The Preacher in Front of the Camera

The fender bender probably didn’t help.

            I reached a low point in my COVID-coping consciousness that weekend.  On Friday, I didn’t see a woman approaching from my right at an intersection near my home as I turned left into her path.  I was startled by the impact of hitting her driver’s side door, because I had not seen her at all.  Having looked both ways before turning, I neglected to crane my neck to see around the column separating windshield from side window, and as I turned, the Jeep was still partly obscured. 

            The woman whose beautiful, shiny vehicle I smashed was very calm and kind under the circumstances.  (She friended me on Facebook!)  Nevertheless, I felt ashamed and upset for several hours afterward. 

            Not only was my car damaged (and hers), my ego also suffered a blow.

            So when I struggled yet again on Saturday evening with getting the worship service recording to work before uploading it to the church’s YouTube channel, I was running low on confidence.  No problem.  I could record the early service on Sunday as a backup. 

My tension mounted as I set up the equipment.  By the time everything was connected, I was disconnecting internally, ready to pitch the laptop and camera out the window.

            I sat in the front pew to pray and get some calm.  Instead, I began to weep. 

            I was done.

            Done with the stupid pandemic, done with becoming a video producer and preacher rolled into one.  Done with expecting to get good at it after weeks of trying to fit the pieces of technology and common sense know-how together. 

            The congregational president and his wife were the first to arrive.  He discovered me in the front pew.  I suppose he was alarmed, because he offered to help with the readings for the morning.  It was a kindness, but I told him that leading worship was the easy part.

            I pulled myself together, as we pastors often have to do at a moment’s notice.  I put on my pastor face, and made it through two services.

            But I felt fragile for several days. 

            The feeling was familiar.  It had been like this when I was burned out in ministry four years ago.  I reached out for help.  I lowered my expectations for the near future.  I was gentle with myself and got the rest I needed.

            Eventually I was able to focus and acknowledge what it feels like to “deliver” worship to parishioners over the internet.  For the first time, I felt angry that I have to keep pouring myself into creating quality worship services, with faithful preaching of the gospel and accompanying liturgy and prayers, record them, and post them up there along with all the YouTube influencers and silly videos.  One among many.  If mine doesn’t upload successfully, or if church members see the length and don’t want to spend the time, they can search and find another, shorter, worship service in under thirty seconds.

            It makes me feel cheap.  Like a hack.  Like the vocation into which God has called and equipped me, in which there have been countless holy moments in worship, with grieving families and preschool Bible school classes, in hospital rooms and wedding receptions, the vocation that has taught me to deeply trust God’s faithfulness, is no more than a video delivery service. 

           

Thankfully, I got to lead parking lot worship for several weeks this summer.  To be honest, even after having returned to in-person worship with precautions in place, that time out on the driveway with people honking their “amens” has been the most rewarding time of this entire pandemic.  Standing out in God’s creation where we paused to listen to the birds and the wind in the trees.  Singing hymns as the organist’s music came through the radio transmitter.  Grinning with people about the silliness and joy of worship like this on a summer day. 

            I was still recording worship for the people who weren’t in the parking lot.  But that makeshift situation was fun, and holy, and good.

            Reaching my breaking point was healthy in retrospect.  I have let go of my expectations to meet the challenge with confidence and skill.  Despite good advice—online and otherwise—this still intimidates me.  Nobody else in the congregation has the expertise either, and they are probably reluctant to try.  I don’t blame them.  Somebody should try anyway.  Maybe that’s another weakness I have to admit: not persisting to find help. 

It’s not fair, I know. Fairness doesn’t seem to be relevant right now. Nobody knows how to navigate this strange reality, and the people I serve have their hands full already. They are kind, and faithful. They are ready to help when they know how to do it. I am grateful that they seem to understand and empathize when I tell them how hard this is. Their lives are hard right now too.

Like everyone else this year, I will keep slogging forward with the tools and skills at hand.  I like to think we are all doing our best to be faithful and productive.  The worship videos will appear like clockwork on the church YouTube channel, with thumbnail graphics I enjoy creating to signify each week’s theme. 

For their part, the listeners keep showing up too.  I give them credit for that.  It would be easy for either of us to turn inward and abandon the enterprise. 

            So we are partners in it.  Even though it is hard, we have to keep hope alive by meeting together, held by the love of God who will not abandon us.  The God who sometimes uses silly videos to make me laugh, so I can endure. 

            Thank you, God, for the makers of silly videos, for those who fashion worship videos, and those who watch them. 

Small Things

Jesus seemed to have a fondness for small things.
Mustard seeds,
cakes of yeast,
a little trust,
scruffy kids.
 
He marveled at growth as much as I do,
stunned every summer by the size of a corn stalk
whose beginning was one yellow kernel.
 
Not every small thing that grows is good though
(I protest)
weeds,
hate,
a deadly virus.
 
Let them grow up together, he said.
Wheat and weeds.
Maybe he should stick to teaching
since he’s not much of a farmer.
 
But maybe he was onto something.
 
A microscopic virus spreads out of control
and we feel choked,
displaced,
entangled.  
 
But Jesus keeps planting seeds to grow up alongside.
Seeds of love,
hope,
sunrises,
pain,
silly memes,
somber songs.
 
Let them grow together, he says. 
Let me worry about what comes next.  

	

Looking Ahead

This is the last in a five part series, “Unexpected Treasures in the Desert.” It is a sermon series for the congregations I am serving, known collectively as Prairie Faith Partners. This series is provided to help you navigate the COVID-19 epidemic “wilderness” we are experiencing together.

For each sermon I am writing my own reflections on the texts, which I like to do in free verse (below). To read the sermons, you can go to my “Lectionary Sermon of the Week” page, even though these aren’t on the lectionary texts. I’m afraid this page will change every week, so you might want to view the messages on the PFP YouTube page. (The message begins at time stamp 6:55.) I would appreciate your comments in this space. Thank you for visiting!

O God, I have such
faith-less eyesight
unable to make out
any shape of hope
in this desolate place,
assuming that
the lack
and the obstacles
that throb
and crowd
my thoughts
are all the
future holds.
 
I want to be like Joshua,
his faith-full eyes
taking note of the
giant, fearsome
natives in our
promised home,
yet captivated more by
his inner sight,
insistent that
you, Holy One,
are enough. 

First Sabbaths

This is the fourth in a five part series, “Unexpected Treasures in the Desert.” It is a sermon series for the congregations I am serving, known collectively as Prairie Faith Partners. This series is provided to help you navigate the COVID-19 epidemic “wilderness” we are experiencing together.

For each sermon I am writing my own reflections on the texts, which I like to do in free verse (below). To read the sermons, you can go to my “Lectionary Sermon of the Week” page, even though these aren’t on the lectionary texts. I’m afraid this page will change every week, so you might want to view the messages on the PFP YouTube page. I would appreciate your comments in this space. Thank you for visiting!

It was our first
most cherished treasure
discovered in the desert,
a new word
for a new way of being.
 
Shabbat.
Cease.
Rest.
 
When Moses instructed us
to begin this rhythm
of six normal days
then a holy seventh
we were dumbfounded
afraid, even.
What would we do with ourselves?
 
The first few times
we were jumpy
nervous
expecting…what?
That a guard
would materialize
and punish
or that Yahweh
would have second thoughts
and snatch it away?
 
As the months passed
we got our bearings
made the challah
lit the candles
leaned into the blessing
 
And when we were tempted
to let the work creep in,
it was the children who
pushed it away and
called us back to joy.

Manna

This is the third in a five part series, “Unexpected Treasures in the Desert.” It is a sermon series for the congregations I am serving, known collectively as Prairie Faith Partners. This series is provided to help you navigate the COVID-19 epidemic “wilderness” we are experiencing together.

For each sermon I am writing my own reflections on the texts, which I like to do in free verse (below). To read the sermons, you can go to my “Lectionary Sermon of the Week” page, even though these aren’t on the lectionary texts. I’m afraid this page will change every week, so you might want to view the messages on the PFP YouTube page. I would appreciate your comments in this space. Thank you for visiting!

What is it?
A strange coating
the dew left behind.
Tedious work to gather it,
like the grain
we picked out of the stubble
back in Egypt.
Moses said it is God’s gift
to keep up our strength.
So we can do it all again tomorrow.
 
What is it?
A seed I hold in my hand
stray remnant of the bagful
we tried desperately to save for planting
but at the last
it was all we had to eat.
So now it is gone
they are gone
and it seems this will be
my last meal.
God, bless this food.
 
What is it?
A wafer placed in my hand.
A tiny glass of wine.
I didn’t know I was so hungry
until I heard it:
Body of Christ, given for you. 

Gift for the Tabernacle

This is the second in a five part series, “Unexpected Treasures in the Desert.” It is a sermon series for the congregations I am serving, known collectively as Prairie Faith Partners. This series is provided to help you navigate the COVID-19 epidemic “wilderness” we are experiencing together.

For each sermon I am writing my own reflections on the texts, which I like to do in free verse (below). To read the sermons, you can go to my “Lectionary Sermon of the Week” page, even though these aren’t on the lectionary texts. I’m afraid this page will change every week, so you might want to view the messages on the PFP YouTube page. I would appreciate your comments in this space. Thank you for visiting!

It was one of the best days
in all those forty years,
the people bringing their finest.
First the gifts hastily pressed into their hands
as their neighbors begged them to leave
so their land could heal from the plagues.
Easy come, easy go.
 
But it didn’t seem enough.
Gratitude turned their eyes
to the treasures long hidden
since the days of freedom in Egypt, 
unearthed and packed along with
the unleavened bread.
Baubles that graced great-grandmother’s ears.
Jewels, fine dyed thread,
intricately carved acacia.
Offerings mounded high
for Bezalel to use for the tabernacle project. 
 
Buoyed by their generosity
Moses went to his tent
found the old box
sat down and blew off the dust
drew out his mother’s bracelet.
A gift from Pharaoh’s daughter
to Jochebed for being Moses’ wet-nurse.
He was told he fingered it as he
fed at her breast. 
She used it to teach him about circles
but he was more taken by its beauty,
captivated by its strange, golden glow.
 
Jochebed said it was very valuable,
but it was nothing
compared to him and his brother Aaron
and their sister Miriam,
her greatest treasures. 
 
And so he brought it too
along with memories of his mother
and placed it on the pile.
 
On the day of the dedication
he inspected all the furnishings
ran his hand over the fabrics
admired the great altar for burnt offerings,
the basin,
the menorah,
the table.
When he came to the altar of incense
the rings on its side caught his eye—
familiar carvings in gold.
Jochebed’s bracelet multiplied,
their details blurred by his tears
that fell
and blessed the altar
anointing it
with his mother’s love.

Leaving Egypt

This week I am beginning a five part series, “Unexpected Treasures in the Desert.” It is a sermon series for the congregations I am serving, known collectively as Prairie Faith Partners. This series is provided to help you navigate the COVID-19 epidemic “wilderness” we are experiencing together.

For each sermon I am writing my own reflections on the texts, which I like to do in free verse (below). To read the sermons, you can go to my “Lectionary Sermon of the Week” page, even though these aren’t on the lectionary texts. I’m afraid this page will change every week, so you might want to view the messages on the PFP YouTube page. I would appreciate your comments in this space. Thank you for visiting!

When someone thinks he owns you
like a Pharaoh
you must create a still place
a corner here or there
where nothing can touch you
where you can find a piece
of yourself
 
Mine was a spot
where the wall met the floor.
I fixed my gaze on it
when I lay down exhausted,
recapturing a remnant of myself
that I came to know
in the constancy of my breath
 
There was no time to pause
before my secret altar
when we fled.
I try to picture it
but it is a mirage
that vanishes as I approach.
 
This desert has no corners
no walls to hold the stillness
I claimed as my own.
Only sand
and heat
and stars. 

Commentary on an Epidemic

I heard a casual remark the other day that started me thinking about our cultural atmosphere, both right now and before the quarantine measures began.  Three months ago we were still in the throes of the vicious political rhetoric that has despoiled public discourse as well as family mealtimes and friendships.  Now that we are more than two months into the epidemic, nasty rhetoric is increasing again, making an uninvited comeback after a few weeks of hoping we could work together well to fight this thing.

            The remark I heard was that right now, we have to treat each other’s breath as though it is poison. 

            Wow.  It’s a startling but realistic way of looking at it.  That is what distancing, masks, and canceled gatherings are all about.  We cannot get close enough to breath each other’s exhalations.  The droplets contained therein could sicken or even kill us.

            But I wonder, what were we doing to each other before the corona virus invaded our world?  We were at times spewing poison, doing real damage to our relationships.  It could be argued that our accusations and character assassinations were as damaging as the virus we are fighting now.  We let our anxiety drive us to say terrible things to each other. 

            You might think I am minimizing the current crisis with this comparison.  I am not.  I have lost a family member to COVID-19.  But I daresay even my late brother would agree that the harsh statements coming through our mouths and our computers can be literally as damaging as any physical disease we can suffer.  Hate is the root of violence, both physical and psychological.  It has been spreading like an epidemic these past few years, and we have all felt its sickening effects. 

            The irony is that, while we have to struggle mightily to fight the corona virus, we have much more control over what we say.  We can choose whether to take the easy, low road of blame and distrust, where we jump to conclusions about each other and quote those who agree with our opinions.  Or we can choose the high road of restraint and compassion, where we seek understanding and common ground.  It is hard to take the high road.  Here is the good news: God gives us the power to do hard things.  We will celebrate Pentecost this weekend, when the followers of Jesus were given the Holy Spirit to empower them for telling everyone everywhere about the love of Jesus. 

            There was an earlier kind of “Pentecost” that happened on the very same day as Jesus’ resurrection.  He appeared to his followers in a locked room, saying, “Peace be with you.”  He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (Jn 20:21-23)  It’s interesting that the power of the Holy Spirit was granted to them, and then forgiveness—the real heavy lifting of relationships—was the first task given to them.         

            Our speech involves not only our breath, but our will (choosing the high ground) and our tongues.  James writes, “The tongue is a fire.” (James 3:5b)  He expands on this, and I like Eugene Peterson’s version in The Message: “It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell.” (James 3:5-6)

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio

            James also says, “Real wisdom, God’s wisdom, begins with a holy life and is characterized by getting along with others. It is gentle and reasonable, overflowing with mercy and blessings, not hot one day and cold the next, not two-faced. You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor.” (James 3:17-18, The Message)

            We can’t do this very well.  But God can, and God offers us the power and the love we need in order to make the choice and live it every day.  They are ours for the asking!  May you know the love and power of God in your life today and every day, during the epidemic and beyond. 

Spiritual Practice: Being Present

Reality.  It is a stinker right now.  We would rather not have to endure this overwhelming stoppage and restriction that has us anxious and impatient, irritable and sad. 

But now is all we have.  It is all we ever have, if you think about it.  Yesterday is gone.  Tomorrow exists only in our imaginations.  But “living in the now” seems like a silly statement.  Isn’t that what we are always doing?

Not if we are stuck in our memories.  Not if we stake our happiness on expectations for the future. 

There are gifts in the present moment.  I realize the present may be excruciating for you if you are dealing with loss or suffering in other ways.  Yet many who have endured suffering have been able to look back and see the gifts that were there: the love of family or a friend, the gracious help of caregivers, an unexpected moment of humor, the wisdom accrued in solitude and even austerity.

We don’t have to wait for the wisdom of hindsight to seek and find the gifts of the present moment.  Perhaps these days are a setting for you to recognize gifts you have previously overlooked: a healthy heart beating in your chest, the view out of your window, the rich taste of coffee, the pleasure of using a cherished memento.  Even a lack of beloved connections can be a gift to make you more aware of God’s presence that you didn’t take time to notice before. 

Here is a poem I wrote in one such moment.  If you would like to read a longer poem on the subject, you can check out this one about the glory of the present.  (Instructions on the spiritual practice appear at the end of this post.)

July Morning

I look out at the non-air-conditioned

unvacuumed, untidied backyard

and see life teeming

every leaf unfurled from a bud two months ago

goldfinches hatched from eggs.


My cat sleeps on his tail-cushion.

He was a kitten once

and I was an embryo before that.

The rug under my feet came from seeds

fibers woven by some hands

that once rested on mothers’ breasts.


Native life

and processed life

but all life

silently pulsing with

the casual wisdom of having been created

being here

now

for this.


So.  How to “be present?”  Here is one way.

Take a few deep, slow breaths.  Notice the abundance in your lungs filling up and the release of tension as you exhale.  Take your time.

Repeat to yourself slowly, as often as it feels right: “Now.  Here.  This.” 

If you notice something in your surroundings, give it your undivided attention for a few moments.

Let the peace of the moment settle into you as you gently move into the next part of your day.

Spiritual Practice: (Forced) Fasting

Fasting is an ancient practice that invites us to abstinence for the sake of spiritual focus.  I am no expert; you can find information and guidance in books devoted to this practice alone or to a range of spiritual disciplines.  My first experience with fasting happened in college when I decided to fast from lunches on Mondays during Lent and to give the money saved to a charity to alleviate hunger.  Occasional fasts since then have taken my mind off myself, my growling stomach reminding me of people who have too few choices about their nourishment and health. 

We usually think of fasting as abstinence from food, but abstinence can apply to anything:  social media, spending, personal vices or attitudes, and so on.  The reasons for fasting also vary.  In general, the practice shifts your focus and teaches you about your appetites and habits.  Communal fasting can help you to act and pray with intention along with others, focusing your efforts to learn together and perhaps act in harmony to achieve shared goals.  Individual fasting can deepen your prayer life, heighten your awareness, and help you live your baptism with greater intention.

Right now we are experiencing what might be called a “forced” fast.  We are abstaining from personal contact and community.  We are doing without some luxuries.  If this describes you, it may be a good time to accept the conditions and see what you can learn about yourself.  If you stop resisting the discomfort and open yourself to God’s presence in the midst of it, you may find that you will actually change your relationship with food, Facebook, money, activity,  etc. moving forward.

For too many, this is not simply a fast but a major disruption leading to empty shelves and unpaid bills.  Choosing abstinence is one thing; unexpected loss is another.  If this describes you, I can only hope that those of us who are not as devastated by these conditions will fast in some form in solidarity with you, and will open our hands in generosity for your sake.  I urge you to contact your pastor if you are struggling, so that your fellow church members may have the opportunity to help.  This could be done with anonymous donors and receivers.  “God provides” often means God’s people are mobilized to help.

May all of us emerge from this fast—forced or otherwise—with a keener sense of trust in God and love in community together.