Forty

In Holy Scripture, the number forty appears again and again: The Great Flood lasts for forty days and forty nights, the Israelites wander in the wilderness for forty years; Jesus is tempted by Satan for forty days.

In biblical speak, the number forty is not an exact extent of time. Rather, it means “a really long time,” and it always refers, whether in terms of days, weeks, or years, to a duration that taxes those enduring it almost to the breaking point.  Those in the midst of such a period yearn for relief and deliverance and often call upon God for help.

I learned this week that the etymology of the word “quarantine” comes from this notion of forty, especially the forty days of Christ in the wilderness.[i]   This gives a new depth of meaning to our experience of physical distancing in these days, to our collective self-enforced quarantine, because on the other side of every biblical forty is some new grace: A renewed earth for Noah, the Promised Land for the Hebrews, and Jesus’ own ministry of healing and reconciliation for all people.

Noah - OrthodoxWiki

The Great Flood lasted forty days and forty nights.

We are already experiencing grace in unexpected places.  Each week hundreds upon hundreds of people are participating in online worship, more people, in fact, than usually attend the Cathedral in person.  Our Cathedral Good Neighbor program is reaching out to our entire parish family, creating webs of community.  Our Acts in Easter bible study is engaging scores of parishioners in formation together.

What might the other side of our quarantine, our time in this wilderness, look like?  God only knows, but I hope we have a hint in Psalm 40, when we read the words of one who has emerged from his own time of trial:

I waited patiently for the Lord;
he turned to me and heard my cry.
The Lord lifted me out of the pit,
out of the mud and mire;
The Lord set my feet on a rock
and gave me a firm place to stand.
The Lord put a new song in my mouth,
a hymn of praise to our God.

God is with us in our “forty.”  God will weave redemption through our experience of these days.  We will encounter new grace, and in times to come, we will add our own story to the wilderness journeys of our biblical sisters and brothers.

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[i] https://www.etymonline.com/word/quarantine

Who will you meet on the road?

Texas oilman Dick Bass was, by his own admission, larger-than-life.[i]  A combination of Teddy Roosevelt and Yogi Bera, Bass adventured around the world while spinning both poetry and aphorisms.  His dad, Harry Bass, developed portable oil drilling rigs and became one of the largest natural gas producers in the United States, providing Dick Bass the means to live his exaggerated life.  With a wink, Dick said of his dad, “I chose my father very carefully.  He gave me the perfect launching pad.”

When Dick Bass became bored with the flats of Texas, he almost single-handedly developed Vail, Colorado as a ski town, owning the Snowbird ski resort until a year before his death in 2015.  It was that affection for the Rockies that led to the thing for which Dick Bass is best remembered: He was the first man to scale the Seven Summits: the highest mountain peaks on each of the seven continents, including Antarctica.  In fact, it was Bass who gave the name to that accomplishment.

Dick Bass never stopped.  He never even slowed down.  And, the only thing that outpaced his movements was his mouth.  By his own proud admission, Dick Bass loved to talk about Dick Bass.  He was his own biggest fan and greatest advocate.  And so it was, in a story Bass loved to tell, that one day on a cross-country flight he settled into his first-class seat and struck up a conversation with the person seated next to him.  For hours, nonstop, Bass regaled his seatmate with his exploits, explaining the nuances of risk-taking and adventure, filling the hours and the airspace with his wisdom.

As the plane landed and passengers stood up, Dick Bass realized that he’d not learned anything at all about the man sitting next to him. About to lose his chance at an introduction, Bass offered, “Sorry friend, I didn’t catch your name.”  “That’s o.k.,” his seatmate said with a slight smile, offering his hand, “I’m Neil Armstrong.”

Dick Bass and Neil Armstrong

Dick Bass and Neil Armstrong

Can you imagine?  Moving and talking so incessantly about everything you’ve done and known that you miss the chance—right in front of you—to listen to the first person to set foot on the moon!

We are accomplished, interesting people.  Our lives are often fast-paced and maybe even adventuresome, and we have a lot to share that is worthwhile.  At other times, perhaps like the days in which we are presently living, we have, instead, much worry and anxiety to fill our time and keep us relentlessly pacing the floor.  But in either circumstance, what do we miss when we do all the talking, when we fill all the space, when we fail to pause, recognize, and listen to the stranger who may give us a word that opens our eyes and changes our world?

In Luke’s Gospel today, it is Easter afternoon.  Two followers of Jesus are leaving Jerusalem, where they have just been caught up in a frenetic, whiplash series of events.  It began a week before when the itinerant preacher from Galilee rode into the city on a donkey.  Crowds spontaneously gathered along the road, singing songs and laying palms at the preacher’s feet.  It ended five days later, when that same preacher was killed on a cross just outside the city walls.  Or so they at first thought.  Then, this very morning, word has crept through the poorer sections of the city—the sections where the preacher’s followers live—that he isn’t dead after all.  Numerous people have seen him, spoken to him, interacted with him.  The dead coming back to life?  Is that good or bad news?  These two don’t know what to make of it, so they do what a lot of people would do: They check out.  It’s too much to deal with, so they leave town quickly.

The two disciples are walking the road to Emmaus as fast as they can, and I suspect their chatter is as quick as their steps.  Back and forth in a closed loop they fill the space to confirm one another’s experience and feed one’s another’s anxieties.  A stranger approaches and falls in with them, but they ignore him, content in their preoccupation with themselves.  We aren’t told what causes the pause, whether like Dick Bass these two disciples suddenly realize their rudeness, or else the stranger ultimately elbows his way into their talk, but eventually the stranger speaks.  And it is his introduction into their conversation that breaks the cycle, reframes the pattern, makes room for a new understanding of themselves and what is happening in the world around them.

The story ends with the two disciples inviting the stranger into much more than their conversation.  They invite him into their home, into the very heart of their lives, where they are most vulnerable and most themselves.  And only then do they recognize him.  Forget the first person who set foot on the moon; this whole time they’ve been walking and talking with the one who defeated death and opened for us the way to new life!

I’ve always wondered how close the two disciples came to passing Jesus by, to ignoring his greeting altogether.  I wonder how often we do the same.

These days, we are unable to do many of the things we are accustomed to doing.  We are unable to go many of the places we used to go.  Our movements are restricted, and that means we can either race in an ever-tighter circle, both physically and emotionally, or we can pause and listen to one who wants to walk with us.

The former option is the closed loop in which the two disciples set out on their way to Emmaus, doing all the talking and filling all the space with themselves.  If we make that choice—and it is a choice—we learn nothing.  We gain no new insight.  At best, we simply keep telling ourselves our same old stories, pretending that the world hasn’t shifted irrevocably beneath our feet.  At worst, we increase our anxiety and raise our blood pressure, making the circle in which we move more and more frantic.

The latter option is what happens when the disciples pause to hear Jesus.  Because they stop their own voices, because they recede to make room for Jesus, Jesus reinterprets the world for them and their role in it.  He quells their anxiety; he transforms their despair into hope; he reveals to them that, through him, God has defeated death and the powers of death, so that they can have confidence in the face of anything.  In wonder, the two disciples say, “Were not our hearts burning within us when he was talking to us on the road?”

Pin on Icons - Feasts

Even in the midst of the major challenges and minor inconveniences of the coronavirus, this time of physical distancing provide us with that particular grace, if we’ll take it.  It grants us the chance to pause, to let go of our need to fill the space around us, to silence our own voices—including the voices in our heads—and allow the Jesus who may have been, even for us, mostly a stranger to draw near to us and speak.  When that happens, we might find that the lens through which we frame this crisis, our world, and our place in it changes.  Our priorities might alter.  Our understanding of who is important and what is valuable might shift.  We might discover that our hearts are set afire as Jesus speaks, that we awaken to his Good News of God’s overwhelming love, that we invite him into our vulnerability, and that our confidence and hope resurrect into new life.

Texas oilman Dick Bass traveled and talked to the top of the world, but he was stopped in his tracks when he encountered one who had reached the heavens.  The disciples on the Emmaus road have seen highs and lows and are anxious and confused, but they are stopped in their tracks when they meet the Lord of heaven and earth.  We are experiencing a topsy-turvy world in which up seems down and down seems up, but who knows who we might encounter; who knows what he might say; who knows how our hearts might be transformed, if we pause and listen.

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[i] https://www.latimes.com/local/obituaries/la-me-0730-richard-bass-20150730-story.html

Laughter is the Best Medicine

When I was a kid visiting my grandparents’ house, Boo and Pop always had copies of Reader’s Digest everywhere: On the kitchen cabinet, on the coffee table, even behind the toilet.

Reader’s Digest was, generally speaking, more than my child’s concentration could maintain, but there was one section to which I immediately turned: “Laughter is the Best Medicine.”  The jokes were funny, easy to get, and clean (or, if they weren’t, they went over my head).  I also never forgot that title: “Laughter is the Best Medicine.”

Of course, today we know that’s true, emotionally, psychologically, and physiologically.  The Mayo Clinic reports that laughing can help lessen depression.[i]  Further, Hara Marano reports in Psychology Today that laughter reduces pain.  We now know laughter even affects the inner lining of blood vessels, causing them to relax and expand, increasing blood flow.  In other words, laughter is good for both heart and brain health.[ii]

Individuals who can laugh at their own foibles are more forgiving of themselves and others.  Relationally, those who laugh together form bonds of trust and communion.

Divine Humor: How Laughter Benefits Us Spiritually | Guideposts

God and the people of God also commend laughter.  When the Jews return from their long exile in Babylon, the Psalmist reports, “Our mouth is filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy!” (Psalm 126:2).  And the teacher of Proverbs makes this specific instance general when he says, “A cheerful heart is a good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones.” (Proverbs 17:22)

At George H.W. Bush’s funeral, retired Senator Alan Simpson said, “Humor is the universal solvent for the pervasive abrasiveness of life.”  Healthy laughter is not escapism from reality, but rather a recognition that life is to be held lightly, taking joy in life as a precious yet ephemeral gift and proclaiming through our laughter that God’s love for us is deeper and truer than anything that may assault us.

So, in these days, remember to laugh.  Laugh at yourself.  Laugh with those you love.  Laugh at a good joke, a silly T.V. show, a slapstick gag.  Laugh, and be of glad heart.

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[i] https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress-relief/art-20044456

[ii] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/200504/laughter-the-best-medicine

Harrowing Hell

Alleluia, Christ is risen!  It is Easter Day.  The women have approached the tomb, not knowing how they will roll back the stone to anoint the corpse.  An angel has appeared and opened the tomb, revealing it to be empty.  There is no smell of decay, no body at all, and thus not funereal rites to be tended.  The women leave the tomb with both fear and great joy, we are told (more about that later), and on their way back to the disciples they meet Jesus himself, alive and resplendent.

This is the Easter story as Matthew tells it, and Christians know what Jesus does from here.  We know the resurrection stories of Jesus appearing in the upper room, of Thomas doubting, of Peter’s redemption when Jesus commands him, “Feed my sheep.”  Retrospectively, we also surely know what happened before: how Jesus spent his earthly ministry, teaching and healing.  And, finally, we know what happened during Holy Week, as Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers, washed the disciples’ feet, and carried his cross to Golgotha.

But what about the time between the crucifixion and the glorious story of Easter morning?  Where was Jesus then?  In other words, what was Jesus up to yesterday?

For the Sundays in Lent leading up to Palm Sunday, our worship services have been Morning Prayer, and the careful worshiper will have noted that on those Sundays we have recited not the Nicene Creed customary to the Eucharistic rite, but the older Apostles Creed.  In the Apostles Creed, when our statement of faith rehearses the Passion saying, “[Jesus] suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried,” the creed adds that Jesus “descended to the dead.”  From that statement, which is based in scripture on Peter’s first letter, which says, “the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead,”[i] we get the tradition called “the harrowing of hell.”

The tradition is this: On Holy Saturday, when it appears to us that Jesus is just dead and moldering in the tomb, he is—hidden to us—still at work, traveling even into hell to cast light into that desperate darkness, to offer grace to those who have long believed themselves to be lost beyond its reach, to break sniveling Satan’s power over even Satan’s own dominion and show that there is nowhere God’s love cannot reach.  The great church father Origen was so taken by this notion that he declared in wonder the hope that, in the end, even hell itself would be empty.

The Harrowing of Hell - Crisis Magazine

That is what Jesus was up to yesterday.  That is where Jesus was when, to us, he seemed to be dead and missing.  And why, on Easter Day, do I cast a glance back to Holy Saturday?  Because this is admittedly a very strange Easter.  From what I can gather, this is the first Easter in at least seven hundred years in which, across the globe, most churches have not gathered in person on Easter.  Consider that.  We are apart on the year’s holiest day, the only day without which our Christian faith decays.  Though it is Easter Day, it feels in many ways like Holy Saturday.  And so it is worth asking, what is Jesus up to?  Where, exactly, is he?

I’ll tell you where he is.  Even today, even now as we gather online, Jesus is harrowing hell.  Jesus is reaching out and gathering those who fear they are lost.  Jesus is shining light into the darkest places.

Jesus stands alongside the ICU nurse who has bruises on her face from wearing protective masks for twelve-hour shifts, supporting her as she gowns up yet again to care for her patient.

Jesus hones the intellect of the public health researcher, as that researcher sleeplessly models viral trajectory and advises us on how long we should physically distance in order to flatten the curve of disease.

Jesus encourages the industrialist who transitions his assembly line from its profit center to make instead masks, gloves, and ventilators that combat the virus and keep us all safe.

And, Jesus returns to the tomb to grieve with the family who gather no more than ten at a time to say goodbye to their loved one at graveside.

Jesus is in all of these places and others, harrowing our hells, proclaiming to us with a voice that shatters chains that God’s grace knows no bounds; that God, and not some sniveling virus, claims ultimate dominion over our lives; that Easter always follows Good Friday; and that our resurrection into God is a promise already assured.

And that is why we rejoice even this Easter Day.  That is why in the funeral rite we say, “Even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!”[ii]

It is perhaps providential that Matthew’s Gospel is assigned for this year, because only there among the Gospels does the Evangelist describe the response of the women at the tomb as both “fear and great joy.”  It is not indicative of a lack of faith for both of these emotions to exist side-by-side.  It is simply and honestly the truth to acknowledge that even on Easter this year our lives are marked by fear and stress and anxiety, that even on Easter the various hounds of hell nip at our heels.  All that, to be sure.  But it is also the case, as poet Francis Thompson wrote over a century ago, that there is a hound of heaven[iii], which does not tire and does not relent.  Grace pursues endlessly and does not give up the chase.  The hound of heaven ultimately sends the hounds of hell fleeing with their tails between their legs.

No photo description available.

On this Easter Day, Jesus has been raised from the dead, but not before he harrows hell.  Before he leaves the tomb, Jesus makes sure that no one is left there without him.  He works even now, in every shadowy space in our world, including the darkest recesses of our own individual hearts, to sow seeds of the joy that begins to bloom this very day alongside the women’s fear and our own.  It is the joy that knows no darkness can overcome the light of love.  It is the joy that knows no one is lost from God.  It is the joy of the promise of resurrection, and it is ours.  We have never needed Easter more than we do today.  Alleluia, Christ is risen!

[i] 1 Peter 4:6

[ii] BCP 483 and 499

[iii] https://www.bartleby.com/236/239.html

Clarity of Sight

Mark’s Gospel is my favorite of the four Gospels. I love Mark because it’s stripped down and brief, but also because in its brevity it hides a lot.  In some ways it’s like a sixteen-chapter riddle, begging to be figured out.

We find that especially in the middle section of Mark, between verses 8:22 and 10:52.  During that middle section, on three different occasions Jesus tries to explain to the Twelve Disciples what his life, and ministry, and coming death are all about.  This section is framed by the healing of two blind men.  In the first case, at the beginning of the section, the blind man’s initial healing is only partial.  He can see a little bit, but everything is still fuzzy.  In the second healing, at the end of this section, the second blind man, Blind Bartimaeus, recognizes who Jesus is even before Bartimaeus is healed.  In other words, his sight is crystal clear even before his eyes start working.

They Look Like Trees Walking - Lectionary Reflections for February ...

“I see people, but they look like trees walking.”

That’s all a metaphor for how our own understanding as latter day followers of Jesus is fuzzy and slow in coming.  We talk a lot about Jesus and throw his name casually around, acting like we see and understand what discipleship is all about, but often our sight is dim.

Right in the middle of Mark’s central section, after Jesus has already explained his coming Passion twice, the disciples have their famous argument about who among them will be the greatest.  After so much time with Jesus, they still think that it’s all about such worldly things as, well, things, and status, and the inside track.  And despite Jesus’ repeated attempts to explain that love and grace are the only things that matter, it won’t be until the Passion comes that that the disciples’ sight begins to clear.

The reading about the disciples’ argument came up in the Daily Office on Monday, and it occurred to me that we are living today in the central section of Mark in real life just as in the lectionary.  We’ve known Jesus for a long time, but now, in these days, as we face uncertainties unlike any experienced in generations, we are coming to understand with speedy clarity what Jesus’ Gospel really means.  The fuzziness is just about gone.

Jesus Heals Blind Bartimeus (Mark 10:46-52) - Analysis

We now see  with clarity how vulnerable we are and how in need we are of one another.  We see how those who are giving of themselves as servants—our healthcare workers, first responders, compassionate neighbors, and others who care for those in need—are the most worthy of our esteem.  We see that love and grace are the only real things, and how with them we already have everything of value.

Most of all, we see with clarity that the transformation of our hearts and souls comes from following the person of Jesus who lived his life, and gave his life, for all of these things.  This new sight is a gift.

We are near the end of Lent, and we will soon once again walk the way of the Passion. Except that in many ways it seems like we’ve already been walking the way of the Passion this entire Lenten season.

When we reach the other side of this season, however long it may last—when we get beyond the coronavirus and the central section of Mark in our lives—I pray that we will retain our clarity of sight.  I pray that we will, like Blind Bartimaeus, see grace wherever it is and share love whenever we can.  I think we will.  I think this experience is changing us, redeeming us, so that like Blind Bartimaeus, when we see Jesus on the road we will call out to him and follow.