On Ash Wednesday, Holy God, you reminded us that we are dust and to dust we shall return. In these days when disease threatens life as we know it, we recognize our true nature as creatures of dust subject to the iron law of change. Thank you for time and again breathing new life into these dry bones. Thank you for the boundless gift of your love which neither time nor space nor life nor death nor anything else in all of creation can alter. Amen.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 3-27-20
Welcome to the fifth week in Lent and the first week of Governor Ned Lamont’s “stay-at-home” order for the State of Connecticut. My wife, Nicole, who is Senior Minister at First Church in Windsor, my two daughters, who were sent home from their respective colleges to do distance learning, and I are learning to share work space in what a couple of weeks ago seemed like a more-than-adquately large house. I’m always glad when we’re together as a family, but the circumstances of this together time are difficult.
One of the difficult moments for me was two weekends ago. My oldest daughter, Fiona, who is a senior at Williams College, was required to leave campus along with almost all of her classmates. The campus is closed because of coronavirus. When the moveout notice came, I felt a mixture of sadness for Fiona–who was very upset to have to say goodbye to her friends, miss her final crew season, and miss all of the other rituals of senior spring–but also some selfish happiness that she would be coming home for a while.
What I wasn’t ready for was the feeling I had helping her pack and move out of her apartment. I suddenly had the realization that I was moving my oldest from college for the last time. Fiona went to boarding school for high school. So the rituals of move-in day and move-home day have been a part of our lives for the past eight years. In the fall, Fiona will be beginning her first full-time job and living on her own in Boston. She will be a full-fledged adult. This was a big moment, but there was no graduation ceremony, no bacclaureate. The family didn’t have time to gather. There were no graduation presents or cake. Also, the weather wasn’t right. In the past, moving our children from their dorms was done in the warm, late spring sunshine. The day I moved Fiona from her campus apartment for the last time was cold and gray.
We will get through this crisis time as a family. We will get through this crisis time as a church. And I’m hopeful, though the behavior of some worries me, that we will make it through this time as a nation. But we are lying to ourselves if we don’t recognize the fear, grief, and loss that many are experiencing. The kind of loss that Fiona and I and the rest of our family is experiencing around senior spring has a name for it: “ambiguous loss.” Ambiguous loss is a term coined by professor and psychotherapist Pauline Boss. Her book is entitled Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief.
We experience ambiguous loss when conventional rituals and processes around grief are either unavailable or inadequate. Too often our culture devalues ritual, but things like funerals, graduations, weddings, going-away parties, or simply the chance to say good-bye are hugely important for helping us process grief and helping us heal. When those things aren’t available, grief gets frozen and our emotional and spiritual development gets stuck. A lot of us are going through experiences of ambiguous loss. It’s important that we recognize this and find ways to grieve and to heal.
A way to move through the experience of ambiguous loss is to find other ways of making meaning of the experience. For example, my dad came out as gay in 1991 and died of AIDS in 2012. I am dealing with this ambiguous loss by writing a memoir. How can we find creative ways of making meaning in the midst of global pandemic?
Ezekiel 37 records the prophet’s vision of a “valley of dry bones.” These are the remains of a devastating battle or a devastating disease: dead left unburied, lives left unmemorialized. It’s a terrifying vision of social annihilation. God asks Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel responds, “O God, you know.” Then God answers God’s question by reconnecting the bones and putting flesh on them. Through God’s power the dismembered corpses are “re-membered” and given new life. The bones in this vision aren’t just the remains of ancient, long-forgotten soldiers. They’re your bones. They’re my bones. In this time when coronavirus has dismantled our expectations and thrown our futures into confusion, can we live? I can’t wait for God’s miraculous answer.
God of yesterday, today, and tomorrow, we are not alone. Though we may find ourselves in a trackless and frightening wilderness you provide the necessary resources to see us through. You raise up leadership from unexpected places. Give us the courage to lead and the willingness to follow. You show us the way to get through this. The way we get through this is together. Amen.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 3-20-20
It’s a bit of a risk writing a piece scheduled to publish two days from now. A lot could change and likely will change in the intervening hours.
This morning I listened to the New York Times podcast “The Daily,” which I find helpful because the host, Michael Barbaro, usually takes one current issue and goes a bit more in depth than most news broadcasts.
Today’s podcast was an interview with New York governor Andrew Cuomo on his state’s response to coronavirus. I appreciated Governor Cuomo’s frank and honest assessment of the situation in his state and the clear actions New York is taking to “flatten the curve,” that is, slow the spread of the virus so that the healthcare system isn’t overhwhelmed, which will increase the chance that deaths can be minimized.
At the end of the interview Governor Cuomo made a direct appeal to everyone in his state to set their desires and self-interest aside for the good of the whole. He particularly appealed to those whose risk of serious health consequences from the virus is low to nevertheless observe social distancing protocols. He recognized that for many the closing of bars and businesses would have serious economic consequences but that in this case, saving lives comes first. As long as we have our lives, Governor Cuomo argued, we have an opportunity to figure out together how we will get through the economic consequences of this crisis.
I find myself strangely moved by the interview. I think the reason is that it reflects my values and my understanding of Christian values. You personally may not like Governor Cuomo. You may disagree with his policies and political positions on other important issues. The point of this piece is not to argue politics. The point is that the rhetoric of caring for one’s neighbor–”loving one’s neighbor as oneself”–as the Bible puts it, has been so absent from our politics for so long. I found it deeply moving to hear a politician calling for that kind of moral action.
The Old Testament Scripture for the fourth week in Lent is 1 Samuel 16:1-13. It tells the story of how God sent the prophet Samuel to find a new king for Israel. The new king didn’t come from the ruling class. He wasn’t rich, famous, or endowed with other conventional qualifications for the job (except, perhaps, that he was male, which is another “What’s Up” for another time). That future king, who was named David, turned out to be the greatest king of ancient Israel and the ancestor of the one Christians would come to recognize as Savior of the World, namely, Jesus.
The message of Scripture is that God raises up leaders from unexpected places in times of crisis. Our world is now in a time of crisis. Our politicians are calling for moral leadership. Now is our time as a church–one that professes to follow Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as yourself”–to provide moral leadership for our town and the wider world.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 3-13-20
This week I followed my normal work schedule. I sat down at my desk, got my “to do” list from Sue, our Office Manager, and began with the first item: “First Edition article.” Usually that means I write “What’s Up with Pastor Todd” based on a theme for the week or a Scripture text. The Scripture text for this week is Exodus 17:1-7. You’ll find my reflections on the text below in the “Lenten Reflections Week 3” article.
Four days later what would otherwise function adequately as “What’s Up with Pastor Todd” is in need of an update. The reality of coronavirus is inviting us as individuals and communities to make rapid changes out of concern for the health and wellbeing of all.
Your leadership on congregational and denominational levels has been monitoring the situation closely. In a separate email you will be receiving details of our decision to close the church for two weeks beginning Friday, March 13 through Sunday, March 22. This is in compliance with recommendations from the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ. The mission trip to Puerto Rico has also been postponed. We hope to organize a mission trip for autumn 2020. During the weeks to come we will find creative ways to stay connected, attend to appropriate needs, and continue our spiritual preparation for Easter.
Worship will continue through our Facebook livestream. As usual, sermon recordings will be available on the website. There will be more updates to come, so please check your email. Also, please help your friends and neighbors who may not use email or have access to Facebook stay connected and stay informed. Even though the church will be closed to the public, Sue will return to the office on Monday. You can email or call her with questions, or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 3-13-20
Congratulations! You’ve made it to the third week of Lent! We’re haflway through our season of fasting and prayer that ends Easter Sunday! How’s your practice been going? Last Sunday Connecticut shifted to Daylight Savings Time, so now when I get up for my 35 minutes of meditation-prayer, it’s not only quiet but also dark in the house. The pets scamper and wag until I fill their bowls with breakfast. Then I sit on my cushion while morning light slowly fills the sunporch. It sounds lovely. And it is lovely. But while the universe simply does it’s thing without anxiety or self-centered thought, I’m faced with my racing mind. I rehearse conversations I had the night before: “I should have said this!” I write sermons. I add to my to do list. Part of the value of sitting still in silence is accepting the mess that is my own mind. This is important because accepting my own mess is the first step in taking responsibility for it.
While I sit as still as possible I bring my attention to the breath. (Remember: “breath” and “spirit” are the same word in the Bible’s original languages!) My mind inevitably scampers away like a puppy that isn’t yet housebroken, but that’s OK. Puppies scamper. Minds wander. That’s just the nature of puppies and minds. Nevertheless, eventually attention returns to the breath. The longer I remain still, the longer attention remains on the breath. Mind stills. The puppy settles down. I notice a clear, calm space near my heart center. Not everything’s a mess after all. A pure, unchanging oasis exists. I can access it. And so can you.
When my youngest daughter, Olivia, was old enough, Nicole and I invited her to take responsibility for tidying up her own bedroom. Mostly this meant putting her toys in the toybox and books on the bookshelf. Nicole and I did this not because we were trying to be mean, horrible parents, but because we believed (and still believe) that learning to take responsibility for your own mess is a key piece of becoming a mature adult. Nevertheless, Olivia spent hours sitting in the middle of her mess screaming and crying and yelling, “I can’t do it, daddy.” Hoping that Nicole or I would relent and clean up her mess for her. It was tempting. Who wants to listen to a child scream for hours on end?
Instead, I would sit with her in her mess, point to a toy, and say, “Pick up that toy and put it in the box.” When she was truly and finally convinced that I would not clean up her mess for her, Olivia might venture to put a toy in the toybox. Then I’d point to another and repeat the process. It was excruciating and time consuming. No doubt it would have been quicker for me to clean her room for her. But I loved her, and I wanted her to grow into an adult that could take care of herself, so I persisted.
Our Scripture for this coming Sunday comes from Exodus 17. It is one of many “complaint” stories from the Israelites’ wilderness journey. Compared to the reliably brutal structure of Egyptian slavery, freedom in the wilderness was messy and anxiety provoking. The Israelites complained against Moses saying they would rather go back to Egypt than continue through the wilderness to the Promised Land. God’s response to the people’s complaints varied from providing for them to punishing them for their lack of faith.
A key to successful transition is handling anxiety and the resulting complaints. Some complaints express legitimate needs of the community. Even though Olivia was old enough to clean her room, she was not old enough to make her own supper. The need for supper was a legitimate need, so Nicole and I fed her supper, of course. Sometimes, however, complaints arise from emotional or spiritual immaturity. In this case, it is incredibly important for leadership NOT to give in to complaints. Rather, compassionate leadership will equip individuals with the tools to tend to their own mess. Just like each of us has a role to play in maintaining a safe space in church by taking responsibility for washing our own hands and managing our own health, each of us has a role to play in maintaining a safe emotional space by finding effective ways to manage our own anxiety.