Monday, March 30, 2020


On Lent 5, we hear about Lazarus.
This year, we hear his story at a time when 
     Covid-19 has disrupted ordinary life.
For Holy Comforter, 
           congregational life was already disrupted.
In the recent past, we lost Fr. Bill and Deacon Linda.
Then Mother Kym was called to serve at Cathedral Ridge.
Now Jackson, who steers the ship, 
            is moving on to a new career.
Things as usual seem to be falling apart. 

So what are we to think? What are we to expect?
Can we get through this? 
If we do, what are we to hope for?
Can we patch back together some semblance 
of our comfortingly familiar past? 

This year we hear the story of Lazarus with uneasy hearts
and fretful minds. 
His story falls at the end of Lent because in John
     this is the tipping point.
Raising Lazarus is the last straw 
      that pushed Jesus’ opposition
     over the edge into their murderous plot.
This is the point at which they realized 
         what a revolutionary change 
        Jesus was ushering into the world.

What do you suppose life was like 
         for Lazarus before he fell ill?
Scripture doesn’t say. 
So it probably wasn’t remarkable. 
It was probably typical – an ordinary life.

I once asked a friend, “How are you?”
He answered honestly. He said “Mixed.”
His life was somewhat afflicted but generally ok.
That’s how life usually is.
That’s probably how Lazarus’s life was.

Then he got seriously sick and life was a lot worse.
So his sisters sent word to Jesus.
They wanted him to come and heal their brother.
By “heal,” they meant restore Lazarus back 
             to his mixed life.
Sigmund Freud said the goal of psychoanalysis is 
       to cure mental illness
     so the patient can resume "a life of ordinary misery.”
Mary and Martha wanted Jesus 
       to put Lazarus back the way he was.

That is what a lot of our religion is for.
We are used to life as it is, 
        settled into our “ordinary misery,”
     and when that balance is threatened 
     we want Jesus to set things back the way they were.
We don’t harbor much hope that things can be better
     than they have always been.

We are a bit like the righteous pagans 
        in Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Dante had the greatest respect for the virtues
     of great pagans who lived before the time of Jesus.
The pagan poet Virgil was his first guide.
These people were good, even noble,
     but in the Divine Comedy, 
     Dante consigned their souls to limbo 
     – neither the punishments of hell 
       nor the joys of paradise.
The righteous pagans had lived and died 
     without any concept of heaven,           
     no idea that union with God is possible,
     no hope to behold the beauty of the divine and be lost 
                 in wonder, love, and praise.
So Dante relegated them to limbo, the mixed state,    
     because they had failed to imagine anything better.

I don’t know where righteous pagans go when they die
     and neither did Dante 
     but he was making this spiritual point:
It is nigh unto impossible to achieve 
         what we cannot first imagine.
 If we cannot imagine that life might be utterly new,  
     if the best we hope for is the way things were,
     then we erect a barrier to what Jesus wants to give us.

So Mary and Martha called Jesus to come quick
     and set things back the way they were.
But he didn’t do it.
He waited for two days until Lazarus had died and all hope 
       to put things back the way they were was gone.

That’s when Jesus showed up with something better.
He replaced Lazarus’s ordinary life with a miracle.
What happened to Lazarus after that?
We don’t know for sure.
His name is not said again.

But there may be an answer – at least a theory.
No one knows who wrote the 4th Gospel.
Tradition gave it the name of John,
     but it pretty clearly wasn’t John the Son of Zebedee.

We don’t know who wrote the 4th Gospel,
     but there is a respectable group of scholars
                 who think it was Lazarus.
It may be that the mystical Gospel, 
     the loftiest poetry and the truest knowledge of Christ,      
     came from this man who had seen the other side.
We don’t know that. 
But I cannot believe that Lazarus 
         resumed his ordinary life.

From that day forth, he knew the life giving power of Jesus 
     -- not as an idea, but an experience; 
      not a theory, but a fact.
Lazarus knew what Paul meant when he said,
     “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.
       The old has gone. The new has come.”

But is that what we want?
The self-help books and the psycho-pundits 
     on the talk shows
     all have techniques to tinker a little with our lives 
     -- countless ways to make a little adjustment here
                 or there so we might, with luck and hard work,
                 make ourselves 3% happier --  
but without changing anything too much.

On any given day, 3% happier may be 
     about as much as we think like we can stand.
So we pray for that, and many a time 
     that’s what Jesus gives us.
“I’ll have a grande grace, Pike Place, not bold,
     with room for cream.”
But sometimes Jesus may have in mind a venti grace 
     with a triple shot of espresso and our cup won’t hold it.
We need a bigger cup, a braver imagination 
       – or failing that, a spirit open to welcome 
      what is yet to come, perhaps even embrace it. 

Jesus wants better for us than we want for ourselves.
Jesus wants better for us than we can imagine,
     but it’s natural for us to be afraid of it. 
Room has to be made to hold so much grace.
The ordinary things that make is feel safe,          
     the things that give us our hints of well-being,
                 have to fall away to make room 
     “for the glory which is yet to be revealed.”

Holy Week is the story of that falling away.
It is a story of death – like the death of Lazarus
      – the kind of death that opens the way to new life 
     – not to old life refurbished, buffed and refinished 
                 – but utterly new life – a new creation.

This makes a difference for how we understand
     what happens in our life all the time.
It changes how we understand a transition 
     in church ministry and leadership. 

It changes how we understand what is happening
     when the ordinary things that make is feel safe,      
     the things that give us our sense of well-being, 
     fall away.

And that is all the time.
As Joni Mitchell so wisely said,       
     “Something’s lost and something’s gained
                 in living every day.”

When life is falling apart,
     in big ways or in little ways,
     how do we understand it?
It’s hard to lose the things that make us happy 
     -- jobs, homes, people, relationships.
Even though he knew about resurrection,
     Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus
                 because the Lazarus who came out of the tomb
                 would not be the same man who went into it.
Even Jesus missed the old Lazarus.
So naturally, when we lose what we love, we grieve.

But Paul says we suffer but we do not suffer without hope.
Peter says,
     “After you have suffered for a little while.,
      the God of all grace . . . will himself restore you,  
      support, and strengthen and establish you.”
And Paul says, 
     “. . . (T)he sufferings of this present time are not worth
      comparing to the glory about to be revealed . . . .”

Already, I see some new things stirring in our common life
     during this social distancing, 
     people sharing poems and prayers,
     people meeting on-line and getting to know each other
     better than they did before.
It is possible we might be more for each other 
      in a few weeks than we were before. 
That happened at my Church in Macon, Georgia
     after a flood knocked out our water treatment plant
     and we couldn’t use the tap water for three weeks.

I see interesting applicants for the redefined job 
        of parish administrator.
I don’t see them yet. I may never see them.
But I know there are candidates 
     for rector of Holy Comforter
     whose resumes are arriving even now 
      at the diocesan office.

There is a Zen adage that goes,
     “The barn has burned.
                 Now I can see the moon.”

That’s a new meaning for a barn burning.
When the barn is burning in our lives,
     we frantically scramble to put out the fire.
But when the barn has burned, we look for the moon.
When Lazarus has died, we look for the resurrection.
When we lose the things that make us moderately happy,
            we look for the glory of Christ to make us ecstatic.

Thursday, March 26, 2020


Dear People of Holy Comforter,  

       What’s the Christian thing to do during a pandemic? Last week, we began this series by saying:  We live in Christ and through Christ with the goal of becoming like Christ. Christ was inspired and guided by qualities of character called virtues,”  habits of the heart.” habits of grace” – things we do as a discipline until they become second nature, until they become our characters.  
       There are three theological virtues – faith, hope, and love. Those ways of being generate four cardinal virtues: prudence, fortitude, justice, and temperance. They are cardinal because they are the foundations for all the other qualities of character, the trunk from which other virtues are branches. The cardinal virtues are the backbone of our morality. Last week we considered how the cardinal virtue of prudence (facing the facts/ living in the real world) can be practiced in the context of covid-19.
            This week we turn to the cardinal virtue of fortitude. The core meaning of fortitude is courage, infused with strength and endurance. We may think of these qualities as more for action heroes than Christians who are supposed to be nice and perhaps a touch pusillanimous. But St. Clare of Assisi’s last blessing was, “Love without fear. Your creator has made you holy.” The commandment Jesus gave most often to his disciples was “Do not be afraid.” The Bible tells us not to be afraid 365 times. Living the Christian life, especially in challenging times, takes fortitude. Last week, we said Christians don’t live in denial or hysteria, we face reality. But reality can be threatening, so prudence takes some courage.
            Fortitude isn’t being a swaggering tough guy whose life is all braggadocio. Quite the contrary, theologian Joseph Pieper says, “Fortitude presupposes vulnerability; without vulnerability there is no possibility of fortitude . . . . To be brave is not the same as to have no fear. Indeed fortitude rules out . . . the sort of fearlessness that is based on a false appraisal and evaluation of reality.”[i] Prudence means recognizing and acknowledging our inner reality as well as our outer circumstances, and our inner reality includes some fear.
            “Do not be afraid” does not mean “do not feel fear.” It means don’t live in your fear. Don’t believe your fears. Don’t let fear control your life. Have your fears; but don’t let them have you. As Nadia Bolz Webber put it in a recent covid-19 sermon, “Don’t let fear define the contours of you heart. Love does that.” I commend to your reading everything she has ever said about fear. For example,

     Nothing finally makes us safe. Fear decidedly does not keep us safe In fact, over time, anxiety increases our basic level of inflammation which may make us more susceptible to infection.[ii] And it makes us do stupid stuff that is bad for us and for others. Prudence makes us safer than foolishness. But fear does not keep us safe. It incarcerates us in small lives. Fortitude, with its roots in faith, hope, and love is essential to the life well lived.
            So what about our fear right now in the midst of a pandemic? When we see fear running amok around us, it’s hard to tell what exactly people are afraid of. There are spasms of scarcity mentality manifesting as panic buying  and hoarding on the one hand (toilet paper???) and as price gouging on the other. Gun and ammo sales are up dramatically.[iii] And there is wave of xenophobic racist violence against Asian-Americans.[iv] These experiences bear out the insights of scholars in fields from psychology to communications about how fear works in society. Fear is both dangerous and contagious. Fear of one thing gets generalized into fears of many things, and after the threat goes away, the fear remains. To be prudent in these times, we need to be as conscious of the dynamics of fear as we are of viruses; and we need to practice psychological hygiene.
“James Dillard of Penn State, an expert in communication, (observes): “Every time somebody mentions the coronavirus to you, you recall everything you read about it and the feelings you experienced at the time.” He says, “So your fear is triggered again.”
“Once the world feels like a dangerous place, where bad things can happen any moment, fear knows few limits.”
That’s problematic for several reasons. Chronic stress not only results in long-term health consequences, but it can prompt people to make unwise choices, such as buying up masks that health care workers need or making unnecessary visits to already-overburdened hospitals or clinics.
(F)ear spreads primarily through person-to-person contact — including in nonverbal ways. As a 2015 study reported, research has demonstrated that exposure to body odors from frightened individuals elicits fear in others. The smell of fear is a real phenomenon.
Today we have a much more efficient means of transmitting anxiety: social media. Jiyoung Lee, an assistant professor in the University of Alabama’s College of Communication and Information Sciences, has studied online emotional contagion. She argues virtual discussions with friends can be positive if accurate information is shared and people are reassured.”[v]
If you do not read or heed another word I say, read this article and read or listen to Nadia Bolz Weber’s sermons on fear. 
     So what are we afraid of? Death, illness, financial stress, loneliness, loss of the meaning we find in our daily activities? When the general spirit of fear is on the loose, it’s apt to infect us. To get our feet back on the ground and focus on our own fears instead of being caught up in the general panic, it helps to identify the threat and look it in the eye. This is the beginning of fortitude. Name the fear. 
    Then notice how it feels in your body. Do not identify with it or judge it as valid or invalid. Just let it be the feeling that it is and hold it as you might hold a frightened child. Let it be, but do not let it rule. Instead, remember that others are feeling fear too. Then pray for them and find some small act of kindness you can do, even at a safe distance, for somebody – a call, a note, order them something online, any act of kindness will do. St. Therese of Lisieux and Mother Theresa both said we live our faith not in grandiose gestures but in “small acts done with great love.” The art of living fearlessly in a fearful time is to make our fear the occasion to practice love because our Bible teaches, “There is no room for fear in love. But perfect love casts out fear.”[vi]
       Let’s go a bit more deeply into a specific fear that confronts us right now – not so much fear of the virus as fear of the isolation we are experiencing. This is harder for the extroverts, but it is a challenge for all. It is particularly a challenge for those who live alone. Some of us may feel more challenged not by solitude but by feeling cooped up with those who are near and dear, but would be more dear if they were less near 24/7. But even that is a kind of solitude. When we are cut off from normal social channels, we can experience s solitude a’ deuxor even a quatre’. (There are other dimensions to the “cooped up” challenge, but they fall under the virtue of temperance. We’ll get there in a couple of weeks.)
         In the 4th Century, the Desert Fathers and Mothers took up solitude as a spiritual practice. I tried it myself a few years back, spending a month in solitude in Southern Colorado. The hermits of old did not find peace and harmony in their hermitages. They were beset by an assortment of demons.[vii] It turns out solitude is a troubled land, as Jesus found during his 40 days in the desert. In a less dramatic way, that was my experience. All sorts of things I’d thought I’d escape were still there in my mind and they loomed larger.
         In more ordinary times, we keep busy in part to avoid things we’d rather not face. In solitude they are unavoidable. All sorts of thoughts and feelings – shame, anger, remorse, regret, doubts, etc. – come to the fore of our consciousness like demons. If the solitude is imposed by circumstances instead of freely chosen, that can be all the more daunting. It takes a double dose of fortitude. 
       So what to do with inner turmoil in solitude? Remember your solitude is like the cave in Star Wars V. Luke goes into the cave, confronts what appears to be Darth Vader and decapitates him, but when he examines the head, he finds it is himself. We meet ourselves in solitude. Our first impulse may be to decapitate, amputate, judge, eradicate. Luke learned that does not work so well. So, try this instead.
          The first step is to take on one demon at a time. Deal with what’s most pressing and put the others on the shelf with a promise to get back to them later. Then – again as with your fears --  name what is troubling you, notice how it feels in your body. Next recall the story of how it came to be. Journaling can help with this part. When did you first feel this way? Set the feeling in a narrative. That lends a coherence to the experience. You may discover parts of yourself that have been disowned, sent away like Ishmael. Then take it with you to Jesus in prayer. “Salvation” means to be made whole. You may come out of this time of solitude more whole than you went into it.
      It can also help to check in with a trusted friend. And it’s good to keep in touch with your faith and the wider community of faith. You can find ways to do that on the Apart – Not Alone section of our web site. 
        I especially encourage you to join with our whole diocese in live stream worship at our Cathedral on Sunday mornings. (You’ll hear 3 of my 5 favorite preachers in Colorado. The other two are Mother Kim and Mother Weezie at Ascension.) You do not need to be a member on Facebook or be a part of their page to access it. 
        You are also connecting with us whenever you pray our common prayers. If you have a Book of Common Prayer, I suggest you go to the Daily Devotions pp. 136 ff or online Most find strength in the 23rd Psalm. I recommend the First Song of Isaiah (Canticle 9) at BCP p. 86.        
       Virtues are for every day, but they are tested and most vigorously exercised in times of distress.  For now, we practice a fortitude that makes room for some feelings of fear, a fortitude planted on the firm foundation of God.[viii
              The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed,
          a stronghold in times of trouble.
          Those who know your name trust in you,
         for you, Lord, have never forsaken those who seek you.    
                                    Psalm 91: 9-10 

[i] Joseph Pieper, The Four Cardinal Virtues

[vi] I John 4: 18