerable to the enemy, and there’s no way to know if I’m the target of the day.
How appropriate that the lectionary scripture for today is Psalm 143! This prayer is a cry for deliverance from the enemy. “Save me, O Lord, from my enemies; I have fled to you for refuge. Teach me to do your will, for you are my God. Let your good spirit lead me on a level path. For your name’s sake, O Lord, preserve my life. In your righteousness bring me out of trouble. In your steadfast love cut off my enemies, and destroy all my adversaries, for I am your servant.” (Psalm 143:9-12, NRSV)
As I read the psalm, my eyes particularly landed on “teach me to do your will.” I was immediately reminded of Jesus’ teaching on how to pray. Many of us were taught The Lord’s Prayer as children and are able to say it by heart today. “Our Father, which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy Name. Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.”
I think if Jesus had been a Southern American, we may have heard his prayer more like: Heavenly Father, your name is holy. May your kingdom come and may we always work to do your will here on earth just as it is in heaven. Bless us with food on our table today, and remind us to forgive each other just like you forgive us. Help us to avoid urgings, and keep us out of trouble. All this we pray because the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours forever. Amen.
However we say it, all the pieces are there to alleviate some stress and feelings of helplessness. Jesus has given us the words, the thoughts, the teachings, the tools, the very prayer we need to keep us grounded and reminded that God has power over all things on earth. When I pray, I feel a little less like the rabbit - timid and skittish - and a little more like the hawk - strong and soaring.
Many parents these days teach their children to sing the “Happy Birthday” song as they wash their hands. The goal is to ensure the hands are being washed for a length of time that is appropriate for killing the most germs. These days, I’m hearing of a new and wonderful trend: pray The Lord’s Prayer each time we wash our hands. The length is great for effective germ killing. The words are a familiar comfort, and we spend some intentional time with God. I think of prayer as an appropriate precaution, helping me to make smart decisions and be at minimal risk from worldly influences. Merging prayer time with health efforts sounds like a level path for God’s servants.
Washing and praying,
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. Ephesians 2:8-10, NRSV
I once was asked where to find a specific phrase in scripture. “I want to use that text in my sermon next week, but I can’t remember where to find it,” he said. “It’s something about being saved by grace.”
Now, I’m not that good at remembering book, chapter and verse. I can usually recognize if we are talking about a Gospel lesson, something Paul might have said, or things like that. This question, though, happened to be about my favorite Bible verse.
“Let’s see: ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.’ Is that the one you mean?”
“Yes! That’s the one! Where is that?”
“Ephesians 2:8, but you can’t use it without also mentioning verses 9 and 10.”
My colleague stared at me as if I had two heads. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I probably couldn’t do that again on any other verse so I just smiled and walked away, letting him think I’m smarter than I am.
I came across Ephesians 2 during a Bible study in my teenage years, and this one verse stuck with me from that point until now. God’s grace saves you from death – and that’s only because you believe. The message is so simple that even my teen brain grasped the enormity of meaning, but I also recognized that there’s more. “Not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” My actions have nothing to do with anything. I get to live forever because of what GOD does – not what I do. MY job is to believe God loves me and then respond to that love. I am what God has made me. I am created in Christ Jesus for good works. God worked in advance for this to be my way of life! What am amazing gift!
By grace (God’s love)
you have been saved (from death)
through faith (because I believe),
and this not is your own doing (none of it),
it is the gift of God (just for me!) –
not the result of works (nothing I’ve done)
so that no one may boast (pride isn’t acceptable here).
For we are (all of us)
what he has made us (made in God’s image),
created in Christ Jesus for good works (there’s the response part!),
which God prepared beforehand (God at work before I was even born)
to be our way of life (my path is clear!).
Every time I read that I am reminded that God’s love is the beginning of everything. Yup, it’s my favorite for a good reason.
Just before my world became locked down at 5:00 this afternoon, I jumped in the truck for one last ride. I didn’t cross paths with people except the folks in my vehicle, and I certainly didn’t touch anyone. Just me, my husband and my mom out looking at the day… and what a beautiful day! Warm and breezy. Clear and sunny. Lower humidity than the past day or so. Perfect for rolling down the windows and letting the air flow.
As we drove, we noticed a roadside garden center with only a car or two in sight. Knowing that we had weeks ahead looking at a yard of empty flower containers, we slowed down and pulled onto the gravel drive. I jumped out, quickly loaded the bed of the truck with a few colorful selections, and jumped right back in while my love went inside to pay. A few minutes later we were back on the road headed to the house where we will hunker down for the foreseeable future.
I might have taken a moment to be sad about my last ride for a while. I might have felt isolated and wondered if I would become bored or lonely in the upcoming days. But then we were home, ready to sit down to a deliciously fragrant meal. We followed up with a fun and stress-free board game for a few minutes. Then, back outside to get those plants into the dirt.
A couple of hours later, I was back in the house scrubbing potting soil from beneath my nails when I realized how much I had enjoyed those moments today. We were relaxed, working together, waving at the walkers in the street, and getting things accomplished. The whole evening was a welcome change from my usual frantic pace, and I began to look forward to the approaching weeks when the blooms would be gorgeous and fragrant. With the thought of flowers growing throughout the summer, I felt a wave of bright hopefulness.
Ecclesiastes 2:22 asks: “What do people get for all their hard work and struggles under the sun?” The following verse shares a pretty grim answer: “All their days are pain, and their work is aggravation; even at night, their hearts don’t find rest. This too is pointless.”
That’s not exactly what I wanted to hear. Ecclesiastes has a bad habit of being cynical and negative, and I might have slipped into that isolated lonely place had I stopped reading there. My days are painfully long lately, and my work is frustrating. I certainly don’t sleep much. Have my efforts become pointless in God’s eyes?
Fortunately, I pushed forward and discovered a deliciously fragrant optimism that was bright and hopeful: “There’s nothing better for human beings than to eat, drink, and experience pleasure in their hard work… this is from God’s hand. – Who can eat and find enjoyment otherwise? – because God gives wisdom, knowledge, and joy to those who please God.” Ah, there it is. A reason for living. God gifts me with celebration in my work, comfort in my day, and sleep in my night.
These days which we are facing have the potential to go one of two ways. Either we allow them to drive us toward cynical, negative, isolated and lonely; or we eat, drink and find enjoyment in our daily work which is a gift straight from God. I know God didn’t cause this virus, but I truly believe God can use it to regain my attention to holy living. Bet I sleep well tonight.
Enjoying life’s work,
Think I’ll just pray with you today:
Holy God, you know our struggles better than we do, and you know answers before we even know to ask questions. We sure do have a lot of questions these days, and it would be helpful to hear from you today. For these next moments, speak to our hearts and make us keenly aware of your presence. As we quiet our minds, provide us with clarity. Help us understand that you are calling us to return to you.
We recognize that our world has turned from you in so many ways, and we sadly know that we are sometimes a part of that turning. When we refuse to get involved, or we take care of us instead of them, those are the times we move out of your will and into our own. It’s a daily conflict for us! Yet, you always stand right with us, gently inviting us back into your love and care.
Forgive us, Lord. Forgive us when we miss the mark. Today open our ears to hear the cries of the needy, open our eyes to see where we might be helpful, open our hearts to pass your love along to someone who is straining against these frightening times.
Precious Lord, we are unable to be together today. This nasty virus has us physically separated, and we are frustrated that there is nothing we can do about it! We are trying, Lord, but staying away from the gifts of family, friends and neighbors is hard for us. We crave the company of others. Even those of us who prefer the quiet of home are feeling a bit isolated right now. As time moves forward, we beg you to place the names of others on our hearts and drive us to be in connection with one another as best we can. Lord, do not allow us to overlook one single person who needs to be reminded of your love and our care. Bring to our attention every child who is hungry, every family who is struggling financially, every adult who is lonely. Blow the warm breath of your Spirit over us and bathe us in life and wisdom so that there is not one among us who faces this nationwide challenge alone.
Be with our children as they feel the tension but cannot understand the source. Be with our youth who want nothing more than to be among friends right now. Be with young adults who question the seriousness of our crisis. Be with older adults who are immeasurably vulnerable. Place your hand of complete healing on those who are sick, those who are dying, and those who have lost someone they love in recent days.
Most of all, Lord, hear our praise of you in all things. We feel the assurance that you keep your promises, and we know that you have a best plan for each one of us. As we go through our day, make us mindful, generous and courageous; and may we take the time throughout the day to look for you in wonderful places.
In the past few days, the Girl Scouts converted several of their Little Free Libraries into neighborhood food pantries. A few books remain, but most of the space is for folks to leave food or take food as needed. What a great idea! We shouldn’t have any trouble sharing some of our abundance, and I started wondering: what can I do from home during these next four weeks that will make a difference to someone else?
I put a plastic tub in my yard this morning with a sign that said “Food Drop-off Here. Leave what you can. Take what you need.” My hope is that all these people walking by my house every day (some every hour) will occasionally share a can or two for others. Maybe even some church people will drive by and drop something in the box on their way home from the grocery. With anything that comes in, I plan to do two things: help the Girl Scouts keep their project stocked, and share with the DUMA Food Pantry.
“Through [Jesus], then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God. (Hebrews 13:15-16 NRSV) Maybe we are cut off from one another in some ways for now, but this directive is intended to enhance our community living. Everything about us is meant to be lived together for some specific purposes.
When things are moving in a way that is uncomfortable or even tense, praising God may be a bit of a stretch for us. This virus is just getting started in the United States, and we don’t know exactly how this will go. What if I need that can of food for later? That seems to be where the sacrifice comes in.
“Sacrifice of praise to God” isn’t just lip service. For us who claim Jesus’ name, there is fruit that follows the claim. “I love Jesus” is our beginning, and speaking those words creates a desire to keep going. We profess our faith, do our good, and share our stuff because that’s when God is praised and worshipped – through our sharing, our actions.
I’d love to write more today, but I need to go put another couple of cans in the plastic tub.
Today I have decided to give up.
This afternoon, North Carolina was informed of a new directive to remain home until the end of April. Oh dear. The order doesn’t go into effect for another couple of days, but I feel like I already know what’s coming. I’ve been home for two weeks, and I’m not inclined to express exactly how that has gone. Another month is going to be… well, let’s just say that today I have decided to give up.
I’ve been trying to do a lot of things on my own in the recent days. I have spent many hours every day at my computer and many more hours on my phone trying to contact folks and coordinate efforts. I’ve driven to some houses and stood outside in the driveway waving to people inside their homes or yelling across carports. I’ve engaged in conference call after conference call. I’m learning more about technology than imaginable. I’ve considered contacting my seminary and complaining that I’m not equipped for all this stuff. I have been completely focused on the demands for my time. I’ve felt stressed and anxious, overwhelmed and hungry. (Yes, hungry! Why are there never enough snacks around this house?) I’ve eaten my meals in front of the coronavirus updates on TV, and I’ve gone right back to working. So today I have decided to give up.
To start, I give up meals away from the table. Eating with my family is going back to being a priority. That’s where we laugh and share stories and memories. That’s where we build our relationships and remember why we love each other so much. I enjoy my family and eating on the run has become a habit worth breaking.
I give up putting off exercise. My bicycle is covered in a filthy layer of garage dust and has two flat tires. I’m going to change that. This is a great neighborhood for biking, and I love to ride. Being outside is still acceptable (as long as I don’t stop to hug anyone).
I give up perfectionism. We are living in extraordinary times! While I always want to offer excellence, there is very little chance of things being picture-perfect any time soon. I’m going to do the best I can one day at a time, and I’m pretty sure God will be happy with my heart.
I give up sleepless nights. I refer you to the previous sentence… one day at a time, best I can, God happy… and I can already feel the stress dissolving.
I give up reading my Bible for work only. I spend so much time using it as a textbook – like a resource that I have to study, write about and teach to others. I want to sit down and savor the stories from cover to cover.
It occurred to me today that scripture doesn’t say to be flawless, only to do your best with Jesus in your heart. “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Colossians 3:17 NRSV) Nope, nothing about being immaculate or perfect. Just honor Jesus and thank God. Do my best and give God glory.
As we wind down the season of giving-things-up-for-Lent, I think I may be just getting started.