Posted by: jaimemwsanders | March 20, 2020

Sheltering in faith

Allie Smith

When I worked in a hospital, I felt like my right hand was tied behind my back. I had been used to work with hospitals – as a nonprofit tax lawyer. A hospital executive or managing physician would ask a question, and I would answer it. I had expertise and experience.

Then I wasn’t a lawyer anymore, I was a student chaplain. Even when there was something practical that I knew how to do, I wasn’t allowed to do it. I was supposed to only be providing spiritual care, and leaving the practical help to the highly competent health professionals. Much of the time, I felt helpless.

I wonder if that is how doctors and nurses are feeling now, as they see the COVID-19 epidemic rising? An experienced nurse told me that the very worst thing for a nurse or doctor is to see someone gravely ill and not to be able to help. In this situation, their ability to help is limited by things completely outside of their control. By decisions made in Washington DC about how to prepare (or not) for a pandemic. By the behavior of millions of individuals, who do or do not believe in the seriousness of what is coming, and do or do not have the power to change their routines. By the fragmented nature of our healthcare system.

We expect so much of our healthcare professionals. We expect them to put their personal lives second to the needs of patients. We expect them to always be heroes, when sometimes they want to be allowed to be weak and afraid. We expect them to know the answers, when we are in a situation in which the truest answer to many questions is, “we don’t know.”

I woke up this morning having fantasies of doing something to help our doctors and nurses and nurses aides and the chaplains and cleaning staff and all the other people on hospital staffs. I thought of pitching a little tent, on the sidewalk in front of a hospital, and offering coffee and ice water and a chair and a listening ear if they want to rant or lament.

Because that is all I discovered about what to do when I felt overwhelmed with the sadness around me and helpless to do anything to fix it. To find a moment of quiet, and a cup of coffee, and a moment of honesty. A moment of honesty with myself and with God.

I probably can’t do what I was dreaming of. Hospital sidewalks are crowded places, and the doctors and nurses would probably just worry about me sitting there. It needs more of a relationship of trust to allow moments of honesty. And what they have asked of me and everyone like me, who doesn’t have any medical skill to lend, is to stay home. Flatten the curve. So that is what I am doing.

But as I stay home, I am praying for the people working in hospitals. I am praying for the patients, for whom today’s psalm speaks:

I am counted among those who go down to the Pit; I have become like one who has no strength;

Lost among the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave,

Whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand.

Psalm 88, verses 4-6

I am praying for the nurses, exhausted, scared, doing what they can for as many patients as they can, living with the sorrow that it will never be enough. I am praying for the doctors, whose training and skill did not prepare them for the circumstances in which they now find themselves, but using all their training and skill to fight death anyway. I am praying for the chaplains, some of whom are not even allowed to come to work when their gifts are most needed. I am praying for the less skilled staff, risking their health for inadequate pay, worried about their families at home.

I pray that each of them finds some moments of grace, some words of thanks, a listening ear. And, if they are too busy, and too overwhelmed, and too tired to be able to pray, I pray that they know others are praying for them. At home, because that is what we can do to help.

Posted by: jaimemwsanders | March 19, 2020

Jesus Was A Carpenter

Today, March 19th, The Episcopal Church commemorates St. Joseph, the worldly father of Jesus. Joseph is said in scripture to have been a tekton, or builder, commonly translated, “carpenter.” Justin Martyr, who was born in Palestine around 100 C.E., wrote that he had seen plows and ox-yokes still in use that had been made in Joseph’s shop in Nazareth. (This fact courtesy of James Kiefer, writing on Tradition says that Jesus learned carpentry from Joseph, and pursued that trade until the beginning of his public ministry when he was around 30 years old. Hence the song, “Jesus Was a Carpenter.”

We often think of Jesus’ identity as a carpenter as, in this song, emblematic of his humble birth and lack of social power and status. But I would like to invite us to think of another aspect.

One of the characteristics of Jesus’ teaching was his encouragement of people to see. “Consider the lilies of the field,” for example. This emphasis on learning from close observation of everyday life is typical of the Jewish wisdom tradition. But I wonder if it isn’t also something Jesus learned in carpentry.

From my husband’s grandmother, we inherited the Windsor chair in the photo above. Eva was born in 1898, and this chair was made by hand by methods passed down for generations. The craftsman had to have an eye for wood, for its grain and characteristics, as well as skill and patience. If you hurry in using an adze, you can wreck the piece you are making – and wood was not common in Israel!

As I write these words, restaurants and many stores are closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are all being encouraged to stay at home unless it is really necessary to go out. Perhaps it is a time to cultivate the art of seeing. To appreciate the grain of wood. To have patience, and learn a skill. To remember that Jesus was a carpenter.

Posted by: jaimemwsanders | March 17, 2020

Faith, Not Fear

Cindy Boren of The Washington Post reported yesterday (March 16, 2020):

Although sports leagues around the country suspended competition last week because of the coronovirus pandemic, the National College Wrestling Association held its national championships over the weekend, with the organization’s executive director explaining, “We’re going to operate on faith rather than fear.”

There have been other reports of churches refusing to suspend services, alleging that this is an act of faith and trust in God. (And, by inference, that those mostly mainline Protestant and Catholic churches must lack sufficient faith.)

But which action in fact requires more faith? To continue with business as usual? Or to take new action in love of our neighbors, trusting that God will sustain our faith even in new ways of being community?

It is scary to suspend Sunday services. For over 150 years, my church has gathered together on Sunday to pray, to hear Scripture, to learn, to share meals both spiritual and material. The joke about my people, the Episcopalians, is that the reason we do things the way we do is that, “that is the way we have always done it.” We are – with a few exceptions – not early adopters of technology. We do not lightly suspend our beloved worship services and embark on the mostly uncharted territory of “virtual church.” We have fears – “how will we know who needs help?” “will people come back to church, or will they just get out of the habit?” “if I put video sermons online, will anyone like them?” (Ok, I admit, that last one is just my fear.)

But when each of us was baptized, we were asked these questions, and gave these responses:

QuestionDo you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your
AnswerI do.
QuestionDo you put your whole trust in his grace and love?
AnswerI do.
QuestionDo you promise to follow and obey him as your
AnswerI do.

And our Lord ordered us to love our neighbors as ourselves. So when scientists and public health professionals tell us that by gathering in groups we are increasing an already-significant risk that our neighbors will die of a new disease, we stop.

We stop in faith that this is the right thing to do.

We stop despite our fears.

We stop out of love and faith.

Posted by: jaimemwsanders | April 3, 2020

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord

At my church, there is a box of palm leaves waiting for people who aren’t coming this year. The altar has been bare even of greenery during Lent. Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter, fans of palm branches bring a foretaste of the flowers to come.

But this year, the church will be empty on Palm Sunday. It will be empty on Easter. No choir singing “Alleluia!” No white and gold vestments. No massed lilies. No children hearing the story of the donkey Jesus rode into Jerusalem, or being amazed at an empty tomb.

But Palm Sunday and Easter are not ends in themselves. We gather together for a purpose: to be transformed by God’s grace and, in our turn, to transform the world.

Not the whole world, but our little corner of it.

And so the church is not empty; the church is dispersed.

The people are the church. People who are staying home to not endanger their neighbors. People who are sewing masks for friends who need to be at work. People who are calling their fellow parishioners who live alone, checking up on them and sharing a virtual coffee hour. People who trying to keep their family’s business afloat, who are at work providing essential services. Parents who are learning to teach children who would normally be at school, and children who are learning to help their parents at home.

When Jesus’ followers accompanied him into Jerusalem, they proclaimed, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” Who is it who comes into our lives in the name of the Lord? It is not the one who loudly proclaims this of themselves. It is the one who, when we see them coming, we say, “thank you, God!”

The one who comes in the name of the Lord might be a Christian, or a Jew, or a Buddhist, or “spiritual but not religious.” They might be wearing a surgeon’s white coat, or a blue shirt with their name on a badge. This Palm Sunday, may God give us the grace to recognize and give thanks for the person in the world who comes in the name of the Lord. Who brings a blessing into our lives.

Posted by: jaimemwsanders | March 31, 2020

Grace Under Pressure

The link is to videos from Bishop Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, on “Habits of Grace.” I found the one for this week helpful. What can I do today to love God, love myself, and love my neighbor?

When we are under stress, our timeframe shortens. It is hard to make plans or set goals for next month when I don’t know whether we will still be sheltering in place. So Bishop Curry’s emphasis on today is helpful. Today, what can I do to love God? Today, what can I do to love myself? Today, what can I do to love my neighbor?

Today, I can love God by starting the day with prayer instead of with the news.

Today, I can love myself by getting some exercise.

Today, I can love my neighbor by remembering that we are all operating under stress, and giving others some slack. A mentor introduced me once to a phrase for difficult people in a congregation: “Extra Grace Required.” Right now, we are all in need of some extra grace.

What can YOU do today to love God? What can YOU do today to love yourself? What can YOU do today to love your neighbor? Pick one from each category. Pick one that is easy. Notice when you do it. Notice how it feels. At the end of the day, say, “Thank you, God, for helping me today to love you, love myself, and love my neighbor.”

May God bless us, every one!

Photo by Mahkeo on Unsplash

Posted by: jaimemwsanders | March 28, 2020

The greatest of these is love

“If you have had enough of coronavirus news for the moment, here is a picture of a very fluffy cat showing you his belly.” That was my Facebook post that got the most “likes” and “loves” of any in the past two weeks. Far more than any of the theological reflections.

Maybe we are looking for meaning in this time of pandemic. But, if so, it is because we are looking for love. The search for God in hardship, the quest for meaning, what theologians call theodicy, is at its root a search for love. “If God loves us, why do bad things happen?” The playwright Archibald MacLeish expressed the conundrum as, “If God is God, God is not good; If God is good, God is not God.” (J.B., 1958, quoted from memory) From this dilemma comes classical doctrines of original sin and many bad modern sermons.

But, when people are hurting, is it understanding that they are truly searching for? Or is it simply love? Some comfort? A friendly and soft fellow creature asking us for attention. The song of a bird outside the window. A warm loaf of bread. For

malt does more than Milton can To justify God’s ways to man.

from A Shropshire Lad by A.E. Housman

At this time of grief and fear, the Daily Lectionary of the Episcopal Church gave us today 1 Corinthians 13.

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

1 Corinthians 13:1

Let us look for and accept love where we find it. Even in a fluffy cat showing us his belly.

Posted by: jaimemwsanders | March 24, 2020

The Golden Rule is Not Suspended

The news today is that the Summer 2020 Olympics has been postponed. Here in Oregon, Governor Brown has given into pressure from mayors and hospitals and issued orders requiring most people to stay home except for trips for essential things like food and medicine. Our normal routines are suspended.

You know what isn’t suspended? The Golden Rule. Jesus didn’t say, “love your neighbor as yourself unless there is a pandemic that originated in their country.” Jesus didn’t say, “worship God, not Mammon, unless that would be bad for your company’s bottom line.” Jesus didn’t say, “Do to others as you would have them do to you unless that would be inconvenient.”

This is a time for everyone who calls themselves Christian to reread the Sermon on the Mount, (Matthew, chapters 5-7), or its parallel, the Sermon on the Plain (Luke, 6:17-49).

When you hear someone suggesting that lives should be sacrificed for the sake of “the economy,” remember these words of our Lord:

“No one can serve two masters, for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Matthew 6:24 (NRSV)

When someone expresses animus against a Chinese-American, or a Chinese visitor to the United States, because the novel coronovirus first emerged in China, remember these words of our Lord:

‘Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?

Matthew 7:1-3 (NRSV)

If you don’t remember these specific words, you can remember the Golden Rule, common to not only followers of Jesus but to other people of morality and goodwill:

‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

Matthew 7:12

And when you are fearful, as we all are just now, and with good reason, remember these words, also from the Sermon on the Mount:

‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? . . . But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

Matthew 6:25-27, 33

Photo by Diego PH on Unsplash

Posted by: jaimemwsanders | March 18, 2020

Same as It Ever Was

In the 1662 Book of Common Prayer (still the official prayer book of the Church of England) there is this prayer for “In the time of any plague or sickness:”

O Almighty God, who in thy wrath didst send a plague upon thine own people in the wilderness, for their obstinate rebellion against Moses and Aaron; and also in the time of King David, didst slay with the plague of Pestilence threescore and ten thousand; and yet remembering thy mercy didst save the rest; Have pity upon us miserable sinners, who now are visited with great sickness and mortality; that like as thou didst then accept of an atonement, and didst command the destroying Angel to cease from punishing, so it may now please thee to withdraw from us this plague and grievous sickness, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

By 1928, in the Episcopal Church, the emphasis in the prayer for a “Time of Great Sickness and Mortality” had changed from the wrath of God to human knowledge, skill, and wisdom.

O MOST mighty and merciful God, in this time of grievous sickness, we flee unto thee for succour. Deliver us, we beseech thee, from our peril; give strength and skill to all those who minister to the sick; prosper the means made use of for their cure; and grant that, perceiving how frail and uncertain our life is, we may apply our hearts unto that heavenly wisdom which leadeth to eternal life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

In the 1979 Book of Common Prayer there is no prayer for times of epidemic. Yet, an epidemic is upon us. An epidemic for which there is as yet no cure, and for which our civic authorities in the United States appear to have been woefully underprepared, so that most people cannot even determine whether they have the virus. Libraries, churches, and restaurants are closed. Hospitals are postponing routine surgeries in order to free up capacity for patients needing respiratory support. The headline in this morning’s online New York Times is “Nations Pledge Trillions to Stave Off Economic Catastrophe.”

We thought that we could control our destinies. We thought that with sufficient wisdom and scientific knowledge, we would no longer be subject to the terrifying sweep of illness and death that we cannot control. We thought that we no longer needed a prayer for the time of plague. We were wrong.

I read an article a couple of weeks ago about people who are “re-wilding;” rediscovering skills required to live without the support of modern civilization or technology. The journalist was surprised to discover that spending time with them brought her not into solitude but into closer community. At our essence, we are interdependent with all of nature and with one another. The bats in which the novel coronovirus originated share our mammalian nature. My health depends on the behavior of people who go to clubs on Saturday night instead of church on Sunday morning. As theirs depends on mine.

Almighty God, in this time of grievous sickness, we remember our frailty and mortality; our dependence on you and on all your creation. Forgive us our hubris, our selfishness, our wastefulness. Accept our repentance, O God, and set our feet into paths of healing and wholeness. Protect, O merciful God, those who care for the ill; give them strength and courage. Guide, O Wisdom, those who govern and hold power in our society, that they may use their power for the common good. And give us grace to serve not ourselves alone, but our neighbor, in the name of Jesus Christ our Savior.

Posted by: jaimemwsanders | March 16, 2020

In view of the impending crisis

When I read the lessons for Morning Prayer, I have to admit that I rarely linger over the reading from the Epistles. Paul’s culture-bound lawyer’s reasoning is more irritating or impenetrable to me than it is illuminating. But today’s reading struck me as uncomfortably apt. 1 Corinthians 7:25-31:

“Now concerning virgins, I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. I think that, in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you marry, you do not sin, and if a virgin marries, she does not sin. Yet those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that. I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.”

“[I]n view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are.” While the crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic is full-fledged in much of the world, here in the United States it is impending. Oregon today has 39 confirmed cases, but because testing has been so inadequate, that is only a fraction of the actual cases. The travel and hospitality industries are collapsing; the stock market is crashing; elder-care facilities are in lockdown; schools are closed.

And we are, to a great extent, frozen in place, perforce remaining as we are. People who were planning weddings are having to cancel. People looking for new jobs are out of luck. Those of us who normally go out to buy, must remain at home, as if we had no possessions; those of us who normally go to jobs in the world are isolated, as though we had no dealings with it.

“The present form of this world is passing away.” Paul, we think, had an imminent expectation of the parousia, the second coming of Christ at which all would be made well. I am not one of those Christians who thinks we have been given a roadmap of end times. Nor do I think that God sends plague as punishment for sins. What I do believe is that there is no crisis from which God is absent. Nor any state of affairs that is immutable or unredeemable. The world mid-pandemic will be better if we follow God’s command to love our neighbors as ourselves. The world post-pandemic will be better if we carry into it a story of resilience and caring and shedding of obsessions with material acquisitions.

At times like this, I take comfort from other words of Paul:

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:35-39.

Posted by: jaimemwsanders | March 5, 2020

Original Sin

“How important is original sin to your understanding of faith?” That was a question for our book discussion today.  The context was Barbara Brown Taylor’s book “Holy Envy,” and the question was from a HarperOne “Small Group Guide.”

I don’t believe in the Calvinist concept of original sin, tied as it is with what David Bentley Hart calls the “infernalist” version of Christianity. But neither do I believe that we can live good lives – however you define a “good life,” whether according to the 10 Commandments, or the Sermon on the Mount, or Dungeons & Dragons alignment categories – without grace.

To me, “original sin” is a shorthand way of describing the whole complex of past choices and circumstances and mistakes and tragedies that limit our freedom to choose the good.

It might be our own sin, that has irreparably broken a relationship with someone who once loved us. Or it might be the sin of our fathers, maybe in abusing one of our parents. Or it might be the sin of a complete stranger, driving while drunk and killing another person who, if they lived, would have provided love and protection.

Or it might be structural sin: the structures of racism that taught us to not care about people defined as “the other,” or that stole from our people and plunged us into poverty. The economic structures that turn our ethically neutral desires for heat and transportation into destruction for our planet.

These sources of sin are “original” in that they predate and exist outside of any one human being. They limit our choices, and limit our vision and our ability to respond with love. I cannot work my way out of them to salvation, but need to both look for and accept gifts of grace.

spiral green plants

Photo by Steven Hylands on


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