01 December 2020

Global Pandemics and Hope

 Nine years ago on World AIDS Day, I wrote these words:

The world was frightened by an epidemic that was spreading quickly.

We watched as science tried to keep pace with a disease we couldn't control.

April 22, 1984, the CDC's Dr. Mason reported, "I believe we have the cause of AIDS." The very next day, the US Health & Human Services Secretary reported, "We hope to have a vaccine ready for testing in about 2 years."

As we all know, it wasn't that simple.

It still isn't.

Nine years ago today I didn't know the word Pandemic.  I didn't know how it was different from Epidemic.

Oh how times have changed! 

This is the first pandemic to impact many of us. 

But it isn't truly the first pandemic of our lifetimes.

Several someones I know have HIV.  I would be willing to bet someone you know does, too.  It took decades of research and death before we learned how to slow it down.  There was no vaccine in the promised 2 years.  There is still no vaccine for a disease that is almost 40 years old.

My beloved HIV positive people and their loved ones spent years hoping to survive long enough for the science to catch up.  They didn’t wait 9, 10, 12, or 18 months.  They waited, they learned how to protect themselves and those they loved.  They kept the faith, hoping against hope that the cavalry was coming for them.  But when it came, it was only a treatment and not a cure, it was highly expensive, often not covered by health insurance, and came with shame and judgment. 

 Too many of the world's people have died from AIDS.

Too many people for whom the cavalry did not come.

And yet, across the world people continue to hold onto hope that someday they will be able to get treatments.  That maybe - yet still - perhaps there will be a vaccine.

World AIDS Day is about remembrance.

It's about hope.

It's about perseverance.

For 39 years the world has held onto hope that we would be able to eradicate this disease.

One year ago a new virus was discovered in Wuhan, China.  Today, there is not a country in this world that hasn't been impacted by it.  COVID-19 is a commonplace word globally now.  And the cavalry is coming.  The vaccines are on the way; treatments are improving every day; and there is hope that we may be able to make this virus as impotent as "the common cold."

But we are far from out of the woods.

Today, on World AIDS Day, my prayer is that we will be able to look to our siblings worldwide living with HIV and AIDS, coexisting with two viruses seeking to end their lives.  I pray that we would take a lesson from them about living with hope.

We don’t get it right 100% of the time.  We all make mistakes; we all get tired; we all long for a life before COVID-19 began.  We drop our resolve and someone else pays the price.  But we know what it takes to keep this season of waiting from getting any darker.  We know what we need to do: we need to persevere for a few more months.  May this Advent season be marked by our compassion for one another.  May this be the year where Advent is shaped by our willingness to sacrifice.  We may give up that which we love: family gatherings, holiday parties, hugs, but we will gain so much more.

For in the darkness, a light breaks forth.

After centuries of waiting, 

on a night in a little town in Judea, 

the cry of an infant broke through the noise of a stable.


Hope was born that night.

Hope was born again in me this week.

May it be born again in you today.


08 July 2020

What If?

Across the country, I'm watching as churches wrestle with how to be The Church in this new normal. I'm watching congregations return to sanctuaries despite growing numbers; I'm watching congregations shutter their sanctuary doors for the foreseeable future. Mostly, I'm seeing the in between. Churches who don't know what to do next.

And then I came across one pastor saying this:

The question I plan to pose to our church is, “What if the church decided to not use all of its energy contemplating and debating if we are going to gather in-person next week (and next week, and next week), but instead used that energy to creatively explore what it means to adapt being church while we suspend gathering in our sanctuaries until after Jan 1, 2021?”

Could we gather in peoples homes in groups of 5-7 for Communion, study, and prayer?

Could we gather in a small group to explore ways to serve our communities?

Could we be church?

Suddenly, I was aware that we're going about this all the wrong way!

The question we are asking is a question of public health and safety.
The question we should be asking is a question of identity.

What makes us The Church?
More specifically, what makes us The Church in this space and time?

The world around us has changed, my friends.
We feel this deep in our bones.
Things that were once simple - going to the office every day - are now complicated. 
Visiting a vulnerable person is strongly advised against.
If you are a vulnerable person, you're wrapped in deep loneliness because of your lack of companions.

No longer is our health something we take for granted on the daily. Some of us had to be extra careful before there was a global pandemic, but now all of us need to be extra careful. We feel the fatigue of it all. We long for the old ways, the simpler times when we didn't have to mask and sanitize and keep a physical distance between ourselves and those we love (or even strangers). We want things to "go back to normal."

But "normal" as we knew it in December is gone - at least for a good long while if not forever.

In the midst of the sadness and grief, God has brought forth new wine, though!
There is much for which to rejoice!

We have rediscovered a slower pace, a joy in being at home with those we love, we have rallied around a cause. We have been creative and inspirational in the ways we have connected to one another. The Creative Spirit of God is alive and at work in the midst of COVID-19.

We have seen it in our churches, too.

Sanctuaries that once held 25% of their capacity now stand empty while screens full of participants join Zoom. Those who haven't attended church in years are with us online. Friends from far away have been able to peek in to their home church every week, no matter where they live. 

Pastors have doubled-down on their attention to worship. Y'all, if you haven't thanked your pastor lately for all they are doing, stop reading right now and go do it. I live with a pastor; I see it. The hours of video editing, praying, calling, writing timely liturgies, editing, re-editing, recording and editing some more. They were not trained to be production designers and they figured it out - usually in less than a week's time. Your pastor is more committed than ever to reminding us to be The Church!

Book studies, Bible studies, kids' groups, choirs, committees, task forces, and on and on. We've found a new way to be The Church! And we all long for the day when it's safe to once again hug anyone we wish. But we know that day is not coming soon.

The new wine is pouring forth and God is at work, Church!

And we all know what happens when new wine pours into old wine skins.


So what is it that keeps pushing us to be back in the sanctuary?

If we're not singing or reading together (as is advised), if we're not taking communion together (keep your saliva under your mask at all times, please!), and we're not even able to sit next to one another in the pew, what is it that draws us to the sanctuary?

I suspect it's a longing for "normal."
It feels like things are "getting back to normal" if we're allowed to be in the sanctuary.
It feels like we have this one area of our lives over which we have some control.
If we can just get back into the sanctuary, we can stop worrying about whether or not the church will survive.
It will all be ok if we can just get back to in-person worship in the sanctuary.

But "normal" is gone.

Going back to the sanctuary doesn't make "normal" return; it just highlights how different things really are.

I get it, my friends.
I really do!
I love corporate worship!

But, like the pastor said above, "What If?"

What if ...
What if we stopped asking when can we return to the sanctuary?
What if we stopped asking what will our protocol be for when we come back?
What if we stopped worrying about setting a date to return?

Instead, what if ...
What if we started asking how can we better use our time and creative energies?
What if we started asking how can we reach more people with mission and ministry right now?
What if we started pouring massive amounts of energy into creativity rather than hand-wringing?

I can only imagine all the great things we could do!
I do, however, know a few things we could stop doing!

We could stop looking at case counts.
We could stop worrying about schools being open or closed.
We could stop having meetings to rehash the same, already tired, conversations about masks and sanitizer and cleaning supplies.
We could stop stagnating where we are.

New wine cannot be poured into old wine skins without them rupturing.

The Church has been given a great opportunity!
You've been allowed to strip away all that can draw your focus away from mission.
You've been given a great new wine.

New wine needs time to breathe.
It needs space and air and time in order to mature into all it is meant to be.
Wine worth savoring takes time and creativity.

Don't risk putting your brand new wine into old wine skins.

Instead, let's use this time to sew new wine skins!
Let's allow the Spirit to continue to lead us wherever she wishes!
Let's stop fretting about being back in the sanctuary and begin crafting a new vessel for this fresh new gift from God.

What If ...
What if we trusted God fully with this new wine?
What if we trusted that the Spirit has an abundant future planned for us?
What if we allowed God to work in and through us to create something we could never have imagined in 2019?

The Church that asks those questions is The Church I want to be!

“No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse. And no one pours new wine into old wine skins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wine skins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wine skins."

Mark 2: 21-22 NIV

04 March 2018

Keeping a Holy Lent: Day 19

Forget your perfect offering. 
There is a crack, a crack, in everything. 
That’s how the light gets in.   - Leonard Cohen

Nothing in this world is perfect.
Not you, not me, not anyone or anything.
And yet, we spend so much time trying to act like we have it all together.

I wonder why we do that.
I know you don't have it all together.
You know I don't have it all together.
So why do we pretend?

What is it about human nature that encourages us not to be our authentic selves with people?
I wonder if this is a human thing or a uniquely American thing.
In either case, it wounds the body of Christ.
When we presume that we aren't cracked, fragile human beings, we don't see one another the way God sees us.

Because here's the thing:
if I act like I've got it all together and I've made something of myself, despite the cracks I know I'm hiding, 
surely everyone else can too, right?
When their cracks show, that's just a sign of weakness or laziness or lack of motivation or a poor work ethic, or something!  It's definitely not that we're all fragile and we are all full of cracks.

I've been thinking a lot lately about my own struggles.
Lent is good for that.
I don't just mean my mental health; I mean I have taken this season to think about who I am at 41 years old and who I want to be, both now and in the future.
I've been thinking about all sorts of things:
my health,
my career,
my family,
my home, 
the books I read,
the television I watch,
the money I spend,
the money I don't spend,
the friends I keep.

Because it all matters.
I know that some day, probably not too far into the future, I'm going to look back on my life and wonder where it went.  I'm going to realize that it is time for my professional life to end and I am going to have to find a new identity.  I don't want to be surprised by that day.  I want to slip so seamlessly into the next chapter of my life that it barely feels like it happened.  I want to do that because I was prepared for it.

And so I begin now.
I begin thinking about the cracks in my life.
Not to repair them, but to examine them for what they're worth.
What the cracks teach me,
what they illuminate in me,
what they allow to escape.

No one wants to be broken and wounded.
But we are.
And it is high time we own that.

03 March 2018

Keeping a Holy Lent: Day 18

“Scoop up a big messy pile of an idea, invite some people over, and see what you can move together.”
Rebecca Hale

What a whirlwind of a 3 days it has been!
I've been at an area gathering of the leadership in the 8 Southeastern regions of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in North Carolina since Thursday.
It has been utterly amazing.
We've had hard conversations about the future of the Church.
We've had a lot of laughs.
We've had more snacks than we should.

We've made friends and colleagues; we've deepened relationships.

That was the hope.
But the hope was also that we would find a way to figure out what conversations most needed to happen in our Regions and in the Church.
We did that.
We got there.

And now we have a plan to work on them.
For that I am so excited and so grateful.

On my drive home today, I was thinking about what had just happened.
In our very first session, my friend Rebecca said,
"Scoop up a big messy pile of an idea,
invite some people over,
and see what you can move together."
Man alive, did we have some messy stuff to tackle.

We're not there yet.
And it will be a while before we get there.
But we have learned that with a little help, we can move mountains.

Over the course of the next year, a new team will lead us.
A new group of people will pick up the mantle now and help us think more about the future of the Church.
I'm so excited about it.
There's a movement of God happening in our midst and it is nearly palpable.

What about you?
Is there a big messy pile of an idea that you might be able to tackle with a few friends?

Because if the last 3 days were any indication, this world could be a much better place if we could all do that.

What stirs your soul?
What do you want to change?
Do you have an idea of how to change it?
Because if you do, now is the time.

The world needs you to begin moving mountains.
I need you to begin moving mountains.
Mountain-moving is hard work.
But, when done correctly,
it is always worth it.

02 March 2018

Keeping a Holy Lent: Day 17

We all live off his generous bounty,
 gift after gift after gift.
    We got the basics from Moses,
        and then this exuberant giving and receiving,
    This endless knowing and understanding—
        all this came through Jesus, the Messiah.

John 1, The Message.
I don't always use The Message because it is an interpretation rather than a translation.
But sometimes it is good to hear familiar words from a new voice.

We live off Jesus' generous bounty - gift after gift after gift.

I needed that reminder this week.
I needed to be reminded that it's not just a one time thing.
That there are gifts around me in a million different ways.

I forget that.
I forget that a great hug is a gift.
I forget that a rich food, full of flavor, prepared for me, is a gift.
I forget that a warm sunny day is a gift.
I forget that my opportunities to worship in a variety of churches are a gift.

It's a generous bounty!
So much goodness exists in this world.

It's easy to get bound up in the heavy.
In the travel.
In the altered diet.
In the loneliness.
In the anxiety.
In the uncertain parts of life.
In the bills.
In the checklists.
In the daily-ness of life.

It's easy to forget the gifts we have been given.

Today, I am simply grateful.
Grateful for the little things that are gifts.
And grateful for the heavy things.
Because they remind me that the good days come, too.