1. I can’t breathe.

    We heard George Floyd crying this on Monday.

    I can’t breathe.

    We heard people gathered at 38th and Chicago saying this on Tuesday from years of frustration.

    I can’t breathe.

    The police chief, mayor, governor, and other civic leaders are struggling to lead well in a time of huge tension, mistrust, and violence. They are trying to breathe wisdom into the situation. Still we hear the refrain.

    I can’t breathe.

    And again last night, we heard a crowd, frustrated by long-term systemic injustice and racial suffering erupt in property damage. As Minneapolis Police Chief Arradondo said, there is a long trauma that comes out. They were in effect saying it loudly.

    I can’t breathe.

    It is ironic that all this happens just as the US marks 100,000 deaths from the COVID pandemic. Many of us can resonate with this feeling. We long for breath - for the black community, for those who are sick, for those who’ve suffered loss. We’re out of breath.

    One post shared a prayer from Howard Thurman, a black pastor and teacher of many civil rights leaders, called, "Lord, Lord, Open Unto Me."

    Open unto me, light for my darkness
    
Open unto me, courage for my fear

    Open unto me, hope for my despair
    
Open unto me, peace for my turmoil

    Open unto me, joy for my sorrow

    Open unto me, strength for my weakness

    Open unto me, wisdom for my confusion

    Open unto me, forgiveness for my sins
    
Open unto me, tenderness for my toughness

    Open unto me, love for my hates
    
Open unto me, Thy Self for myself
    
Lord, Lord, open unto me!

    Many of us are preparing this weekend for Pentecost, where Jesus breathes the Spirit on the disciples. The Hebrew word ruach means spirit, wind, or breath. We need God’s Holy Breath. God, pour out your Holy Breath on all who grieve, struggle, and work for a new day, a new way of being in racial justice. And let us be part of that.
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  2. I experienced a couple of firsts recently. Of course, in the past few months there have been so many firsts for so many people. Nevertheless, in my 30th year of ordained ministry, I'm still finding room for learning. In one week, I had my first experience of a Zoom memorial service, and my first pandemic-style committal service at a cemetery. Both were strange. Both were holy.

    The Zoom memorial service was for a 100-year-old woman who died peacefully. She didn't have COVID, but all those protocols kept the family from being physically together. They sought a way to honor their mother and grandmother in an appropriate way, and they came up with a great option using Zoom. As they gathered, there were traditional pieces of scripture and prayer and commendation, along with music from one home, readings from three different homes, and then time for remembrances. They remembrances came from various generations and converged on a number of ways of touching the humanity of their mother and grandmother with humor and grace. It felt holy. And then after the service, they stayed on Zoom for another hour plus - the funeral luncheon without the dishes!

    The committal service was for a 99-year-old woman. It didn't seem likely to be able to hold an in-person service that would do justice to this wonderful woman, so the family opted for a way to gather as a small group. The day was lovely (which helped), and we stood in a large circle with lots of distance. There were traditional pieces of scripture and prayer, along with a perfect poem and loving remembrances (including those of a 3-year-old granddaughter). It touched the humanity and integrated life of their mother and grandmother with humor and grace. It felt holy.

    I have heard from funeral home directors about the creative ways they are helping families deal with the sacred task of saying good-bye, when usual options are not available. As I hear them, I sense the holy work they are doing. There is much yet to learn about how this will continue to impact our usual rituals. I will remember my first experiences of a Zoom memorial service and a pandemic-style committal as holy times with humor and human wisdom.

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  3. I have never, before this post, mentioned Donald Trump and Alfred North Whitehead in the same sentence. However, as Donald Trump recently made a political point of promising to "re-open" houses of worship, I was reminded of Whitehead's critiques of religion based on imperial imagery of power. As Whitehead helpfully showed, God is not a ruling Caesar. Unfortunately, this is where Donald Trump and the evangelical leaders who rush to open up buildings during a pandemic get stuck in a fallacy. They think of religion in terms of imperial power.

    Whitehead was a mathematician and a philosopher who has had a deep impact on me for decades, especially in Process and Reality, his Gifford Lectures from 1927-1928. In Process and Reality, Alfred North Whitehead wrote, "When the Western world accepted Christianity, Caesar conquered…" That phrase has stuck with me. I understand it to mean that instead of seeing Jesus as a humble Galilean who acts with a tender care that nothing be lost, the church has kept corrupting Jesus' message by trying to make Christ into a ruling monarch or a ruthless moralist. We have treated Christ like Caesar, instead of like the Galilean carpenter who taught about seeds and surprising feasts. Whitehead said, "the deeper idolatry, of the fashioning of God in the image of…imperial rulers was retained. The church gave unto God the attributes that belonged exclusively to Caesar." The Western church has defined God in terms of ruling might instead of viewing God through the vision of Jesus.

    In this pandemic, we have an opportunity for new perspectives that will be closer to the one who is "gentle and humble in heart" (Matthew 11) to welcome us in our weariness. As Whitehead noted, the "brief Galilean vision of humility flickered through the ages, uncertainly..." That brief Galilean vision has not vanished, but it is flickering, still today. When church leaders rush to open cathedrals and impressive buildings in the midst of a pandemic, they are succumbing to the fallacy of the ruling Caesar instead of the Galilean vision of humility. The Galilean Jesus does not call us to one building-bound form of religion. The Galilean Jesus invites us to a humble new way of being human.

    I'll probably never again mention Trump and Whitehead in one breath, but it helped me to listen to Whitehead's wisdom again today. This week I'll try to live into the Galilean vision of humility that acts with a tender that nothing be lost.
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  4. I love the perspective of the Palestinian-American poet, Naomi Shihab Nye. She captures such depth and grit. Her poem, "Kindness," is one of my favorites. During the pandemic, I keep learning that this is what matters most - lives of kindness. I remember what Abraham Joshua Heschel said, "When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people." I resonate with that.

    Some of Nye's phrases in the poem are stunning to me. Nye says, "Before you know what kindness really is/you must lose things..." We understand about losing things these days, don't we?

    Nye says, "Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,/you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing." And again - "Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,/only kindness that ties your shoes/and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread..." Naomi Shihab Nye has understood sorrow and loss, and so keenly finds the truth and depth of kindness through it all. I need to hear that.

    I am grateful for Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality in St. Paul, MN, who hosted this poetry reading. Listen to Nye's reading of her poem. I find it stunning and life-giving in these days.

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  5. I woke up this morning thinking, "I am so ready for this to be over now."

    It's not.

    It is hard getting used to the long-lasting effects of this coronavirus outbreak. And yet, it is really important to keep learning this, feeling this, coming to terms with this new reality. I am not totally prepared for this. Neither are you. We need each other.

    I'll be wearing masks to the grocery store for a long time. I'll be watching how to walk the dogs while keeping social distance from others for a long time. I'll be washing my hands till they are raw for a long time. I'll be wondering "Is this appropriate social distance?" for a long time. I'll be trying to figure out how to share the good news of Christ's love when I can't do so in the ways to which I've become accustomed for a long time.

    Sounds exhausting. And it is. You probably recognize that feeling. You're probably ready for this to be over now, too.

    Since it is not over, we need each other. We need each other to keep learning how to share love from a distance of 6 feet, with masks, as much as possible. We need each other to care for health care workers in long-term settings, group homes, corrections centers, stores, and neighborhoods so they have what is needed. Along with nurses, doctors, and others in hospitals and clinics. Along with first responders, police, and social workers who are called to pressing needs. Oh, the list goes on.

    Breathe. Take one more breath. The Jewish theologian, Abraham Heschel said, "Just to be is a blessing. Just to be is holy." This moment is holy. You are a blessing.

    I woke up this morning thinking, "I am so ready for this to be over now." These dogs just said, "Time for a walk." They are wise.
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  6. At our home, we are trying to use some permaculture practices in our yard. Permaculture involves  preparing the soil with layers of "brown" (cardboard or newspaper for its carbon) and "green" (compost or green material for its nitrogen) so these nutrients can feed the soil as they decompose. Then we try to plant in guilds where nitrogen-fixers cooperate with fruit trees and perennials to create a long-lasting system. It is a no-dig method that builds soil in layers above ground without disrupting the healthy bacteria and fungi. As we've prepared soil over the past few years, it is amazing to see how much the amended soil settles through this process. We are glad to keep learning things that we get to try bit by bit. It's a constant work in progress.

    These days, it has struck me how much of my ministry is like gardening. A lot of the time, my ministry seems like bringing together nutrients that will nourish each other over time, mostly unseen. A lot of the time, ministry feels like preparing soil without getting to see results in the near future. A lot of the time, it feels like a great deal of work, followed by a lot of weeding, and then a lot of trying to keep the deer and the rabbits from eating the growth. But along the way, there are moments of beauty, goodness, and some delicious food. Along the way, ministry shows people who love and grow and care for one another and their world. It's a constant work in progress, and it helps me to approach it that way.

    As the coronavirus outbreak affects our whole globe, I'm wondering about the ways that we can be preparing the soil for what comes next. What connections can we build, or partnerships can we strengthen, or focus can we gain to nourish the soil of our church for new plantings? What are the green and brown resources to layer now and wait? There is nothing short-term about this, but working for the future. It is April in Minnesota and the soil is still cold, but we are in this for the long haul in the garden and in our community.
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  7. With the coronavirus quarantine and orders to stay at home this Easter, I revisited a children's book that brought me joy when our children were young - and continues to inspire me long afterwards.

    Frederick is easily one of my favorite children's books. The story is about a group of mice who are working hard to prepare for the winter; all except Frederick, that is. The mice gather corn and nuts and wheat and straw for the winter. But not Frederick; he says that he is gathering the sun's rays and colors and words for the winter. To the other mice, it looks as if Frederick is doing nothing but sitting around while they work.

    Winter comes. The hard work of the group of mice proves invaluable. The corn and nuts and wheat which they had gathered sustains them through the hard winter months. Yet more is needed as the food starts to run out and their spirits flag. They wonder how they will make it. They turn to Frederick and ask, "What about your supplies?" So Frederick uses imagination to help the mice feel the sun's rays with their inner feelings, and see the world's colors with their inner eye. Then Frederick uses words to tell the poetic story of the four seasons and the field mice who live in the sky, and Frederick's supplies help sustain the mice.

    In this time of upheaval, it is important to remember to take some time to remember the sun's rays, colors, and words that have sustained us in the past. These stored-up colors and stories can sustain us now - stories of generosity and courage and life and compassion. Frederick by Leo Lionni seems to me to be a good way to look at the needs of a storehouse of rays, colors and words to sustain our community. How do you store up colors and words that sustain you - and those around you? How can you add to the supplies of joy that others have gathered through their efforts so we may all taste God's goodness? How do the recent stories from Holy Week and now the Easter season share rays and colors to support you?
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  8. I do not pray because it makes me holy. That is for God.

    I pray because it can make me holey, however. When we pray, we open ourselves to mystery and struggle and what is beyond us. In effect, prayer makes holes where we can welcome God. Prayer makes holes where we can welcome our neighbors. Prayer is like digging a hole in the soil so that life can grow from seeds and plants.

    I saw this image on Facebook, and it feels like a prayer that makes me holey. Seeing a brown Jesus cradling a hurting globe-child with all the flags in this time of pandemic pokes holes in me. Holes that open my heart to compassion for all who suffer. Holes that open my heart to a Christ who experiences the pain of the world, and comes for healing (did you notice the stethoscope?). Holes that open my eyes to look amid this oronavirus outbreak for people who embrace, respond, hold, and heal.

    I do not pray to become holy. I pray to become holey, open to this God who comes in human flesh. I pray to become holey, open to the people and the whole creation for whom God shares compassion. Holes make space for life. What is prayer for you?





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  9. We began the season of Lent on Ash Wednesday sharing these cards at St. Timothy. One side of the card shares words from our Ash Wednesday liturgy: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return" with a smudgy cross that worshipers received that evening. The other side carries the promise of how precious you are to God - "For you the world was created." The tension of these two messages is part of what I've been carrying with me throughout the season of Lent. Now as Lent is finishing and Easter is upon us, the message seems even more apt to me.

    We began Lent before COVID-19 had been diagnosed in Minnesota. It's hard to believe that it's been only a month since we stopped worshiping together and began doing our services online. It's strange. Unsettling. I still am not used to it. I still wonder how long this will be our reality. I wonder how we all will fare in the months ahead. The tension of being precious and being dust is ever before me.

    The twin messages of Lent seem more real to me as Easter comes this year. There is this duality that I feel more keenly during the pandemic time about our mortality, our fragility as human beings - alongside an equally strong affirmation that each human life is precious. To hear of the heroic acts of compassion and care by people rushing to help those who are sick is a sign that each person needs to know, "For you the world was created." Yet we need to hear that because of the opposite fear of death sweeping us like a torrent.

    Easter comes upon us. It will not be like any Easter I've experienced before, but I'm carrying the tension of these twin messages in my heart. I am praying that awareness of our mortality can help us  to grasp even more deeply how precious we are. Easter is not a denial of the dusty nature of life, but an embrace of the deep value of life nevertheless. Have a good Easter!
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  10. It seems right now that the only place there is a "normal" in my life is the setting on the wash machine. People keep asking, "When will things get back to normal?" I'm not sure what "normal" will be when we get through this outbreak, social distancing, illness and care for those most affected. I'm not sure what "normal" will be with economies, changes in social behavior, and awareness of the fragile brilliance of this life as we experience this pandemic reality. It sounds like it will be summer before Minnesota hits the peak of the outbreak, and our stay-at-home order is a way of trying to help preserve the health care workers and hospitals till there are adequate supplies. Yet it will be quite a while before "normal" routine happens. It's strange, isn't it, how often we can take "normal" life for granted? And now we can know deep in our being about how lovely that time really is.


    I take hope from the messages that so many people are seeking to do their part in simple ways - staying home, keeping in contact from a distance, supporting those who are hungry or lonely or those who are taking care of people. Showing up for essential work, nursing and responding and loving others. There is courage and care all around to see. Thank you.

    I also take hope because of simple signs of spring. Crocuses and daffodils poking eagerly above the ground. They didn't know how long they would be in the ground. They didn't know what winter would lead to. They didn't know what this spring would bring. Yet they keep poking life up toward the sun's warm rays. They help me think about the ways I can keep reaching for daylight and warmth, too.


    I don't know exactly what shape that would take for me, but seeing these little gentle flowers reaching for daylight helps me keep going even when I don't know what is ahead, or what "normal" will be.  One of my favorite Wendell Berry poems says simply:
    "The seed is planted in the ground.
    Now may we rest in hope
    while darkness does its work"

    Consider the lilies of the field...








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