Reopening after COVID is HARD!

Do you have any frenemies? You know what I mean, family members, friends, or others that just get under your skin? You are friends, but they are just as easily classified as enemies. Passive-aggressive behavior is their specialty. They say things like, “Do you think that color looks good on you?” or “Do you like your hair that way?” Both comments sound innocuous, even helpful, but you know they are really trying to get in a jab under the guise of “speaking the truth in love.”

I like Nathanael-types as in John 2:43-51. Nathanael thought out loud like many of us do and said about Jesus’ hometown, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from Nazareth?” When Nathanael finally meets Jesus, the Lord says of him, “Here is a true Israelite, one in whom there is no guile.” Some Bible translations say, “deceit” instead of “guile.” Either way, Jesus pegs Nathanael’s basic character trait as a straight-shooter, one who isn’t a passive-aggressive flatterer who is a well-intentioned dragon, or a devil in disguise.

Can our world take the truth, or have we created a world where truth gets so massaged that it is hardly recognizable? COVID-fatigue has severely hampered our abilities to be honest with each other. Our lack of Nathanael-like clarity for fear of being labeled or chastised in our hyper-sensitive world has caused us to keep quiet and repress our true feelings. Unfortunately, those repressed feelings come boiling to the surface at some point, and one of the easiest places for that to happen is the church. At first glance, this is a good thing. The church is where we should be able to voice our thoughts without impunity, but, let me tell you, loosening our restrictions has been TOUGH on everybody who works in and with the church! It has become quite apparent that it was easier to shut things down than to open them back up. I had hoped that we wouldn’t have to get back to “normal” in stages or in a piece-meal fashion, but thanks to the powers that be, “Here we go!”

This is all on my mind because we’re so tired as a culture, and our feelings are on our sleeves. Some people haven’t been vaccinated. Some have. Some people can’t get vaccinated due to health issues. In other words, there cannot be a one-size-fits-all plan or strategy for reopening, so can’t we be patient and quit being so “what about me” in our selfish desire to get back to what WE think is normal? Worse is that COVID and reopening our shut-down world has given a megaphone to everyone’s opinions. We live in an age where the squeaky wheels get the grease, and with all that we have been through this year it seems that everybody’s wheels are way louder than a mere squeak. We have taken the autonomy of the individual to an extreme. Everyone’s truth is declared to be THE truth, and if everyone’s truth is THE truth, then there is no truth. It’s really all just opinions and everybody’s got one, and a lot of people have had theirs on full display.

The truth is that only God is TRUTH. I am not the absolute truth, and you are not the absolute truth, so why can’t we all just keep trying to do the very best we can under whatever our circumstances, let God be God, and we all do the right thing as consistently as possible. It could be said that the Golden Rule is an excellent example to follow. However, in our autonomy-worshipping society, even the Golden Rule has been co-opted by free-thinkers and self-absorbed survivalists who don’t give a whit about what’s good for everybody. Our self-interests and so-called “rights” have made us little kings and queens of our own domains. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” has been flipped, reversed, and turned into “What’s good for me better be good enough for you, end of story!”

It is reminiscent of the passages in the Book of Judges (17:6 and 21:25) that are so indicative of our world right now, “Everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” Everybody can’t be right, right? So, how do we determine the best course of action in any given situation? Do we go with our gut, what our friends say, what the media suggests, the advice of sage counselors, or as in the words of the main song in the popular animated film, Frozen, do we just let all boundaries go? Unfortunately, I can hear the echoes of my youngish granddaughters singing “Let It Go!” in perfect pitch. Great, except the self-proclaimed independence it promotes is rubbish. Read this snippet:

It’s funny how some distance makes everything seem small

And the fears that once controlled me can’t get to me at all

It’s time to see what I can do

To test the limits and break through

No right, no wrong, no rules for me

I’m free

To be sure, things turn out better as Elsa mitigates her newfound acceptance of her own autonomy by remembering her family and the community of friends that she has. She realizes that “me being me” isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. I sure wish our world and everyone in it, including me, and a boatload of church members would figure that out. We, like Elsa, may discover that our own worst frenemy is ourselves.

Individual autonomy can be helpful for traumatized ice princesses, but not if our independence sinks us deeper into selfishness. That is the prison that our culture is embracing. Isn’t that the root of a lot that’s going on? It can be called such things as sheer selfishness, my way or the highway, or the living out of the words in William Ernest Henley’s Invictus, “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” NO, WE ARE NOT! Jesus is, and His two great commandments, not one without the other, are, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.”

Winter Ends, COVID Continues, yet JESUS Wins!

Lent has begun and I’m having a bit of PTSD. No kidding, but aren’t we all? It has almost been a year since this pandemic started. Our last “normal” worship service was March 15, 2020. I remember having hopes of being back in church by last Easter, then spent 5 months preaching to an empty sanctuary pretending to look at invisible people. Things got a little better in late summer when we returned to face-to-face worship, or maybe it would be more accurate to describe it as mask-to-mask with 5 socially-distant services and safety protocols. We did have a Christmas Eve service in the parking lot of the mall engulfed by the rain, but buoyed by the hundreds of carloads of people holding their battery-operated candles. We all claimed the Apostle John’s words, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” We have learned how to be both resilient and virtual in every way imaginable. As one of our staff members put it so aptly, “We’ve been learning to fly the plane while we are building it.” Many of us wish that we had bought stock in Zoom, and here we are in Lent again, but 2021 seems to be 2020 part two. We are weary.

I am weary of the restrictions, the utter flip-flop of doing ministry the way that I have done it for 44 years. Zoom Sunday School works, and I’ve found out that Zoom pre-marital counseling sessions are pretty darn effective. I miss being able to hold the hands of the dying and hurting; visiting people when they need me most in tangible physical real, not cyber ways. I think what is depressing me most right now is the vestiges of spring’s approach. If we were still in the cold, dark wetness of winter, maybe I wouldn’t mind this melancholy so much, but I’m feeling like Bill Murray in the movie, “Groundhog Day.” Everyday is “here we go again,” and it’s not getting that much better. The weight of all the losses, the isolation, and the eradication of what we took for granted and have lost is overwhelming.

Yep, we’re in a Lenten Funk, a COVID extended drama. Garrison Keillor once said that if you were shy, from the Midwest, and Lutheran it is Lent all year-round. With COVID, it doesn’t matter if you’re shy, from the Midwest or Lutheran. The deprivations associated with Lent have become a reality not just for our country, but for the whole world. If ever we needed Good News, it’s now. Maybe that’s a main takeaway for Christians this Lent. We can offer hope that this journey we have been on will end in victory. That’s the message of this season’s 40 days. They end in Easter triumph. It’s the hope of Psalm 30:5, “Weeping may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning.”

We’re not there yet, though. Times are still tough and we need to remain vigilant, but the cavalry is coming. If we listen hard enough, we can hear the bugle call. The US cavalry and Jesus’ death on the hill named Calvary are on their way. So, we hold on, and we hope. We grasp every bit of Good News that we can and we wait with patient endurance. We foster our faith and cling to the eternal truths of the Isaac Watts’ hymn, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” as it summarizes Psalm 90. These words ring truer to me now than they ever have before:

O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home!

Under the shadow of thy throne,
Still may we dwell secure;
Sufficient is thine arm alone,
And our defense is sure.

Before the hills in order stood,
Or Earth received her frame,
From everlasting, thou art God,
To endless years the same.

A thousand ages, in thy sight,
Are like an evening gone;
Short as the watch that ends the night,
Before the rising sun.

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all who breathe away;
They fly forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day

O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come;
Still be our guard while troubles last,
And our eternal home.

Ponder and look up, google or whatever you need to do to read and/or hear the great hymns and songs of the church that exude faith in tough times: “How Firm a Foundation,” My Hope is Built,” “A Mighty Fortress  Is My God,” “Stand By Me,” “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” “Amazing Grace,” “Great is thy Faithfulness,” “Leave it There,” and finish with a rousing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as you journey through this seemingly perpetual Lent. Watch the music video of “Worn” by the group Tenth Avenue North and feel the hope. Try the music video by Crowder, “Come as You Are.” God can give us what we need to get through whatever we’re facing. Hang in there and trust the Lord. Amen.

(P.S. Add to the comments your favorite soul-lifting hymns or praise songs that give you strength. Let’s share some Good News with each other!)

Hope Springs Eternal

The Best Laid Plans

Cubic Feet per Second or CFS is how people measure how fast the flow of a river is. Thanks to COVID and all of the issues our society is facing, it feels like we’re in a flash-flood, and the CFS is out of sight. This coming week we’re taking our daughter, Narcie, and her husband, Mike, plus their two children, Enoch (13), and Evy (11) on a camping and canoeing trip in the high country of northwestern North Carolina. It will be a grand time, but if the water is running too fast, we may not enjoy things as much as I have planned and hoped for weeks and weeks.

In checking this morning, the South Fork of the New River is running around 1350 CFS. It needs to be below 1000 to be navigable and somewhat safe. It would be even better for fishing purposes if it was running around 450 CFS. We’ll take what we can get, and enjoy the experience as best we can. The best laid plans don’t stand a chance against rain, rivers, and the rigors of camping and canoeing. It is best to be flexible.

Many a time have I checked the waterflow from the safety of home, only to drive 5 hours, and find that a downpour has dangerously raised the speed of the river, and made the water too murky to fish. There are other options like playing chess or other board games under the large picnic shelter, and you can always go into West Jefferson to visit the Ashe County Cheese Company or the Churches of the Frescoes. Here’s the thing, when things are unpredictable and out of your control, you have to be nimble, adapt and adjust. You can’t get your hopes up or set your mind set on one particular set of circumstances or outcomes. Things change.

Someone said that the only constants in life are death and taxes. Another said that change is the only constant. Both statements are correct in their assessment. So, what do you do when life deals you a hand that is not what is expected. You can either fold and give up, or you can roll with it and do the best that you can.

I watched an episode of “Everybody Loves Raymond” last night as Ray and Deb, plus children, went with his Mom, Marie, Dad, Frank, and brother, Robert, to visit family on the sunny Mediterranean coast of Italy. Ray had talked himself into being miserable before they even left the US. Being around Marie and Frank for a lifetime can do that to you! Ray had the sniffles and was in a foul mood for most of the trip. He didn’t want to be there at all, so he sulked and moped around, until finally he started to appreciate the beauty of the setting. The tide turned in his attitude, though nothing ostensibly had changed at all. He changed, not the surroundings. I needed that episode to face the uncertainty of a well-planned and long-expected trip that may not go like I thought it should or would.

COVID-19 has been our world’s flash flood, and has created all kinds of anxiety. Everything is unpredictable about it. The science has been all over the map. We don’t know if cold weather will make it worse or better. Unlike the river, there’s not even a weather forecast model that we can follow with COVID, but we do have a choice: We can either give into the anxiety and get depressed, or we can pull out those books we’ve been meaning to read, or do those often-thought-about-but-never-done projects we’ve been putting off. As much as most of us like the comfort zone of home, it is good to have some adventure and embrace life however fast the ebb and flow.

So, on Monday we’re headed to campsite #43 (closest to the bathhouse), and we’ll see what happens. At least we will be together. The unpredictability will be a shared experience. We’ll all figuratively be in the same boat, sort of like we all are with COVID. Actually, I hope we will need to rent three boats. Our canoes will either be going down the express lane of a fast river, or we’ll go exploring and let serendipity surprise us. Life is full of marvelous opportunities, and some that are just awful. The difference is often in how we react.

As people of faith, we know that we have a known God in an uncertain world. We have a God in Jesus Christ who dealt with the worst of human fickleness, but kept his face focused on final victory. He had his times of tumult, but no one can say he didn’t roll with the punches. He struggled, but he always kept going. Put on your life jackets, grab your paddles, and go with the flow! Literally!