Sunday, March 29, 2020

untie him and let him go

"I am the resurrection and the life."

Today's Gospel at Mass relates the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, and it's full of meaning for us today.  

Quick recap for anyone who needs it (John 11:1-45 if you'd like to read in its entirety): 

When Lazarus took ill, his sisters - Martha and Mary - sent word to Jesus of their brother's grave condition. Clearly, he was a close friend of the three siblings, as the message they send is: "Master, the one you love is ill."

Yet Jesus delays his return to Judea by two days, knowing Lazarus will be dead by the time he arrives. 

When he does return, Martha goes out to meet him: "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." "I am the resurrection and the life," he tells her.
Mary has stayed at home - perhaps utterly overtaken by grief, perhaps even a little angry (or maybe even a lot angry) with Jesus for not returning sooner. When Martha returns to the house and then takes her to Jesus, she also says, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." 

If you prayed with this Gospel as one might in the practice of 
lectio divina, you might imagine the scene at Lazarus' tomb - all the people weeping, even Jesus himself. I imagine that Jesus weeps not only because he loves Lazarus and his sisters, but also because he is saddened by everyone else's grief. I even let myself wonder a little, if in his humanity, Jesus perhaps briefly wondered at his decision to delay his return to Bethany. Even knowing he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead, if he wondered, in his great compassion, if he should have returned to heal Lazarus on his sickbed, and spared his friends and their community this grief. 

The stone is rolled away, and Jesus speaks those powerful words: "Lazarus, come out!"
Lazarus emerges from the tomb, bound in burial cloths, and Jesus tells those gathered, "Untie him, and let him go."

One of the questions that naturally flows from this reading today, is, where is God in a pandemic?

Over the last few weeks, I'm sure we've all heard various takes on why this is happening, and various answers to questions about where God is right now and exactly what he is doing. 

I do not claim to know the mind of God, but I believe God is with us right now... In every single person. The people you're at home with; the person you wave to from across the street on your evening walk; the medical professionals risking their lives; the grocery store workers trying desperately to keep shelves stocked; God is even with us in the toilet paper hoarders and panic buyers. And yes, God is even in you.

The presence, the spark, of the Divine, is difficult to recognize sometimes, but that does not make it any less real; it only means that we do not perceive it perfectly.

Some might say that God is, as Jesus was at the beginning of today's Gospel, remaining "in the place where he was" - distant - perhaps choosing to remain distant in order to teach us some kind of lesson. Clearly, there is plenty all of us can learn from these times. However, I have a hard time with the suggestion that sometimes follows, that God is inflicting this scourge upon the human race with intent. That seems hollow to me, particularly when people are losing loved ones to a terrible disease. I certainly wouldn't want to tell someone who lost a beloved friend or relative to COVID-19, "Well, God is purifying us through this pandemic, so don't worry, they didn't die in vain. The world will be better for this."

Ouch. To me, that makes God sound like a cosmic jerk. 

Could it be that God is willingly inflicting this pandemic upon humanity? Well, sure. We could also ask, is God capable of suspending the laws of science to miraculously end this pandemic? Yes, certainly. But I don't think that's the point, in either case.  

I think the more important point is that none of us know the mind of God - that's something, particularly in times like these, I wish some of us would be perhaps a bit more thoughtful and honest about. We don't know the mind of God. We can't. That's for God alone. Not us. We can, and do, project what we think God is thinking or meaning in all of this - and we really do like to! - I think because it allows us the illusion of some measure of control.

It can be difficult to sit before God in silence and admit that we do not understand, and ultimately that we do not need to understand - to admit, to embrace the inherent mystery. Again, just as we cannot perfectly perceive the Divine presence, so also we cannot claim to know God's thoughts. 

It is true that times like these present us with opportunities - opportunities to consider our lives and loves more deeply, to appreciate things we once took for granted, to consider our relationships with one another and our relationship with God, through a new lens, and to grow in those relationships in new ways. For those who believe, even for those whose faith-lives are shaky, times like these are certainly an opportunity for us to lean on God - even when we're also confronted with a barrage of different emotions, as perhaps Mary was angry with Jesus, but still believed in him. 

And I do think that, just as he wept with Mary and Martha and their community before raising Lazarus, Jesus weeps with us now:
As we mourn the dead. 
As we mourn the loss of our normal lives (because even "normal" on the other side of this will not be the normal we knew three months ago). As we mourn an extended pause of things we hold dear, and even simple things we just liked to enjoy at leisure.

And I believe he will raise us, just as he raised Lazarus - resurrection always follows death of any kind. With resurrection comes new freedom - "untie him, and let him go". In this sense, we see resurrection as a kind of release from captivity... making this time of hardship an opportunity for us to come to terms with the things that are binding us, the things that are holding us back from living in greater service to one another and to God. Maybe that's something worth considering more deeply.

After this time of "captivity" is ended, what might your resurrection look like? For what will you be untied? What will you be freed to do?

Sunday, March 22, 2020

holding each other up without holding hands

Sometimes, it's hard to find our own words - written or spoken - to talk about terrible things when we're going through them. 

So, if this pandemic leaves you speechless, because it is painful, because it is scary - for so many reasons:
- being physically apart from those we love, 
- being worried and scared for those we love who might fare poorly if infected, or for yourself, if you are at risk
- being worried and scared for those we love who are on the front lines of the fight, or for yourself, if you're one of those on the front lines
- seeing others suffer in illness or through loss of employment, or to suffer them ourselves, 
- being unable to physically do anything about this pandemic, 
- having to think twice about something so simple and routine as going to the grocery store  

... know that you are not alone.
This is a painful, frightening, difficult time, for so many reasons that touch us in physical, emotional, and spiritual ways. 

I don't know how things look from your side of the screen, but from this Catholic-scientist's perspective, a few things are clear:

This will get worse before it gets better. Today, just like yesterday, the only way out is through. 

But, that does not mean we are devoid of HOPE.
Things will get better!
And can you imagine how incredible it will be when we are all finally able to be together again? 

In the context of so much physical death, disease, and suffering, some might think it trite, to consider the things we can't do as a community, as church, right now, as a kind of death. In no way do I intend to trivialize the physical suffering and death caused by this pandemic - but it is also true that suffering and death have many forms, including the psychological and spiritual. Even those who manage to avoid COVID-19 infection will not escape this time completely unscathed. (Those of you who have been newly homeschooling for a week now already know that!) 

And for that reason, I think it's important for those of us who believe in God, to remember what comes next at this time of year - fast-forward a little bit to Good Friday.
What follows Good Friday? Easter.
Resurrection always follows death - and it doesn't matter if that death is physical, emotional, or spiritual. Think about today's Gospel - the story of the man born blind - the healing of his blindness was a certain kind of resurrection, was it not? 

Resurrection. Always. Follows. Death. 

As we move into this second week of social distancing, homeschooling, working from home, or not having the option to work from home, and perhaps struggling to find childcare - whatever this situation looks like for you - let's hold one another in our hearts - hold each other up during this time when we cannot hold each other's hands! Let us all do whatever we can to help, even in the smallest of ways.

I wrote a prayer a few nights ago that I shared with my women's group via videoconference yesterday morning, and I'd like to share it with all of you here: 

Lord, on Ash Wednesday, you asked us to rend our hearts, not our garments, and return to you. 
Now, you are hidden from us; your Eucharistic presence is out of our reach.
We are starving for you, and we are starving to be with our family and friends again, in safety and health.
Help us, Lord, to help one another in this time, with the compassion you showed the man born blind and the many others you healed during your public ministry - help us to understand more deeply that when we help our sisters and brothers, we are helping you.
In our longing for the community and communion of the Mass, teach us to never again take for granted our communities of faith, or the gift of the Holy Eucharist.
Keep our hearts burning with love of you and one another.
Our hearts are rent - for those who suffer with this illness, for all caregivers, for one another. Please end this pandemic, and heal all sickness.  
Help us to trust in your mercy, and to walk in hope through this darkness, knowing that we will come through this better, and not alone, but together. 
Bless us with the grace we need now to hold each other up, when we cannot hold each other's hands.
We entrust ourselves to your mercy - and trust that, in your abiding love for all creation, all shall be well.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

there is a light

"There is a light
We can't always see
And there is a world
We can't always be
If there is a dark
That we shouldn't doubt
And there is a light
Don't let it go out..." 
-U2, 13 (There Is A Light)

To bother with saying the world has changed seems silly at this point. We all know.

The world is standing on its head, because of something we can't even see with the naked eye. Something effectively invisible, unless the tools of science are employed.

In many ways, that is the height of terror, isn't it?

And so here we are, waking in the morning and hoping maybe this was all a bad dream, and things are still normal, and we'll go to work, or the kids will go to school, and we'll go to happy hour on Friday night, like usual.
But things aren't normal, and we won't do any of these things in any normal way, probably for quite awhile.

And you know what?
It sucks.
It really does.
It sucks.

But simply, the only way out... is through.

Over the past few weeks, and particularly this week, I'm sure we've all learned a lot, and received some important reminders. I don't know what it's been like for you, but here are a few things I've learned / reminders I've received in these days.

I've learned that it's worth turning mute "off" every so often during teleconferences so that we can hear each other laugh.

I'm reminded that many people genuinely do care and want to help one another, even when there are some among us hoarding toilet paper and basic supplies. My coworkers and I are a fairly tight group, but this week was full of unexpected emails and text messages to each other, saying things like, "If you need anything, remember I'm just a couple streets away", "I want you to know, I really appreciate working with you on this project and I'm glad we're in this together"; calling into a telecon and being greeted with, "Hey stranger! It's good to hear your voice...".

Yes, seemingly invisible things are amazing. They have very visible effects! They can terrify us, they can upend our lives, they can cause irrational behavior, but they can also remind us that the most important things in life, of course, are not things, but each other.

I'm not going to lie, this work week was stressful. I don't mind mixing things up now and then, but it's truly difficult when your routine is *completely disrupted*. It's hard to go from meetings and project work with your coworkers in the same room to telecons and emails and working from your living room with your dogs (and no, I'm not complaining about the dog part!).

Right now, I don't know if there's enough wine in the world, or enough long afternoon runs, to get through this. I do know there are plenty of tears, and yes, some of them are my own.

But the only way out, is through.
And the only way to get through this, is to keep hope alive.

So whatever it is that buoys you, that keeps your spirits up, that keeps your hope fueled, do that. Pray. Meditate. Exercise (obviously, in an appropriately socially-distanced manner). Have a glass of wine over a video chat with friends. Watch a movie. Play a game with your kids. Bake. Dance. Sit in a candlelit room at night.

And check in with the people in your life, particularly those who might be scared (and yes, it's okay if you're scared, too), or who are especially vulnerable.

Please, friends, keep each other safe, stay home unless you absolutely cannot, and stay healthy.  

There is a light. Don't let it go out.