Last night, my son Will called downstairs and asked me to check my email. When I opened it—there was an invitation to a ZOOM meeting—from my own son in my own house!! Now, this may seem like another instance of technology eroding the American family. It may seem a shame that in a time of isolation, loneliness, and families kept apart that my teenager took advantage of one of the many “social media” platforms available to bring us together partially—when we could have just met in our own living room--but that’s part of my point. An unexpected blessing, if you will, may be the acknowledgement of our deep connections that can, surprisingly, be fed by technology.
Long before COVID-10, we were lamenting the distance that technology seems to foster between people. The signs of “social distancing” were all around us as people sat three feet apart on cell phones and never looked or spoke directly to each other. It wasn’t physical distancing, as it is now, it was spiritual and emotional distancing, and it was rampant. COVID-19 has only made tangible what was an invisible distancing for some time; but I see something, perhaps wonderful, that may be happening because of it.
The Roman philosopher Cicero (ca. 106-43 BC) said, "The face is a picture of the mind as the eyes are its interpreter." Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:22-24, “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light.” From these two sources we receive the well-known phrase, “the eyes are the window of the soul.” Wisdom is telling us that we are not only informed, but comforted by the sight of the other’s face. Now, while we have been able to see the eyes over the rim of our masks, it is the whole face we are missing. Ironically, an electronic meeting place can supply a mask-fee communion.
How many times in the past several months have I heard the phrase, “It’s so good to see you,” ring out over ZOOM. To see each other, too look at each other, has been given a new lease on life. We have been pulled away from our screens as spectators to the awareness that those same screens can be an extension of ourselves—as active participants. As Will and I talked, I was surprised how quickly I felt appreciative and impressed, even comforted. The ZOOM invite my son sent was an invitation to visit, engage, chat and be together in ways that an in-person meeting (Have you done chores? Are you ready for bed?) may have missed.
To receive a ZOOM invite may just be a request for you to join a meeting, but it may also be arms flung open and hearts lifted high. It may be a call to you, beloved and wanted, to see your face and to be comforted by your presence. I look forward to seeing you soon!
After last Sunday’s sermon I was asked to say a bit more about patience and action as people of faith.
Of the many upheavals we are living through right now, racial tension and discord is among the most pressing. Unlike COVID-19, race relations pull us out to encounter the world and pushes in to confront our own emotions. It is no wonder that people are feeling anxious and uptight.
To find Patience, we turn to God
We know what Jesus said in the gospels: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 24:27). As people of faith, we long for HIS peace; it is HIS comfort we desire. Throughout scripture Jesus made us this promise again and again, that He would care for us all and be with us, no matter what was happening in the world. Are these words not among the most comforting at times like these: “I am with you always, even unto the end of time” (Matt. 28:20).
Jesus consistently told us that we would be troubled by what was going on in the world and that it would never be quite right. Impatient for peace, we put on our “rose colored glasses” to see Jesus’ worldly life as portrayed by his words of love and peace in the hopes that we will feel what he is saying, and sometimes we do, but it is fleeting. In truth, Jesus three year-ministry is snapshot of confrontation and strife, discord and disruption. It makes sense, then, that if peace was not available to him through the world, it is not fully available for us, either.
To make matters more complicated, there is are a couple of paradoxes here that we must understand to allow for peace. First, try as we may, any peace we can find on our own, through our own efforts, is fleeting precisely because part of the strife we feel radiates from our relationship with Christ. As our relationship with Jesus grows deeper, we become more aware of the right and good and true; consequently, we are also more aware of the wrong and bad and false. In short, being able to see beauty means we are able to see past the ugly—which we see. But oh, how we get stuck on the ugly! Travelling on the highway, we call this rubbernecking, we can’t help but fixated on the ugly, sad, tragic, depictions of life.
It makes sense, then, that we would spend much of our time trying to avoid exposure to the ugly, so we are not so distracted (fixated) on it. Even Jesus “often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Luke 5:16), but Jesus always went back to the confrontation, the encounter, the distress. Our search for isolation and protection won’t work because, through the Holy Spirit, we will still see the ugly spiritually no matter where we are, and we will not find peace.
No matter where we grew up or when, racial discord has been a part of our lives. A woman told me just the other day that she “grew up in a place where she never knew any black people” but continued, “I am just now realizing that that means that I really don’t understand them at all.” (Bravo! Revelation in the heart of COVID-19! When we look back at this time with disdain, we must remember to credit it with the opportunity for introspection! It is a break from all that we knew a “regular and normal,” lets used this truth to dig deep into the presence of God!)
The discord (anti-peace) we feel spiritually is a constant low hum at the heart of being. That hum is a competing earthly note of hate and fear sounding an emotional tone that compels us away from God. It is a disruption in the flow of the Holy Spirit trying desperately to wash us clean in the Blood of the Lamb and to avoid the conflict; and in pain of this realization, we stay away. This is where we are called to patience, we must patiently (and methodically) wade through the murky and stagnant pools of complacency and self-doubt, in-action and fear, to truly encounter peace and Holy Presence. Now we see the second paradox, when we stay away from the spiritual clarity that shows us the pain, we are also staying away from the Spiritual presence that will show us peace. So, avoidance is not the answer; in fact, it is the problem.
God designed us as a creature of action
Rather than run away, we must move toward. We are affected and afflicted by the conflict, the bigotry, the hatred, the just plan senselessness of the world we live in simply by living in it. As people of faith, faith itself propels us to be spiritually aware of these things and the Holy Spirit engages them in us to hurt with the world and pray for the world and walk humbly with our God, who suffers it all. To find the peace of God which passes all understanding, we must engage with the Holy Spirit and encounter the ugly. But we do not do this alone—we are with the Holy Spirit, or out of desire to achieve anything other than God’s peace, which is everything. Remember, it’s called the Book of Revelation, not the Book of Destruction. Have faith, people of God. Better still, be faith.
Facing questions of racial strife, inequality, and woundedness (everyone’s) becomes not a chore but a blessing. We run to find the answer because spiritually we know we must! The peace that Jesus offers us is found in us, through the Holy Spirit. We are in communion with Christ inwardly and his love and peace mediate the tumult of our lives from the very core of our being. We want THAT peace—we must engage THAT tumult.
So, specially about our current race turmoil: go to the Lee monument and talk to the people. Wear a mask, don’t be afraid—hear what they say and feel how they feel. Read and watch the news, feel what you feel and then ask yourself why? Are you relying on the Holy Spirit or your past to draw conclusions? Do you hear yourself saying, “I don’t understand?” or making absolute statements about the way people are? Are your feelings and thoughts godly?
Now is the time to act. I am calling one aspect of this time “COVID CLARITY.” Like the woman I spoke with, we have all been given this time in which we can seek clarity within ourselves. Our own process is an action of reflection, relinquishment, curiosity, empowerment, and peace. The result will be our action in the world which is an extension of the Holy Spirit acting in us. The problem of misunderstanding, hate, and fear will not change until there is understanding, love and peace. Jesus’ life and ministry is a witness of action, and we are called to be “like Christ” in all that we say and do. This is not a mission; it is a WAY of life. Action is not an option; it is the answer.
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Philippians 4:13
“And every work that he undertook in the service of the house of God and in accordance with the law and the commandments, seeking his God, he did with all his heart, and prospered.” 2 Chronicles 31:21
“I hasten and do not delay keeping your commandments.” Psalm 119:60
“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.” Colossians 3:23-24
“But be doers of the Word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” James 1:22
“Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:1-2
I focus on the total sufficiency of the redeeming work of Jesus Christ on Calvary.
So begins the first chapter of The Ragamuffin Gospel by B. Manning, which we are reading together in the Book Study.
How timely this book seems to be, though it was written in 1990. Perhaps this is because the need for Grace is always so great. Manning issues a clear critique of pitfalls of human nature in culture and the church. While at times he sounds overzealous, in reality he is mostly simply paraphrasing scripture. This is a message we need to hear because we need God’s mercy and Grace so very much.
The “redeeming work…on Calvary” - what is that? We are reminded, in a time when we have so much time to be reminded, that Jesus dies on Calvary so that we might live eternally. This is a gift we are to live daily, like wearing our glasses or our watch; to live with a clear vision of the life; to live with a timely consideration of living; we must wear our Christian devotion (Christ-like-ness) like carrying a Cross. This is both the gift and the work, that Christ died for us that we might live for Him.
Manning tries hard, sometimes too hard, to press home the need for all of us to know God’s Grace, fully given to us on that Cross. I say the need because in a time of tired, anxious, sometimes confused resignation to the erratic pulse of the world, we need, in order to find peace, the steady heartbeat of love. The Grace of the Cross is the Love of God.
This book, as any book, is not a cure-all or a panacea. It is a timely invitation, with different words and illuminations, to a life filled with the clear vision of love and the regular rhythm of life eternal. No, it is not perfect, but that is ok. We are well acquainted with the imperfect. Rather it is fun, and a joy to read, in the company of searchers and readers and Brothers and Sisters.
The Gospel of Grace…reflects the furious love of God!
Celebrating the 4th of July, Independence Day!
When I grew up, there was a real and serious devotion to the week of the 4th of July. My neighborhood had a street gathering every night. Everyone shared fireworks (mostly firecrackers and sparklers) and we played Sousa marches on the record player every day. We would watch special programs on T.V. - special because the channels would air them every night, and special because they were re-enactments of events that brought us to this week. Around the dinner table, my Dad told us stories about famous people who came here from other places and how they--and we--were blessed by that possibility. On the evening of the 4th, we all headed to the Mall with blankets and coolers to watch the bombs bursting in air high above the Lincoln Memorial. Thanks to my family and my community, I have a patriotic streak a mile wide and a deep reverence and appreciation for all that has made this nation great.
How distressing are our current times! In discussing the holiday with my daughter, I was told that many people she knows are boycotting the 4th of July because “we aren’t great, or even good.” She said that because of the race conflicts, political upheavals, and the general division between people, they don’t want to celebrate our country anymore. I get it. How ashamed I felt - I feel - that I have done a poor job of teaching and witnessing to the truth of the greatness of our country. I told her I agreed with her, that I also feel the strain of our times and the hate, discord, political corruption, division on so many levels. But I l also told her of a greater truth worth celebrating.
It is Freedom we are celebrating. Not the chaotic every-man-for-himself freedom some believe is the guarantee of our Declaration of Independence, but the responsible Freedom dreamt of by our Framers which could lead the world and provide for a new day. The same Freedom that allows each person to behave badly is the Freedom that encourages us to live nobly. It is Freedom that makes possible a sweet land of liberty of which we sing. It is Freedom that raises a flag, that cries out to every mind and heart to believe that integrity will guard the threshold of industry and opportunity. And it is Freedom that keeps safe the hopes and dreams of every person and blows the spark of Liberty into the Torch Light of Freedom.
I told my daughter that we have failed. We have dimmed, or allowed the Torch Light of Freedom to be dimmed and traded Liberty and Justice for All, for a self-serving and ultimately self-defeating false security. We have picked and sliced the gift of freedom apart and claimed the pieces for ourselves that best serve us individually. Suffering in self-righteousness, we falsely proclaim ownership of Freedom and deny those same principles to others as if they are ours alone. We have tried to weaponize Freedom itself, and twist Liberty and Justice into a bauble for our key rings.
Yes, I told her, we have failed, and sadly this is not a surprise. In fact, it is the norm. There is no mistaking the dream of the Framers, their vision of the true power of Freedom. There is a good reason they tried so hard and fought so long for the scraps of paper we know as the Declaration of Independence, The Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. They came from a world where true Freedom was myth, where tyranny and corruption were the norm, and where Liberty and Justice were bought and sold like wheat. They came here with the dream of a better world and of a system that raised everyone up and left no one behind. They failed as well.
Things imperishable will always be housed in perishable vessels.
Freedom was a core value of the framers because it is the gift of God. They were well acquainted with fighting the good fight along with St. Paul and of struggling, as we all do, with the base nature of our humanity. Their effort to provide a foundation was an effort to give everyone who followed them the best chance possible to rise above that nature and embrace the vision of what Freedom truly means. This is their gift; this is our celebration.
Those who don’t want to celebrate the 4th of July this year should be the ones holding the Flag the highest! They may be the ones who understand our failure and who are empowered by the possibility of our success. The Stars and Stripes represent Resurrection, from acceptance to triumph, from complacency to action, from fear to assurance. The night was dark, the winds blew cold, hope was lost. But the light—that sky-shattering light showed that our Flag was still there!
Our Flag and the Freedom it stands for is still here! If we celebrate true Freedom every day, if we hold on to Liberty and Justice for ALL, if we risk our false security and embrace that we are One Nation Under God, that all people are created equal, and that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is something that we guard for each other, then we will fulfill the dream.
Father Bill Burk†