A larger life

Two neighbours that attended the same local church looked at each other over their shared, backyard fence. Respecting the two-metre physical distance rule, they waved to each other. And then one spoke up.

“So, what did you give up for Lent this year?”

The answer was tinged with desperation: “Everything!”

This morning I want to speak to those who are self-isolating at home but who otherwise are feeling ok. By this point may be going a bit stir-crazy. I want to speak to those who are feeling a growing anxiety for our world, our communities and who worry increasingly for loved ones on the front lines, stuck in countries far away and for the poor, homeless and vulnerable in this pandemic. I want to speak to those who need to remind ourselves why it is important to be restricting our social practice.

In doing so, it indeed feels like we’ve given up everything. Not just chocolates. Not just those symbolic gestures of religious observance. It feels like Lent this year is truly a journey – and an extra-long one – of exposing all our dearest attachments, our dependencies, our entrenched patterns of behaviour. It’s hard to give all that up.

Someone on my social media posted an old wisdom saying: “When you silence all the busyness and noise around you, then in that silence the noise within will rise …” When our external world shuts down so much as it has during this lockdown, we must face our own selves like never before. We are forced to confront and reassess our most dearly and tightly held social behaviours.

Including how we do church. It seems increasingly so, that the Lenten journey this year is going to last long past the calendar date for Easter. We won’t be seeing each other face-to-face for a while. The end of the crisis will come, but we first have to get there. 

Another post I’ve shared on my social media this week is a good one: “Churches are not being closed. Buildings are being closed. You are the church. You are to remain open.” How do we do that? How do we remain open?

We record these short worship services in the sanctuary and wear familiar attire with all the usual trappings. We do this for comfort in the midst of trying times. The comfort of familiarity. We also do this to stimulate the imagination and encourage hope. Imagine the day, and it will come, when we can gather again together in places of worship! I hope that vision encourages us and lifts our spirits.

At the same time and in the midst of this extended Lenten journey, we can’t escape to la-la land, to some disembodied realm of our imagination alone. We can’t pretend that life can only happen when there is no more coronavirus. We can’t delude ourselves into the desperation of believing that we can have life only when there is a vaccine for COVID-19. Life doesn’t happen only once all this is over.

We need to exercise our faith where and when we are. Even in the midst of crisis. We need to discover the life of God—not now in some sanctuary or regular place of worship, but wherever we are: At home, in the grocery story, outside on our walks, helping with food delivery to those most vulnerable; Practising safe, social distancing; Yes, even by facing and acknowledging the anxious, fearful demons within our own hearts.

The point of the raising of Lazarus gospel story is to tell us something true about God. The raising of Lazarus probes the point of Jesus’ resurrection. “I am the resurrection and the life …” Jesus says.[1]

The meaning of the Lenten journey is more than just ‘God for us’. The cross of Jesus is profoundly a sign that “God is with us.” God is in our suffering, alongside us in this difficult journey of fear and anxiety. After all, God in Christ promised to come to make home with us, and dwell with us.[2]

So when, as the old wisdom saying concludes, when we confront the noise within: “… Hold your heart in love. As a mother holds a crying child. Until your heart curls up in the silent love of God.” The pain is one we all share. And so, too, must be our response—a shared response out of love for the neighbour.

In showing compassion and love to our neighbours, we are church. In recognizing the gift of our life despite all of the challenges face, we are church. In recognizing others’ sacrifice for the good of those affected, we are church. In doing our part to create new connections, new ways of being together, new ways to care for others, we are church. 

And we continue to be church in the larger life of God in Christ. 

[1]John 11:25-26

[2]John 14:23; Revelation 21:3

Global solidarity in a global pandemic

The gift of physical sight is a two-edged sword: We can see many things at once in our field of vision. But we can also be very easily distracted by what we see in front of us. It’s hard to focus.

When we use only our ears, however, our hearing brings us more quickly into focus – on what is important and what needs to be done. When we listen, we have to right away clear out all the other noise and chatter into a singularity of mind.

Yes, the blind beggar in the Gospel story receives his sight[1]. That is the obvious miracle. But just as great a ‘miracle’ is that the blind man first had to hear Jesus. He had to focus on Jesus’ voice that told him what to do. 

He had to listen to Jesus’ instruction to go to the Pool of Siloam and wash. The Pool of Siloam – a relatively recent archeological find in Jerusalem – was located in a public space. It was not someone’s private swimming pool. It didn’t belong for the exclusive use of a wealthy and privileged individual. 

It was a place everyone could access, a place people went in that part of the city for fresh drinking water, a place also recognized for ritual bathing. The Pool of Siloam was designed for everyone to use, including the blind beggars of the city.

For his healing, the blind man had to go outside the sphere of his own private world. He had to go beyond himself, so to speak, into a public place.

Besides the obvious physical threat, the greatest danger during this global pandemic is to become completely turned in on oneself. Perhaps you, too, in your social isolation practices have started to feel a bit of ‘cabin fever’ by now. It’s been a few days. The initial novelty is starting to wear off. Our restlessness is fed by fear and despair. How long will this last? We may feel within our hearts a growing and relentless sense of foreboding. And this will undo us if not checked. 

The solution to this inner dis-ease is not to violate the protocols of social distancing and the instructions of the authorities. But it is to find ways, creative ways, to focus on another, and their needs.

I was moved by the heartfelt image from Italy, of an eighty-year-old woman on her birthday standing in her tiny apartment kitchen. Her window was wide open. Tears were streaming down her face as she listened to her neighbours sing to her in unison, “Happy Birthday”. The chorus of voices echoed in the narrow open spaces between the multileveled rowhouse neighborhood. 

As always but even more today, people are still starving. Not just starving for food and for certain paper products. But starving for love, starving to belong, starving for shelter, starving for justice.

May God grant us the courage to focus mind and heart, and first listen. Listen to and focus on the voice calling us to let ourselves be loved. Listen to and focus on the voice calling us to go beyond ourselves to the other, in loving deeds.

Indeed, we are experiencing a global solidarity in the midst of this public health crisis. Even in the suffering of this experience, may God grant us courage to find new ways of affirming our solidarity in the life, the love and being of Christ.

[1]John 9:1-11

Keeping watch on our moral compass in a pandemic

Our very human responses are varied and exposed in this public health crisis. Whatever the case may be, we must also be vigilant about the moral disease exposed in a pandemic.

In our normally extraverted and active society we are now becoming practiced in what it looks and what it feels like to be ‘distant’ from each other. Not just at sports stadiums and convention venues, but religious gatherings as well. 

In our social distancing exercise we are properly encouraged to inform ourselves of the risks and take the necessary precautions. Yes. We are encouraged to heed the health and official authorities. Yes. Best practices in worship and community life together are emphasized. Yes. We show thereby our responsibility to the sanctity of life, not just our own. 

But for the sake of the most vulnerable.

For the time being we will refrain from physically sharing the Peace. We will leave the offering plate on the table into which we offer our gifts. We will cough into our sleeves. We will encourage donating online if you choose to self-isolate; and, we will explore using the internet more for helping people of Faith to connect. We will encourage vigorous hand-washing practices and dis-infect surfaces and door handles in our public spaces.

But there is something more going on beneath the surface of our vigilance.

When social distancing becomes a virtue. And dread overwhelms the normal, healthy bonds of human affection. 

“In his book on the 1665 London epidemic, A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe reports, ‘This was a time when every one’s private safety lay so near them they had no room to pity the distresses of others. … The danger of immediate death to ourselves, took away all bonds of love, all concern for one another.’

“Fear drives people in these moments, but so does shame, caused by the brutal things that have to be done to slow the spread of the disease. In all pandemics people are forced to make the decisions that doctors in Italy are now forced to make — withholding care from some of those who are suffering and leaving them to their fate.

“In 17th-century Venice, health workers searched the city, identified plague victims and shipped them off to isolated ‘hospitals,’ where two-thirds of them died. In many cities over the centuries, municipal authorities locked whole families in their homes, sealed the premises and blocked any delivery of provisions or medical care.”

While some disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes can bring people together, history shows that pandemics can tear people apart.

“The Spanish flu pandemic that battered America in 1918 produced similar reactions. John M. Barry, author of The Great Influenza, reports that as conditions worsened, health workers in city after city pleaded for volunteers to care for the sick. Few stepped forward.

“In Philadelphia, the head of emergency aid pleaded for help in taking care of sick children. Nobody answered. The organization’s director turned scornful: ‘… There are families in which every member is ill, in which the children are actually starving because there is no one to give them food. The death rate is so high, and they still hold back.’

“This explains one of the puzzling features of the 1918 pandemic. When it was over, people didn’t talk about it. There were very few books or plays written about it. Roughly 675,000 Americans lost their lives to the flu, compared with 53,000 in battle in World War I, and yet it left almost no conscious cultural mark.

“Perhaps it’s because people didn’t like who they had become. It was a shameful memory and therefore suppressed. In her 1976 dissertation, ‘A Cruel Wind,’ Dorothy Ann Pettit argues that the 1918 flu pandemic contributed to a kind of spiritual [apathy] afterward. People emerged from it physically and spiritually fatigued. The flu, Pettit writes, had a sobering and disillusioning effect on the national spirit.

“There is one exception to this sad litany: health care workers. In every pandemic there are doctors and nurses who respond with unbelievable heroism and compassion. That’s happening today.

“[At] … EvergreenHealth hospital in Kirkland, Washington State … the staff [is] showing the kind of effective compassion that has been evident in all pandemics down the centuries. ‘We have not had issues with staff not wanting to come in,’ an Evergreen executive said. ‘We’ve had staff calling and say, ‘If you need me, I’m available.’

“Maybe this time we’ll learn from their example. It also wouldn’t be a bad idea to take steps to fight the moral disease that accompanies the physical one.

“Frank Snowden, the Yale historian who wrote Epidemics and Society, argues that pandemics hold up a mirror to society and force us to ask basic questions: … Where is God in all this? What’s our responsibility to one another?”[1]

History also shows that pandemics tend to hit the poor hardest and enflame social divisions. Today, we cannot forget those who are most vulnerable: the elderly, for one, who must stay in these days. A simple note phone call or email to ask if they need any groceries or medication pick-up. These calls will remind them they are not alone through this crisis. That there are those who care. And are willing to help.

In our efforts to maintain concrete connections, even in this time of social distancing, we continue to build the community of love that is the Body of Christ.

Even in crisis, we are not meant to be alone. In crisis, we are not meant to retreat into self-preoccupation. This pandemic cannot kill compassion, too. Even if only where two or three are gathered, virtually or face-to-face, we resist allowing our fear to overwhelm us. We trust in “God with us” and in the revelation of God in Christ who speaks often in the Gospels the words of promise: “Do not be afraid.” We are called always but especially at this time, to reassure others in the same promise.

In this time of social distancing, I pray in the love of Christ Jesus who overcame the boundaries of fear and social stigma. The Samaritan woman at the well was not so much in need of a physical healing as she was an emotional, social healing.[2]Our faith in Christ acknowledges those areas in our individual and public lives where we need emotional and moral healing as much as physical.

By temporarily limiting our gatherings, we are being responsible in not contributing to the problem – the transmission of disease. But at this time especially let’s be just as vigilant in not abdicating our moral call to be responsible for others’ care.

I pray in the love of Christ who reached out to touch and heal the blind man, the leper, the diseased, and who placed himself, even to death on a cross, all in the public sphere. I pray in the love of Christ whose life and love extends to our times and public places, into our hearts and into our very own relationships and communities. 

At the end of the pandemic which will surely come, my hope is that as human beings will have overcome the physical danger, Christians will also have stayed true to our moral compass.

The Peace of Christ be with you all.

[1]David Brooks, “Pandemics Kill Compassion, Too.” New York Times, March 12, 2020.

[2]John 4:5-30

Social distancing and religious gathering

Every Friday night I walk through the core of the small town close to where I live. And, every Friday night these restaurants—a popular Indian restaurant, a British-style pub and pizza parlor—are jammed full. Week after week, it never fails. It impresses upon me the common, human need for social interaction.

Here, far off the beaten track, the COVID-19 threat in early March is still far from reality. At the time of this writing there is not (yet) one confirmed case in the Ottawa area. And yet, last week when I walked my route by these restaurant windows and looked in, they were nearly empty. 

Clearly for my community the anticipation and fear of the pandemic has taken hold in our imagination. These fears are fueled by images in the media of empty planes and check-in lines at airports. St Mark’s Square in Venice, normally crowded with tourists, is empty. Classrooms in big name educational institutions are empty.

“Social distancing” is the catch-phrase. As a human community we are now becoming practiced in what it looks and what it feels like to be ‘distant’ from each other in the public sphere. But sports stadiums and convention venues are not the only places considered verboten during a pandemic. Places for religious gatherings are suffering the same scrutiny. Though, perhaps, religious people are used to seeing empty pews for some time now. 

In our social distancing during the COVID19 pandemic we are properly encouraged to inform ourselves of the risks and take the necessary precautions. Best practices in worship and community life together are emphasized especially for the most vulnerable to this disease.

People who like to meditate are generally drawn to spaces and places with others that embody some ‘distance’ and detachment. We close our eyes. We refrain from touching each other. We repeat the mantra not as a voiced, liturgical, chant but interiorly, individually. We who meditate and pray in silence and stillness are practiced somewhat in the art of non-interaction in contrast to the dominant extroversion of our culture. We say little and keep our distance as we sit in silence and stillness together.

Even in our solitude, however, we are reminded in the tradition of John Main not to neglect the coming together in faith even as we pray in silence. Yes, the twice daily meditation times to which we aspire belong normally to our private, individual work. Yet, the importance of the regular meditation group builds the community of love. 

We are not meant to be alone on this journey. In meeting with others we resist allowing our fear to overwhelm us. We trust in ‘God with us’ and in the revelation of God in Christ who speaks often in the Gospels the words of promise: ‘Do not be afraid’. We are called, on the contemplative path, to reassure others in the same promise. (See pastoral letter from bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, link below)

During this time of social distancing we pray with all who are affected by this disease. God be with those who grieve, are ill, isolated and afraid, and the many people involved in medical and emergency care.

This may also be a good time to try an online meditation group. On the front page of the wccm.org website click on ‘Online Meditation’ to find a group suited for you. The first time I participated with an online group it felt strange to see on my computer screen the faces of several meditators praying in silence with me. It took some time and patience for me to adjust.

On the one hand, I was physically by myself. But I was not alone. I was still virtually connected with others far away from me. Talk about social distance. Yet, accountability and responsibility to each other are still felt values in the online meditation experience. There may times in our lives when a virtual group is the best option for remaining connected.

In this time of social distancing, I pray in the love of Christ Jesus who overcame the boundaries of fear and social stigma. I pray in the love of Christ who reached out to touch and heal the blind man, the leper, the diseased, and who placed himself, even to death on a cross, in the public sphere. I pray in the love of Christ whose life and love extends to our times and public places, into our hearts and into our very own relationships and communities.

The Peace of Christ be with you all,



Blinded by the light

It was no coincidence that I was humming the refrain of Bruce Springsteen’s song when I left my eye appointment. I was literally “blinded by the light”. 

The drops I had received dilated my pupils so much so that I couldn’t keep my eyes open in the bright outdoors. Even on a cloudy day the white snow cover amplified the light so that my treated eyes just could not cope. 

Though the doctor promised that within a couple of hours normality would return to my stressed eyes, for the time being I had to wear dark shades to keep the light out.

In this case, darkness was a friend. I welcomed and sought out dark places.

Nicodemus came to Jesus when it was dark.[1]For whatever reason, he needed to find Jesus at night. He knew he couldn’t do this in the bright of day. He knew he couldn’t take the scrutiny and public exposure that confronting Jesus with personal questions, would entail. Darkness surrounded an intimate conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus. It is obvious Nicodemus pursues, under the cover of night, some deep-seeded yearning to learn more about this man, Jesus.

Nicodemus and Jesus talk about new birth and being lifted up to renewed life. Ironically a new vision for life, light and blessing is being born in Nicodemus at night. In the bible, Nicodemus isn’t the only one who likes the dark.

In the first reading today, God blesses Abraham.[3]The word ‘bless’ appears five times in four short verses. Clearly, this passage is about what blessing means. It is through the descendants of Abraham, whose lineage then goes through Jesus, that God’s blessing for the life of all is achieved.

And here we must deal with one of the great paradoxes of the faith.

One the one hand, the blessing of God knows no limits. The blessing upon Abraham has a limitless purpose: “that all the families on earth shall be blessed.” God’s blessing is meant for the benefit of all. God’s blessing is not confined to individual benefit alone.

God’s vision is much more expansive – like the stars in the sky. The blessing of God has a trajectory that does not stop with individual gain. God’s blessing is universal in scope. Anything less is a blessing truncated, even misguided.

This expansive, limitless, trajectory is reflected in one of the most popular scriptures from the New Testament. “For God so loved the world … in order that the world might be saved through [Jesus].”[4]Jesus gave his life and love, for the sake of everyone.

And yet, at the same time, we must acknowledge our individual limits. Whatever blessing of which each of us may be part is only as conduit for the benefit of others.

God blesses Abraham at night. In a parallel passage from Genesis God brings Abraham outside and says to him, “Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them … So shall your descendants be.”[5]Do you notice the subtext? It is only at night that you can see the stars. At night God gives Abraham the great covenant promise. Like with Nicodemus, it is in the darkness where the most intimate and significant conversation takes place between God and the “father of us all”[6], in Paul’s words from Romans.

The paradox of faith is that we participate in the vastness, limitless regions of God’s grace but only by respecting and acknowledging our limits.

It’s true about the soul, too: We can only bear so much light.[7]If there’s too much light coming at us, we’re blinded. Light can be as blinding as darkness. Sometimes, we need to turn off all the screens after the sun sets. Sometimes, we need to watch the darkness fall, and be present to it.

We have limits as human beings. Better learn early in life to embrace those limits of sight, limits of physicality, limits of intelligence and knowing, limits of our capability. It will help us down the road.

We cannot presume to bless others — be a conduit of God’s blessing — if we believe we can do anything and everything on our own. We make a mistake when we presume we know what others need before asking them, when we think we understand the truth about others before getting to know them. Unless we first come to terms with and respect our own limitations, we cannot bless others with words of affirmation, gifts or acts of kindness without genuine humility.[8]

On the other side of the paradox, we make a mistake when we don’t trust in the limitless vision of God’s love for everyone, when we limit God into boxes of our own creation, when we act as if God is only on our side. The irony is when we act in ways that respect our limitations, we can be empowered to do incredible things as conduits of God’s blessing for all people.

One piece of advice given to writers is that you must be master of the world you write about. When the setting and subject of the book know no bounds – if it’s a book about this, that, and everything but the kitchen sink – the weaker the writing will likely be. However, if you can contain your world, draw in the boundaries about what you write and limit its scope, the better your writing will be.

Watership Down, written by Richard Adams in 1972, was a fiction tale I read in my early teens. The book left an impression on me that I can still feel to this day. From what I remember, the entire story is written within the confines of a relatively small area of land where rabbits go about their adventures. The story’s telling occurred on this defined area of land above and below it. And yet, within the limited parameters of a unique setting, the author created a compelling masterpiece of plot, character and image.

God’s scope is universal. The trajectory of God’s love and promise knows no bounds. Yet, the way we shall enjoin the work and wonder of God’s Spirit is by seeking God in the darkness of our lives. By acknowledging our weakness. When we fumble and trip and shuffle in the dark trying to find God. When we recognize the limits of our own human being …

Then, we can do so much for good within the container of our own lives. We bloom where we are planted. We exercise the limitless love of God within the parameters of our own circle of life. We reflect the light of God especially in the dark recesses of our soul. The darkness can be a safe, nurturing space. “It’s how we began our life in our mother’s womb and it’s how we restore our life, day by day.”[2]

And we know that for God, there is no dark nor light,[9]only loving presence everywhere and always.

[1]John 3:1-17

[2]Br. Curtis Almquist, “Signs of Life: Light; Day Seven” (SSJE, Brother Give Us A Word, 7 March 2020), www.ssje.org

[3]Genesis 12:1-4a

[4]John 3:16-17

[5]Genesis 15:5

[6]Saint Paul, Romans 4:16

[7]Br. Curtis Almquist, “Signs of Life: Light; Day Four” (SSJE, Brother Give Us A Word, 4 March 2020), www.ssje.org

[8]Michael Frost, Surprise the World: The Five Habits of Highly Missional People (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2016), p.35-39.

[9]Psalm 139:12 – “Even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.”