When I was studying at Columbia Theological Seminary, we were required to complete a course on contextual theology. The main emphasis of the course was to challenge us to be reflective when considering our contexts for engaging in ministry. One day our professor used an analogy which I have never forgotten. When we are asked to consider our contexts for living or ministry, it is a little like asking a fish to describe the water in the fishbowl where he lives. It is a difficult thing to do! I share this because as we stay at home, this is an opportunity to consider our social, political, religious and economic contexts. What about our contexts are good and life giving, and what is life diminishing and sinful?
I have been reading Matthew’s account of Jesus’ last week of life. Matthew succinctly describes what Jesus thought was life giving and what was sinful. In fact, Jesus does not mince words.
The first thing Jesus does, after entering into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, is head to the Temple. It was a place of worship for the Jews, but during this holiday week of Passover, the city is full of foreigners, who are also headed to the Temple for prayer. Jesus becomes irate with what he sees is going on in this religious, holy place of worship. Sales people have set up tables in the courtyard, peddling animals to be used in the sacrifice of worship. What is infuriating to Jesus is the economic injustice he sees – those with more money are able to buy the bigger animals for sacrifice. Its how the religious elite made money for their institutional maintenance and to line their pockets. Jesus wasn’t critical of having money; he was critical of how money was being used to divide. This is Jesus’ first encounter after entering Jerusalem.
The last thing Jesus does before he is betrayed and arrested is preach a sermon, one of my favorites – in Matthew 25. “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, all the nations will be gathered before him and he will separate people like a shepherd separates goats and sheep. And he will say to the sheep, ‘Come, you are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you, for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’” He goes on to say that whenever we do this to the least of these, we do it to Christ himself. These are Jesus’ final words to his followers before his betrayal and arrest.
Holy Week, as we call it, is bracketed, according to Matthew, by Jesus’ absolute criticism of the misuse of money so that it creates a divide between those who have special privileges and those who are simply trying to survive. He closes the bracket with a call to welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, provide water for those who thirst, clothe and visit.
Perhaps, during this stay at home time, we might reflect about how, in our culture today, we have misused money to separate people. All those institutions which give privilege to those who have money and overlook the needs of those who have none. And we might also consider how we are doing with Jesus’ admonitions to feed, clothe, welcome, care for and visit. Apparently, these were important issues for Jesus, given that this is what he was doing and teaching in the final days of his life. And when our stay at home time ends, how will the church of Jesus Christ be a voice for the issues which Jesus considered to be of most importance?
It is difficult to do contextual theology, but it affords us an opportunity to live as God intended for us to live.
One of my favorite stories of the early church comes after that great day of Pentecost, when Peter preached and thousands became believers in Jesus Christ. This story is short and we may overlook it, because it is simple and much less dramatic than Pentecost. From Acts 2: 43-47, remembering that this was a time of persecutions, Jesus has just been crucified, and the early followers of Jesus were huddled, fearfully, in their homes:
“Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were
being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all
things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and
distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as
they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home
and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God
and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord
added to their number those who were being saved.”
What resonates with me is that during a time of crisis, the early Christians did not live as if “everyone was looking out for themselves”, but they recognized their common humanity and supported one another, even those who had need. They continued to worship and celebrate meals together (perhaps communion as we now know it) in their homes and they did it with glad and generous hearts. Praising God, giving thanks to God, having the goodwill of all people even during tragedy and dark, frightening days. This is what the people of God, we who proclaim we are followers of Jesus Christ, are called to do in our present crisis.
A couple of weeks ago I read an article about Christina Koch, who set the record for the longest single spaceflight in history by a woman. She was asked how she remained sane in such a small space for such a long time with only 11 other human beings, and how what she learned might be important for us as we live through the isolation created by Covid19. She maintained that having a routine was important and learning new skills kept the boredom at bay. The most significant advice she offered to me was to give thanks for the blessings of this day, and even more importantly, the blessings we will only experience during this time. The pandemic will end and we will come out of our isolation, just as Koch’s mission came to an end. There are blessings in these days, which we may not experience again, at least not to the extent we are experiencing them now.
Here are a few of the blessings I am experiencing:
An opportunity to slow down, be reflective, enjoy the beauty of spring
in North Carolina.
More time to talk with folks, even if it is by phone.
A renewed sense of our common humanity in this country; I am awed
by the stories of grace, sacrifice and generosity I am hearing every
I heard an economist say today, someone who is most concerned
about our economy and the millions of folks without jobs, that our
health comes first. Our economy will recover, but death is death.
And we simply have to look out for one another.
Restaurant owners who are now committed to providing meals
for those without jobs.
I planted a garden last weekend, something I have not been able to do
in the past 20 years, even though I love gardening.
With Holy Week approaching, an opportunity to be reflective about the meaning of this significant week, without all the trappings of Easter bunnies, eggs, etc. I do love celebrations, but maybe we can experience Easter from a different perspective this year.
I invite you to compose your own list of blessings during this time. It reminds us that the God who created us and the Christ who suffered crucifixion promise to journey with us. And the new life of the resurrection is even now stirring all around us.
Many blessings to you this week!
We all have been through dark times; we all have experienced the death of someone we love. Four years ago, my father died of congestive heart failure as my sister and I held his hands in the ICU in a Gainesville, Georgia hospital. One year later my husband died of the same disease at the age of 62. For several years I experienced the stages of grief, which from time to time, circle back around. The stages of grief, according to most psychologists, are: Denial (avoidance, confusion, shock and fear), Anger (frustration, irritation, anxiety), Bargaining (struggling to find meaning, reaching out to others, telling one’s story), Depression (overwhelmed, helplessness, flight), and Acceptance (exploring options, new plan in place, moving on).
Jesus felt grief. In the Gospel of John there is an account of his good friend (and perhaps his cousin, as some biblical scholars suggest) Lazarus’ death. Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, send for Jesus while their brother is ill. When Jesus arrives, Lazarus has been dead for three days. Jesus immediately went to the tomb where he was buried, and upon arriving, we are told that Jesus wept. (Chapter 11, verse 35) Jesus understands our grief because he felt the same grief. As the story unfolds, Jesus is able to bring forth new life for Lazarus, perhaps foreshadowing his own death and resurrection. While those who are dead do not often come back to life, we do believe in the power of Jesus to bring forth new life in the midst of death. That is the heart of our understanding of the resurrection and the center of our faith.
We, as a community, as a nation and as global citizens are experiencing grief. Every day we are kept apprised of the death totals as Covid19 marches onward. We are grieving, not just individually but collectively. We are experiencing all the stages of grief. As people of faith and disciples of Jesus Christ, our faith in the promise of new life creates a foundation upon which we can move through our grief. Healing will come. The wounds may always remain, but healing will happen. Life will probably not be the same as it was before this pandemic, but a new way of being and living will emerge.
These words from Henri Nouwen brought me comfort after the deaths of my father and my husband, and they continue to bring me comfort today. And I hope they will bring you comfort as well:
“There’s a time ‘to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance’ (Eccles. 3:4). But what I want to tell you is that these times are connected. Mourning and dancing are part of the same movement of grace. Somehow, in the midst of your mourning, the first steps of the dance take place. The cries that well up from your losses belong to the song of praise. Those who cannot grieve cannot be joyful. Those who have not been sad cannot be glad. Quiet often, right in the midst of your crying, your smile comes through your tears. And while you are in mourning, you already are working on the choreography of your dance. Your tears of grief have softened your spirit and opened up the possibility to say ‘Thanks.’ You can claim your unique journey as God’s way to mold your heart and bring you joy.”
We will be able to dance again – and together!
Covid-19 disease continues to spread, thousands of people around the world are dying, New York City has become an epi-center of the virus in the United States, and today we received word that over 3 million Americans are now unemployed. We are all asked to stay at home for an indefinite period of time in an attempt to reduce the spread of the virus. Our health care workers, who are indeed our heroes, are stretched to the limit without protective equipment, and ventilators are in short supply.
The words of the hymn “How Firm a Foundation” brings me comfort and hope.
“How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord, is laid for
your faith in God’s excellent word! What more can be
said than to you God hath said, to you who for refuge
to Jesus have fled?
Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed, for I am
thy God, and will still give thee aid; I’ll strengthen thee,
help thee, and cause thee to stand, upheld by my
righteous omnipotent hand.
When through the deep waters I call thee to go, the rivers
of sorrow shall not overflow; for I will be near thee, thy
trouble to bless, and sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.”
God will indeed bless our troubles. Perhaps this tragic pandemic is a new beginning for us as a nation. A nation where we will remember that we are all equal and interconnected. That our families and our communities are more precious to us than our possessions. That our health systems must work for all of us or we will all suffer. That love, patience and empathy are life giving and greed, selfishness, and panic are life denying. Phyllis Tickle, author, sociologist, university professor, has written about a movement we had begun to see in our religious life – emerging Christianity. Her book, The Great Emergence, describes how every 500 years the church goes through a major upheaval/division/crisis. During those times of crisis, the church is confronted with making choices about the “way we have always practiced our faith” with how we might change as we move into the future. The church has been struggling with this issue for several decades now, as mainline denominations have experienced a decline in membership. When you are in the midst of the crisis or storm, it is difficult to see what is on the other side when the storm subsides. So, while many folks have written about the emerging church, we have not been able to see our way through this chasmic change.
I don’t know what life will look like after this pandemic passes into the history books. What I am certain of is that it will pass and the world that will be left to us will look considerably different. Perhaps we will have the gift of being able to re-shape our life together. The church, with our message of God’s love and grace and Jesus Christ’s teachings, will have a crucial voice in helping us to re-shape our future. Maybe the church has been struggling with the mechanics of our faith and we now have an opportunity to witness to the heart of our faith.
“that soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.”
My grandmother was the seventh child of seven children and her father was a farmer, scratching out a living in middle Georgia. She was a child during the years of the Depression and was a young wife and mother during World War II. She would often tell me stories of what it was like in those decades of depression and war. During the Depression, her parents struggled to feed such a large family. My great-grandmother had a victory garden. Victory, or war gardens as they were also called, provided vegetables, fruit and herbs to augment the rations coming from the federal government and reduce stress on the nation’s food supply. They were considered to be a morale booster so that people could feel a modicum of control and empowerment during the chaos of those decades. No matter how little food my great-grandmother had to put on the table to feed seven children, she would always put a covered plate of food on the back porch each evening. The reason for the covered plate on the back porch: many people were homeless in those Depression years and would wander up and down country roads looking for work. My great-grandmother put that plate on the back porch for any sojourner who needed something to eat. She was determined to care for her neighbors and strangers, regardless of how little food they had on their own table.
We have lived through tough times in this country before. We have lived through it, raised each other up, sacrificed for the common good and renewed our faith in the human race and even more importantly, in God. We can do it again. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, president during many of those years, once said: “We have always held to the hope, the belief, the conviction that there is a better life, a better world, beyond the horizon.”
The Apostle Paul writes to the Hebrew people (the book of Hebrews is believed to be an early Christian sermon, written to people who were living in their own chaos and persecution): “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses (my words: perhaps my great-grandmother and grandmother and many others), let us also lay aside every weight and the sin (my words: of selfishness, perhaps) that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” And the race we run is almost never a sprint, but rather a marathon. It takes perseverance, patience, determination, a concern for other people, and an ability to dig deep into our souls and gain our strength and courage from God, our Creator. Paul continues by saying “lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.” (Chapter 12) Perhaps there is much healing needed in our communities, in our country, and around the globe. Perhaps this pandemic is making us aware of all that is in need of healing.
I read this last week, written by Kitty O’Meara:
And the people stayed home. And read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and made art, and played games, and learned new ways of being, and were still. And listened more deeply. Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some met their shadows. And the people began to think differently.
And the people healed. And, in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal.
And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully, as they had been healed.”
Prayers and love for you all!
When I was growing up in Atlanta, Georgia (I am a baby boomer), houses had front porches, only rich people had garages (at least from my child’s perspective), kids played outside after our homework was completed until it became dark, families visited on front lawns or had backyard cookouts when the summer nights were warm, and we knew all our neighbors. If you misbehaved, your parents were bound to hear about it from a neighbor.
Somewhere about the 1980’s garages with remote controls became all the rage. People could leave for work in the morning, come home in the evening, and park their cars in the garage, without seeing anyone. With the rise of computers and video games, children preferred screen time to outside play. And before long we no longer seemed to know our neighbors. It is no wonder that we have become an incredibly individualistic society, replacing the importance of the common good. Individual rights and comforts seemed to supplant our understanding of sacrifice and community.
And now we face a common enemy in the form of a pandemic which affects us all – regardless of political affiliation, race, gender, economic status, and now, we are learning, even age. Coronavirus is not discriminating. As we are being instructed to limit our contact with people and stay at home, we are re-learning or re-discovering what it means to care about the common good. And the common good knows no national boundaries; this is a global pandemic. The undeniable truth is that the quality of my life depends on the quality of your life. We are learning in our isolation, the value of the common good and community. And that’s the irony, isn’t it?
The Apostle Paul describes the church as being the Body of Christ. He says in his letter to the Corinthians (chapter 12), that we can not dismiss the heart from the lungs, or the knees from the elbows, if we want to function as a healthy body. In fact, he says, the members of the body which we might consider to be the lesser members, may, in fact, be the more important members for the functioning of the body.
A friend recently posted on Facebook that while she was driving through her neighborhood this week, she was surprised to see children outside riding their bikes and playing (all after school activities have been suspended), neighbors were visiting across their driveways and fences. It was something she had not seen in a while. With restaurants closed, families are forced to sit down and share a home cooked meal (or at least take out). She nostalgically mused that it reminded her of her childhood, when we realized the value of family, neighbors, community and children playing. Maybe one of the lessons we can glean from this tragic pandemic is that it is an incredible gift from God to be able to live in relationship with our family, friends, and neighbors, near and far. In our short-term isolation, we are recognizing the value of community.
When I was a college student, home for spring break, our family decided to take a vacation to the Gulf Shores. My father was determined to sail his 22 foot sailboat in the Gulf, much to my mother’s chagrin. The first morning after we arrived, my father announced that “today is the day!” The sky was crystal blue, the ocean calm, only puffs of clouds and a gentle wind. My mother decided to spend the morning by the pool, while the rest of the family set sail.
We were having a delightful morning sailing, when suddenly in the distance a miniature tornado appeared before us. When I called my father’s attention to what I was seeing, and after he muttered a few words under his breath, he gave the small tornado a name – a water spout. In a matter of minutes our calm, gentle, delightful morning turned to fear, anxiety and panic. I yelled at my father to do something, as the water spout seemed to be approaching at a terrifying and alarming speed. My father calmly answered me, “We wait. We cannot outrun a water spout.” “What? You have to be kidding. What if it hits us?” To which he calmly answered, “Well, you know how to swim don’t you?” And then, miraculously, just as suddenly as the spout appeared, it disappeared.
It seems to me that we have been hit by a water spout of sorts, the name of which is Covid19, a global pandemic which has upended our lives and even more seriously threatens our lives. We cannot outrun it. But we do know how to swim. Jesus has given us those swimming lessons. He was in a similar situation, when one day he got into a boat with his disciples to sail across the lake. “A windstorm swept down on the lake, and the boat was filling with water and they were all in danger.” The disciples pleaded with Jesus to do something because they were perishing. And he responded “Where is your faith?” (Luke 8: 22-25) A little harsh maybe, but Jesus is reminding the disciples to have faith in him, through whom all things are possible. Pray without ceasing. Be generous and compassionate towards neighbors, particularly those in need. In other words, don’t just think about yourselves. Be grateful for the gifts of today and entrust the future to God. Recognize that we are all in the boat together, and Jesus is right there sitting in the midst of us.
The storm will pass. Our job is to not panic, but have faith in the living God, who sails with us! And to do all we can to help our neighbors and recognize that we are all in this together. We know how to swim.
Reverend debbie osterhoudt
I am very excited to join in the ministry at Peace Presbyterian Church as interim pastor! I graduated from Vanderbilt University and received my Master of Divinity from Columbia Seminary in Decatur, GA. Before serving at Peace Presbyterian, I served in Triangle area churches as pastor, associate pastor and interim pastor for 33 years. I have a passion for my ministry and study, travel, walking, sailing (which I learned from my father) and gardening.