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 20, 2020

Sheltering in faith

unsplash-logo
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 http://www.missionstclare.com.) 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 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 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
Savior?
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
Lord?
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 | 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 Pexels.com

 

Posted by: jaimemwsanders | July 27, 2013

Sustainable Mission

If we think, as I do, that the mission of church is to discern what God is doing and join in, there is by definition always opportunities for ministry.

But our particular church may not be well equipped for its current missional opportunities.  This might be due to many factors.  Maybe the people in it don’t see the surrounding community and its needs as something they should care about.  I think this is a lot more rare than we might assume.  We might assume that if a congregation is not engaged in mission in its community, they need more vision or compassion.  I think more often they need some way to see a way in which the resources they perceive they have can connect with the needs they see Jesus as caring about. 

What resources might a congregation have?  What resources does a congregation need to engage in sustainable mission?

 A congregation’s principle resource is its people.  Its paid staff, if any, including the priest, but even more its laity.  It is the laity who tutor children and staff food banks and lead Vacation Bible School and arrange flowers and sing in choirs and show up on Sunday to be renewed for caring for ailing parents and build houses and pledge money to support the mission of the church. 

So what makes a congregation’s laity a renewing rather than depleting resource? 

Some of the factors are internal, and those are what we ministers tend to focus on.  Is the worship God-centered and life-giving?  When people are ill, do they know they are loved and cared for?  Is conversation respectful?  Do people have a clear sense of mission?  Is faith shared and nourished with appropriate education? 

But some of the factors are external.  What is happening to the city, county and neighborhood around the church?  If family-wage jobs are disappearing, if the schools are in trouble, it is highly unlikely that the church will attract those elusive young families no matter how good the Vacation Bible School.  If a freeway cuts the church building off from the neighborhood in which its congregants live, those already committed may take the extra trouble to get there, but their new neighbors are unlikely to join them. 

Median income has shrunk in the past 10 years in every county in Western Oregon, and over a third of people spend more than 30% of their income just on housing.  When we teach that church membership involves tithing, we may increase the strength of discipleship of the people in the pews – but we may also be reinforcing the belief of those outside that they can’t afford to belong to a church.

Some of the factors are internal but difficult to change.  It is hard to change the words we use to worship with, but it is easier to change the words than it is to change the pews, and easier to change the pews than to change the layout of the sanctuary or the physical relationship of the sanctuary to the education rooms.  Few restaurants that exist today have the same physical layout and aesthetic as they did in 1955.  The ones that survive have invested in physical maintenance and upgrading.  They employ architects and interior designers.  But we somehow think we shouldn’t have to invest in the physical renewal of our faith places of hospitality.  If we put on a coat of paint, or replace a roof, it is a major issue – and the paint color is chosen by a committee rather than a professional. Perhaps the astounding thing is not that some of our churches are failing, but that any are surviving! 

Some of the external factors are evident now in their effects on sustainable mission.  But bigger ones may be coming.  Many of our churches here in Oregon were built in the 1950’s and 1960’s, as part of the expanding auto culture.   They were built when electricity was cheap and global warming was unheard of.  As we look at the physical resources for the church’s mission, we need to think about not only how people get around today but how they are likely to be getting around in 2040.  Are we investing in buildings accessible by light rail?  Pedestrian and bicycle routes?

I have confidence that God’s mission cannot be derailed by the imperfections of any human institution.  But I don’t think we get any guarantee that any particular church will be part of the future of that mission.  Like relay races, the batons will be passed to the organizations that have the resources to carry the mission forward.  Whether my church will be one of those depends in part, I believe, on decisions we make now with the resources we have.

Posted by: jaimemwsanders | June 29, 2013

leading and following

I wouldn’t have expected a business school professor to teach a tango lesson, but that is what happened at the Kellogg School last week.  No, we didn’t get dressed up, and we didn’t actually reach tango-ing, but we put hands on our partner’s shoulders and practiced leading and following.  The epiphany for me was the difference between “following,” and “anticipating.”  Following takes a heck of a lot of trust, so I prefer to anticipate.  While pretending to follow, I am trying to guess where the leader will want to go next.  True following, the professor explained, requires being ready at any time to move in any direction.

When I came to St. Mary’s I thought I knew what my job here would be.  I would be the pivot priest, taking the congregation into being able to imagine a multigenerational, multilingual future.  Actually taking them there would be someone else’s job: someone who is younger, and knows Spanish, and has experience with family and children’s ministry.  God, I thought, would call me in a few years to another congregation which would use my cultural background.

That isn’t what has happened.  St. Mary’s has changed faster than I thought would be possible, and I am still here.  God listens to prayers, but not to direction.

At the end of the tango lesson, when I realized that I had been trying to anticipate God, and that instead I need to learn to follow, I started to cry.  Trust is hard.  Letting go of expectations is hard.  But I have to trust that God sees gifts in me that I don’t see – gifts that aren’t matured yet.  That this old, over-educated, Anglo woman can learn to tango.

Posted by: jaimemwsanders | April 7, 2012

In Between

I keep expecting life to be like books, with a beginning, a middle, and an end.  Instead they are all middle.  Stories make arbitrary decisions about where to begin and end.  By focusing on only one little bit or problem – who will Elizabeth Bennett marry? – they create an ending.  In my former profession, I had the experience of beginning, middle and end because I only saw a small part of the story.  A corporation was trying to buy another company, for example.  I didn’t come into the story until a certain point, and left after the transaction was completed.  If I was involved with the client again, it was for another story.  The tidy plot was an illusion created by my limited vision.  What would the story of Pride and Prejudice look like if seen from Elizabeth’s father’s perspective?  It wouldn’t start with Mr. Darcy coming to town, and wouldn’t end with the pairing.

Most of church life seems to be “in between.”  We artificially create stories for purposes of OTM narratives, or resumes or sharing at clergy conferences.  But the “old” is never past, and the “new” is never fully here.  On Palm Sunday St. Mary’s was fuller than usual, and with new families.  But Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday, the faithful attenders were older, English-speakers, fewer.  The new identity is, like the Reign of God, “already and not yet.”  I need to be patient, valuing the old while welcoming the new.

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