At first, the rise of a pandemic elicits shock, dismay, and denial. We struggle to get our heads around the idea that plagues move about by their own volition, catching rides on their hosts, which are us. After we cross the threshold into the full realization that our ordinary life is about to be interrupted, we settle in for the long ride. We witness suffering and death as the result of the virus.  And then we realize the second order of suffering, the consequences of plague. Not one society throughout history that was visited by plague did not also experience social and economic collapse. Those twins ride together.

After the society mucks about in the middle passages of plague – after humor wears thin, the statistics become numbing, efforts at inspiration feel tired, the preoccupation with health precautions wearisome, the decimation of the workplace fills us with dread – a new wave of emotions and responses emerge.

People become resolved to passivity, to freezing in place, like trapped beasts. Others flee the scene of the crime, often into fantasy, creating all manner of fanciful conspiracy theories to make simple something that is complex. And others give into rage; they give full voice to their frustration with emotional displays and irrational accusation, usually accompanied by threats against those who seem responsible for their suffering. Politicos know how to manipulate these people for their own purposes.

It’s the virus that is responsible. But it’s hard to lash out at a virus.

The middle passages often engender simplistic, either-or thinking among those who are under maximum stress and do not have the wherewithal to hold several complex ideas in their minds at the same time.  Some have said that this territory in the liminal domain is the most threatening to one of our most vital resources: Imagination.

It is often a lack of imagination that dwarfs innovative and creative responses in times of emergency. When imagination is crushed, what is left is dualistic, either-or thinking, and the lining up of this and that on a line across from each other.

Of course, in complex situations the answer is never this or that. But a lack of imagination always makes room for this or that.

What is required most in a moment like this are new waves of visionary imagination. This imagination does not downplay suffering, minimize loss or threat, or attribute blame through fanciful conspiracies. The rebirth of imagination looks to the future for answers. Morphing and reshaping ways of living that move toward that new vision. Call it a new heaven and new earth, to borrow Biblical language. And you can’t move toward a new future, a different one, without imagining it in the first place.

Moving from either-or to both-and. Resisting simple exclusive solutions to complex problems. Daring to not run, not collapse, and not slug your neighbor to make it work.

Rather, recapturing lost imagination. It’s one of our greatest gifts. And probably why we have survived this long already.

We all cherry pick from the larger Christian canon of scriptures. We choose our favorites, usually the ones that confirm something we already believe. When done extensively, we form a smaller “canon within the canon,” a Bible within the Bible. Entire Christian movements rest on one portion of scripture or another, which makes debate about what is central to the faith so difficult; we appeal to different authority sources.

Of course, I do it, too. And in fact, it is necessary. We actually need to establish a hierarchy of truth within and among the scriptures because they often come into conflict. One highest authority must be identified to curate all the rest. For one it might be the justice teachings of the prophets. For another the teachings from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Another may appeal to the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit. I know people, however, who define their entire theology with no more than three or four disparate scriptural verses.

What I would like to suggest today, in light of varied responses to COVID-19, is that the Religious Right actually read the apostle Paul. Of course, they narrowly quote him quite often, even as they ignore extensive sections of his letters that don’t settle well with what they already believe. It’s time for these Bible believing souls to stop avoiding the writing of their star apostle, Paul, and read all of him.

A good place to begin is with his first letter to the Corinthian community (which we discover is actually his second). This occasional letter is sent to a community ensconced in great conflict. They had divided into factions based on loyalties to particular leaders. Paul wisely counseled that they should seek a more excellent way and let go of their false alliances.

One of those factions was comprised of people who claimed a higher or superior spirituality. They claimed special knowledge or wisdom. And this position of spiritual superiority led to pride, which is always damaging to the community.

Temples to a pantheon of gods existed in this Roman outpost and a regular part of that worship included burnt animal sacrifices. This would have been taboo for Christians, of course, because it smacked of idolatry. The interesting thing is that they always burned just a portion of the animal, retaining the majority of it for the market. Call it a blue light special or a discount rack for meat already offered to idols. For some Christians eating this meat was tantamount to cavorting with false gods, a tainted meal that corrupted as much as it was corrupted.

But not for the superior knowledge people. They knew that those gods were figments of the imagination, a nothing among nothings. And so the meat offered to something unreal was not tainted at all. Their superior wisdom led them to a cavalier approach to eating this meat. But for their less enlightened brothers and sisters this represented something that threatened the foundations of their faith.

As far as theology goes, Paul was more aligned with the enlightened bunch. He didn’t believe in the real substance of those idols either. The meat offered to imaginary idols represented no ethical dilemma for him. But to his enlightened friends he offered some  shocking counsel.

Not everyone is where you are. For many of your brothers or sisters this is a deal-breaker. So hear this:

“Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” (I Cor 8:9) Your actions, based in your supposedly superior philosophy or spirituality, may actually do harm. “So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge.” (I Cor 8:11) And if you are harming them you are violating Christ’s way of love.

And what is the prescription?

“Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.” (I Cor 8:13)

The transferable ethical principle is clear enough:  Even though the thing or practice represents no threat to me personally, I will, for the sake of love of brother and sister, voluntarily limit my freedom for the good of the many.

In the Christian way of love, my personal freedom is secondary to the law of love.

In the time of a pandemic a Christian soul should inquire after what is the most loving thing to do for the most people. One asks what behavior of mine might harm a brother or sister or cause them to stumble. One asks what personal freedoms should I voluntarily relinquish for the sake of the greater good. One asks how our behavior, though seemingly not a threat to us directly, might be a threat to others who are more vulnerable.

And that’s why the Christian Right should read all of Paul, especially I Corinthians 8.

The greatest Christian questions of our time do not revolve around the exercise of rights – whether my Christian college should be able to meet when social distancing is essential, whether I should limit my movement in social spaces, and even whether I should resist the very health practices that will restore our society and world to health because of personal hardship for me.

We all experience hardship and compassionate societies help those who are passing through those waters to make it through.

Rather, Christians should avoid exemplifying the worst of the “knowledge party” in the Corinthian community, the party that insisted that the exercise of their rights or freedom was more important than the well-being of the neighbor.

Christian young people should read I Corinthians 8 and conclude the obvious: “If my gathering in large groups on spring break or at the mega church or at the university or on the beach causes my neighbor to stumble, then I will not engage in that for their sake.”

Christian virtue is not demonstrated by converging on cities closed for the public good and shouting about their rights to go buy lawn fertilizer at the hardware store. Buying lawn fertilizer is not more important that your grandmother’s health and possible death. Real Christian love doesn’t do that. Real Christian love limits personal freedoms for the sake of the vulnerable, like the Paul’s Corinthians who could refuse to eat meat offered to idols even if they knew it didn’t mean a thing. All for the sake of the other.

Imagine the Christian teaching and influence that could take place on the part of Christian college presidents, high profile pastors of evangelical churches, and supposedly pro-life movements, if they took this ethical principle embedded in Paul’s letter to the Corinthian community seriously.

The world might even look on and conclude that there actually is something to this Christian thing, that it is not just one more group using its power to get what it wants.

 

Stories at Six Feet

Posted: April 18, 2020 in Uncategorized

And now for the first installment of … Stories at Six Feet (stories shared and received at the minimum physical margin):

Today we walked the KATY trail amid soft sunshine and a gentle breeze, the river flowing like it didn’t have a problem in the world, which of course it doesn’t. We met friends on a similar walk and started swapping stories. His was much more interesting.

When he was a little boy he lived in England and was about six years old as the 2nd World War drew to a close. It was Christmas eve and the family was gathered in the living room making merry. They were surprised by a knock at the door. When they opened the door they looked out upon an American soldier who had just pulled up in a jeep. He was holding a gas can. The soldier asked if they knew where he could get some petrol. The young man’s father said that they could go down the way about two blocks because there was a station on the corner. “It’s closed now,” said his father, “but if you knock on the door the owner is a good man and he’ll open up and fill your can.”

Just before the soldier went back to the jeep he pointed to a German officer sitting in the jeep and asked, “Could you please watch over him while I get the gas? He’s in custody.”

The parents looked at each other for a moment and then his mother said, “Well, of course, he can stay with us while you are running your errand. Invite him in.” And he did come in. The German soldier looked on as the family decorated for Christmas, putting out presents and preparing the Christmas treats.

When it came time to light the candles on the tree they invited the German officer to help light them and he did.

“Mind you, I was just six years old, but I have this memory of lighting the candles on the tree and this German soldier in his full dress uniform bending down and lighting the bottom tier of candles, smiling as he did so.”

Pretty soon the GI returned with his jeep, mission accomplished, gas in the tank.

“When it was time for the German officer to leave,” my senior friend continued, “he opened the door, turned to face us, clicked his boot heels together, and tipped the bill of his hat in a quick bow. We watched him drive away into the snowy night and after shutting the door we sang Christmas carols.”

 

Farewell to Papa

Posted: April 10, 2020 in Uncategorized

Memory is a funny thing. The farther you are away from the events the foggier the outlines of the story. On the other hand, some features and images become more vivid and distinct. That’s how it is for me as I traveled back to the memory I dreamed about last night.

It really was years ago, back when I was a young man with a young man’s life. For a time I lived and worked in a county seat town as the pastor of a medium sized church. I was the only minister, surrounded by a few part time support staff. And being the chief cook and bottle washer is a fine way to understand all the facets of a place and learn how it all works.

This little town had and has a wide variety of people occupying different stations in life. There are locals who’ve lived there forever. Infrastructure people like teachers who moved in to provide social services. Retirees move to this town and tourists show up during certain times of the year. The well-heeled ones build a second home there or buy a condo, keeping their first homes in the city. It’s all there, mashed up together. Which is another reason that it is a good place for a young man to test his wings.

One day I received a call – and this is the foggy part – from a daughter whose father was ready to be baptized. I didn’t know them from Adam. It was a cold call. But I agreed to come out to their house where Papa was spending his final days in his dying bed. If that phone call was foggy, the arrival at the single-wide trailer up the county road was not. Long before the time of GPS, I navigated by landmarks: just past the country church, on the left, before the Y in the road. After I pulled up and parked the car, I walked through dogs and rusting equipment to the wooden front steps.

The eldest daughter answered the door, and after some niceties she invited me in. It was a small, dark living room and a velvet picture of Elvis hung on the wall over the couch.

“You can come on back, Papa’s ready,” she said. And she led me through the narrow hallway to the back bedroom where Papa was. He smiled when I came in and patted the side of the bed for me to sit down. He was propped up against a few pillows. And after we we talked about life, the end of life, lasting things, eternal things, daughter brought in a basin of water with a towel.

After I poured the water over his old, bald, wrinkly head, water mixed with words about Father, Son and Holy Spirit, he kept his eyes closed for the longest time. We said a prayer and before long I was walking back through the dogs and equipment to my car.

Perhaps a week later I received another call. It was the eldest daughter again. Papa had died. Would I do the funeral?

We met at the cemetery beside the country church I passed the first time I visited them. There was the mortuary tent over the grave and the row of folding chairs. I don’t even remember what I said because it was probably many of the same scriptures and prayers always used at such occasions, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. But what I do remember happened afterwards.

After the ceremony itself, people started moving away from the grave, taking flowers, meeting in little groups and chatting. All except one, the eldest daughter who had called me the first time, and the second time, who welcomed me into the living room and brought the basin of water and towel to Papa in the bedroom. She remained, sitting quietly, looking at the casket, her shoulders lifting in perfect rhythm with her quiet sobs. The rest of the family seemed to know that she needed to be there, by herself.

In time, a young granddaughter, maybe six or seven years old, moved in front of her grandmother and just stood there, waiting to be noticed. In a moment, this oldest daughter of Papa looked up into the eyes of her granddaughter and embraced her. She wept as she clutched her small shoulders. This granddaughter did not recoil. She did not move. She made herself entirely, perfectly available to her grandmother weeping for loss of her father.

This eldest daughter of Papa held her granddaughter as though embracing her own soul. Perhaps she was doing exactly that.

I have a good friend who will be celebrating Passover with her family via Zoom this year. Everyone has the essential ingredients on hand in their own homes. A family member presides. And they will conclude as they always do with pronouncement of an ancient hope: “Next year we meet in Jerusalem.”

It is the Jews who are not in Jerusalem – which is most – who long most to be in Jerusalem. For centuries, worldwide Jewry has known diaspora – to be a people scattered by distance across the face of the world. The very existence of synagogues – created for the observant who live far from the temple in Jerusalem – reminds them not only that their faith is portable, but that they are indeed far from home.

My friend celebrates Passover every year in the Jewish diaspora. But this year is different. This year has an additional overlay, the Corona Diaspora. This year they share the liturgy of deliverance from Egypt, the symbolic foods, wine and and prayers of the Passover at even greater distance, joined together only by the digital images on their individual screens. This is Passover in the Double Diaspora.

For Christians, too, this time of social distancing and empty church buildings has created its own scattered community, a diaspora of a kind. Though we are not living in faraway lands, we are no longer physically present. We may wave a palm at home in front of our computer screen, but we won’t be in the midst of hundreds of waving palms, belting out All Glory, Laud and Honor. We are remotely gathering through the wonders of some teleconferencing video platform or by simply watching live streaming or prerecorded services, but all that pales by comparison, a weak shadow of the real thing. And we know it.

This year Christians will celebrate Holy Week in the Corona Diaspora.

The sooner we accept it, of course, the better. There’s not enough hand sanitizer or masks in the world to make Christian gatherings safe and responsible between Palm Sunday and Easter. There will be no palm waving, foot washing, Last Supper dramas, Communion, Good Friday processions, or Easter hallelujahs. Not this year, there won’t be.

Like Jews far from Jerusalem, we form micro communities distant from one another. Our homes become synagogues. And like those in diaspora have always done, we rely on those things which are eternal despite interruptions to collective gathering, time and space. We recite the wisdom that lights the path. We tell the stories that make sense of the world. And as we are able, we create or adapt big rituals into little ones: We pray together, share the bread and wine from the coffee table, and discuss some recent message that inspired us.

The one thing that diaspora does is to test the veracity, durability and relevance of a tradition. Unless that tradition is portable, unless it can continue to flourish without being surrounded by all the usual trappings of tradition and ritual, then it probably wasn’t true enough in the first place. And, as in the case of the Rabbis of the diaspora, it may even generate a whole new layer of wisdom teaching.

Of the many things that the Corona Diaspora may teach us, we may receive greater clarity as to what is essential and what is not. And if that is the only gift that this strange time yields, it will be enough.

Next year we meet … together.

 

 

As I headed out today for an extended ride on the trusty motorcycle (my favorite form of social distancing) I asked myself one question and it circled inside my brain through the entire trip: In light of this social liminality through which we are now passing, what’s going to change forever when we get to the other side?

The thing about liminality is that the former structure has disappeared or flattened or been suspended during the time of confusion, ambiguity and lack of coordinates. We’ve never been here before. The gift of the liminal period is the revealing of a future, or at least a glimmering of what a future could be. Interruptions provide enforced pause. And transitional pauses often hold the clues as to what’s next.

No one really knows, of course, unless we could travel to the future and back. But some prognosticators guess. If visionaries know human nature and discern large patterns well, the guesses are often on the mark, or at least close.

Back in 2006 Tom Friedman wrote a worldview busting book entitled The World is Flat. It was mostly about how the changes of globalization were sending everyone back to zero, leveling the playing field. In so many ways he was right. He discerned the big patterns and where they were heading.

The year is now 2020 and we are barely into this liminal period of the Coronavirus. People are just now getting over the shock of the changes imposed upon us. We are preoccupied with survival and dodging the bullet. But for those so inclined, it’s not too soon to wonder how we will become different as a result. Though I have no crystal ball, I do have some inklings. And inklings often become true.

It’s my guess, according to the way things have changed and revealed certain things about ourselves, that we will see some of these things in our future:

The continuing trend of urbanization and the rush to the cities may reverse, with people choosing to live in decentralized, smaller communities, towns and rural places. The presence of online communication and broadened transportation will allow many to work from home or partially from home and businesses will accommodate. Certain cities will still remain the center of commerce and the arts, for example, but not everyone needs to live there. More and more we will structure ourselves as networks of smaller living communities.

Education on all levels will diversify, including face-to-face interaction and growing online learning. The present crisis has forced adaptation and this forced change will be reflected in continuing use of those tools. In the future that will include projected holograms in real time virtual classrooms. We will be there and be together learning differently. The tools are already there. They will be extended and refined.

Our politics will become increasingly pragmatic, searching for solutions beyond the ideological. The more that the society moves away from ideological motives and toward the practical, leaders will be chosen for expertise in accomplishing ends and creating governance to serve the entire populous. Constitutional democracy will wage a battle for existence as pan-national movements of autocracies will attempt to remove them.

Meta-threats to planetary existence will move us toward international cooperation again. The recent pandemic reminds us that certain challenges transcend national solutions. Worldwide health challenges and addressing the environment are only the most conspicuous things that require international response. A new effort at collaboration will address multiple factors that affect all of the earth’s inhabitants, including food security, health, and education.

Access to health care will not be seen as optional but rather necessary for all citizens. What the pandemic revealed in stark relief was what happens to people in urgent times without health care or health insurance. For those whose health insurance was tied to employment and lost their jobs, they suddenly lost their health insurance as well. In the future, access to healthcare will be provided to all citizens through a variety of ways.

The economy will balance out into a combination of free market/common good programs. We in the United States already have a hybrid economy. What the crisis revealed was that there is a place for muscular government to step in when needed and that some needs in our time for a country our size are best met in the free market and others are best met in programs for the common good.

People will rediscover the importance of government, its servants and expertise. A responsive, skilled, and robust government will partner with all levels of the society to pursue common ends: Federal, state, municipal government; not-for-profits; the private sector and corporations. All working together, each functioning where is is most effective and efficient.

Religion and Spirituality will continue to shift, change and express itself differently. This recent crisis only solidifies the process that has already been in motion. A diversity of faith and non-faith expressions will multiply outside of traditional communities, beliefs and practices. The information explosion as set loose a planetary, timeless, geographically boundless access to the expression of our deepest aspirations. Much will take place in cyberspace and in micro communities of common cause.

Commerce will expand its online ordering and shipping capacity. Face to face services will continue but in different forms. With ready acceptance of online reality – including the arts – the public will adapt to paying for what has been assumed to be free; fees or contributions for online concerts, lectures, services. This will multiply and grow.

We will develop enlarged and focused government instrumentalities to respond to pandemics and disasters. In the same way that the Department of Defense is prepared to fend off national military threats and Homeland security addresses security threats, so we will establish a more coordinated office and network of states to forecast chaos events, collaborate with other countries, activate response among the states, and establish and maintain stockpiles of needed equipment and reserve personnel for such emergencies.

Neighbors will rediscover neighbors in micro-communities and come to one another’s aid. One of the great learnings from disasters is that the best impulses of human community are often released during times of greatest threat. Caring for one’s neighbor in times of great threat is part of the herd’s natural inclination for survival. Moving into close care in smaller communities makes that more available. Combined with national responsiveness during overwhelming disaster, micro communities provide maximum coverage.

Because we had to slow down we discovered what slowing down will give us. If there is one thing that has contributed to American angst and depression and overwhelming stress that has led us toward un-health, it is the frenetic, driven, crazy pace of life. It is by slowing down that we will catch up. Doing less with more is therapeutic. Slow shops, slow church, slow family, slow urban markets, slow and unhurried education – will create more good than anything we could have chosen for ourselves. Ironically, through the worst, it was chosen for us.

There is a difference between information and wisdom. The information explosion has saturated us through infinite web pages and unending streams of social media. We have not become wiser by drinking through this fire hose. We have become overwhelmed. Our children do not know how to discern the difference between timeless truth and temporary opinion. And we have been entertained to death. We have become sensory junkies. The coming of the slow quiet reminds us of the “deep down things.” Slow down. Listen. Go deep. Love. Make justice in ways that matter. Don’t confuse the secondary with the primary. Embrace neighbor. Wonder at the spectacular beauty. Praise your God.

***

All good rides come to an end sometime and this one did as well. How beautiful it was. How free and fresh. What a world we temporarily pass through. Worry not about tomorrow. Tomorrow will worry for itself. But rather seek the reign of the Spirit in and among you. And it shall appear.

My hard-working electrician dropped by today to work on an outside project. Mindful of our distance, we chatted each other up, especially as regards the pandemic and who we know that has been affected. He has family in the health care sector working directly with patients. They are lacking the most basic resources for handling the demands of the Coronavirus. At the moment, his family who are medical personnel are being rationed one protective mask a day. Respirators are far and few between. At the moment, tests are unavailable..

We have no idea what the political leanings of the other is and it didn’t seem to matter. Two guys in the driveway talked about the future and what we could learn from all this. He smiled and said,

“People are funny, they usually don’t change unless they have to. Well, now we have to.”

Nothing truer could have been said. And in the span of twenty minutes we talked about what seemed to be obvious. The summary is something like this:

Pandemics are threats that equal and probably exceed national military threats. The only way to deal with them in the future is preparedness. It’s not acceptable to wait for the worst to come and then scramble to pull together a response. If our military preparedness at home and abroad includes personnel, weaponry, bases, ships, planes, and the intelligence and command apparatus to coordinate it all, why in the world would we not have a standing system of equal power to address pandemics?

We need a national command center vested with pandemic vigilance. This command center would not only be connected to a network of response centers across the nation, but also with international partners. Viruses are no respecters of national borders. An effective response must be an international one – with monitoring and collaboration. The US could lead the way by forming a kind of NATO for pandemics in our own time.

It needs to be enacted and funded by Congress so that it can’t be neglected, ignored or disbanded by any future administration.

It needs to be lodged in a reasonable organizational home. The Pentagon comes to mind. In relation to national health services. Related to national homeland security and intelligence services.

In the same way that the National Guard is on standby, distributed through all our states, ready to activate and deploy when needed, so a Pandemic Guard or Reserve must be ready, equipped and empowered to respond in a moment’s notice. We need relevant and current stockpiles of needed supplies throughout the country. They can deploy military-type portable hospitals when necessary.

There is no reason that a country of our capacity cannot do this. And though one never defeats a pandemic virus like a conventional enemy, we can protect ourselves in meaningful and quick ways, minimizing the damage and returning to ongoing life in reasonably quick ways.

This is one of those legitimate and necessary functions of a government. We can do it and in a bi-partisan way. And strangely enough, an initiative like this might be the kind of unifying thing that pulls nations together in common cause, a mutually beneficial international thrust that is more worthy of our time, personnel and resources than wasting those same things making war on one another.

At least, that’s what my electrician and I think.